Why do our families have so much power over us? In The Storm-Tossed Family, bestselling author Russell Moore (Onward, Christianity Today's 2016 "Book of the Year Award Winner") teaches readers whether you are married or single, whether you long for a child or shepherding a full house, you are part of a family. Family is difficult because family—every family—is an echo of the gospel.
Family can be the source of some of the most transcendent human joy, and family can leave us crumpled up on the side of the road. Family can make us who we are, and family can break our hearts. Why would this social arrangement have that much power, for good or for ill, over us?
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About the Author
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The Storm-Tossed Family
THIS BOOK IS NAMED FOR a song I hate. And, Lord knows, I love songs. I grew up with the lyrics of songs all around me, the most vivid of which were those sung every Sunday in the little red-brick church I attended, multiple times every week. Many of those hymns I find myself singing at the most surprising of moments. I will find myself turning to them whenever I am at a moment of personal crisis — when I need to be reminded that God loves me "just as I am" — or at a moment of temptation — when I must remind myself that "I have decided to follow Jesus" — or at a moment of joy, when I want to sing out, "How marvelous! How wonderful!" There's one I never sing to myself; though, like the others, I could sing it by heart, if asked.
The chorus of the hymn goes: "Place your hand in the nailed-scarred hand." I would say that perhaps the hymn is too sentimental, but lots of them were, ones that I still treasure. I would say it's because the hymn starts off with a mixed metaphor of a question —"Have you failed in your plan of your storm-tossed life?" But it's hardly alone on that front either. I suppose it's because the song doesn't seem to make sense in terms of what it's saying with how it's sung. The chorus is exuberant and light, almost like a commercial jingle, and yet the words are about the gruesomely sober reality reaching out to a hand spiked over with bloody scabs. That doesn't seem to fit.
Even so, that hymn kept emerging in my memory as I wrote this book, and for a long time I didn't know why. At first, I thought it was obvious. This is a book about the family, but family in light of the cross. My subconscious was mining up this old hymn because I was talking about the cross. And yet, my mind is filled with cross songs about Jesus and crosses and blood — fountains filled with blood, being washed in the blood, finding power in the blood. It wasn't until much later that I realized: what I was grasping for somewhere in my hidden psyche was not the imagery of nails or scars, but that of the storm.
As with blood, my revivalist church tradition had plenty of songs about storms — about being lifted out of stormy waters, about lighthouses beckoning ships in from the storm, about houses built on solid rocks, able to withstand the gale of the winds and the rain. That makes sense. The Bible, after all, is filled with these images, of thunder and tumult and storms. The world of the Bible was, after all, an agrarian one, in which the survival of nations and tribes and villages and families was dependent upon rain. And the sea was the embodiment of chaos and disorder and peril. Those who sailed upon the water could harbor no illusions that they had control over the ocean, especially if they were battered back and forth by a suddenly emerging storm.
No wonder, then, that the ancient nations surrounding the people of God so often made idols out of storms. Many of their gods were fertility deities, who would bring forth rain if they were appeased enough. The storms that could arrive in that ancient Middle Eastern world could communicate all sorts of things about the idols. They could bring rain enough to save you from starvation, but the fire and thunder could also scare you into remembering they could kill you too. One would cry out to these gods for rain, but one could also be willing to sacrifice a human life to still a boat-capsizing storm (Jonah 1:11–15). Even in delusion, the nations could recognize something quite true: that bound up in a storm is both a blessing and a curse. And in both the blessing of rain, and the peril of the storm, we lose all of our illusions of control.
Family is like that too: the source of life-giving blessing but also of excruciating terror, often all at the same time. Likewise, this is also true of the cross. In the cross, we see both the horrific curse of sin, the judgment of God, and the blessing of God in saving the world (Gal. 3:13–14). At the cross, Jesus confronted both the "joy that was set before him" and at the same time was found "despising the shame" (Heb. 12:2). These families of ours can be filled with joy, but will always make us vulnerable to pain. And the joy and the pain are pointing us to the same place: the cross. Nothing can show you that you are loved and that you belong like family — and nothing can strip away your crafted pretensions and comforting illusions like family. Regardless of whether, as Jesus put it, one's house is built on sinking sand or solid rock, the storms that come with being part of families can make us feel as though we are lost to the howling winds around us. And, with family, just as in a tempest at sea, we inevitably realize that we are helpless to do anything about our plight.
For those of us in Christ, though, storms should be no surprise. They need not panic us, nor need they destroy us. The worst thing that can happen to you is not whatever you went through with your mother or father. The worst thing that can happen to you is not your sister who won't speak to you. The worst thing that can happen to you is not a spouse walking out on you, or cheating on you, or dying on you. The worst thing that can happen to you is not seeing your child rebel against you, or even attending your child's funeral, as awful as all those things are. The worst thing that can happen to you is dying under the judgment of God, bearing the full weight of the sentence of death and hell. If you are in Christ, that's already happened to you. You are not only a survivor; you are a beloved child, an heir of everything. Even so, it's hard to remember all of that when your life seems to be reeling back and forth on stormy seas.
Whatever your storms, though, you are not in uncharted waters. Psalm 107 speaks to this evocatively. "Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the great waters; they saw the deeds of the Lord, his wondrous works in the deep," the psalmist writes. "For he commanded and raised the stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea. They mounted up to heaven; they went down to the depths; their courage melted away in their evil plight; they reeled and staggered like drunken men who were at their wits' end" (Ps. 107:23–27). But the psalm does not end there. "Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress. He made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed" (Ps. 107:28–29).
The disciples of Jesus must have thought of this passage as they rocked back and forth in a sudden storm on the waters of Galilee. The panic in their minds and voices is palpable, especially in Mark's rendering of the moment. Jesus, though, was asleep on a cushion. The disciples cannot be blamed for resenting this, for crying out "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?" (Mark 4:38). Jesus woke up, but not with the adrenaline-pumping alarm that most of us would expect. He spoke to the storm: "Peace! Be still." And it was gone. Elsewhere, the same pattern would be repeated. The boat was in a storm, "beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them" (Matt. 14:24). Jesus, again, was preternaturally calm, walking out on the storm-tossed waters themselves. When Peter attempted to join him, though, he was knocked down, not so much by the storm as by his own panic. "But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, 'Lord, save me'" (Matt. 14:30). Jesus, of course, grabbed him by the hand. In this, of course, Jesus was doing what he would do for all of us. He would endure the sign of Jonah, go into the storm of sin and death and hell, and take us by the hand to pull us out, safely toward home. Jesus was not panicked by the storms around him because he was headed into another storm, the really scary one, at the cross. The more that I think of it, maybe the question, "Have you failed in the plans of your storm-tossed life" isn't loaded with a mixed metaphor after all. Maybe it makes more sense than I knew. Maybe that's why I couldn't write this book without humming that tune.
* * *
Someone who chose the hymns in our church must have liked "The Nail-Scarred Hand," because we sang it so much. I never hear it now, and I can't really say that I miss it. The reason the song persists in my memory isn't the song, but two things that went with it: the message of the cross and the context of a family. The imagery in the song might be trite in some places, but the central picture is visceral — the hand that reaches out to us is scarred, and scarred not with abstractions but with nails. The other reason it lingers is because of who sang it with me — a church family of people I can see in my mind right now, and I could tell you exactly where most of them sat on any given Sunday morning. I probably muttered along with that song while on my mother's lap as an infant or playing with my father's watch as a small boy. That seems to fit because that's what this book is about. We are shaped and formed by family, in all sorts of routine and unexceptional ways that we may never even notice or remember. There's the joy, and there's the danger.
I don't know your situation. I do know, though, that you are part of a family — a past or present or future family, even if you don't know any of the names or faces of anyone in that family. Someone has shaped you. Someone is shaping you. Someone will shape you. And I also know this: sometimes whatever home you make for yourself will seem to be tossed about in an uncontrollable storm. To make it through, we must recognize why family is so important to us, and why family can never be ultimate to us. We must see the family clearly, but we must see beyond it. The only safe harbor for a storm-tossed family is a nail-scarred home.CHAPTER 2
The Cross as Family Crisis
IF YOU ASKED ME MY favorite holiday, I would probably say Christmas or Easter, but I wouldn't want to risk saying that while hooked up to a lie detector. The polygraph would probably jump around erratically until I blushingly admitted the truth: it's always been Halloween. I'm reluctant to admit that, because some of you will think poorly of me. I know I'm supposed to hate Halloween. Because I'm an evangelical Christian, of the more conservative sort, some of you will expect me to dismiss All Saints' Eve as "the devil's holiday." Many would expect to see me manning the bobbing-for-Bibles booth at a church Fall Festival, or helping blindfolded children at the Reformation Day gathering play "Pin the Theses on the Castle Door." Some would think that Halloween night would mean my family turning off all the lights and pretending not to be home, while the costumed children of our neighborhood find gospel tracts on our doorstep where a Jack O'Lantern should be. I'm supposed to hate Halloween, but I just can't do it. Since I was a very small child, Halloween brought to me, well, tidings of comfort and joy.
As a child, I took seriously what the old people said about the holiday as a "devil's night," about the veil between the spirit world and ours being especially, and dangerously, thin that night. That was what I liked about it. Halloween, it seemed, took seriously what I intuitively knew to be true: the world outside was terrifying.
The night also seemed to reinforce what I read in my Bible, that the universe around me was alive with invisible forces, some of which meant me harm. Halloween seemed to be the night when grown-ups would admit this, at least a little bit. It seemed to my younger self, too, that if there were scary realities out there, the idea of calendering out a night to recognize them for what they were made sense.
The best part of the night for me had nothing to do with candy or costumes, but was rather when the night was over, when I was tucked away in bed, knowing that my parents were asleep on the other side of that sheetrock wall. The night outside might be howling with witches and werewolves, but all was safe at home. That seemed far from pagan to me. It seemed, as a matter of fact, right in line with my biblical ancestors in ancient Egypt. The angels of death could lurk around outside the house all they wished, but the blood was on the doorpost, and all would be well.
There is another reason I couldn't pass a holiday polygraph, though. The lie detector wouldn't let me get away with saying that this is the sole reason for my love of Halloween. Some of it was because, unlike Christmas or Thanksgiving, there was never any family drama on Halloween. No one packed us up to drive to the house of some great-aunt or second cousin on Halloween. No one sat us down at a card table for a meal someone frantically stressed about getting just right. No one would compare this Halloween to the Halloweens of years past. No one would get his or her feelings hurt, or upend Halloween with a fiery dinner table discussion about how Uncle Ronnie drinks too much. No one had to pretend that this was the most wonderful time of the year. No one slammed a door and cried out, through tears, "You've ruined our Halloween!"
However scary headless horsemen and swamp things could be, sometimes a Christmas dinner or an Easter egg hunt or a wedding reception or a child's birthday party can be even more terrifying than a haunted wood. Family, though, is supposed to be a refuge from all that; it is supposed to be warm and tranquil and sentimental. That's certainly the image most of us project in our Christmas cards. To be sure, these presentations are usually true so far as they go — most people don't just make up that little Connor won the science fair this year or that Emma made partner in her law firm. Most people don't announce there that the rumors of the restraining order against Aunt Flossie are "fake news." But much goes unseen and unsaid, for obvious reasons.
Much of what goes on in our families is underground, whether that's the annoyances of emotional conflict or the very real trauma of some family secret. That's because, in our culture and in many others, family is often an arena for winning and displaying. Our family mirrors to the outside world the kind of person we want others to see us to be. If something is awry with our family, we are afraid that people will conclude that something is badly wrong with us. And so, despite the fact that family can sometimes scare us half to death, we smile our way through it. A friend of mine likes to say that he knew that parenting would be humbling; he just didn't know that it would also be humiliating. Even when all is going well, one never knows when a toddler will tell his Sunday school class the new words he learned when Mommy was yelling at Daddy last night. And that only increases. As a child ages, every day could bring word of a catastrophic pregnancy or a failed school term or a lost job or a broken engagement or a car wreck. And, it seems, there is nothing one can do about any of it, except look back on pictures at how sweet that baby used to be — and all the ways you failed as a parent.
The truth is, though, that it is not just parenting that humiliates. Virtually every part of life in a family becomes humiliating, if only because we ultimately reveal in our families just how dependent we can be. Being a husband or a wife, a brother or a sister, a son or a daughter, humiliates too. In relationship with people, we are bound to disappoint, and to be disappointed, to wound and to be wounded. As part of a family, it is almost impossible to maintain the image of ourselves we so carefully construct for the world, and for our own sense of meaning. Perhaps you, like me, have looked at all your family failures and wondered, "Why does this have to be this hard?"
If you are like me, you have searched for information to learn how to navigate all of this in a way that isn't humiliating. What I tend to want is a list of surefire principles to help me navigate life in a family — and I always have, no matter what stage of life I was in, no matter my place in the family at the time. As a boy, I wanted a foolproof guide to get my parents to understand how hard Algebra was for me — that a "C" really was good enough — and to show me how to meet the way-too-high expectations of my grandmother next door. As a teenager, I wanted a list of principles that could guarantee I could resist sexual temptation or, better yet, show me a loophole that would allow me to yield to it and stay a good Christian. More truthfully, I wanted principles that would show me how to get a girl to like me enough that I would have temptation options to actually overcome. As a young man, I wanted a step-by-step guide to choosing the right kind of wife. After marriage, my wife and I both wanted a list of steps that would ensure we wouldn't end up like other couples we had seen — in divorce courts scrapping it out with each other or, somehow even worse, lying together in middle-age, in a loveless, sexless, resentment-filled bed. I wanted a list of all the things expected of a Christian husband, from which chores I should do to how I could make sure my wife feels loved enough that she will never seek the attention of some soccer-dad in the produce aisle of the grocery store.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Storm-Tossed Family"
Copyright © 2018 Russell Moore.
Excerpted by permission of B&H Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Chapter One: The Storm-Tossed Family,
Chapter Two: The Cross as Family Crisis,
Chapter Three: The Family as Spiritual Warfare,
Chapter Four: Family Is Not First,
Chapter Five: The Church as Family,
Chapter Six: Man and Woman at the Cross,
Chapter Seven: Marriage and the Mystery of Christ,
Chapter Eight: Reclaiming Sexuality,
Chapter Nine: The Road to and from Divorce,
Chapter Ten: Children Are a Blessing, Not a Burden,
Chapter Eleven: Parenting with the End in View,
Chapter Twelve: Family Tensions, Family Traumas,
Chapter Thirteen: On Aging and the Family,
Chapter Fourteen: Free to Be Family,