Many times I have heard the observation: “I’m closer to my spiritual family than I am some of my own blood kin.” I’ve made that comment myself. Genetic ties run deep, and God intends for the nuclear and extended physical family to be a source of much psychological, emotional and, hopefully, spiritual support.
But, sadly, the family does not always live up to its God-given ideal. Parents are sometimes disengaged; siblings fight; reunions and holidays are battlegrounds; distance separates and funerals/wills really unleash havoc. From Cain to Abimelech, from Athaliah to Absalom, from Joseph’s brothers to Herod the Great, Scripture documents fratricide, infanticide, parricide (killing a parent) and even cannibalism of one’s own children. It is often the case, as Jesus told the disciples, that “a man’s foes will be those of his own household” (Mt 10:36).
But Jesus also said to His disciples, in the context of persecution, “There is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My sake and the gospel’s, who shall not receive a hundredfold now in this time – houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions – and in the age to come eternal life” (Mk 10:29-30). So Jesus is a realist, and He is always forthcoming. He says a life of faith is a mixed bag: there will be many joys and triumphs, and there will be dark days of conflict and separation. And though it hurts very deeply when the harm comes from our own family, Jesus promises that we will have others to lean on for support and love.
Real closeness forms between people who share common values such as kindness, openness, selflessness, recreational interests, life experiences, goals – things that go beyond mere genetics to deeper aspects of the bonding of minds and emotions. Soldiers in battle; athletes/teammates; fellow alcoholics or other health-challenged people – people who experience challenges and traumas – are often deeply connected for a lifetime. God has not made humans to be isolated loners, though some may become so because they lack the social skills that build bridges with others. Rather, God has made us social creatures who find solace, inspiration, enjoyment and companionship in sharing our lives in close fellowship with others.
Nowhere is this be more meaningfully experienced than among those who share a common belief in their Creator and His values and promises; those who worship together and foster knowledge of their God in each other; those who understand the importance of love and grace and forgiveness. What a joy it is to meet a fellow Christian and in a very short time establish a deep connection with them. We might say, “I feel like we’ve known each other all our lives.” Why does this happen? Because we have a high degree of commonality based on the values and truths instilled within us by the word of the Spirit.
This is what enabled Jew and Gentile to bury the ancient hatchet and become one in Christ: “For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of division between us … so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace, and that He might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity” (Eph 2:15-16; cf. Rom 15:7-13). Political pacts and treaties, congressional legislation, manipulative guilt and other carnal ploys will not create true bonds of mutual love and respect. Only in Christ can we overcome the hatred, prejudices, envy and other pollutants that lead to strife, division and warfare.
Consider the following examples from the NT:
1. The first converts. A great multitude heard the gospel on the day of Pentecost. They had come to Jerusalem from all points of the compass in unity – the observance of the feast of Pentecost. But something higher unexpectedly manifested itself – the truth of the gospel as spoken by Peter and the other apostles – which superseded that which drew them to Palestine (Acts 2). What was the result? People, many of whom did not know each other beforehand, now “had all things in common and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need. So continuing daily with one accord in the temple and breaking read from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God …” (2:44-46). What an unlikely turn of events!
2. Provision for widows. In earlier eras widows were at economic, social and political disadvantage as a result of patriarchal power structures. This is why God always spoke compassionately about them along with orphans. So imagine the example set by the early Christians who actually undertook the material support of such helpless widows among their number (Ac 6:1-7; Jas 1:27; 1 Tim 5:3-16). Consider the love that the widows in Joppa had for their dear sister Tabitha, who “was full of good works and charitable deeds” (Ac 9:36).
3. Paul and Timothy. This young disciple was Paul’s “true son in the faith … my beloved son” (1 Tim 1:2; 2 Tim 1:2). Of him Paul said to the Philippians, “I have no one likeminded, who will sincerely care for your state … but you know his proven character, that as a son with his father he served with me in the gospel” (2:20, 22). Nearing the end of his life, Paul wrote that he thanked God for him and remembered him in prayer night and day, “greatly desiring to see you, being mindful of your tears, that I may be filled with joy” (2 Tim 1:3-4).
4. Paul and Onesiphorus. Paul prayed that “The Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, for he often refreshed me, and was not ashamed of my chain; but when he arrived in Rome, he sought me out very diligently and found me. The Lord grant to him that he may find mercy from the Lord in that Day – and you know very well how many ways he ministered to me at Ephesus” (2 Tim 1:16-18).
Other examples throughout Scripture can be cited of deep ties of love and friendship, of service and sacrifice, of joy and peace among God’s people. But these bonds do not form naturally; they must be nurtured. They grow in the climate of humility and kindness; they thrive in compassion; they survive confrontation and correction. It all begins with souls who love God more than anyone else, and it comes to full bloom in a husband and wife who have learned to put God and their mate before self.