Living in the Household of God
September 17, 2020
by Autumn Dawn Galbreath, MD, MBA
Our family has an unofficial mascot—a little bendable Gumby doll. I have no idea where Gumby came from or how exactly we acquired him. He started out as a little game in which various family members move Gumby to different places around the house. When you find Gumby, you move him somewhere else where he awaits discovery by another family member. Over the years, we have adopted an unofficial motto that goes with our unofficial mascot: “Semper Gumby” (always flexible). As is true of numerous other healthcare professionals, flexibility is not my strong suit. I am really good at focus, goals, determination and persistence. Flexibility, not so much. So “Semper Gumby” is a motto for me as much as anyone else in the house. A reminder that flexibility is a necessary part of doing life with other people.
Your family might not have a mascot or motto, but you certainly have expectations within your home. All families have expectations—both spoken and unspoken—of their members. Some expectations are basic and functional, like cleaning up after yourself or adding an item to the grocery list if you eat the last one. Some are aspirational, like flexibility is for me. And some are even burdensome, like the unspoken expectation you attend every family event regardless of how it fits into your schedule. But most family expectations are the oil that greases the gears of family life, making it easier to live together harmoniously.
I heard a sermon recently that reminded me of some of God’s expectations for His family. Now, Christianity is known among many non-Christians as a religion of rules, of do’s and don’ts that limit behavior. I don’t think that picture is true, but, regardless, those rules are not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about the overarching expectations of how we live together as a household of faith made up of many different members with different talents, gifts, experiences and perspectives. Somehow, it’s easy to lose sight of those expectations when we get caught up in the details of behavioral “rules.” We argue over small things and miss the big things completely—sort of like a family that is so divided over the teenager’s curfew that they forget to spend time together enjoying the teenager himself.
What are the big picture expectations for God’s household? I have been pondering several, though I imagine there are more.
First, it’s hard to sidestep the expectations that Jesus Himself declared the greatest commandments. Those are, of course, to love God with all that we have and to love others as ourselves (Matthew 22:36-40). Similar to my own need for flexibility, I think these are aspirational expectations. We will never, during our lives in this broken world, truly love God with all of our hearts, souls, minds and strengths. And it’s unlikely we will actually accomplish caring for another as much as we care for ourselves. But these household expectations are ever before us as goals on our journey. As we grow in our love for God and for others, we naturally decrease in our focus on self. And a household in which the members are continually focusing more on God and each other is a household that can hold differences without being damaged by them.
As we love each other, we naturally support one another in weakness—another expectation for the household of God (Romans 14:1-12). Paul’s letter to the Roman household of faith focuses on differences that no longer predominate, such as whether or not to eat meat (presumably because the meat had been offered to idols) and which days to consider sacred. But we have replaced those issues with others, such as whether to drink alcohol, who to welcome into our churches and even whether or not to wear masks. As we in God’s household navigate a pandemic, we haven’t done a very good job overall at supporting one another in perceived weaknesses. Some scoff at those who wear masks or elect not to gather in person, accusing them of living in fear rather than living in faith. Others scoff at those who elect not to protect themselves or follow government mandates, accusing them of recklessness and failure to biblically submit to authorities. I have personally felt caught in the crossfire of this debate and have found it hurtful—and I know I’m not alone. I know many people on both sides of the debate who express the same hurt and disappointment with their Christian community. Given that wearing a mask (or not) and worshipping online (or in person) are not moral issues, and therefore do not call us to hold one another accountable to Scriptural mandates, it grieves me that so many of us have hurt one another in these discussions. How are we loving one another as ourselves or striving to support one another in weakness when we care more about defending a position than we do about hurting a person? Paul asks us, together with the Roman church, “You, then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat” (Romans 14:10, NIV 1984). When Christians judge one another, we assume that strength and righteousness are ours, and we take over the job that belongs solely to God (rough paraphrase from the sermon I mentioned above).
If we have judged, or been judged by, one another, we have failed to live up to both of these two household expectations. Thankfully, as is always the case with a redemptive God, there’s a solution for that—the third household expectation I want to present here. The household of God is expected to be a forgiving one. When Peter, that fantastically flawed disciple whose failures encourage me every single day, asked Jesus if he was required to repeatedly forgive someone seven times, Jesus painted a beautiful picture in response. Matthew 18:21-35 tells the story of a servant whose master forgives him a completely unpayable debt. Rather than reveling in the mercy extended to him and paying it forward to the co-worker who owed him a paltry sum, the servant has his colleague thrown into debtor’s prison. How like him we are. Our God has forgiven us the deepest outrages against Him and has removed them as far as the east is from the west. But rather than reveling in that grace and mercy and paying it forward to the mask-wearer/non-mask-wearer next door, we live in outrage and conflict with one another.
I used to quote Psalm 133 to my kids often when they disagreed:
“Behold, how good and pleasant it is
when brothers dwell in unity!
It is like the precious oil on the head,
running down on the beard,
on the beard of Aaron,
running down on the collar of his robes!
It is like the dew of Hermon,
which falls on the mountains of Zion!
For there the Lord has commanded the blessing,
life forevermore” (ESV).
It turns out that quoting Scripture at your fighting kids is not always super-effective, but I think this short little Psalm is so important as we consider living together in the household of God. Precious oil running down a beard and onto a collar is not really an attractive image to me, but the image refers to being anointed with oil; that is, being consecrated or set apart. It was an image of unsurpassable beauty. And the unity of the family of God is compared to it, as well as to the (more attractive to me, personally) image of dew falling on the mountains. God considers unity a blessing and a part of what He desires for His household of believers. We all have room to improve in this area, and our current COVID-induced circumstances give us a unique opportunity to do that.
In addition to Gumby, we have several other items strategically placed in our home to remind us of God’s work in our lives. A specific painting that relates to particularly challenging aspects of parenting. Framed verses that remind us of truths we learned in certain experiences. A painting that symbolizes an extremely difficult time in our marriage. These are our Ebeneezers of sorts, our “stones of help” that commemorate the ways in which God has helped us (1 Samuel 7:2-14). While we continue to fail to carry out the expectations of God’s household, these reminders help us to grow and improve. It’s a lifelong journey, but one we need not walk alone. We walk the journey with God Himself, as well as with other members of His household. I think that, after the pandemic is only a memory, I will keep a mask somewhere in my home as the latest reminder that “Till now the Lord has helped us” (1 Samuel 7:12b, ESV).