If you know anything about me and my most common writing topics, you know my family of origin has seen our share of rough times. Severe mental illness, along with its attendant hardships, is capable of disrupting every aspect of family life, including connections between family members. I’m familiar with those disruptions, and I’m thankful that for us they haven’t become permanent rifts, as they sometimes do. The thing is, both in spite of and because of what we’ve been through, my family members are critically important in my life. No one else can understand my perspective so fully, communicate with me in such efficient shorthand, and remind me where I’ve come from. This is particularly true with my sisters. If you’re a woman with at least one sister, you probably know what I mean.
Like most people, the family I live with today consists of the most important people in the world to me. Unlike our families of origin, my husband and I chose each other. And while we didn’t choose who our children would be–and they certainly didn’t get to choose us–we chose to bring them into the world (and I would have chosen them if I’d had the chance). And the daily experience of relating to these people, sharing space, celebrating victories, and grieving losses together is some of the most important work I do.
The families we are born into, choose, and produce make far-reaching and enduring marks on us, even if we try to get away from them. In fact, none of us can even imagine who we would be without them. But, significant as they are, these aren’t the only relationships we need in our lives. We also need spiritual families, people who act as close family members in our faith. This is especially important if family wounds run deep or disruptions have become permanent rifts. And other people need us to play these roles in their lives too.
All Christian adults are equipped for at least three spiritual roles: spiritual mother or father, daughter or son, and sister or brother. What does it look like to fill these roles?
Mothers and fathers–Good parents care about their children, love them unconditionally, teach them, and provide a stable presence when life gets stormy. Good mothers and fathers also see their children clearly, know them for who they are, and speak to them about their identities and their potential.
In a spiritual sense, we are capable of doing all these things for people who are growing up in faith around us. We can remind them of their identity in Christ, point out ways we see God’s magnificent image in them, care for them, and love them when their human failings seem obvious. We can stick with them, refusing to give up on them, teaching them what it means to surrender their trust in themselves in favor of transformational faith.
Brothers and sisters–Siblings grow alongside each other, and you generally can relate to what they’re going through, either because you have been there too or you live with the same challenge. These are the people you’re likely to be in the longest relationships with–potentially part of their lives from the day they’re born to the day they die. You’re probably skilled at reminding them who they are and where they came from, and you probably don’t let them get away with much.
In a spiritual sense, you can do the same for your fellow believers. You can intentionally engage in relationships and activities designed to help you grow in faith together. You can commit to stay involved in someone’s life when circumstances put distance between you. And the longer you know them, the better you’ll be at reminding them who they are and how far they’ve come. You’ll also be in a good position to lovingly point out when they have strayed from their intended path.
Daughters and sons–As children, we learn from our parents. And if they’re wise, they realize we usually pay more attention to what they do than to what they say. We go to them with our questions, and they do their best to answer. We know they take joy in our accomplishments, even though they might roll their eyes at our adolescent arrogance. Through their eyes, if we choose to look, we can see the people we are becoming. They pass on the heritage they received, along with their own discoveries and habits. And we, in turn, pass on their legacy.
We can find spiritual parents among those who are older and more mature in faith, and we can invite them to mentor, teach, and encourage us. This role requires humility and a teachable spirit. It also requires trust. As we’re willing to approach more-established believers with these attitudes, we can find richly rewarding relationships that shape us, challenge us, and make us markedly wiser.
So who’s in your spiritual family? Have you thought about cultivating these three roles in your life? Whose spiritual parent, child, or sibling might you become? If you choose to prayerfully seek these relationships, you may find you belong to a bigger family than you thought.
© 2017 Amy Simpson.