We are all born into families. In families we learn what life and love are all about, for better or for worse.
Some people are blessed with wonderful, loving, supportive families. Other people seem to be cursed with unhealthy, hurtful, and traumatizing families. Many other people are somewhere in between, and have a “love-hate” relationship with their family. Yet even in the best of circumstances, the “ideal family situation” is a myth, for all families have difficulties. Whether the family is resilient is really the important question. Families can be a great source of unconditional strength and support, but families can just as easily become a source of discouragement, pain, and suffering. Some relatives are lovable and love freely; conversely, we all seem to have at least a few relatives whom we would not mind never hearing from again. Whether our family is mostly functional or mostly dysfunctional, family life is changing at an unprecedented rate. Our culture tends to emphasize the individual and his fulfillment over that of the family; as people become more mobile, families are spreading out over larger distances. In such an environment, does family even matter anymore?
The family has been called the basic unit of civilization, and for good reason: however much we may try to run away from it, we are shaped by our families. We first learn about who we are, what we are supposed to do, and our place among others through our experiences with our families. Family connections were critical to survival: even if everything else went wrong, the family was the one group of people who would be there for you and provide for you. Little wonder, then, that Jesus uses the example of hostility among family members to demonstrate the great cost that could be incurred for following Him (cf. Matthew 10:34-39): rejection by family would be the worst rejection of all!
None of this is coincidental: this is how God set up the world and human relationships (Genesis 1:26-27, Romans 1:20). Jesus of Nazareth, God in the flesh, was raised up in a family with a mother, father, brothers, and sisters, and likely extended family as well (Luke 2:41-51, Matthew 13:55-56). Family is one of the common denominators among all human beings: regardless of age, gender, culture, or station in life, we all came from parents and have (or had) some kind of family somewhere.
God expects those who serve Him to honor their families. It is possible that family members may not approve of the decision to follow after God (cf. Mathew 10:34-39); regardless, we are likely to have family members with whom we do not get along easily, or who are difficult people.
Yet Scripture is clear: children are to honor their parents and obey them in the Lord (Ephesians 6:1-3); even if the parents are not obedient to God, they are still worthy of honor. “Honor” involves far more than simple respect: children are expected to provide for their parents in their old age, as Jesus attested in Matthew 15:1-9. Parents are to love children, raising them in the admonition and discipline of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4). Responsibility toward family does not end with one’s immediate family. Paul tells Timothy that anyone who does not provide for “their own,” especially “of their own household,” has denied the faith, and is worse than an unbeliever (1 Timothy 5:8); a believing woman who “has widows” is to take care of them, so that the church can take care of “widows indeed” (1 Timothy 5:16). This goes beyond parents and children; it involves the extended family as well.
Sadly this message is all too often lost on this present generation. Our culture has so exalted the primacy of the individual and the importance of individual flourishing, to find “your best you,” that it views family relationships as more burden than strength. Even though we are all shaped and formed by families, society would have us jettison the family in order to ascend in the ranks of our career and/or social standing. There is a dark undercurrent to the modern “joke” that parents must treat their children well since they will choose their parents’ nursing home: there is no expectation for the children to be inconvenienced in any significant way in providing for their parents. Not only this, but many parents have been programmed to not only expect this but also to insist upon it: they do not want to be a burden on their children and to hinder their children from achieving their dreams.
To this end the condition of the modern family is in sad shape. The quest for individual freedom and autonomy has hollowed out the “nuclear family”: sexual relationships do not always involve commitment, and even marriages are all too often reduced to transactional relationships easily jettisoned when the spouse becomes more of a burden than a help. Parents are expected to sacrifice anything and everything for their children and their success: they often have greater anxiety for their children than for themselves, and even in success will often stop at nothing to make sure their children will maintain their privilege, even if it comes at the expense of many others. And for this parents are often siloed into nursing homes or assisted living facilities, receiving only the occasional visit, generally left to fend for themselves. The expectation still exists that we should spend time with family, especially during the holidays; yet family, on the whole, is viewed as a burden to be shouldered and suffered and not a source of life, love, strength, support, and hope.
As Christians we must resist all of these cultural impulses, and stand firm for what are truly “family values.” Life is not all about our prosperity or advancement; life is about sharing in relationship, prioritizing other people over self or things. We should honor our parents, commit to family members, love spouses if we have them, and raise our children to be healthy and supported but also with an understanding of family roles and values. Yet we must also take care lest we make an idol out of a given view of the family or of relationships, recognizing that for many people family is pain, or giving space for those who remain single. For good reason the church is reckoned as the household of God, with fellow Christians serving as brothers and sisters of their heavenly Father (Ephesians 2:20-22, 1 Timothy 3:15): we are to be family for one another, providing support and encouragement, and giving everyone a sense of acceptance and belonging as fellow people of the living God. May we do our share in honoring and providing for our families, spiritual and physical, and glorify God in Christ!
Ethan R. Longhenry