Given the importance of relationships to a happy, healthy, holy life, we do well to grapple with what to do when the multitudinous and varied relationships in our lives present competing claims on our time, attention, loyalty, consideration, energy, and resources. And to this end, as a Christian, I can think of nowhere better to go to construct a mental framework for resolving such dilemmas than God’s Word.
For starters, when asked what the greatest commandment is, the gospels tell us the answer Jesus gives as being, “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” But then Jesus continues by saying the second is like it. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
So also, Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” And in what else we read throughout the Scriptures, we find that a great many of God’s commands have to do with how specifically we go about loving one another – how exactly we love particular neighbors as we love ourselves, depending on their relationship to us and our corresponding God-given responsibilities to them.
For instance, husbands are told to love their wives and hold fast to them. Wives by turn are told to submit to their husbands in everything. Subsequently, children are told to obey their parents. And fathers are told not to frustrate their children, but to bring them up in the instruction of the Lord.
Always, whether in the Old Testament or the New Testament, under the old covenant or the better one we enjoy the blessings of now, the way we relate to each other is tied back to the overarching claim God has on our devotion to Him.
Based on His infinitude and our finitude, however, we find that we have none of God’s omnis. By that I mean that even the most capable and resourceful among us are still ultimately limited in our knowledge, presence, energy, time, attention, ability, and resources. We are not omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, et cetera. And so we have to prioritize.
When prioritizing, we will often find competing claims for our devotion and service, our time and attention, and even our resources and ability. And when we find ourselves so challenged, the solution from the Scriptures is not to please everyone. Rather, we work as unto the Lord, whoever that happens to please or displease aside. We perform for an audience of One, even as we let our lights so shine before all men. Thus the loop and circuit is complete to make this Christian life go, and to power it.
And thus children are not told to obey everyone’s parents. They are commanded to obey their own. Husbands are not commanded to love all the wives in the world. They are commanded to love their own. Wives are not commanded to submit to all the husbands they know, but their own. And so on and so forth.
All else being equal, to use my own personal context for an example, we see that any Christian man who shrugs about providing for his relatives, especially the members of his own household, is worse than an unbeliever. But that is to say too that my first priority before God is the members of my own household, and only secondarily am I to expend himself in caring for my extended family.
To use another example, we are told to do good to everyone as we have opportunity. But we are also told to do good especially to those who belong to our household of faith – that is, Christian brothers and sisters. So if we have opportunity in the way of surplus time, attention, energy, and wealth, our extended Church family gets first dibs after our extended blood relations. And our extended family by turn is served only after the members of our immediate family and household are taken care of.
And, yes, children are to obey their parents. But adults who are married have to reorient their priorities under God. Wives can no longer obey their father and mother if they submit to their husbands in everything. So also, husbands no longer obey their father and mother in everything if they have left said parents to hold fast to their wives. But both husbands and wives can still honor their fathers and mothers, and still do have a duty to provide care for them as extended family as they have or can create opportunity.
In this way, we serve best both God and the Church, and both those inside our family and in the broader community. Wives and children loved and served well are a blessing, and all the above testifies to the goodness of God even as it lets our reasonableness be known to all. Thereby too we exalt a nation by righteousness, and we also seek the welfare of the city by showing how to have strong, healthy families.
It may seem sometimes as though to prioritize care in this way, based on others’ relationship to us, will mean neglecting some while preferring others. More will always be excluded than included, and this is the nature of exclusive relationships.
Yet we cannot miss that where our limitations intersect with the vast needs of humanity, there is great wisdom to be found in doing what we can for whom we can, in the context of love and devotion to the Almighty, being anxious for nothing, and presenting our requests to God with prayer and thanksgiving when the needs are greater than our ability to meet them, since they always will be. In so doing, we will find peace and rest for our souls, contentment, and the sort of humility which God blesses. And you really can’t ask for anymore than that.
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