One of the few things every human being has in common is that we all have a family. That might be the mother who gave us birth and the father who contributed to our being, or the family who adopted us, or were our guardians; extended families, long-lost families, families of blood, and families of spirit.
I live with my parents, and have done all my life apart from a few years at university (which is where my illness came on me, and is the reason I now live with them once more.) My parents have been married for many years – ten years before I came on the scene. We are close. We do argue, particularly when I am depressed, but by and large we jog along quite nicely. As is common for people who are close to one another (and particularly who live with one another) we do irritate each other in small ways all the time. I, for instance, sleep an absolutely excessive amount, which annoys them; mum tends to remind me that I am overweight all of the time, which irritates me; and my dad is quiet, and everyone tends to get on with him. I am, I think, quite similar to my mother, and hence we irritate each other in small ways. All in all, a fairly normal family.
But there are those, there are people who I have read, and who I have spoken to, who have absolutely appalling families. Families who leave them hurt, who leave them with long term physical and psychological scars from the treatment they have received. Families who are so bad that they forever alter the idea of family in people’s minds.
“All parents damage their children. It cannot be helped. Youth, like pristine glass, absorbs the prints of its handlers. Some parents smudge, others crack, a few shatter childhoods completely into jagged little pieces, beyond repair.”
―Mitch Albom, The Five People You Meet in Heaven
I cannot really speak about the sort of families where there is physical, sexual or psychological abuse. I don’t think it would be right for me to try, as I have never experienced that, and it is not my story to tell. I would urge you to seek out – and tell me, in the comments – writers with lived experience, who are the only ones who can really reflect on what it is to build a family when your family of childhood is evil.
What I would like to talk about, here, is the way in which our families mould our ideas of our wider family – our Christian family. We are all familiar with the idea that God is our Father, but for me I see God as like both my parents. Of course God is ultimately bigger, larger, far more than our human parents can be, and we cannot encompass the infinity of God in human constructs such as “mother,” “father,” without limiting him to an anthropomorphic creation of our own minds. I think it is important to keep that in mind, but of course we know from the Bible that God is like a father, like a mother to us.(*)
Fathers and mothers, of course, come in many different types, and our own parents will influence how we see God. If our example of a parent is that they are hard and unyielding, always seeking fault and to be feared – then we may view God in that way. On the converse, if our parents spoiled us, if they never told us “no,” if they did not teach us that it is important to behave well to others, that others are important, not just us, then we may see God in that way. I think, though, that there are universal stereotypes (or perhaps I mean archetypes) of what a parent is – loving, caring, gentle, firm when necessary, wants the best for us, would be willing to die to save us. My mother may tell me off if I do something wrong – but even if I did something horrible she would still visit me in prison. She can hate what I do – but I will never stop being her child, and she will never cease to love me. I think that is what I have learned from her – petty differences and disagreements are one thing, and being told off when I do something wrong is not nice, but in the end – it is all about love. That is how I see God – he may (legitimately) tell me off, hate something I have done, but he loves me, and that love goes to the bone, and is expressed in his blood on the cross.
What, then, of the wider family? God is my Father – but his people, all of you, are my siblings. We are all brothers and sisters in the same faith. As an only child, the idea of having lots of family around me is very tempting, and I probably have an idealised view of what brothers and sisters are like, but I love the idea that there is (or should be) a group of people who love me and who want the best for me. It is somewhat harder to remind myself that people with whom I disagree are also my brothers and sisters – but I suppose that in a family-by-birth we may dislike one another, may dislike things people do but that family relationship cannot be broken. All Christians are related to me by birth – by the second birth – and by blood. Perhaps, if my own family were bad, if I could not continue to have a normal relationship with them through their actions, their sin against me, then the second family, that of Christians together, would be more my family than those who by accident or chance became my parents/siblings. We talk, sometimes, about having a family by choice – and I certainly know people who prefer their friends to their blood family, and I am very close to my friends myself. For me the highest compliment I ever gave was to tell one friend that he is like the brother I never had and always wanted (he recognised that as a compliment!) My friends are to me also family.
So, I’d say we have three families:
- Family by birth/upbringing
- Family by faith. That is, God our Father/Mother and all his people as siblings.
- Family by choice. Our friends.
I would hope, that these three are not discrete categories but slide into one another. I would like, for instance, for my mother and father to embrace faith, for my friends to embrace faith, and most of all to have the easy relationship that I have with my friends with my church family.
I know this is not quite as focussed on mental health as my normal posts are – but I am aware, of course, that family dysfunction is at the root of many mental illnesses. It was suggested to me that there must be something wrong with my parents, with my childhood, when I was being reassessed for borderline personality disorder. The fact that I had a good childhood and have a good relationship with my parents was something that helped in my rediagnosis.
I think family is important. I would love to read something by someone who has a bad family about the difficulties they face in seeing God as Father, in honouring their parents, and that sort of thing. I cannot imagine what difficulties lie there, but I would be interested in reading it.
I think that in many instances our family-by-adoption, our family of faith and/or our family of choice can be more important, because we have chosen them. I love my parents, but I have friends who are equally as close to me as they are. I just wish that we, in the Christian world, could be as close, be as much a part of each others’ lives as other families are. I spoke before about the “church face” – about the way we are oh-so-polite around each other. Families, of choice or birth, are not so polite. I would love to see a church where we love each other enough to disagree, in love, where we love one another enough to be open and honest and vulnerable and real with one another. Maybe one day I will find such a church!
(*) If you have qualms about the idea of God as Mother as well as Father, I would refer you to Isaiah 66:13 – As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you; and you will be comforted over Jerusalem.
- A Parent’s Thanksgiving (babyzone.com)
- Love by Choice vs Love by Obligation (ctworkingmoms.com)
- Family & The Gift Provided at Birth (gabrielalexanderramirez.wordpress.com)
- A Forever Family (r16sixteen.wordpress.com)
- My Other Mother (zenei.wordpress.com)