On this Father’s Day weekend, I’ve been thinking about family. My father died nearly 45 years ago, so this special day for so many has not held much meaning for me in a long time. The same is true for Mother’s Day; my mother passed away five years after my dad. Add to this that I have lived most of my life far from my brothers and their wives and children, and my family ties aren’t nearly as close as many have.
During the past few weeks, I have been reading the Gospels. I am now reading Luke. What’s so interesting about Jesus is that he put so little emphasis on family ties. When his mother and brothers came, as Mark says, “to take charge of him” because they thought he was crazy, Jesus, when informed of their presence, replied that those right in front of him, his disciples, were his family. (Mark 3:3-20) Another time, he says that he will be the cause of splitting up families. And he also taught that in order to follow him, one must “hate” both his immediate and extended family.
The American church has long been centered on families. As a single person for much of early adulthood, that was painfully obvious to me. Most churches specifically target family units in their growth plans. Their programs revolve around the needs of families, and often sermons focus on family-based themes or use family illustrations. None of this is necessarily wrong, but what is often missing is the teaching that loyalty to the Lord is first and foremost.
Working among college students for many years, I have found Christian parents often are some of the biggest obstacles to their children’s desire to be obedient to the Lord. It has typically involved mission trips, ministry internships, and vocational ministry. I have watched many students struggle with wanting to do what they believe the Lord is leading them to do and parents who oppose them. Many years ago, a student wanted to go to a Third World country with us for a 10-day mission trip. Her dad had security concerns and we sat down to talk through those, but it was obvious he didn’t trust me or my judgment. He feared for his daughter’s safety and concluded he would not let her go. We went on our trip and returned safely without any issues at any point in the trip.
Other parents have been stringently opposed to any type of support-raising for trips, internships, or vocational ministry work. On many occasions, parents have strictly forbidden their children asking for money from relatives. To their credit, students have gone ahead with what they believed the Lord was commanding them to do, despite parental resistance. Some parents eventually came around; others never did.
Finally, and perhaps the biggest resistance, is when students begin eying a career as a missionary that will carry them far away from home, and perhaps into some dangerous situations. Parents respond with fear, and often with indignation that their child is wasting his/her education into which they have invested much, or seek to draw pity from being deprived of regularly seeing their future grandchildren.
With all of these scenarios, Jesus is clear as to what is to be the priority—seek him first and his righteousness, and to be willing to lay down our lives for his sake. And since, for so many parents, their children are their lives, then I think he wants us to release our children to him as well, to lay them at his feet as our sacrificial gifts to him.
Another way to look at this is, if you are a parent who loves Jesus and follows him, do you not want your children to do the same? Why then stand in the way of their obedience to Christ, just to have them do what you want out of fear or selfish motives? If Jesus is their Lord, then they first belong to him to guide and direct them as he sees fit. The most loving thing we can do for our emerging adult children is to step back and let them follow the Lord wherever he is leading them, even if the cost seems to us to be very high.
For those whom Jesus has caused division in your families over your commitment to him, take heart in what Jesus said to his disciples about them being his family. In my early Christian life, when none of my family knew exactly how to handle my conversion, my fellow brothers and sisters in my campus ministry were truly my family, and my campus minister was in many ways my father. After leaving college, I met a couple with five children and we basically adopted each other as family. The couple were strong believers and they have played a meaningful role in my life for decades. When we choose to follow Jesus, we inherit a whole new family, who can love and encourage us. Being ostracized from our blood family does not mean we go through life without a family. Rather, the Lord takes us from that lonely place and puts us into a new family. He also promises that those who do have to forsake family ties in order to follow him will be greatly rewarded for their sacrifices.
There are many sacrifices we are called on to make when we follow Jesus. The primacy of family is one of them. They are important, but never are to be first. If Jesus is to be truly Lord of our lives, he, and he alone, is our first and most important priority. Nothing, not even our families, can take precedence over him and his will for us.
© Jim Musser 2020 All Scripture references from the New International Version, 2011.