Why did God create families?
No matter how you define "family" -- whether mom, dad, and a handful of biological kids, or any other smallish group of people sharing life together in a myriad of ways that they belong to each other, I'm not concerned at the moment. Family is a concept so trans-cultural, so pervasive to human existence, you have to think that this most consistent of human relationships must be intended by God for a purpose.
I posted recently on this blog about how marriage is intended by God to provide a preview or a shadow of his desired relationship with his people (see Ephesians 5:21-33). Tease this out of scripture and you find a deep, powerful metaphor. Husbands and wives enjoy a relationship uniquely created by God to provide an experiential, relational picture of the relationship between Jesus and the Church, to use Paul's language. So all the dynamics of marriage -- communication, affection, mutual growth and understanding, common purpose, procreation -- point toward the way Jesus relates to his people and what happens when we're in this intimate relationship. More than any other human relationship, marriage is designed to demonstrate the most pervasive dominant aspect of God's character, namely "love." This is not our self-defined, emotionally driven love, but rather the love described in Ephesians 5:21-33, a love that desires the highest good of the beloved and will stop at nothing to achieve it -- not in any codependent sense, but in a pure and healthy and other-centered sense that includes good boundaries and a healthy sense of self. This "love" takes us so far beyond our cultural conceptions of love that the two can't really be compared. Yet at its best, every so often, you encounter a couple whose marriage seems to point in the direction of this transcendent divine love.
In the same way, I believe God created families with a greater purpose than just sharing space.
Families are under assault from multiple directions today, and that makes God's purposes all that much harder to see. We have grown accustomed to families where kids live with two different parents in two different places because of divorce. We don't bat an eye anymore at families without a father present. Many couples raise children together in a variety of tenuous arrangements without the bond of marriage at the core of their parenting. In many households kids, flexible by nature, have learned to refer to him as "mom's boyfriend" or to her as "dad's girlfriend." These are the obvious assaults.
There are many other more insidious attacks. "Screen time" is one of the worst -- in our affluent lives we have television screens, computer screens, ipod and ipad and video game screens that isolate us from each other. Family schedules are overpacked with work, sports, daycare, social activities that pull adults away from children rather than pulling them all together as a family, and many other activities that drain the family rather than enhancing its life. Material wealth causes many similar problems, which maybe surprises us. We have worked so hard to provide materially for our families that it's hard for us to even imagine that maybe our wealth is a detriment to those we love most. But if you watch carefully, you see that the accoutrements of wealth -- the technology, the toys, the obsession with managing what we have and working long hours to accumulate more -- also isolate us from each other and prevent healthy relationships. Even some of the toys that people say are for the sake of family time -- the cabin up north, or the boat, and so on -- tend to require more maintenance and management than whatever relational connection they provide.
Instead of being life-giving relational communities, more and more families are loose collections of individuals who share space but are only marginally invested in one another's lives. In our day the family at best becomes a nurturing place for a loose cadre of individuals.
What are we missing? What is it God intended when he created families? I believe God intended many things for families, this most basic unit of human community. It is no accident that every social engineering project in history has tried in some way to dismantle or destroy the family. Here are a few observations of things that I believe God wanted you to learn in your family growing up, and that he still desires people to learn in their families today:
1. You belong to something bigger than yourself. Your existence as an individual is important, but your family defines you and gives you an identity that goes beyond your name. You are held in your place in the universe by a web of relationships, especially family relationships. These relationships define you and provide opportunity for your growth.
2. Others' needs are important. It is a great tragedy when parents don't have the wisdom to say "no" to a child. One of the most important lessons we need to learn is that we can't -- and shouldn't -- have everything we want.
3. Resources are finite. One reason I can't have everything I want is that there's only so much to go around. I might want the last cookie on the plate, but maybe I already had two and my sister hasn't had any.
4. Don't be selfish. So the opportunity arises for me to be selfish, or to be generous. Inevitably in a family we sometimes choose the good, and we sometimes choose to live only for ourselves. When we choose either way, we see the consequences lived out in the lives of those we love.
5. You learn as you go. While a school term may give me the illusion of mastery, the family provides an ongoing laboratory that won't allow me to think I've arrived. It is here we first learn the hard lesson that we will face all our lives -- I'm not perfect. If we are fortunate, we will learn in this context that we need a perfect Savior.
6. Pay attention to good role models. Parents are not an accident. Hopefully they were / are good role models, because what we see them doing we will do. What we resent them for doing we will do. What we vow we will never do just because they did it we will do. We will fight all our lives to be free of their influence and to live up to their example. It's best to be intentional about this process.
7. Tend to relationships. Nothing else carries so much value. Nothing else has so much power to bless or destroy us. Tend these incredibly important relationships, and learn in this context to tend all your relationships.
8. Care for those younger / smaller / weaker than you. Older siblings babysit younger ones. Kids take care of younger cousins while the adults visit. Take your little sister out in the yard and play for a while. As you grow, you will find a whole world full of people smaller and weaker than you. Don't abuse them -- tend and nourish and care for them.
9. Deal with suffering. Older siblings are masters at teaching this lesson, whether it is helping you deal with the fear of trying something new (jumping out of the second story of the granary) or dealing with the consequences ("Just rub a little dirt on it") you need to learn to bear up under suffering without being a whiner.
10. Your small community exists for the sake of something greater. This is a lot like #1, but goes a step farther. This family has a purpose beyond itself. In much of human history that purpose was the family farm. I can't begin to share how many summer mornings I wanted the freedom to sleep in, to go explore the creek, to read a book, to climb a tree -- but there was hay to be baled, crops to be harvested, fences to be repaired, and so much more. I belonged to something beyond my own self-indulgent whims. Today parents have to be a little more intentional about making sure that families have a sense of purpose, a sense of being involved in something greater. For Jesus-followers, this is easy: Your family exists for Christ and his kingdom. How to communicate that, experientially, to their children is a bit of a challenge. One of the greatest purposes of families throughout human history is to teach us to look for a greater purpose.
So just to prime the pump, let me ask:
*What was your experience of family growing up? How many of these ten purposes did you learn in that context?
*How well does your family today do at communicating these ten purposes to all its members?
*Do you have a Jesus-following family of some kind -- church, home fellowship, study group, whatever -- that communicates these purposes within intentional Christ-centered community?
*Do you agree that living "for Christ and his kingdom" is a good summary of the Jesus-follower's life purpose, both individually and communally? Why / why not?