Our Family Tree – Remembering Our Roots: The Foundation of the Family
Last week we began a series of sermons entitled Our Family Tree – Remembering Our Roots. Today we continue this focus by addressing the basic foundation of trust in this primary institution.
A young boy wanted a bicycle for his birthday. His father decided to give him the gift, but he was one of those people who put everything off until the last minute.
I know what that is like. I sometimes say to Clare, “If it weren’t for the last minute, I wouldn’t get anything done.”
Right before his son’s birthday party, the father bought a bicycle, which came in a box, unassembled. He had the box wrapped, and when he presented the gift to his son, said, “I have to go back to the office for a few hours. When I get home, we’ll put the bicycle together.”
The boy was so excited that he could not wait, as his father had directed. He tore the box open and dumped all the parts onto the living room floor. Of course one piece of paper with the word “Instructions” printed at the top floated to the floor.
The boy thought, I don’t need to wait on Dad, and I don’t need any instructions. I know what a bicycle looks like. I can put it together with no problem. He worked and worked until he had assembled the bike. He quickly discovered that the pedals would turn but not turn the wheel and that the brakes did not work. The boy had made a complete shambles of the gift because he had not followed his father’s instructions. He was disobedient.
God has given us the gift of marriage and the gift of family. With those gifts He gave us a set of instructions, the Bible. We read from the very first pages of the Bible that if we do not follow its guidelines, we are prone to make a shambles out of God’s gifts.
We learn several key lessons from Genesis 3, a passage that describes how sin entered the world. Adam and Eve had everything imaginable, but they were given the admonition to obey God by not eating from one particular tree in the garden called Eden. We might wonder why God did not build a fence around this tree. We might also wonder why God even placed the tree in the garden. Perhaps the purpose is to show that we do have a decision to make. Obedience is a choice. It is certainly an obligation.
You will notice in the story that the snake was never actually identified as Satan. Clearly though, the serpent was the temper that enticed this woman to do what she had been told not to do. Eve ate the apple, then shared the delightful fruit with her husband. The truth is that a snake exists in every garden. You will notice too that according to the story, the fruit was never identified as an apple. That tradition, however, has continued all the way to identifying an Adam’s apple as a lump caused by something getting stuck in the throat. That assumption stemmed from Adam’s original disobedience.
The story in Genesis shows us that temptation is always present and that we often yield in our disobedience. What prompts this disobedience? The mother of all sin, the chief sin, the sin that is really the root of all others is pride. The Greek word is hubris. The serpent said, “If you eat of the fruit of this tree you will be like God. You will know what God knows.” The couple ignored God’s instructions and committed the greatest sin – putting themselves in the place of God, ignoring the fact that God is sovereign, that He is omnipotent and omniscient. In their failure to obey God, they committed the sin of pride. For them, this disobedience was a failure of trust.
We must obey God. The foundation of marriage and the family is trust. We must believe that God knows best and that He gives us instructions we can trust. His wisdom is the very best for us.
Those who study marriage have determined eight common crises. My experience is that every marriage has to deal with these issues. I give them to you in what I think is a significant order, but you can establish your own arrangement.
In my marriage with Clare we have had to deal with the issue of time repeatedly for almost forty-eight years. We must ask ourselves some questions: How do we spend our time? How do we allocate our time? Do we make time for our marriage partner? Do we make time for our children and grandchildren? Do we make time for God? The issue of time pervades all marriages and all family life.
The issue of money can be so disruptive in many marriages. It becomes a source of great conflict, especially when a marriage is already frayed at the edges.
The issue of sex can cause a problem. The two kinds of sexual problems are physiological and psychological. Almost every sexual issue can be dealt with rather easily if addressed. So often people leave this matter unattended, saying, “Let’s just not talk about that topic.” The issue becomes malignant and starts invading every other area of the marriage.
Somewhat in logical order, children cause problems in marriage. That will surprise some of you – those who do not have children. The little questions that arise about child rearing – What are we going to do about an allowance? What rules will we have about driving an automobile? – do not cause the greatest problems. The real question focuses on how we regard our children. Do we ask, “Will they be created in our image so that they become a source of pride for us?” We must understand that our children are entrusted to us and that we have a responsibility to make them disciples, not of us but of Christ Jesus. We are to help our children become what God intends them to be, not what we wish them to be.
How many of you have in-laws? You realize, of course, that if you raised your hand you are an in-law. You are someone else’s problem. Two guiding principles can serve us well when we realize that in-laws can create problems in marriage. First, the blood relative should do any necessary negotiating with in-laws. Clare and I discovered this principle when we encountered a problem with my family. I dealt with the issue. When we had a problem with her family, she dealt with it. The second principle is this: the marriage must always come above every other human relationship. Never put an in-law relationship ahead of your marriage. Maintain the priority of the marriage in all of your relationships.
Religion may also cause problems in marriage. When I first entered pastoral counseling, a common belief was that a Jew marrying a Roman Catholic would have to deal with some real issues. The same was true for a Baptist marrying an Episcopalian. If a Baptist married a Methodist, however, counselors assumed that the couple would not have as many problems. Believe me. That philosophy is absolutely not true. Counselors made the mistake of thinking the issue was denominational differences. The issue is actually personal faith – what you actually believe – not what your denomination says you are supposed to believe. It is crucial that we always grow in our faith and learn how to nurture that growth in each other.
The problem of roles – who does specific tasks – was addressed briefly last week. Couples must determine how to divide the responsibilities in a marriage.
Finally is the issue of space. Some people need more breathing room than others. I can read a book or work on the computer in the same room with Clare while she crochets or writes notes. Being in the same room does not count as time together if we are doing separate tasks, according to Clare. She has been known to say to me, “I wish we could be together” or “I wish we could have some time together.” To Clare, time together means that I look her in the eye and give her my undivided attention.
You will notice that trust is the underlying factor in every one of these problem areas. It is vital that we trust our marriage partner, trust our children, and ensure that our children know that they can trust us. Trust provides a strong foundation.
Consider a coral reef that protects an island in the South Pacific. You can take a sledge hammer to that reef and do considerable damage in about ten minutes. Do you know how long it takes that smashed coral to regenerate? It takes many years. Likewise, when the foundation of trust is broken in a marriage and family, it is not easily repaired. It may take a long time for trust to be restored. That trust is sacred. It is based and predicated on the whole idea that we must be trustworthy in these relationships.
Sometimes people ask me what makes marriage work. I do not have one simple response. I have three answers to that question.
First, couples need to make the unwavering commitment and have the sheer determination to make marriage work even when they do not especially feel loving toward each other. Every marriage that has any mileage at all has those times when the couple does not especially feel loving.
Consider this scenario. I can say to any man in this congregation, to Mike maybe, “Clare wants us to move a studio piano.”
Mike would say, “I will help you do that.”
When the two of us ask Clare where she would like us to take the piano, she would almost certainly say, “Upstairs.”
Mike moves to one end and I to the other end of the instrument. We get about halfway up the stairs when I say, “Mike, this job is just a whole lot harder than I thought it was going to be. You hang onto this piano for a few minutes. Let me go over here, sit down, and drink a Coca-Cola. I need to decide if I really want to continue with this responsibility.”
I leave Mike bracing the piano on the stairway while I go off to drink something refreshing. How do you think he feels about me? He must now make a decision. “Do I wait until Kirk returns? Do I stay here until I hurt myself? Do I let go, knowing something precious will be destroyed?”
I have described to you exactly what happens in a trial separation. Trial separations do not exist. A separation is a separation. When it occurs, trust is damaged. The one person remaining must decide whether to hang on and if so, how long. Letting go will ultimately destroy the marriage.
After some time I return and say, “Mike, I’ve thought about this job. I’ll help you move the piano.”
Will he say, “What a great guy you are! I cannot believe how generous you are”? Will he be eager to help the next time I ask him for his assistance? I am sure the answer would be no. The harm caused by damaging or destroying trust lasts a long time.
A part of what makes a marriage work is an unwavering commitment, a decision, not to threaten or destroy trust. Saying “Maybe we should get a divorce” or “Maybe I should leave” threatens the marriage and family. Work to keep trust intact and pure.
Clear communication is essential for marriage to work. We must always speak the truth in love, which is sometimes very difficult. This, too, requires trust, especially at the point of anger. We do not say, “I think I’m going to be angry about this.” We do not choose anger. It just comes to us. Ephesians 4:26 gives clear instruction about knowing what to do with that anger: “Be angry but do not sin. Do not let the sun go down on your anger.”
I quoted that passage at a marriage enrichment retreat, and a guy on the front row raised his hand. I recognized him, and he quipped, “If my wife and I were to live by this principle of not letting the sun set on our anger, we would have to be aboard a jet plane flying west at all times.” He was saying that he and his wife had let anger accumulate to the point that they could not resolve it.
The issue here is not how to avoid anger. The issue is to how to resolve anger. Anger is always a secondary emotion. Before we ever feel angry we first feel a primary emotion. We feel hurt, as though we have been taken for granted, been misunderstood, been neglected. Anger is a defense against that hurt. You cannot ask, “What did I do to make you mad?” Instead, ask the question, “What did I do to hurt you?” That approach allows you to get back to the primary emotion.
Couples or family members trying to resolve anger must leave the kitchen and the bedroom. Statistics tell us that more murders occur in those two places than in any other rooms in the house. Go to the den and sit in two chairs that are further apart than an arm’s length. Never, never, never touch a person you love in anger.
When I first went into pastoral counseling, a common mindset was not to mention or talk about the problem. That certainly was not a good approach. If you encapsulate anger and fail to deal with it, sooner or later in the heat of the moment it will explode and do considerable damage.
A family living in the Northeast was seated together around a fireplace one night. The father got up and added a log to the fire. In a few minutes, a terrible explosion occurred and blew something through the fire screen and out through the roof of the house. The family, terribly alarmed but unharmed by the explosion, started unraveling the mystery of what had happened.
They learned that the father, unknown to him at the time, had gathered his firewood at an old World War II munitions testing range. Lodged in the tree he had cut down was an anti-aircraft shell. The tree had somehow grown around the explosive, hiding it from view. Fortunately when the man cut the firewood, his chainsaw missed the shell on both ends. You can imagine the harm it would have caused to the man. That shell, which had been undetonated for years, exploded due to the heat of that fire.
At another period psychologists suggested it best to release all of the emotional pain. People went around throwing emotional hand grenades at each other and causing great damage. We must understand and get back to the primary feeling, the hurt, first. We must remember that anger is secondary and that the only way to resolve conflict is through confession.
What makes marriage work? Third, forgiveness makes marriage work. Marriages that have lasted for any length of time at all have experienced the power of forgiveness. More often than not, one person must say, “I am sorry,” and the other person must say, “I forgive you.” Many couples have never learned that often both people have to offer forgiveness. Avoiding conflict is not the issue. Resolving conflict is the issue. That resolution depends on basic trust. Saint Francis de Sales’ words are appropriate: “Do not lose courage in considering your own imperfections.” This requires trust, trust in God.
Do you believe that God has forgiven you of your sins? If He has done that for us, it makes sense that we want to forgive the people who have sinned against us. It also makes sense that we want others to forgive us. These two sides of forgiveness are often connected. We pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Father, forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
The vertical dimension of forgiveness is God’s forgiveness of us. The horizontal dimension is our forgiveness of others. Paul writes in Ephesians 4:32, “Be kind one to another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven you.” Forgiveness is one factor that strengthens marriage and the family because it actually helps restore trust.
We look at Adam and Eve in their last day in the garden. Ashamed, they passed the buck, laying blame on another. Adam blamed “this woman Thou gavest me,” and Eve blamed the serpent. God held all parties responsible. We learn in Genesis 3 that we must trust God and obey God. “There is no other way,” the hymn states.
I Corinthians 13 provides a list of the great characteristics of love: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.”
When talking with a group of adolescents one time, I recited those very words. One teenager raised her hand and commented, “Yes, love never fails, but it doesn’t always make an ‘A+’ either. Sometimes love makes a ‘C.’”
The love God provides never fails because it is rooted and grounded in trust.
George Matheson, who was engaged to be married, learned from his doctor that he was losing his eyesight and that within just a few months he would be totally blind. George told his fiancée of the doctor’s diagnosis and added, “You need to think about whether you want to be married to a man who is blind.”
His fiancée returned after a few days of considering the news. She broke off the engagement saying, “George, you are right. I have thought about life with a man who is blind. I have decided I do not want to marry you.”
Later in his room, George Matheson sat down and wrote the poem “O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go.”
O Love that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in Thee;
I give Thee back the life I owe,
That in Thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.
O Light that foll’west all my way,
I yield my flick’ring torch to Thee;
My heart restores its borrowed ray,
That in Thy sunshine’s blaze its day
May brighter, fairer be.
O Joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to Thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain,
That morn shall tearless be.
O Cross that liftest up my head,
I dare not ask to fly from Thee;
I lay in dust life’s glory dead,
And from the ground there blossoms red
Life that shall endless be.
The truth is that in our human relationships, the people we trust sometimes let us down and disappoint us. The One who will never let us down is God, God whose love is fully expressed in Jesus Christ. He gives us the love that will never let us go.
Have you trusted the Lord Jesus Christ as your Savior? If not, would you come to him today? We invite your response to God’s invitation.Kirk H. Neely © September 2013