It is no secret that many parents today are struggling to cope. One of the reasons that parenting in our era is hard is that for the first time in history, we are trying to go it alone.
Many of us have moved away from our extended families and the places where we grew up. Even if our parents live nearby, many of them are busy working during the week. Our relationships with our neighbours are also more transient and superficial than in previous generations.
On a day-to-day basis it can feel like it’s just us—mum, dad and the kids—battling against the world.
But when we turn to the Bible, we see that from the very beginning, God has called individuals to be part of something bigger than themselves—to belong to his big family. The Bible is essentially the story of God’s relationship with one ancient family. If we have become children of God, it is our story too.
The Children of Abraham
To trace our spiritual family history, we need to start right back at the beginning, with the very first humans.
The opening chapters of the Bible describe how God created humanity for a big purpose: to honour him, to care for his creation, and to love other people. But the first humans, Adam and Eve, disobeyed God; as a consequence, their relationships with God, creation, and each other became fractured. Generations of Adam and Eve’s descendants followed them into sin. But God did not give up on his people.
Nineteen generations later, God made this promise to Adam and Eve’s descendant, Abraham:
‘I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you’. (Genesis 12:2–3)
God promised that Abraham would have many descendants. These descendants would be blessed by God and become a great nation; in turn, they would be a channel of blessing to all nations. Later on, God also promised Abraham’s descendants a land of their own (Genesis 15). But there was one major problem: Abraham and his wife, Sarah, had never been able to have children, and were now far too old. In spite of this, they trusted in God, and in due course they conceived a son, Isaac.
The remainder of Genesis follows three generations of Abraham’s descendants. Because of the nature of God’s promises, the narrative has a strong focus on marriage, the birth of children (or conversely, the heartache of infertility) and family trees. By the beginning of the book of Exodus, we find that God’s people were ‘fruitful and multiplied greatly and became exceedingly numerous, so that the land was full of them’ (Exodus 1:7).
But now there was another problem: this large family group had become enslaved in a foreign land—Egypt. God called Moses to confront the ruling Pharaoh about this, and eventually, Pharaoh let Abraham’s descendants go free. They left Egypt and came to stop at Mount Sinai. There, God made a covenant with this large family group. God began to refer to them as a nation, Israel, and gave them a set of laws to live by, beginning with the Ten Commandments. Eventually, Abraham’s descendants did establish themselves in the land that God had promised them.
So far, we’ve seen that God has taken one man, Abraham, and made him into a very large family—now a nation—which was called to reflect God’s character and values in their community life together. In ancient Israel, this primarily occurred within extended family groups—numbering fifty to one hundred people—who lived together in a cluster of houses. This was the primary network of relationships where people sought to express God’s values through mutual care, protection, and support.
In the Old Testament, you generally had to be born into this ‘blessed line’ of Abraham to be part of God’s family. But God had promised that one day, he would use the family of Abraham to bless all nations.
The Children of God
The New Testament begins with a family tree. It is the genealogy of Jesus, one of Abraham’s descendants, traced through his adoptive father, Joseph. Jesus grew up like many of his ancestors—raised by parents who faithfully (albeit imperfectly) modelled and taught God’s character and values, as revealed in the Bible (for them, the Old Testament).
As Jesus grew older, it became clear that his true Father was God himself. When Jesus was baptised, God’s voice was heard to say, ‘This is my Son, whom I love’ (Luke 3:22). God, the Father, sent his Son into the world to carry out his work of redemption; Jesus came to bring more people into God’s family. Before Jesus, God’s family grew primarily through the birth of children. But Jesus made the radical claim that anyone could now become part of God’s big family, not by bloodline, but by faith.
John wrote of Jesus, ‘Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God’. (John 1:12–13)
Paul explained it like this:
Abraham ‘believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness’. Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham. Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: ‘All nations will be blessed through you’. So those who rely on faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. (Galatians 3:6–9)
Jesus completely redefined the word ‘family’. No longer is a person’s family simply their blood relatives; children of God are also part of a spiritual family, which is made up of all those who believe in Jesus. The following incident illustrates this:
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’. (Matthew 12:46–50)
This does not mean that Jesus neglected his earthly family. In fact, one of Jesus’ final acts before he died was to provide a ‘son’ (the apostle John) to care for his mother, who by that stage was a widow (John 19:25–27). Jesus also reaffirmed the two Commandments which dealt with family life: he called people to be faithful in marriage (Matthew 19:1–9) and to honour their parents (Mark 7:9–13). Jesus’ life and teaching encouraged people to care for their natural family. But he also encouraged people to see themselves as part of the wider family of faith.
Through Jesus, God is calling a new group of people to himself; but it is much bigger than one person or one nuclear family. Everyone who trusts in Jesus can be part of God’s big family of faith, bound together by our love for God, and for one another. This is great news for modern parents—we don’t have to do this alone!
Next time, we’ll consider how being part of God’s family can shape our approach to parenting.
Harriet Connor lives on the Central Coast of NSW with her husband and three sons. She is the author of Big Picture Parents: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Life. Find out more at www.harrietconnor.com.
This is an edited extract from Big Picture Parents: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Life by Harriet Connor.