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  • Writer's pictureDr. Benjamin J. Williams

To The World Where Families Are Messy

God sent His Son to the world to offer hope and salvation to humanity. But what did Jesus find when he arrived?

He did not find the sons of Adam tending a garden or the daughters of Eve tending a hearth. He did not find pristine human families patiently waiting for the Lord. It was quite the opposite.

In the Gospel of Mark, after Jesus calls his disciples and faces his own temptation in the wilderness, Jesus makes his first major public appearance at a synagogue in Capernaum (Mark 1:21-22). He taught the Scriptures on the Sabbath. He went to church, as it were. And there he was, greeted by a screaming demon. “And immediately there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit. And he cried out” (Mark 1:23).

Going to church and finding a demon is an apt metaphor for Jesus’ entire ministry. ‌Jesus did not encounter a tidy world, but instead, quite literally, found lives tormented by “unclean spirits.” I don’t believe he was surprised. 

God had seen the sorts of things we were up to all along. While I don’t have a deep conviction about the nature and influence of demons, I think we can notice the connection between evil choices and evil beings. Morally speaking, we might say that we have invited the demons into our lives. As God warned Cain, “If you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door” (Genesis 4:7). Our jealousies and ambitions are called “earthly, unspiritual, demonic” (James 4:15). And one evil seems to invite the other: “For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice” (4:16). With sin, we create communities where Satan dwells enthroned in our hearts rather than God (Revelation 2:13).

We have invited evil into our homes as well. In principle, the whole human family and every particular family in it descends from Adam “the son of God” (Luke 3:38). “Every family in heaven and on earth is named” after the Father as his heritage (Ephesians 3:14-15). However, we have instead chosen sin, “following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (Ephesians 2:1-2). Too often, rather than being the children of God, we live out the verdict stated by Jesus: “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires” (John 8:44). We have not been good stewards of what God intended for the family unit, and God has noticed.

‌Likewise, when we take the gospel to families today, we will encounter a messy world. The modern American family is not sitting behind a neat picket fence, gathered around a dinner table, waiting for a Bible study to begin. Nor can we allow ourselves the time to be surprised by the state of the modern family and all its messiness. 

Instead, we must be reminded that ‌God has always worked in and through messy families.

About 11% of US families have a single parent. That means that about 28.3% of all children under 18 are living with either a single mother or father. This is not a new challenge. Hagar went on the run with Ishmael, fleeing a hostile home created by Sarah and Abraham (Genesis 16). It was a widow and her son in Zarephath who took in a wandering prophet and blessed him (1 Kings 17). Moses was raised by an unusual combination of an adopted mother and his own (Exodus 2).

More than 1 in 5 couples have had children with multiple partners. The result is an increased number of what we call “blended families.” Pew Research is estimating that about 1 in 6 kids is living in a blended family with either a stepparent, stepsibling, or half-sibling. The Bible is full of  examples of families like this. Most notably, Jacob’s family includes twelve sons and one daughter by four different women (Genesis 29). David’s domestic life is even messier (2 Samuel 3:2-4).

Between 3-4% of children in the US are raised by grandparents, a number I found surprisingly low. In contrast, 1 in 6 adults over age 55 are childless. The Bible depicts both scenarios. Young Joash was raised by his aunt and uncle while hidden in the temple (2 Kings 11). Samuel was raised by Eli, a surrogate father with no relation to him at all (1 Samuel 1). Abraham and Sarah were childless until late and life (Genesis 16), and were Zacharias and Elizabeth (Luke 1).

One-person households are 28% of all US households in 2020. The US Census Bureau reports that 46.4% of adults are single, about 117.6 million unmarried Americans. God has worked in the lives of single people all along. We do not know if  Miriam or John the Baptist ever married. Jeremiah was commanded not to marry, and the apostle Paul chose not to be married (Jeremiah 16:2; 1 Corinthians 7:8-9). It has long been assumed that Nehemiah was a eunuch, and possibly Daniel as well. And, lest we forget, the Lord Jesus was by all accounts a single man married only to his bride, the Church.

And do not forget that we have a great many among us who live alone due to loss. Among those 75 years of age or older, 54% of women and 20% of men are widowed. The Bible tells this story as well. Naomi and Ruth were displaced widows (Ruth 1), and Anna the prophetess was an 84-year-old widow who spent her time in the temple court (Luke 2:36-38).

And none of these stories even hold a candle to the tale of Joseph, who was asked to raise a son conceived by the Holy Spirit (Matthew 1:18-25). Come to think of it, can we even name one “normal” family in the Bible? Is there such a thing?

The gospel goes into the world and finds all this mess waiting, but these challenges are not obstacles. They are the reason Jesus came.

The demon in our original story responded to Jesus’ ministry with an accusation: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” (Mark 1:24) 

Likewise, in our culture, messy families assume they will be condemned and excluded by the church. One side says we must accept every conceivable alternative to the God-created family as if it were ideal, but the religious snob on the other side of the debate thinks the gospel has no place going to the imperfect home at all. One group treats the messy reality as a mere idea, and the other group treats the ideal family as an idol to be worshipped. Families are neither. Just like with individual lives, families have to be saved by Jesus as well. If they could be perfected by human work and effort, they would not need Jesus at all. Just as every human life is fallen, every family is fallen. Normalizing their fallen state will accomplish nothing but neither will a mere mortal effort to perfect and defend them.

Jesus showed us something different.

“But Jesus rebuked him, saying, Be silent, and come out of him! And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying out with a loud voice, came out of him” (Mark 1:25–26). Jesus did not come to hurt the hurting or judge the messy lives he found (John 12:47-48). He came to heal our wounds and liberate us from our bondage.

Likewise, the church must step out into this messy world of wounded lives and unlikely families with the resolve of Christ. Yes, there is an ideal home that God intended for all of us to enjoy. No, none of us have it. But our mess won’t keep God out. It is the very reason he came.

Dr. Benjamin Williams is the Senior Minister at the Central Church of Christ in Ada, Oklahoma and a regular writer at So We Speak. Check out his books The Faith of John’s Gospel and Why We Stayed or follow him on Twitter, @Benpreachin.


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