The Cure to an Unhappy Family
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
This quote is the first sentence of author Leo Tolstoy’s most famous novel, Anna Karenina.* In his work, Tolstoy claimed that for a family to be happy, several areas of need must be met, such as good health for all family members, financial security, and mutual affection between all members. If any of the areas of need for family life to be happy go unmet, he concludes the family will be unhappy. Tolstoy did not write the book specifically about morality, but allowed themes including hypocrisy, jealousy, fidelity, family, marriage, and passion to come forth from the complexities of the readers’ life context in Russia.
Anna Karenina is considered one of the best novels ever written, in no small part because the emerging themes are relatable to all families and humanity as a whole; namely, the effects of sin. But it was not always this way.
In the beginning, when God saw everything He had made, it was “very good” (Gen 1:31). Man and woman were innocent, having been made in the image of God and in His likeness to reflect His glory as individuals and as a family unit. We then read in Genesis 3:1–6 that the serpent deceived Eve, and she and Adam ate of the fruit of the tree God commanded them not to. At that moment, sin entered the world, and death through sin (Rom 5:12). When confronted by God, Adam and Eve played the blame game. As Pastor C.T. Eldridge said in a recent message, “Adam became a ‘Blamer’ by covering up and Eve defended herself, playing ‘Victim.’”
This blame game continues to this day in every context where there are humans, Christian or not. As sinners saved by grace, we are saved from the penalty and power of sin, but the presence of sin remains.** The presence of sin will remain with humanity and creation until the redemption of our bodies (Rom 8:19–23).
How should we as Christians respond in light of the pain and suffering in our relationships with others? With eager anticipation of the future glory that is to be revealed to us (Rom 8:18)! How is this possible if your relationship with your parents is questionable at best, or you have a tense relationship with your spouse, a wayward adult child, or work in a hostile work environment?
First, we must acknowledge that we cannot do it in our own power. Jesus made clear in John 15:1–11 that apart from Him, we can do nothing and that abiding in Him will result in us bearing much fruit, that His joy may be in us! The picture Jesus drew showed that believers must be in Him while also connecting in the true vine to other believers in community. In living out the Gospel in daily life, we can stop blaming others and remove our victimization because we are empowered in the Holy Spirit to have and maintain family relationships that look like what Paul described and called Christians to in Romans 12.
In looking at the marks of a faithful Christian, Paul encouraged the Christians in Rome to love each other and outsiders well with a broken and contrite heart in the following ways:
Love one another with brotherly affection, outdo one another in showing honor, be fervent in Spirit and serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in trials and difficulties, be constantly in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the church and seek to show hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another, not being arrogant but associating with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Don’t repay evil for evil, but do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Do not avenge yourself, but leave it to the wrath of God, as He says, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” Rather, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by doing so you will bring shame to them in hope that they repent. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good — Romans 12:9–21.
It is only by the Holy Spirit dwelling within us, as He continues to conform us into the image of God through our weakness and suffering, that these practical applications of loving family and outsiders well can and will occur. It is important to remember that we should not do this for ourselves alone, but by obeying in this way, we bring God honor and glory in planting seeds that may lead to repentance in those we love well. Just as God reconciled us to Himself through Christ, He gave us the ministry of reconciliation through which we should seek reconciliation boldly, just as Christ sought our reconciliation boldly. Not every relationship can or will be mended, but you can forgive as you have been forgiven, being at peace when others won’t reconcile to you because Jesus is your peace. When we see that outside of Christ, we are no better than the worst person, we should be humbled to pray for even our worst enemy.