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Which Family Comes First?

Bad Advice from Christian Women, Part Two

How to Break Up with Your Anxious Life

For a teacher, leading a class over Zoom has almost no advantages over being in-person. I learned this in the first year of the pandemic, when I taught five sessions of Bible study online. One exception is that, occasionally, someone in my class will have a reaction so dramatic, with her face right in the screen, that we all get to pause and share her light-bulb moment.

One such time, I was teaching about common sayings we should question. One was “Family always comes first.” A student Maria said “But isn’t that true?”

“Well,” I asked, “do you see it in Scripture? ‘Family first’ is not something Jesus said. It’s what the Mob says.”

Maria cracked up. “I’m Italian,” she said. “That hits home.”

Throughout this series, I’ve attempted to help us break the patterns of thinking and behaving that increase anxiety in our lives. Being able to discern between the sayings that surround us in culture – even in church culture – from the actual wisdom of God is paramount. As I wrote last week, Paul points out to Timothy some trustworthy saying among Christians, assuming that we also have to be on the lookout for some untrustworthy sayings. So, let’s break this one down in detail.

“Family always comes first” is one of those statements that sounds good, maybe even Biblical, but many sinful things have been done in its application. The first issue here is, how do we define family? Who is included in this family photo? Are my husband and children my family? Or my parents and brothers? Or my aunties and sixteen cousins?

And who do they come before, if they are first? Before my work? My best friends? In all instances?

In extreme cases, the concept of “family always comes first” has been used to silence victims of abuse, and in more moderate cases has shielded family members from natural consequences. Parents might pull out “family comes first” as a way to get one sibling to pay the bills of an irresponsible sibling, to prevent an adult child from moving too far away, or to demand that family gatherings always trump other commitments. I have dear friends who wouldn’t have fulfilled their calling to the mission field if they had “put family first.” Some mothers would hear the phrase “family always comes first,” and be wracked with guilt if they pursued any kind of profession.

Did Jesus ever say “Family comes first”? No, shockingly. He put God’s will and the kingdom of heaven ahead of family/tribal loyalties. Here are three instances:

Matthew 8:21-22Sir, first let me go and bury my father.” Jesus replies, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.” In this case, the man’s father has not died. He is asking if he can stay home with his father until he dies, as is the custom for Jewish young men. Jesus’s response says that sometimes the cost of following Christ is breaking that tradition.

Matthew 12:46-49 While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” In this context, Jesus’s biological family are concerned about some of the controversial things he’s been teaching, and they are trying to get him to be quiet and come home. Jesus prioritizes God’s will over family again, and gives honor to those who are joining in his ministry.

John 19:26-27 When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman,[a] here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home. This is fascinating. From the cross, Jesus defies Jewish tribal law and gives the care of his mother not to his biological brother James, but to John, his beloved disciple. James, at the time, did not believe that his brother was the Christ, so we can imagine that Jesus entrusts his mother to the person most qualified to love her well, likely because of John’s faith and his relationship with Jesus.

All three demonstrate some beautiful and liberating truths:

First, that Jesus defines family broadly. This means we not only get to love the family we are given through biology, but also love and prioritize the family we find in God’s kingdom. This is good news for those who have healthy families of origin; the more the merrier! Set new places around the table and invite everyone in! This is even better news for those from mildly to wildly dysfunctional family systems; it means they are allowed to seek connection, comfort, wisdom, and fellowship outside of their family of origin without feeling guilty about it.

Second, God’s will trumps our family’s will. God’s will is pleasing and perfect (Romans 12:1) For my money, I love it when what God asks of me will also please my biological brothers and parents. It’s just so much more tidy and comfortable. But on the occasions that I need to displease or disappoint them to please Jesus, I have learned to do so without anxiety roiling in my heart.

Third, that we have good and powerful work to do in the world, and it’s good for both ourselves and our family members when our focus doesn’t become too insular. What Jesus modeled for us in regard to family was also not Western individualism – leaving the family of origin to be totally independent -- but a call to pursue loving, interdependent, healthy community with the shared goal of love.

One thing of which I am certain: God’s instructions lead to peace. Psalm 19:7 says, “The law of the LORD is perfect, refreshing the soul. The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy, making wise the simple.” But making overly simplistic statements, renders wisdom ineffective, and causes soul distress. So, I offer the above evidence as a potential model of how we might bring the things we often say into the light, asking ourselves questions and holding them up against the truth. May your soul be refreshed as you learn to separate half-truths from deep truths, and may we cease to speak half-truths over others.

For those of you who want to a few more examples, read on. And tune in next week as we look at a few scriptures commonly used out of context.

Motherhood is your highest calling. Likely an off-shoot of “family comes first” culture, I’ve been told this more times than I can count in Christian circles, especially mothers’ groups. And while the intent may have been to value us as mothers, the fact is that my highest calling is not to parent, but to be a disciple of Jesus. While my daughters are under my roof, caring for them often takes precedence over many other concerns, and being their mom is a holy calling. But “motherhood is your highest calling” is not scriptural; and it presupposes that the most important time of any mother’s life will be over when her kids leave the nest – which is both depressing and distressing. How much more empowered would women be in the church if they believed they’re call to follow Christ into fruitfulness lasted their whole lives, and maybe increased as they matured?

This saying is also dangerous because it gets out into non-mothering circles and becomes “mothering is women’s highest calling,” excluding and potentially shaming women who don’t want children, can’t conceive, or are called to singleness.

God never gives you more than you can handle. This saying likely stems from 1 Corinthians 10:13 “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.” (Emphasis mine.) This is a beautiful promise.

But “God never gives you more than you can handle” is problematic in many ways. It simplifies the mystery of God’s sovereignty almost to the point of blasphemy, characterizing God as someone who is handing out blessing and struggle in proportion to our strengths. This picture of God does not lead to peace.

Secondly, sisters, what does “handle” even mean? How do I know if I’m handling what has been given to me? When I had post-partum depression with my second daughter, was I “handling” motherhood? When my friend died in December and I ate corndogs in H Mart and then went home, sobbing to my bed? This expression has potential shaming effects on those who are struggling emotionally, financially, relationally, and more. It’s also often used to shut down empathy. A friend of mine in chronic pain has been told this repeatedly by loved ones, and it minimizes her struggle.

A more helpful and trustworthy saying is, “God will never abandon nor forsake you.” I have both experienced and witnessed the saints being given much more than they could “handle,” but the truth that God has always been present with us has never failed. This truth doesn’t cure pain, but does, eventually, lead to peace.

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