In all the interviews I have ever done like this, no child ever asked a parent if she/he had a question for me. The father seemed caught off guard by his son’s question: “No, I don’t have any questions for Pastor Steve.” The son pressed further: “My dad’s an atheist,” he added. That opened the door! He proceeded to tell me about his unbelief…and yet respect for Jesus and his moral teachings. He also said that his wife was a strong Catholic, but that he did not share her beliefs. I challenged him to keep asking questions, and shared with him that I too went through a time of questioning and that it helped me find answers. I invited him to give me a call if he ever wanted to talk further before they walked out the door.
I share this story because it describes a common situation...a family in which one of the members is not a believer (more thoughts about that story in a moment). Jesus cares about the spiritual life of our home. The first place that Jesus wanted his disciples to bear witness to him was in Jerusalem. That is, he wanted them to start at home, with those they knew best. Sometimes the hardest place to be a witness to our Lord is among those who know us the best! Now the Bible tells us that God is at work through us to bless our not-yet-believing family members as we do six things…
You can begin by keeping your commitments: Paul’s advice to Christians with unbelieving spouses is to be faithful in our commitment. In other words, be someone who binds the family together, not someone who pulls it apart! (1 Cor. 7: 12-16). In Corinth, Christianity was a radically new phenomenon in what was an overwhelmingly pagan city. No doubt there were many new Christians with unbelieving partners. This put tremendous strain on the relationship. The Christian partner has a whole new set of loyalties, new priorities, new desires. A follower of Christ is “a new creation”! But if your spouse does not share that experience, you’ve probably felt misunderstood, frustrated, even torn in two.
Then consider things from the unbeliever’s perspective. I read about a Cape Town brain surgeon in this situation who said that his wife “was no longer the person with whom he had originally fallen in love and decided to marry; and that there was now another “Man” in the house to whom she was always referring every decision and consulting for advice and instruction. He felt like he was no longer the King of his castle: that Jesus was giving the orders and setting the pace” (David Prior, The Message of First Corinthians, p. 125).
In response to this very real situation with which we too are familiar, Paul encourages commitment to the marriage for one powerful reason…consecration. Paul literally says, “The unbelieving man is consecrated, made holy (hegiastai) by the woman” (14) and vice versa. The unbeliever does not cancel out the faith of the believer; quite the opposite -- something special happens between the unbeliever and the Lord. There is a sanctifying process going on that can result in your partner experiencing new life in Christ. And it’s not only your spouse who is hegiastai, but your children as well who are blessed and consecrated by your commitment. "What about those who have already divorced?" you may be wondering. Let me encourage you to be the Lord’s peacemaker as you seek to bring His peace and healing into the heart of your separated family!
Secondly, pray for them in difficult times: Luke describes a time when Jesus was teaching and healing in the synagogue in Capernaum beside the Sea of Galilee. Now I’ve visited this synagogue, and Peter’s house is a very short distance from it. No doubt, he was thinking of his mother-in-law that day who despite her closeness to the synagogue, could not be there because she was suffering from a high fever. Immediately after the service, Peter brought Jesus down to his home: We read in Luke 4: 38-39 that, “Jesus stood over her and rebuked the fever and it left her. Immediately she got up and began to serve them.” Peter’s faith in bringing Jesus to his mother-in law reminds us that even if our family members cannot or will not come with us to Jesus, we can bring Jesus to our family members or close friends as we pray for his help.
I clearly remember that it was when my best friend’s mom in elementary school got very sick that I first began to share with him about my faith in God and began to pray for him and his family. It opened a door and planted a seed.
Thirdly, show love and respect: The theme of honor and respect are everywhere in the Bible. In Ephesians 5: 21-6:4, Paul urges us to practice mutual submission, honor and respect out of reverence for Christ (Eph. 5:21). “Wives be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord….Husbands, love your wives “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Children are to obey their parents in the Lord. Parents aren't off the hook either: “Fathers do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”
When you honor your spouse, when you show love and respect to your children or to your parents…you are planting seeds of faith, and showing them the character of Christ. I’m convinced that one of the reasons my 94 year old grandfather came to faith in Christ was that my mother tirelessly served and helped him in his older years. She loved him into the Kingdom. What a witness!
Fourth, teach your children without apology: Prov. 22:6 says “Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he shall not depart from it.” One of our duties as parents is to bring our children to Jesus, just as parents brought children to Jesus to be blessed by him (Matt. 19:3). Some parents believe that taking their children to church is nothing more than “brain-washing.” My reply is that our brains are going to be washed by something one way or the other. There is no such thing as a values-free or values-neutral society. If our children are not taught Christian values, they will be taught secular values by default – the message that life is without purpose, that there is no right or wrong; that having more stuff is the key to happiness, that I have a right to satisfy any and every desire; that the commitment of marriage is boring; that violence is the way to solve problems.
Lisa and I were talking about the state of our schools with a neighbor and the quality of teaching, which I think is very good. But I began to think about the privilege of sitting at the feet of the Teacher…whose words and works have changed the course of history. Jarislov Pelikan, Prof. of History at Yale says, “Jesus of Nazareth has been the dominant figure in the history of Western culture for almost 20 centuries. If it were possible, with some sort of super magnet, to pull up out of that history every scrap of metal bearing at least a trace of his name, how much would be left?” Why we would we withhold that knowledge from our children? A Chinese professor told me that she wanted to read the Bible because she said you cannot understand western culture without it (Note: Jesus was not "western" but "middle eastern." Regardless, he has had touched men and women from every culture and tribe). Teaching our children about the words and works of Jesus Christ is not foolish…it is wisdom itself.
Fifth, honor God and his sovereignty over them: Jesus challenged us to love him more…than earthly family (Matt. 10:37). He was even thrown out of his home town, but it didn’t dissuade him from his mission (Luke 4: 23-30; Luke 8:19ff.) Jesus shocks us, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matt. 10:37).
To love Him more than family means that we keep the 1st commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me.” We can make a god of our families, our success, or our children’s success. As followers of Jesus we are aware of the larger priorities of the Kingdom. It’s not all about the success of my family…it’s about serving the King as members of his family. When we put Him first…it is a witness to my spouse and my children that there is a larger world, a world of need into which we are being called to serve and make a difference for the King. But let me underscore that loving Christ more than family does not mean neglecting them. We are to love him more, not instead of our families. As his followers we continue to be called to care for, honor, and love our families with the love he pours into our hearts. When we love him first, we learn from him how to love them best.
Finally, invite your family…to meet Jesus: There are many stories in Scripture of family members bringing loved ones to the Lord. Joseph (Genesis 50), you’ll remember, was the vehicle through which his entire family was brought into a deeper relationship and understanding of God’s forgiveness and provision. Andrew brought his brother Peter to Jesus saying, “We have found the Messiah” (John 1:35-42). Did Andrew, or his mother, plan for his dad to come to my office with his son so that he could ask a few questions and get another perspective? It dawned on me later that week that this is exactly what happened. He was set up!
Someone I care about very much is my hero when I think of the principles we spoke of today. Her dad was very hostile to the Christian faith. He would put pieces of paper at each place setting on Thanksgiving with the following words typed out: “Please do not pray in my presence or thank God for this food. It is an insult to the hard work I did to put it on the table.” I’m speaking, of course, of my wife Lisa. Nevertheless, Lisa’s mom continued to love and stay committed to her husband. She and her children prayed for him, and showed him deep love and respect. When Wally threatened to disown Lisa if she went to Fuller Seminary to study psychology, she went anyway because she believed it was the right thing to do. It was costly…and when she decided to marry a pastor, she endured the additional hurt of her dad not attending our wedding. Nevertheless, she continued to love Wally. Gradually, we began to see his heart soften toward us, though seemingly firm in his unbelief. The end of the story? We have hope! We found a locked file cabinet after he died with everything we ever wrote to him about the Lord. And we have reason to believe that Christ met Wally in the moments before he died… and that Wally did finally come to know that Jesus is Lord….but that is another story.
Jesus wants to consecrate your family through you too! Think for a moment about someone in your immediate family, or a close friend who you know that you need to pray for; a child, a not-yet-believer; someone struggling with doubt or tragedy. What is God calling you to do this week to express his grace and truth? Why not begin with prayer. Pray for the power to love, forgive and respect your family, especially not-yet-believing family members. Pray for an opportunity to share your story of God’s work in your life. And offer up a prayer of faith that the God -- for whom all things are possible -- is at work in your family even when it may be difficult to see!
King Jesus, give me courage to be your disciple and to boldly join you in your mission. I confess my fear that truly following you may separate me from my family and close friends; or that I may fail to represent you well. Help me to trust that you can bring the people that I love into your kingdom, whether through me or apart from me. As I love and honor you before my family and friends – may they hear and see you. As I commit myself to them, pray for them, love and respect them, teach them about you, and share my testimony of your work in my life, may they know you as Savior and Lord, and the blessing of walking in your ways. Jesus, I trust your word when you say that in losing my life, I will find it again. I therefore surrender not only my life, but my hopes and dreams and deepest longings for those I love, and pray that we might be joined together in your spiritual family, forever. Amen!