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Christ and the Family: A Holy Confusion
“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’ Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And anyone who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
--Jesus, Matthew 10:34-39
When Jesus was born so quietly in Bethlehem, angels broke through the heavens proclaiming peace on earth. For indeed, this was the Prince of Peace, himself. So how can it be that this same Jesus, when sending out his disciples with the message of his kingdom, clearly tells them “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34)? And what’s more, he seems to be saying that this sword will set us against our own family members. This feels rather harsh. What is Jesus really saying? What kind of a kingdom is Jesus bringing? When we accept the kingdom and rule of Christ in our lives, what implications does that have in our family relationships?
In Matthew 10 Jesus gives the disciples extensive instructions and warnings when he sends them out, as he today sends us, with the message that the kingdom of heaven is near. All sorts of people, cities and governments would reject the message as well as those who bring it. But probably the most disturbing of all rejections comes from our own family members. Jesus includes these words to help us as we wrestle with some confusing issues that we will almost certainly face.
The first surprise he has for us concerning our family members is that he did not come to bring peace, but a sword. Jesus always seems to go the opposite direction from what we might expect. Our enemies, for whom we have no natural affinity, Jesus says we are to love and pray for. But with our families, to whom we are so intimately, so vitally, so inextricably related, Jesus says he comes to bring a sword. Jesus uses this sword to draw a sort of line in the sand, dividing his kingdom from all others. He asks us to choose where we will place our ultimate loyalty and allegiance. Will we side with the kingdom of this world, which reaches down as far as even our families, or will we side with His kingdom?
The decision to choose Christ’s kingdom over our family kingdom is much more far-reaching than we first imagine. Our very sense of self, which we developed in response to our parents’ praise or compassion or disapproval or abandonment, is now being reformed by how Christ views us. Our definitions of life, what makes life work for us, which we developed in our families of origin, are being reshaped by His Spirit within us. As we slowly let go of our former understandings of self and life, we may find we no longer keep step with those we love. Our need to find approval and our sense of worth from our families begins to dwindle.
As that kingdom crumbles in our hearts, the hearts of our family members will be exposed. How will they react as they come to realize we love Jesus more than we love them? How will they respond when their control over us diminishes as Christ becomes our Sovereign? Paul speaks of the divided reactions that occur in others when he says, “For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other the fragrance of life” (2 Corinthians 2:15, 16).
To a family member who also places Christ above all else, our fidelity to the cross of Christ will cause them to rejoice. Nothing brings greater joy to the heart of such a parent than knowing his child’s first love is Jesus. But for a parent, or son or daughter, who does not love Christ first, there will be conflict. Their demands will be exposed. We are no longer living for them. We are no longer hyper-vigilant to their thoughts and hopes and dreams for us. We no longer worship them or anything they worship. This will bring out their fears, anger, admonitions to conform to old values, pleas to live according to their pulls on our life. Subtly or overtly conflict will arise.
When the conflict comes and the family peace vanishes, we are often caught in confusion and dismay. Our quiet act of turning fully toward Jesus creates a rift in relationship that catches us by surprise. What happened? Did we go about this all wrong? When one is standing forlornly in the ruins of strife he did not intend, confused, disheartened, surrounded by admonitions to conform, there is some comfort in the confirmation that this was to be expected. Jesus himself told us this would happen. It is his sword that has caused this mess.
We are comforted knowing it is because of the sword of Christ’s kingdom that there will not always be the peace we desire with our family members. So can we rest with a complete sense of self-justification? Is all self-doubt gone? When we are honest with ourselves we know we are never completely free from complicity in our conflicts. We can never get away from our own sinfulness, our own brokenness. We will continue to wrestle with our own impact on our family members.
In Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of these verses, Jesus says, “I’ve come to cut . . . through these cozy domestic relationships and free you for God.” Indeed, there is a wonderful freedom that comes when we no longer straddle the fence, serving both Christ and our family members. But does that mean we are free to walk away from them, without concern or regard for loving them?
Here Jesus draws the circle back again. He first says, “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” But lest we think this gives us license to abandon them utterly and no longer struggle with what it means to keep loving them, he adds this parallel line: “And anyone who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” Perhaps this is our cross, to bear the pain and confusion of these messy relationships and to continue to move toward our family members in love. There is a tension that remains as we struggle to love our family members, while also knowing that Jesus has pitted us on opposite sides of a sword.
What does it mean, then, to love our family members well? C.S. Lewis gives us a picture of what this might look like in The Great Divorce (Lewis, 1946). Solid people, eminently a part of another world, the kingdom of God, come to woo their ghostly loved ones, many of whom were family members, to come with them. These solid people spoke with no communication of shame. They spoke with love, but not out of need. In complete freedom, without any pressure, they offered steadfast encouragement. Their message was a joyful, “Come!” Like the solid ones, we, too, can call our loved ones to join us, without being drawn into the old “games”, the old world’s ways.
When there is nothing to lose in our relationships with our family members, we are free to pursue them for the sake of Christ alone and not for our own sakes. We are free to love them more purely, without worrying what the consequences will be for ourselves. George MacDonald says, “to forsake them [our family members] may be the Lord’s means to teach us to learn to love them in a far higher, deeper, more truer way than before—a way which keeps all that was genuine in the former way, and loses all that was false. We should love them for their selves and disregard our own.” (MacDonald, 1989).
At times we will find ourselves succumbing to the pulls of family members, not even realizing our enmeshment. At other times we will find ourselves stubbornly resisting any movement toward them, arrogant in our own self-righteousness. We live in a difficult balance of tensions. Again and again, daily, we will encounter our own struggle with what it means to take up our cross for our family members. But it is in this very process that we are formed more and more into the image of Jesus Christ.
There are no easy answers in our relationships with our family members. We will never be completely sure whether our conflicts are because of the sword of Christ, or because of our own failure to love well. Our own sin clouds the issue. We are left in a wrestling place, a holy confusion, trying to balance loving Jesus and his kingdom first and foremost, yet also loving our family well -- loving not as ghosts, being sucked into a kingdom of this world, but as solid people, confidently in love with Jesus, yet ever inviting.
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Heart of God Counseling, Debra J. Lawson