I love to travel. I love experiencing different cultures, food, places and faces. I love new experiences, unfamiliar streets and interesting languages. I love the rush of catching trains, running for planes and heading to new places of all sorts of colour and variety. I even love the packing and unpacking, the long-haul flights, the airline food and endless hours in transit lounges playing cards or searching for cafes where I can recharge my phone and use the free wifi.
But by far my favourite part of the whole travel experience is coming home and walking through the international arrivals gate—the familiar Aussie accents that fill my ears, the recognisable sights, smells and sounds. Then, as I pass through the exit gate I’m confronted with an array of eager-looking people, each desperate to catch their first glimpse of a loved one who they may not have seen for a very long time. There’s a barrage of colourful flowers, homemade signs and balloons energetically bobbing around in anticipation. There are tears and embraces as the distance that was once between loved ones is no longer a barrier. It’s heartwarming—you see the very best of humanity and I always feel a deep swell in my chest as I walk through those gates.
There’s something deeply comforting about the familiar. The familiar is what we are at ease with; the surroundings that bring peace, serenity and a sense of home. The familiar is the place where we feel safe. The word “familiar” comes from the Latin root word familia, meaning family or household. It’s a word that at its very core implies being around those we love. But for many families this isn’t the case. The international arrivals gate may present a picture that’s heartwarming and love-filled, but for many people thoughts of family and home conjure up very different emotions. In the best and worst circumstances, our homes and families hardly ever live up to our hopes and expectations. Homecomings can often be painful, emotional and leave us feeling even more alone.
No safe place
Overworked, overtired, underpaid parents are often stretched thin and struggling to find the time and energy to really stop and be present for their kids. The day-to-day stresses of modern life are putting increasing pressure on families. And, despite increased public awareness, rates of family violence and dysfunction refuse to diminish.
According to the Family Peace Foundation, “Over one million Australian children are raised in family violence, whilst many more are regularly exposed to high levels of family conflict, which amongst other things have been linked to child and adolescent depressive symptoms.”
In Australia, domestic violence is a modern-day epidemic that’s tearing families apart. The statistics from the ABS are eye-opening: one in six Australian women and one in 16 men have been subjected, since the age of 15, to physical and/or sexual violence by a partner. In New Zealand, it’s even worse, with more than one in three women suffering domestic violence at some point during their adult lives. The Women’s Refuge service reports that they receive a phone call about domestic violence once every six-and-a-half minutes, on average, most often from the police. For too many people, family life is not the safe haven of peace that it was originally intended to be.
Often we think that if we can just earn a little more money, get things right with our marriage or have better behaved children, we will be able to have some peace and harmony. It’s difficult not to feel overwhelmed by the issues that face modern families—to see the fractures and feel powerless to do anything about them.
In the beginning
In the Bible we read that relationships were fractured from the very beginning of the earth’s existence. If we were to flip through its pages, searching for a picture of the ideal family, we would really struggle to find an example, because the Bible records the real story of a broken world where the perfect family doesn’t exist.
The creation account in Genesis 1 and 2 tells us how God created man and woman as a reflection of Himself. Yet this original family was fractured very early on in the narrative—the very next chapter in fact, Genesis 3. Relationships deteriorate further into conflict and violence, as one son murders the other (Genesis 4). As history begins to unfold in the early books of the Old Testament we read about families facing all sorts of extremely challenging situations: generational secrets, cheating, deception and theft. There are instances of emotional abuse, domestic violence and sexual assault. We read about polygamous marriages, incest, adultery and the constant mistreatment of women and children in the human family.
So why does the Bible speak so loudly about dysfunctional families yet seem so quiet when it comes to harmonious families? Well, for one thing, the stories we read are not prescriptive but descriptive, meaning that they are merely communicating the challenges and issues that faced a typical family in the ancient Middle East. If there’s a lesson to be learned, it’s often what not to do.
Is together better?
What’s startling to consider is that nothing has really changed. Most families aren’t harmonious because humanity is not harmonious. We are alienated people, estranged from each other and from God. If we take a group of disaffected, selfish people and put them together in a home, sharing possessions and all the most intimate moments in our lives; if we take all those differing personalities, interests and distributions of power, abilities and opportunities and ask them to live in harmony, then it’s no wonder that conflict arises.
Yet, regardless of our dysfunction, research tells us that it is actually more harmful for us to be alone. In God’s original, perfect creation, there was one thing that wasn’t quite complete: “It is not good for man to be alone,” said God. “I will make a helper suitable for him” (Genesis 2:18). The marriage relationship was created because God recognised and understood the human need for connection. Relationships are a lot like food: absolutely necessary for survival, but the wrong type can do serious harm, especially with repeated exposure over long periods of time. In 2013, a New York Times blogpost pointed to a whole raft of studies revealing that loneliness can impair health by raising levels of stress hormones and inflammation, and increasing the risk of heart disease, arthritis, type 2 diabetes and dementia, as well as having a huge negative impact on mental health. This is nothing new. University of Michigan research published by Science in 1988 found that “social isolation is on a par with high blood pressure, obesity, lack of exercise or smoking as a risk factor for illness and early death”. So how do we find a sense of peace and security when a dysfunctional relationship can be just as damaging as being alone?
In the midst of our dysfunction we find a startling reality. God chooses to use family as the chief biblical metaphor to describe how He relates to us. When communicating through the Bible about how we are to view Him, He describes Himself as the perfect Father, Jesus as the loving Brother (Romans 8:29) and the Holy Spirit as a constant Companion (John 14:26–28). God as Creator is called the Father of Israel (see Deuteronomy 32:6, Jeremiah 31:1–9, and Psalm 89:23–26) and as He cares for, comforts and nurtures, He is described using the imagery of a mother (Isaiah 66:13). In the picture of God we see family and relationships perfected. When we cannot find function or peace in the many relationships that surround us, we can look to the ultimate example of Father, Mother, Brother and Friend.
While the idea of coming home can bring mixed emotions, the Bible does speak about one homecoming that will be decidedly joyous. No earthly homecoming, no matter how memorable, can compare with the joy of coming home to God. His love is the source of all human and earthly love—“We love because he first loved us,” says 1 John 4:19. The love of God is more enduring and stronger than that between a husband and wife, a parent and child, brothers, sisters or the closest friends. It is because of God’s love that we even have the capacity for family and to love at all! More than 1500 years ago, Augustine of Hippo (in current-day Algeria) suggested that the desire of the human heart for connection was a symptom of its God-shaped hole: “You have made us for Yourself,” he prayed, “and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You.”
If your heart is restless, struggling to find peace in an earthly home; if you find yourself longing for something more, there is a Father whose desire is nothing more than to welcome His children home.
For help with family violence issues, call 1800 Respect on 1800 737 732 (Aus) or Women’s Refuge on 0800 733 843 (NZ). Contact police for emergencies.
Lyndelle Peterson is a pastor and mother of two. She lives in Melbourne, Australia, and is passionate about helping people connect with God and find His mission for their lives.