Biblical Family Values

Genesis 25:19-26

For the past couple of weeks, I have been recording bible stories and posting them to a podcast called “Summer Bible Stories for the children of the Union University Church.”  Although I am supposedly recording them for the kids, I know some adults are listening as well and frankly, many of the stories I’m telling are really more suited for adult ears than for the ears of children.  As I said to Mary Smith this past week, the Bible should be rated R.  If you are wondering just what stories it is that I am recording for our children, be assured that they are the traditional stories told in every Sunday School in America — Adam and Eve, Noah’s ark, and the stories of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel — but the versions that you may have learned growing up, the versions written into our Sunday School curriculums, are sanitized versions that leave out all of the juicy bits.  In fact, every time I hear a politician extol biblical family values, I wonder which biblical family they are calling us to emulate.  Is it the family of Adam and Eve whose older son Cain murdered his younger brother Abel in a fit of jealousy?  Are we to imitate Abraham who let Pharaoh take Sarah into Pharaoh’s harem in order to preserve his own skin, who later used his son Isaac in a holy game of chicken with God?  Noah’s family starts out pretty well being the only righteous family in the whole world, but at the end of the story, Noah throws his son out of his home cursing him for witnessing Noah’s nakedness when he passes out in a drunken stupor.  And then there is Lot and his daughters: a relationship that would surely demand the attention of child protection services.  Read it for yourself — Genesis 19 — and make sure that you read all the way to the end of the chapter.  

There is a story of a little boy heading off for summer camp for the first time and when he and his family arrived at the camp, the camp owner sat with the family and handed them all of the necessary forms for the boy’s admission.  Watching all of this was the boy’s younger sister and as her parents signed the final form, she looked at her father with tears in her eyes and said, “Why are we selling Robert?”  Maybe the little girl had heard the story of Joseph in Sunday School, of his brothers selling him to the Ishmaelite slave traders, and was afraid that her family was embracing biblical family values.

“Of course,” you might say, “those are all Old Testament stories.  As Christians, our family values come from the New Testament,” but if the Old Testament families are dysfunctional, the New Testament families are largely absent.  If the disciples were married, and we know Peter at least had a mother-in-law, did the disciples leave their wives behind to carry on as best they could while they wandered jobless around Galilee following Jesus?  Were any of the disciples dead-beat dads?  We don’t know because we know nothing about their families.  The apostle Paul may have been single since he urges new Christians to stay single if they can but he adds that if they can’t manage their libidos, they can go ahead and get married which implies that Paul considered marriage and family as an institution for the weak of spirit.

If we define biblical family values based on the example of actual biblical families, then, biblical family values include dishonesty, duplicity, polygamy, sibling rivalry, infidelity, and desertion, in which case, American society is actually doing a super job of adopting biblical family values!

Today’s concern over family values is a real concern because for better or for worse, our families shape who we are and concerns about family consume a large portion of our lives.  While friends may come and go, family hangs around forever even when we wish they wouldn’t, so is there anything we can we learn from the bible about managing the relationships of our families?  Does the bible tell you anything that can help you to get along better with your brothers and sisters?  With your teenage daughter?  With your grown son?  Does it help you to have a stronger marriage?  What can the bible tell you about assuring that your relationships with the people who shape your days, your home, and your very identity, are healthy and strong?  Is the phrase “biblical family values” a complete oxymoron or is there any help for our families in the bible? 

As I have been recording the stories of those ancient families in the Bible, I have concluded that in spite of their flaws and failures, they share three characteristics that enable them to function not only as families but as the bearers of God’s promise in the world, and so I suggest that when we talk about biblical family values, what we should actually be talking about are these three traits, the three traits that I call the CPR for families.  When we apply these three characteristics faithfully in our own lives, they can resuscitate and give life to our ailing families.  As I describe these three important traits, consider your own family relationships: where have you seen these traits at work or where could your family benefit from their application?

The first and most foundational characteristic that defines the biblical family, the C of CPR,  is “covenant”.  The word covenant is the cornerstone of the relationship between God and God’s people throughout the Bible, and so too it must be the foundation for any sustaining relationship that we as human beings enter into.  Covenant assumes a commitment to another person based on shared values — agreed upon values — and a promise to remain in that relationship based on those values regardless of external circumstances.  I once attended a wedding at which a couple used vows they had written themselves and instead of ending with the traditional, “as long as life shall last,” they ended with, “As long as love shall last.”  No one, of course, wants to be stuck in a loveless marriage but at the same time, I worry that if that couple is defining love as a romantic feeling, that marriage will be grounded on some pretty shifting sands.  Anyone who has lived more than a few years with another person knows that feelings come and go and a family that lasts has to be grounded in more than feelings because there will be a lot of times in a family’s life when we don’t even like each other much, let alone feel all lovey-dovey toward each other.  What keeps us together, however, is the covenant we have made to stick it out.  A covenant assumes that you and your family members share some foundational values and will remain in relationship as long as those values continue to be shared ones.  When the sentiment is dry and the heart is tired and empty, when you wonder, “Why did I marry this guy?,” or “Who is this alien being masquerading as my child?”, the covenant that you have made can bring you through to the other side.  Sitcom families are held together by warm fuzzy feelings but the families in the bible are held together by the stronger and more lasting glue of the covenant they have made to one another and to God to see it through.  

The C of the CPR of biblical family values is covenant; the P of the CPR is patience.  The biblical families excel in their willingness to be patient as they wait for the promises of God to be fulfilled.  Abraham and Sarah had to wait years before they finally had the son that God had promised to them; Jacob left his family and remained in exile for over twenty years before returning home to them once again; and of course, in the most famous delay of all, the Hebrew families escaped slavery only to wander in the wilderness for 40 years before they got to set eyes on the Promised Land.  In a country where we can order a book and have it instantaneously downloaded to our e-reader, such patience is almost incomprehensible to us, and yet the Bible says, patience is one of the building blocks of strong relationships.  During those 40 years in the wilderness, the Israelites were transformed from a motley crew of frightened slaves into a mighty nation based on strong family bonds; in the wilderness, they became the twelve tribes of Israel. 

Keith Miller wrote about the difficulty of cultivating patience with family members, particularly our children, and he said that he finally learned patience by changing the way he prayed.  

“Instead of talking to God about each child’s needs,” he wrote, “I started imagining that I was placing each daughter, one at a time, in my cupped hands… [and then I would imagine God [in front of me with similarly cupped] hands.  I would place my hands inside God’s and gently take my hands apart, leaving each daughter in God’s hands…. This one act seemed to take the pressure off me to run the girls’ lives…”

The C of CPR is covenant. The P of CPR is patience.  Which leads to the last biblical family value, the R of CPR: reconciliation.  In spite of all of the flaws of the biblical families, they all have a remarkable capacity for reconciliation.  When Jacob finally returned home after cheating Esau out of his inheritance, Esau opened his arms to his brother Jacob, forgiving all of Jacob’s wrongs against him.  Joseph welcomed his brothers to Egypt and made a home for them, forgiving the horrific memory of the day they sold him into slavery.  Jesus’s brother James, who had once thought Jesus a bit crazy, became the head of his church after Jesus’s resurrection.  And of course Paul’s entire ministry was grounded on the ability of the family of the church to reconcile to this man who had once been their most dreaded enemy. 

The biblical family never locks the door to one another but remains always open to the possibility of reconciliation.  Let me be clear about this: reconciliation doesn’t mean a return to the way things were.  Reconciliation doesn’t mean that you have to accept an abuser back into your home or return to living with person who was once toxic and is still toxic.  Reconciliation doesn’t mean a return to the way things were; reconciliation means remaining open to the possibility of a new way of being in relationship to one another in the future.  To be open to reconciliation keeping that door unlocked even if you have to shut it in the meantime because there is a huge difference between a locked door and a shut door.  If a family member hurts you or hurts those you love so badly that it is unhealthy to remain in relationship with them, then by all means, shut the door.  Unfollow them from Facebook.  Find convenient excuses to avoid their dinner parties.  Don’t add to your hurt by continuing the contact.  On the other hand, don’t give into your anger so much that you lock that door with your hatred; don’t so harden your heart against them that you go out of your way to destroy their very existence in your life.  Shut the door but don’t lock it.  One day, by the grace of God, you may discover that the person has changed or that you have changed and you can look on that person again without anger or malice and there will be peace between you or at least peace in your heart.  Reconciliation doesn’t mean a return to the way things were but it being open to the hope that one day there will be some sort of peace between you. 

These are the biblical family values that we find in the stories of our ancestors of faith: CPR – keeping our covenants, practicing patience, and always believing in the possibility of the peace of reconciliation.  The good news for us is that these values can be practiced even in the midst of all of our flaws and dysfunction.  One commentator says of the stories of Jacob, “Here Jacob stands with qualities negative and positive, clear and ambiguous, simple and complex. Take him or leave him.  The most astounding claim of the story is that God takes him.” (New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume I)

It is perhaps just as astonishing that God takes us with our messy families as well, and uses us to further God’s work in the world, but God believes in us; believes that our work for God can be good and life changing and our families life giving if only in the midst of our flaws, we continue to remain true to our covenants with one another, practice patience with each other, and refuse to ever lock a door to the heart of another.  Covenant, patience, reconciliation – the true biblical family values.