Most cultures deeply value family in some way. The value of family isn't actually cultural; it's a human value.
That being said, when my family and I moved to the Middle East, "family ties" took on a whole new meaning for me. I could not believe how many students at my school knew how their aunt's grandfather's brother was so-and-so's grandmother's nephew's in-law. Every weekend, one of my best friends would have family "reunions" with her extended family—both sides. As an Asian American with most of my relatives living in different parts of America and Korea, I was lucky if we got in a family reunion with at least one side every couple years.
But even though you and I may not express our family loyalties as intensely or extensively as people do in Middle Eastern cultures, there is no doubt we do love our families. They are the ones who dealt with us during our angsty teen years, who comfort us during heartbreak and disappointments, and who can be counted on to celebrate our most minuscule successes the most obnoxiously. They've made us who we are in the same way we've shaped who they are. Family isn't something you easily give up on, even when it gets hard. In some cases, the same can be said for very close friends.
So, if family is this precious gift that holds immense value to us, what do we do with Luke 14:25–26? Jesus said to a crowd, "If you want to be my disciple, you must hate everyone else by comparison—your father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even your own life. Otherwise, you cannot be my disciple."
Since this is Jesus, we can't explain this away with an "overexertion-in-ministry" diagnosis, or prescribe him some time in his solitary prayer place. How do we address this? The first thing we need to remember is that family is important to Jesus. He advocated obedience to God in honoring one's parents, and even appointed one of his disciples to be his mother's caregiver as he died. So why is he calling us to hate them?
Jesus is challenging our traditional ideas of family. He is calling us to love him more than our blood families. As contradictory as it sounds, we love others best when we love God most. When we love God most, we seek to please him by obeying his commands. We can see that play out in our own family relationships.
Once when my siblings and I were all very young, my mom left us at our restaurant table as she went to pick up our order. To her mortification, when she returned everyone was staring at us as we systematically shared one lollipop, chanting: "one-two-three-four-NEXT!" Even though my mom wanted the earth to swallow her whole, she felt our love because she knew we were doing it to please her. In the same way, when we love God first, we are deeply compelled to obey his commands to be unified in his family. He isn't calling for us to push aside or reject our love for our blood families at all. Rather, he placed us in our families to learn how to love imperfect people: how to forgive them, pursue them, and never give up. From there, we need to do the same with our ultimate family—the family of Christ.
I'm not saying it's easy. It can feel foreign to think of the people in your church congregation, people you may not even know, as family. Just imagining the sheer number of believers in the world on top of that makes it sound flat-out impossible—especially if you've been hurt by other believers before. This vision of family is extreme and deeply radical, even by Middle-Eastern cultural standards. But remember, God calls you to love him above all because he knows we don't have the capacity to love unlovable people without his example imprinted on our hearts. With this burden gone, here are some tips for how to love all your brothers and sisters well:
- Pray actively. Have you ever gone through a really tough time and someone prayed over you, or let you know they had been? All of a sudden your burden is lightened because someone saw you and cared. Prayer is vitally important, not only for brothers and sisters you know, but also for your family around the world. When you pray it helps you to remember your brothers and sisters near and far; they are on your hearts. You grieve when they are in pain and rejoice when they are liberated. In all things, prayer is powerful.
- Go deeper into your church. I don't just mean sign up for a volunteer event and then check this off your list. Seek relationships in your local community of believers. Get to know people; seek to learn with, be accountable to, and serve one another. We may have family all around the world but God calls us to fellowship with other believers for mutual growth and blessing. It's important to emphasize that you can't be everyone's best friend, but you can still love them, pray for them, and be obedient to God in the relationships he's placed you in.
- When you are hurt by another brother or sister, address the pain. This is probably the most difficult piece of relationships. Forgiveness is always a struggle. It can take a lot of mental and emotional effort for you to pursue reconciliation. Often times we say it's not worth pursuing. But unity in God's family is a big deal to God. We need to eliminate mental deal breakers when we are hurt or betrayed. Sometimes reconciliation isn't possible because the other party is unwilling to participate, and the Bible addresses that. You aren't responsible for action or change on another person's part. But to your uttermost, don't give up on them. You don't give up on family.
Instilling a new way of thinking is always a challenge. Despite these tips, you may not know where to begin or what God specifically wants you to do in your church. But that's okay. One day at a time, renew in your mind his vision of family, and you'll come to recognize his will for how you should interact with his church, your family.
Karis Lee is an editorial intern for Today's Christian Woman. She and her family have lived the Middle East since she was 12. Upon moving back to America 2 years ago, Karis is now a student at Wheaton College in Illinois pursuing her BA in English Writing and Journalism.