Take Courage! There Are No Exemplary Families in the Bible

It is easy to despair when we realize how far we fall short as husbands, wives, fathers and mothers. Below is an excerpt from Eugene Peterson’s book Like Dew Your Youth: Growing Up with Your Teenager (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998). It has been a source of tremendous encouragement for me and I hope it will be also for you. Thank you for taking time to read and digest this encouraging word.

Eugene Peterson writes:

The search of Scripture turns up one rather surprising truth: There are no exemplary families. Not a single family is portrayed in Scripture in such a way so as to evoke admiration in us. There are many family stories, there is considerable ref­erence to family life, and there is sound counsel to guide the growth of families, but not a single model family for anyone to look up to in either awe or envy.

Adam and Eve are no sooner out of the garden than their children get in a fight. Shem, Ham, and Japheth are forced to devise a strategy to hide their father’s drunken shame. Jacob and Esau are bitter rivals and sow seeds of discord that bear centuries of bitter harvest. Joseph and his brothers ring changes on the themes of sibling rivalry and parental bungling. Jesse’s sons, brave and loyal in service of their country, are capricious and cruel to their youngest brother. David is unfortunate in both wives and children – he is a man after God’s own heart and Israel’s greatest king, but he cannot manage his own household.

Even in the family of Jesus, where we might expect something different, there is exposition of the same theme. The picture in Mark, chapter three, strikes us as typical rather than exceptional: Jesus is active, healing the sick, comforting the distressed, and fulfilling His calling as Messiah, while His mother and brothers are outside trying to get Him to come home, quite sure that He is crazy. Jesus’ family criticizes and does not appreciate. It misunderstands and does not comprehend.

The biblical material consistently portrays the family not as a Norman Rockwell group, beaming in gratitude around a Thanksgiving turkey, but as a series of broken relationships in need of redemption, after the manner of William Faulkner’s plots in Yoknapatawpha County.

At the very least, this means that no one needs to carry a burden of guilt because his or her family is deficient in the sweetness and light that Christian families are supposed to exhibit. Since models for harmonious families are missing in Scripture (and for that omission I am repeatedly grateful to the Holy Spirit), we are free to pay attention to what is there — a promise of new community which experiences life as the household of faith, a family in Christ. Life together consists of relationships that are created not by blood (at least not by our blood) but by grace. We get along not because we are good but because we are forgiven.

In this new community, created by the Holy Spirit and called the church, much of the vocabulary used to describe relationships comes from the family as we already know it: brothers, sisters, fathers, and mothers. The message seems to be something along these lines. What you never managed in your own families naturally, you may now have in the new community supernaturally. All that was lost at Eden is regained at Gethsemane. Relationships learned at the cross of Christ, the ways of love and the techniques of forgiveness, will give you the brother and sister you longed for, the son and daughter you desired. What you learn in the community of faith you will then be able to take back into your natural families of sons and daughters, of fathers and mothers.

We are faced daily with the reality that something has gone wrong with our families. Our children fight and quarrel; our parenting misfires. We are involved in failure, and we are guilty. Something has, of course, gone wrong with the family, but it went wrong long before we came on the scene. It is futile to complain or feel guilty; we can, though, go to work and nurture family life on the new grounds provided by the Holy Spirit. Blood relationships are transformed into relationships of grace. Our natural families are informed and redeemed by the same principles that are foundational in the community of the Holy Spirit, the church.

But it is not easy to acquire these biblical perspectives. It is especially difficult when we are isolated from others and confined within the structures of our natural family. That is why it has seemed to me so important to encourage parent coalitions,” gatherings of Christians engaged to discover and appropriate the promises and gifts of God as they are learned through the forms of family life.

Charles Williams, I think more than any other Christian in our time, has shown the centrality of what he calls “substituted love” (and what theologians in the Reformation traditions have named “the priesthood of all believers”). Williams’s exposition of the doctrine in his novels and his poetry showed both how necessary and how attractive it is to “bear one another’s burdens . . .” (Gal. 6:2). He invited Christians who were faced with difficulties, whether slight or heavy, to enter into “compacts.” “Compacts,” he wrote in his essay “The Way of Exchange,” “can be made for the taking over of the suffering of troubles, and worries, and distresses, as simply and as effec­tually as an assent is given to the carrying of a parcel . . . . To begin the way in small things conveniently is better than to dream of the remote splendors of the vicarious life; not that they are likely in any case to seem very splendid when they come. To begin by practicing faith where it is easiest is better than to try and practice it where it is hardest. There is always somewhere where it can be done.” (Charles Williams, Selected Writings (London: Oxford University Press, 1961), p. 128.)

Since the burden of parenthood is particularly onerous to many during the time their children move through the years of adolescence, I have hoped, by describing some of the motions of that process and by inviting parents to meet together, to initiate acts of burden-sharing, “compacts” of substituted love. Where two or three – and eight or ten – gathered together in our Lord’s name we learned through honest discussion, se­rious Scripture reading, and faithful prayer, the inner dynamics of the family of God which is the church. Sometimes we found that we also became more skilled in love and practiced in pardon, and so were able to live with one another and with our sons and daughters in happier ways, and that was so much the better.

It is this second community with its origins at Pentecost that releases energies of redemption, not the first whose roots are in Eden. And so it is with the presuppositions of faith that I have approached the entire matter of the parent and the adolescent. It is more important, I think, that families be used as places to develop faith than that the faith be used as a resource to develop families. For it does no good to improve the family if we only make a household god out of our success. Our Lord, who wills our love for one another, also gave us solemn warning, “He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.