Tuesday, January 29, 2008

family as idol

If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple.

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.

He said to another man, "Follow me." But the man replied, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father." Jesus said to him, "Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God."

Let no foreigner who has bound himself to the LORD say, "The LORD will surely exclude me from his people." and let not any eunuch complain, "I am only a dry tree." For this is what the LORD says: "To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant- to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will not be cut off.
And foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD to serve him, to love the name of the LORD, and to worship him, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant- these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations." The Sovereign LORD declares— he who gathers the exiles of Israel: "I will gather still others to them besides those already gathered."

'I am to be the only inheritance the priests have. You are to give them no possession in Israel; I will be their possession.

Jesus replied, "I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. I know you are Abraham's descendants. Yet you are ready to kill me, because you have no room for my word. I am telling you what I have seen in the Father's presence, and you do what you have heard from your father."

"Abraham is our father," they answered.

"If you were Abraham's children," said Jesus, "then you would do the things Abraham did. As it is, you are determined to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. Abraham did not do such things. You are doing the things your own father does.

"We are not illegitimate children," they protested. "The only Father we have is God himself."

Jesus said to them, "If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now am here. I have not come on my own; but he sent me. Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father's desire. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies. Yet because I tell the truth, you do not believe me! Can any of you prove me guilty of sin? If I am telling the truth, why don't you believe me? He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God."

"I tell you the truth," Jesus replied, "no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first."

These passages interest me not merely in the context of culture wars Christians have gotten into about the family but because it seems that evangelicals have been so fond of promoting marriage and family as an alternative to worldly thinking that it seems like that all these things, valuable though they are, need a corrective. Perhaps not even much of a corrective, but a little teaching from Christ never hurts, after all. And the reality is that it doesn't matter what one's confessional alliance happens to be, family can be a pernicious idol

It was through family that the child of the promise was promised. It was through family that Abraham was told he would be a blessing to the whole world. It was through Isaac and not Ishmael that the promise was given. It is even this early that Scripture reveals to us that flesh and blood family is not the same as the family given to us by the spirit of God, though both are by no means without value. But it is God Himself who is more valuable than all the family in the world, God Himself who provides the promise of family based on His own goodness.

When the people of Israel presumed upon the basis of their family heritage to be right with God the Lord punished them for it. When they presumed upon the basis of their family heritage to even know God Christ Himself said they were sons of the devil. Rather than be confronted with the reality of not being part of God's family His opponents protested that they were descendents of Abraham even after the Lord told them that this in itself counted for nothing. Why? Simply because as far as they were concerned Abraham was their ancestor. Literally true, but not true at the level of the spirit.

Salvation is through Christ, and not family, which can be exceptionally difficult for a person with a close family to recognize. We may be in settings where a family may divide over an issue and we should remember that Christ is more important than family. Family reconciliation may one day come but it is of secondary importance to serving Christ Himself. If our sacrifices are at the altar of family then family is the idol we worship rather than worship given to Christ. It's very simple and tempting to do. As Scripture so eloquently puts it, it can be very easy to suppose our salvation comes from the family we're in, the family we're from, the family we've made, the family we've kept. Our salvation doesn't come from the children we have our defend, in fact our very downfall can come from them. Our salvation does not come from living in peace with brothers who obstruct us from the path to Christ Himself. Our salvation does not come from us walking in the same path as family but through Christ.

It can be easy to decide to hate father or mother but not one's wife or husband. It can be easy to decide to hate one's brothers or sisters but not one's own children. It can be easy to hate one's own children and not one's brothers or sisters. In short, it can be easy for us to try to bargain with Christ Himself about what family we can love or hate as a condition of serving Him. Those are not the terms. We must hate them all for the sake of Christ if all of them are obstacles to following Him alone. It was not without cause that the Lord made Abraham bind up the child of the promise and offer him as a sacrifice before Him. The child was spared only after Abraham demonstrated by faith that he was willing to make the sacrifice.

There are some families Christ came to mend and some Christ came to destroy. There are some families Christ came to reconcile and some He came to tear apart. Trusting Christ means a great deal of bearing of the cross and it can mean that we have to trust that He will destroy as well as create, uproot as well as plant. We cannot decide who He has made to be our fleshly family any more than we can decide who He has made our family to be in spirit. Both are, in their various ways, gifts from Him, gifts that admittedly may be hard to be thankful for.

Who easily learns how to be thankful for a pedophile father or a drunken mother or an abusive father? Who easily learns how to be thankful to Christ for a neglectful parent? And yet in His way Christ reveals that even these can be signs of His mercy. Decades in the wilderness are hard but life enslaved to other gods is worse in the end. The exodus itself was no great test of God's people as the decades of moving toward the promised land. It hardly seems a coincidence that Israel's problem was that they stuck closer together than they stuck to Christ. I suppose that might be why when the chips were down God destroyed that entire generation. They had made their own form of family identity greater in their hearts than serving Christ.

When we consider the legacy we have or receive or create in our own family to be the paramount manifestation of Christ as our inheritance we are on the knife's edge of idolatry. We only have these things as gifts from Christ Himself, which He may take from us at any moment as He did with Job. If Christ takes our family from us do we curse Him? We can bring our sense of loss to Him but can we curse Him if he takes our idols from us and family or prestige or honor is what we used to give value to our lives? Sometimes we sow to war and reap war, sometimes we sow to family and reap family, sometimes we sow to anger and reap anger, sometimes we sow to Christ and reap Christ.

If we define ourselves by anything other than Christ, even if we claim to sow to those things in Christ's name, we deceive ourselves, especially if we do so thinking we are doing so for the sake of Christ. That reveals the depth of our own idolatry, of our own willingness to use Christ as a means to our end. If we recognize that we have nothing to give to Christ that is our own (because no blessing we have is truly ours so much as that which is given to us by Christ Himself) except our own sin and our own gratitude that Christ is merciful (if that is indeed even possible without the help of Christ Himself) then we have something, which is namely just the gift of Christ Himself. If we have this we have no need of other things ... and yet we live day by day (I certainly do) with the awareness that the gap between this sense of ought and is can be remarkable. It is very easy for Israel to wander in the desert for decades being God's people but not acting like it and reaping the deadly harvest of that. I suppose that is the warning we receive in each generation.