“Such Tribulation”Categories: Iron sharpens iron
The holidays are upon us once again. Perhaps you love this time of year, or perhaps you hate it. More likely, it’s a little bit of both. Most people tend to travel and see family, and to enjoy a few days off work, gathering around a table and digging into a feast with people they love. We envision these occasions as looking something like da Vinci’s painting, The Last Supper, but with turkey rather than matzah. The reality is often more like Christmas dinner with the Griswolds, where you’d honestly be relieved if the meal had to be cut short due to the house catching fire. We go in hoping for familial harmony, and by the end are pondering Jesus’ words:
Pray that it may not happen in winter. For in those days there will be such tribulation as has not been from the beginning of the creation… ( in Mark 13.18-19)
Why do we expect something better? It’s because we generally subscribe to the idea of the picture perfect family. We imagine a dad, a mom, and 2.2 kids, driving their minivan to the park, while wearing matching sweaters. In our fairy tales, the prince rescues the princess, and they live happily ever after, by which we mean they get married, have kids, put a downpayment on a new castle, and never have a care in the world afterward.
The ideal family also appears in the Bible. The instructions Paul gives at the end of his letters to the Ephesians and Colossians address, in quick succession, wives, husbands, children, and parents. If everyone were to follow the instructions he gives, it would lead to exactly the kind of peaceful and harmonious family we all desire, even including several generations of extended family. In the Old Testament, the happily-ever-after story of Ruth achieves the ideal—Naomi’s family, previously damaged by uprooting, hardship, death, and abandonment, is rebuilt through her daughter-in-law Ruth, and while there’s more involved beneath the surface, the primary focus in the text is on Ruth finding a good man, getting married, and having a child. After this, the scene fades to black and the credits roll, leaving us to assume this family, restored to perfection, goes on to live in harmony for the rest of their lives.
The ideal isn’t only seen in humans, though. In Job, God portrays his harmonious heavenly family with himself as patriarch, asking Job where he was during creation, “when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy” (Jb 38.7). Getting even closer to our ideal picture, Proverbs 8 personifies Wisdom, and she says, “The Lord possessed me at the beginning of his work” (Pr 8.22), and
“then I was beside him, like a master workman, and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the children of man.” (Proverbs 8.30-31)
It’s all symbolic, of course, but the suggestion is that Wisdom is, as it were, the wife through whom God brought forth all his creation, and begat mankind, their children. That’s an odd way for us to look at it, but it’s not really all that different from the way God portrays the great story of his redemptive plan to John: “a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet,” wearing “a crown of twelve stars…gave birth to a male child,” who was “caught up to God and to his throne” (Re 12.1-5). The woman is the people of God, basically the nation of Israel, and their child is the Christ. The rest of the chapter details the harmonious relationship between the parents in the face of a grave external threat, and the rest of the book makes it quite clear that their Son fulfills his duties impeccably, and even finds his own perfect wife, the church, by the end. He rescues her from the clutches of the dragon (Satan) and his minions, and they settle down in the perfect city with perfect walls and perfect streets, to live happily ever after in wedded bliss. It’s the perfect family.
But does the ideal family really exist, where humans are concerned? No sooner are we introduced to the first family in Genesis 2, than they are blaming each other for their own sins, and raising sons who grow up to be the first murderer and victim. The patriarchs are polygamists and adulterers, and they treat their brothers as enemies. Aaron, Miriam, and Moses can’t get along without God stepping in—and they’re all more than 80 years old at this point, by the way, which is a depressing thought for anyone hoping their siblings or children will get along better as they mature. Even Jesus’ earthly family didn’t quite reflect the ideal—Joseph disappears from the story after the incident when they accidentally left Jesus in Jerusalem when he was 12, and as time wore on, Jesus’ brothers aren’t exactly supportive: “For not even his brothers believed in him” (Jn 7.5).
So, what do we do? First of all, expect conflict within your family. Will yours somehow be the one that magically avoids all of the pitfalls and never experiences any strife? It’s doubtful, and if you pretend that’s the case, you’re only setting yourself up for even bigger problems later on, when it all falls down. Expect to be irritated, expect to be slighted, and realize that the family members you complain about (not that you should) are probably complaining about you, too, for reasons just as good as yours.
But you don’t have to give in to the conflict. Be the glue, not the crack, and follow the example of the ones who kept their families together and helped them, regardless of how they were treated for it. Imitate people like Joseph, Judah, Jethro, Jonathan, Jehoiada, and of course Jesus himself. Apparently, it can’t hurt to give one of your kids a name that starts with a J, but these all have something else in common that’s far more important: they all focused first on God’s will, and then behaved as devoted sons of their heavenly Father, which led to good things for their earthly families, too. The heavenly family, which we touched on a few paragraphs ago, is made up of Christ and his Bride, the church, but it is also God the Father, and we, his children, as Paul reminds us in Galatians 4.6: “Because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” That family has far less conflict, far less frustration, and matches up far better to the ideal we all seek. As Jesus said, “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Mt 12.50).