What Are Families For?

Grandchildren are the crown of the aged,
and the glory of children is their fathers.

-Proverbs 17:6

Spending this month with family in Seattle, I’ve found this verse rings true after thousands of years. When we’re young, we boast in those we came from (“my dad can beat up your dad!”); when we’re old, we boast in those who come from us. Children are wired to glory in their parents; grandparents are wired to glory in their grandchildren. Even so, they’re not mutually exclusive. This weekend, I opened the family history book with my grandma, who boasted of her dad, who died 26 years ago, talking about his personality and his cars and the time he had the house put on a truck and moved to a new lot (on a new basement!) two blocks away.

Generations are interwoven, and they’re meant to be. God has ordained it this way. However, modern society has given us the chance to disentangle us from one another, and we often take it. Atul Gawande, a doctor and author, recounts how he’s seen this in the families of those he cares for in their old age:

The lines of power between the generations have been renegotiated, and not in the way it is sometimes believed. The aged did not lose status and control so much as share it. Modernization did not demote the elderly. It demoted the family. It gave people—the young and the old—a way of life with more liberty and control, including the liberty to be less beholden to other generations. The veneration of elders may be gone, but not because it has been replaced by veneration of youth. It’s been replaced by veneration of the independent self.

-Atul Gawande, Being Mortal, kindle loc. 326

Just as we tend to outsource our childcare, so we often outsource our eldercare. Conversely, we try to retire in such a way that no one will need to take care of us. Childcare, eldercare, retirement plans–these aren’t wicked inventions. Our family will make us of all of them this year, with one set of grandparents in assisted living and a baby joining our home. Yet, the amount we depend on them suggests the degree to which we value–perhaps idolize–independence from one another.

Gawande critiques the new “veneration of the independent self” based on his own values, which are heavily influenced by his family’s Hindu heritage. I think we can make a case from what God has revealed in the Bible. Grandchildren are indeed the crown of the aged; children do glory in their fathers. Our families have the potential to be the realm of our greatest joy in this life, which should cause us to stop and ask, “Why do we so often want family to be a realm of all joy and no obligation? As we become less beholden, do we become less connected? As we take responsibility for ourselves and ourselves alone, do we prevent those we’ve been given from taking on what’s been given to them: Responsibility for us. Do our lives feel adrift because we’ve tried to avoid all responsibility for them?”

In fact, we can make a better case from what God has revealed in the Bible, because only Jesus Christ really helps us start anew and love those who have been unlovely to us. Families can be unlovely and can seem unlovable. From disagreement to strife to neglect to abuse, family can be painful. Yet, Jesus Christ has done two things that help us accept the responsibility to love, to be interwoven with one another: First, He has invited us into a new family, His followers, so that if we lacked examples or nurturers, we can find them in the Church. If we have not been given offspring to raise, we find countless children to raise in the body of Christ. Second, He loved us better than we can love him and before we could love back, which frees us to love others better than they can love us and before they can love us back. We can even take responsibility for those who will never reciprocate, because Jesus Christ has taken responsibility for us.

In this we may yet see the joy for which God meant the family. In this, we can certainly glorify our Heavenly Father, who is the greatest glory of all His children.

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