When you hear the word "family" what do you picture? A nuclear family with a mum, dad, and a couple of kids? An extended family, full of aunts and uncles and cousins? Recently, I have been pondering Jesus' words and actions about marriage and family and have discovered a different picture than what I expected.
To begin with, let me share a bit of my story to give my pondering some context. I am in my early fifties and have spent more of my adult life in India than in my passport country. I feel more at home in North India these days than anywhere else in the world. More at home that is apart from one thing - I am single, and I live in a land where everyone is supposed to be married.
I always hoped to be married; it was the expectation that I grew up with, but despite much prayer and looking, it never happened. In my early 30s, as I grew tired of waiting, I decided to get on with my life and packed my bags and moved to the sub-continent. At the back of my mind, I hoped that here I might find my life partner. But one year morphed to two and to nearly twenty, and here I am an oddity in this land - a single, never-married, middle-aged woman.
Over the years, I have lost count of the number of auto drivers, plumbers, electricians, government officials, and well-meaning colleagues who have encouraged, exhorted, and challenged me to get married. They seemed to think that if I just tried hard enough, I would manage somehow to get married. I have been told to "pray more", "trust more", "be content in your singleness and then God will provide a husband", to be "quieter" and "more submissive" and to "get out there and find a husband!". I have been told to "lose weight" to "not worry about my weight" to "dress to attract" to "be more modest" - my head spins with all the well-meaning advice I have received over the last 30 years. But with each one of these "words of wisdom," I have received the sharp sting of the underlying barb that there must be something wrong with me - otherwise, I would have found a husband by now! Along with that message, the other one I hear over and over again is that my life is not "settled" until I have a family of my own.
Since many Christians explain their emphasis on marriage and family by referring to a Genesis 2 mandate, let's start there.
In Genesis 2:18, God says "It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper who is just right for him" (NLT) After naming all the birds and animals it is clear that the man's helper is not to be found in the animal kingdom and so God creates woman out of man (Genesis 2:21-23) and in verse 24 the author adds, "This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife and the two are united to one flesh" (NLT). Certainly, when you add to these verses the Old Testament narratives of family and tribe, plus the high view of marriage in Paul's writing it does paint a picture that marriage is a good thing, designed by God for our good. Paul seems to take it a step further when says in Ephesians 5:32 that marriage is "an illustration of the way Christ and the church are one" (NLT). With all that in mind it is no wonder we place marriage and family so high in our estimation within the church.
As I said at the beginning, I have begun though to ask the question “What does Jesus say about family?” And as I explored His words, I found a different picture. It is not that Jesus says that marriage and family are bad, in fact, He has a deep commitment to marriage calling us to fidelity of a true and sincere nature (Matthew 19:1-12). However, in other passages, Jesus makes it clear that for Him, family was going to have a broader and deeper definition than simply being those with whom we have a biological connection.
The most straightforward of these passages is found in Matthew 12:46-50 (NLT):
As Jesus was speaking to the crowd, His mother and brothers stood outside, asking to speak to Him. Someone told Jesus, "Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, and they want to speak to you." Jesus asked, "Who is My mother? Who are My brothers?" Then He pointed to His disciples and said, "Look, these are My mother and brothers. Anyone who does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother!"
Here Jesus makes it clear that in His family biology, family name, tradition etc. are all second to one thing - a new definition of family as those who live in obedience to His Father.
In Luke 9:59-60, Jesus tells a would-be disciple that following Him (obedience to God the Father) is more important than burying his own earthly father. In Matthew 10:34-37, Jesus explains that we must love Him (another form of obedience to His Father) more than we love our family. And that therefore we should expect conflict in our human families over our relationship with Jesus. Finally, in Luke 18:29-30, He offered the consolation that for those of us who have lost family (due to obediently following and loving Jesus) we will receive much more family in return.
These verses reveal a picture of family that is bigger and broader and deeper than our traditional biological families. Our primary identity is, therefore, as part of God’s family. In Ephesians 1, Paul makes this clear when he explains that God chose us for adoption into His family (the church) before He even made the world. Before God created Adam and Eve, and before marriage and biological families were even part of the picture, God's plan was an adopted family tied together by a love for and following of His Son.
As a single woman, I may be defined by my lack of family but Jesus doesn’t see me this way. Singleness for a follower of Jesus is not the lack of a family - it is simply another way, a different way of living within the family of God.
For my single sisters reading this post, I pray this encourages you. I hope that it calls you to invest yourself more fully in the the life of your local expression of God's family and to find life and joy there. I also trust that it is a balm in those times when your lack of husband and children cuts, leaving you feeling isolated and alone. Our identity is not determined by husband or children but by having been adopted into God's family.
For my married sisters, I urge you to see this as a call to broaden your concept of family to include those of us who don't have families of our own. Invite us for meals (and let us invite you as well), spend time with us, share your lives with us, and reap the blessing of the crazy big family of God to which we all belong.