Whenever we talk about families, we have to remember that some of what we believe about families might not be true. The first thing we need to do, then, is to debunk a couple of myths about families.
The first myth I want to debunk is the myth of the normal family. There's no such thing. John Ortberg just came out with a book called Everybody's Normal Until You Get to Know Them. I love that. I haven't met a normal family yet. Who would have guessed that Ozzie Osbourne's family is so strange until they invited a camera crew in their house? I guess that's a bad example - no surprise there. But I'm pretty sure that if a camera crew came in any of our houses and were given freedom to tape and edit as they wished, we'd all come across a little less than normal. The challenge for a lot of us is to put the fun back in dysfunction, because all of us have quirks and secrets and strange little things about us.
The other myth that we need to debunk is the myth that our families can make us happy. Richard Lucas, PhD at Michigan State University, recently did a study on happiness levels before and after marriage. "What we found is that on average, there is a reported boost in happiness right around the time of marriage - the year before, the year of, and the year after getting married. But after two years of marriage, most people are pretty much where they started before marriage." Getting married won't make you happy. Man, a lot of us already know that. Having kids won't make you happy. Divorce also won't make you happy.
So if there's no such thing as a normal family, and families can't make us happy, what's the point? Could it be that the purpose of family is something altogether different? Could it be that the purpose of family is to shape our characters, to move us from our selfishness and isolation?
Inevitably, in our families, we experience challenges. People who have studied this say that we go through two stages. First is idealization. We look at our future husband or wife and see only good. It's interesting that our parents never seem to go through this stage with our future spouses. They don't have the same glowing impressions that we do. This applies to our kids as well. We hold our newborn kids and think that this will be the first perfect kid that ever lived, because no other child has been blessed with such beauty and character before.
The second stage is the stage of realization. Inevitably, we experience disappointment and challenge in our family relationships. It's there that we're most naked, most vulnerable. In the kitchen, in the bedroom, the bathroom, the living room, with our schedules and routines, and the reality of our brokenness, we inevitably come up against disappointment. It's not all bad - family life presents both the best and the worst of what we experience - but it's challenging. Some of us are experiencing some of those challenges now.
Human nature is to respond to others in the family as they've responded to us. The Bible, though, gives us a different model to follow. Today, I want to talk about becoming a grace-filled family. In the midst of these challenges, we have the opportunity of creating grace-filled families. Jesus has given us a new model to follow. Instead of treating others as they treat us, Jesus says that we're to treat others as he treats us. John 13:34 says, "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another." We've been given this new way of relating to others, even (especially) in our families. The way we act toward them is to be a reflection of the way that Christ acts toward us. It's based not on how much they deserve to be treated well. It's based, instead, on the strength of Christ's relationship with us.
This is tough to do in some of our families. It's easy to apply in families that are only a little bit dysfunctional. It's not something that will fix all the problems in your family life. Jesus loved this way, and it still cost him his life. It won't fix your problems, but it will incarnate Christ's love within your family.
Three words describe what it might mean to be a grace-filled family, in which relationships are modeled after Christ's love for us.
I've never yet met a person who isn't selfish. I know I am. We hide it well, some of us, but it's pretty hard to hide permanently within a family. You put a group of selfish people together within the same family and stuff will happen. In a grace-filled family, we're aware of our own selfishness, and we work to shift the priority from us to the others around us. Paul writes in Ephesians 5:28-33:
In the same way, husbands ought to love their wives as they love their own bodies. For a man is actually loving himself when he loves his wife. No one hates his own body but lovingly cares for it, just as Christ cares for his body, which is the church. And we are his body.
As the Scriptures say, "A man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one." This is a great mystery, but it is an illustration of the way Christ and the church are one. So again I say, each man must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.
This is probably in this passage that we see most clearly how Christ's love for us becomes the model for our relationship to our families. Paul's talking here about how husbands love their wives, but he can't help but get a little carried away talking about Christ's love for the church. Our family relationships are illustrations of how the Christ and the church are one.
When you read this passage, you get a sense of the priority that Christ puts on the church - one, by the way, that we sometimes find hard to understand. He cares for it. He gave up his life for it. He left the wonders of heaven to walk dirty roads unrecognized and unappreciated because of his love for it. Never has there been such an extravagant expression of love for so undeserving a recipient. Paul says, that's the model. Husbands ought to love their wives in the exact same way. That's the example of a good grace-filled family relationship.
Paul then brings it closer to where we live. He says we're supposed to love others within our family as much as we love ourselves and our bodies. We may think we don't like our bodies, but it doesn't take much pain to prove that theory wrong. We're called to put priority on others within our families, to put them first in the same way that Jesus Christ put us first.
Telling a bunch of selfish people (hey, we all are) to stop being selfish really won't accomplish much. The answer isn't as simple as receiving Christ's love, although it starts there. It's impossible, in fact, without doing so. It involves an ongoing commitment to redefine how we see ourselves. We're not the centers of our families or the universe. We're servants, especially at home. There's probably some practical way today that you could go home and communicate your servant status to the rest of your family. Then it involves regularly coming back to readjust our priority, to put others in our families and lives first. That's the first word: priority.
Human nature says, "Agree with me and I'll accept you." We have a hard time accepting those who are different from us, especially on important issues. I've got my own list of things that I find hard to accept - everything from habits to beliefs to beliefs.
Romans 15:7 says, "So accept each other just as Christ has accepted you; then God will be glorified." Paul's been talking about disputable matters - things over which there are honest differences of opinion about beliefs and behaviors. There comes a time when the relationship is more important than the fact that we disagree on a matter. This principle applies all the times in our families. Families disagree all the time over all sorts of issues. Some of them are important, some aren't. Accepti ng means that we value people over our opinions.
Once again, the reason we do this in our relationships is because Jesus Christ did this for us. He accepted us when we were at our most unacceptable. It's all about grace, not performance.
Within our families, it's easy to be rules-driven rather than to be relationally-driven. There's a certain point at which rules are necessary. This isn't for a minute to say that you should just accept whatever your kids do. But there should never be any doubt in the minds of your kids of how completely you accept them regardless of how well they keep the rules. Acceptance doesn't depend on adherence to rules. It depends on love and grace.
I don't have adult children, and don't want to pretend that I know all the issues of what it means to be a parent of adults. But acceptance plays in big here. You can't control the choices of your kids when they're grown. They make all kinds of decisions that you might not agree with. Some are important - choice of spouse, lifestyle. Some are minor. I've seen parents cut off relationships with their kids over these kinds of issues. But don't underestimate the value of acceptance - not of their behaviors and choices, but of them. We can preserve the relationship even if we don't agree with everything they're doing. Relationships are more important than rules.
One word about acceptance: acceptance doesn't mean that you tolerate any and all behavior. There's still room for boundaries, for not allowing abusive or inappropriate behavior. Acceptance doesn't mean turning a blind eye to everything, but it does mean that we value people even when we disagree.
A third word that came to mind:
Colossians 3:13 says, "You must make allowance for each other's faults and forgive the person who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others." When you're part of a family, you're going to need to forgive. Families give all kinds of opportunity to be hurt. "Forgiveness is a sort of divine absurdity," Walter Wangerin Jr. writes in an excellent book called As for Me and My House:
Forgiveness is a willing relinquishment of certain rights. The one sinned against chooses not to demand her rights of redress for the hurt she has suffered. She does not hold her spouse accountable for his sin, nor enforce a punishment from him...She does not make his life miserable in order to balance accounts for her own misery, even though she might feel perfectly justified in doing so, tit for tat: "He deserves to be hurt as he hurt me."
The pattern for forgiveness, again, is Jesus. He forgave us, and because of that, we're required to forgive others. This is hardest, sometimes, within our own families. Hurts accumulate, patterns are repeated. But we're required to forgive.
Do we have to wait until the person asks for forgiveness before we forgive them? Some people argue that that's the way God treats us. Actually, it isn't. Romans 5:8 says, "But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners." Before we ever thought of asking God for forgiveness, he was already taking action to forgive us.
In any case, when we don't forgive, sometimes when we're waiting for the other person to apologize or to ask forgiveness, we're doing damage to ourselves. Ann Lamott's said that "Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die." We think we're hurting the other person by not forgiving, when really it's killing our own souls. Lamott writes in Traveling Mercies:
They say we are not punished for the sin but by the sin, and I began to feel punished by my unwillingness to forgive. By the time I decided to become one of the ones who is heavily into forgiveness, it was like trying to become a marathon runner in middle age; everything inside me either recoiled, as from a hot flame, or laughed a little too hysterically...As C.S. Lewis says in Mere Christianity, "If we really want to learn how to forgive, perhaps we had better start off with something easier than the Gestapo."
If you have something you need to forgive, Wangerin's book As for Me and My House has a really good section on how to do this. He gives some steps - not like a recipe or a formula that make things automatic, but some useful steps nonetheless:
1. Be realistic
2. Remember your own forgiveness
3. Sacrifice your rights in prayer
4. Tell your spouse [or whoever else in you need to forgive] the sin
5. Follow words with action
Priority...acceptance...forgiveness. These three words describe the type of relationship Jesus Christ has offered us. They also describe the type of grace-filled relationship we can build with our families as a result of our relationship with Christ.
One takeaway: I'm sure all of us can think of some area in our life in which we're not giving others priority, acceptance, or forgiveness. It could be scheduling, listening, unresolved issues. I'd challenge you to pick one area of your relationships and to make that the focus of your energies this week, to try to build priority, acceptance, and forgiveness in your life.
I'd even give you this challenge. If you're married, why not ask your spouse how they'd like you to respond to this message? If you've got kids who are old enough, you could ask them as well. A discussion, even on the way home today, might get you thinking about ways that we can live this out in our own families and lives.
I want to close by praying for you today. I want to pray for all of us in whatever stage we're in, that we could live grace-filled lives.
Married without kids
Married with young children
Married with school-age children
Parents of grown children