The Family of God
by A.S. Mackey
Say the word “family” in any group comprised of more than two people, and you’ll get a range of reactions that run the gamut from smiles to tears to cringing eye rolls and everything in between. Family means different things to different people; and during the first several months of 2020, the trying circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic thrust the term “family” into a glaring new light.
Some people were suddenly cut off from their families, severed from their loved ones as if they’d lost a limb. I read about hundreds of Americans stuck in lockdown in China, or marooned in Marrakesh, or stranded in Peru or Uganda, unable to return home because of cancelled flights and closed borders. Some of my friends lamented about missing weekly dinners with their grandchildren because of their state’s shelter-in-place mandate. These folks earnestly desire to see their family again. Once the bans begin to lift, reunions will be tear-filled and glorious, but right now, being separated is hard.
Then there is another perspective. I have friends with multiple young children who reached their togetherness capacity within the first two days of lockdown. Moms and dads who used to work outside the home from 9 to 5 suddenly felt like smothered educators clad in referees’ uniforms. It was stressful enough having to adjust to working from home, or worse—being newly unemployed. Parents also added to their daily stress by having to teach Junior how to conjugate verbs and carry the one (except it’s common-core math, and that’s not how the teacher said we’re supposed to do it, Mom!). These parents desperately long to escape from so much family. Work and school and soccer and ballet will eventually get back to some semblance of normal, and mom and dad will get some room to breathe. But right now, being quarantined with bored children 24 hours a day for weeks on end is hard.
I have other friends for whom family is a distant, wistful memory. They live alone with no siblings, children, or parents, and the lockdown is akin to a prison sentence. Many folks in this group ache to have the chaos of children or grandchildren underfoot, and they fight a daily war with loneliness as they depend on their beloved pets and group Zoom calls to keep them company. The struggle for those flying solo has increased exponentially, because they can’t go outside and attend church, hug their friends’ necks, or be involved in their life-giving community. Once the tide turns and the world begins its slow march to recovery, these friends will pack their social calendars with joy-filled gusto. But these days of solitude are hard.
There’s one more group of folks in this scenario for whom things were hard, are hard, and will continue to be hard even when travel bans and lockdowns are lifted. Those are the folks with broken, shattered families. They want to long for their family, but pain gets in the way. Family members struggle with drug addiction. Dad was physically or sexually abusive, or absent altogether. Mom was a critical tyrant or an alcoholic, present in body but absent in spirit. Sisters were manipulative; brothers were caustic. There are countless ways to devastate a family; and I am sure we all know several people whose families fall into this category for whom life was hard before we’d ever heard of COVID-19.
What is it about family? Why does it garner such a strong reaction, either positive or negative, for all of us? It’s because of how we are wired by our Creator.
Scripture is filled with family-centered admonitions. The Psalmist tells us that, “God sets the lonely in families,” and he asserts, “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!” (Yes, Dear Loner-Introvert, that includes you.)
But it goes much deeper than that. We are created in the image of a God who is the very essence of family: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
From Father God, we receive our identity, much like our earthly fathers give us a name. “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” (1 John 3:1a NIV). We have a Father who loves us no matter how badly we mess things up. He numbers the very hairs on our heads (Luke 12:7), and we can look to Him for provision, guidance, and unequivocal acceptance.
From the Son, we receive the love of a friend and a brother. “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15 NIV). And, “For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters” (Hebrews 2:11 NRSV). Jesus, the slain and risen King who defeated Satan and redeemed all of humanity, says that we—forgetful, fearful, anxious, thick-headed humans—are His friends.
From the Holy Spirit, we receive comfort and nurture, much like that given to us by our earthly mothers. “But the Comforter, even the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said unto you” (John 14:26 ASV). Scripture is full of references to the mothering nature of God. “As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you” (Isaiah 66:13a). And, “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!” (Isaiah 49:15 NIV).
We are designed to flourish when we experience all aspects of the triune God in these ways, but we live in a world that is broken. We are born into earthly families that are still reeling from the fall, and many of us grow up with a distorted view of God as a result. Children with absent, abusive, or explosive fathers often grow into adults who believe God is distant, cruel, or unjust, and they may see themselves as unworthy and unlovable. Children who are bullied or traumatized by siblings or classmates may see Jesus as untrustworthy or callous, and they may have trouble believing that Jesus is friend, not foe. Those who have mothers who did not know how to nurture may struggle with anxiety, anger issues, or co-dependency. Any educator can tell you instantly which children in their classrooms have been nurtured by a loving mother, and which have not.
So what do we do with all of this?
We press in.
Press in, to family, to community, to the healing truth of the three-in-one God who shows us how it’s done. Scripture tells us, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17 NIV). Living in a healthy community or in a family not only makes us more gracious and compassionate, it also teaches us to live our moment-by-moment more like God intended.
In the book Blue Like Jazz, Donald Miller has an entertaining and profound chapter called “Living with Freaks,” and he opens up about the transformative payoff of living in community. Miller graciously reveals the powerful, humbling change he went through after learning to deal with a house full of roommates, discovering that life is not, in fact, centered around our own needs and wants. It’s the daily exchanges, those small gestures of patience or forgiveness required when living with others, that grow us into being more Christ-like humans.
No matter which of the above groups we belong to (severed from, smothered by, solo, or estranged), we can use this monumental pause as a time to reflect on what God wants to say about the subject.
Are you part of a healthy family or community? Thank God! Spend some time this month thanking God for each of your family members by name, asking Him to bless them, meet with them, and lavish His love on them, for they are a gift to be treasured.
Have you found healthy community outside of your biological family? Thank God! Approach your back-to-normal employment, socializing, volunteering, or serving with renewed grace and purpose. God will surely bless you as you bless others, meeting their needs as you are also fulfilled.
Are you estranged from some or all of your family members? Is there pain and brokenness there? Spend some time alone with the Lord and a big box of tissues, and tell Him about your struggle. Hold nothing back. Invite Him to speak to you about specific people, by name, and spend some time listening for His voice. He very likely has prayer assignments for you, and He may highlight areas of hurt that He would like to heal. It won’t necessarily be easy, but it will be worth it, and you can be the humble catalyst that brings forgiveness, wholeness, and healing to your family.
“So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by[ the Spirit.” (Ephesians 2:19-22 ESV)
A.S. Mackey’s debut middle-grade novel The Edge of Everywhen is published with Lifeway, available May 12, 2020. She and her husband are worship leaders and church planters in Florence, Alabama.
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