Hope for Failing Families

In the ideal family, a man and woman marry each other, love each other, remain faithful to each other, and stay married for life. Together, they have children and are deeply involved in their children’s lives. The children grow up in a secure, stable home, loved and taught by parents and grandparents.

But not every family is ideal. Not every child grows up in a solid home. In fact, for some people, it not easy to know exactly what a family is. If your parents have been married more than once, it can get really confusing. You may see less of your father than of your stepfather, and you may not even be sure what to call your stepfather. You may have several half-brothers or half-sisters, stepbrothers and stepsisters, and a list of step-grandmas and step-grandpas and step-cousins, depending on how many different mates your parents have had. The nice term for this is a “blended family,” and some blended families are places of great love, where everybody wants to build each other up. But other blended families aren’t so healthy, and “blended” starts to seem like just another word for mixed up.

Family ties are clear and strong for some people, but for others, the whole matter of family can be mixed up and confusing–for mothers and fathers and children alike. Some are in blended families. Some are separated from their real mother, living with just a father, or with a father and stepmother. Others are in foster homes because their mother can’t or won’t care for them. Additionally, there are a lot of single mothers trying to raise their kids alone. In some cases, it’s because of broken relationships, and in other cases, the mothers got pregnant in dating relationships, and the fathers never took responsibility for their children.

What does God say about all this? What is the Lord’s message when relationships are mixed up and families are failing? One thing God does is that he makes clear what families ought to be like. When things get confused and society tries to pretend that any arrangement is as good as any other, God says in the Bible that sexual intimacy and child rearing belongs in the context of a one-man, one-woman, lifelong marriage. That’s God’s will for the family. That’s the best setting for children, and there’s no getting around it. The Bible clearly teaches it and experience confirms it. There’s no better arrangement than a solid, stable, two-parent family.

But does that mean that if you’re not in a healthy two-parent family God has nothing to say to you–except that you’re wrong and you’ve blown it? Does it mean there’s no place for you in God’s plan? I’m afraid that’s the feeling you might get from some of us preachers. We praise family values and bemoan the mixed up muddle so many people are in, and we do this so often that you might get the impression that God works only in good, respectable families and has no use for the rest.

However, that’s not what the Bible says. In the Bible God shows us failing families that were terribly mixed up: two women so desperate for children that they seduced their own drunken father; several cases of surrogate motherhood; a woman so eager for a baby that she seduced her dead husband’s father; a politician who committed adultery with a woman and had her husband murdered; a preacher’s wife who got into prostitution and had children that weren’t her husband’s; and more. God doesn’t sensationalize these stories or want us to imitate these sins, but he does show that even in the middle of a muddle he can advance his plans and apply his grace to people whose lives and families are as messy as anything we experience today.

Someone once described a preacher as “a nice man telling nice people how to be even nicer.” That kind of preaching is not the good news of Jesus Christ. It doesn’t offer you much hope if you’re not somebody who’s already nice and respectable. But Jesus comes with a different message. The Bible proclaims amazing grace and shows us some pretty mixed up folks who still had a place in God’s plan. In a time when so many of us are affected by divorce, blended families, single parenting, troubled relationships between parents and kids, and other family failings, we need a gospel for people who don’t have it all together, a message of hope for failing families.

Dirty Details

Let’s take a look at one of the worst family situations in the whole Bible. It’s not a pretty picture. Some scholars have wondered why it’s in the Bible at all. They say this is one chapter of the Bible that no one should preach about because it’s too disgusting. Now, I agree that it’s an awful story, but God had a reason for putting it in the Bible.

Genesis 38 tells the story of Tamar and Judah. Judah was one of the twelve sons of Jacob. Jacob was also called Israel, and he and his sons were the ancestors of the Israelite people. Judah married a pagan woman and had three sons by her. Judah’s oldest son, Er, grew up and married a woman named Tamar. But Er was so wicked that the Lord put him to death. There was a custom at that time that if a man died and left no children, his brother should take the widow in and father children for her in the brother’s name, so that the brother’s line could continue and his name wouldn’t die out.

So Judah’s second son, Onan, went to bed with Tamar. He didn’t mind that part of the deal at all. Onan was glad to go to bed with her, but he didn’t want her to get pregnant. If she had children, those children would be counted as the children of Onan’s dead brother. They would inherit his dead brother’s property, which would otherwise go to Onan himself and his own family. “Onan knew the offspring would not be his; so whenever he lay with his brother’s wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from producing offspring for his brother. What he did was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so he put him to death also” (Genesis 38:9-10).

That left Judah with just one son, now that the two oldest were dead, and Tamar was still childless. Judah then said to his daughter-in-law Tamar, “Live as a widow in your father’s house until my son Shelah grows up.” But in reality Judah had no intention of giving his last son to Tamar. She seemed like bad luck, and Judah didn’t want his only remaining son to die like the others.

A long time later, Judah’s wife died. In the meantime, Tamar had been living in her father’s house, single and childless. She saw that Judah’s last son was now grown up, and that Judah had no intention of letting his son marry her. That meant Tamar would never be able to marry or have children. One day, Tamar heard that Judah would be traveling somewhere, and she got an idea. She dressed herself up and put on a veil to disguise herself. Then she went and took a seat by the side of the road that Judah would be taking.

When Judah saw her, he thought she was a prostitute, for she had covered her face. Not realizing that she was his daughter-in-law, he went over to her by the roadside and said, “Come now, let me sleep with you.”

“And what will you give me to sleep with you?” she asked.

“I’ll send you a young goat from my flock,” he said.

Judah didn’t have a goat in his back pocket, of course, so Tamar asked for something of his that she could keep, as a guarantee that he’d pay up later on. She asked for Judah’s official household seal and the staff he carried. So he gave them to her and slept with her, and she became pregnant by him.

Judah, meanwhile, sent a friend with a young goat to pay off the prostitute and get back the personal belongings that he’d left with her. He assumed he’d find her in the same place, but of course she was nowhere to be found. So Judah decided to drop the matter. He couldn’t very well go around asking if anybody had seen this prostitute so he could settle up his business with her. “Let her keep what she has,” he said, “or we will become a laughingstock.”

About three months later, Judah was told, “Your daughter-in-law Tamar is guilty of prostitution, and as a result, she is now pregnant.”

Judah said, “Bring her out and have her burned to death.”

Talk about a double standard! Judah himself had slept with a prostitute, but when Tamar was accused of prostitution, he declared that she deserved to die. That’s when Tamar played her trump card.

As she was being brought out for execution, she sent a message to her father-in-law. “I am pregnant by the man who owns these,” she said. And she added, “See if you recognize whose seal and staff these are.”

Judah recognized them and said, “She is more righteous than I, since I wouldn’t give her to my son Shelah.” And Judah did not sleep with her again.

Tamar gave birth to twin boys, named Perez and Zerah. And guess what? Perez became an ancestor to King David and to Jesus. If you read the list of Jesus’ ancestors in Matthew 1, you’ll find that the author goes out of his way to mention both Judah and Tamar. These aren’t exactly the kind of ancestors we’d advertise, but Jesus does.

Divine Surprise

It may surprise you that God would include a story like this in the Bible. It sounds more disgusting and far-fetched than what we see on trash TV and tabloids. Some people think it’s too crude to be mentioned from a pulpit. They prefer to stick with nice, clean, wholesome stories. Maybe that’s why a lot of churches and sermons connect only with nice, clean, wholesome people–or at least people who think they are.

But God tells some pretty dirty stories. The story of Tamar and Judah isn’t the Bible’s only example of a family mess. If we had more time, I could go on to tell how a man named Lot got drunk and was seduced by his two daughters, who each had a baby by him. I could tell how a prostitute named Rahab played a major role in the history of God’s people. I could tell of King David’s adulterous affair with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband. I could tell of how God commanded the prophet Hosea to marry a prostitute named Gomer, and how she had children by unknown fathers. After telling you all that, I could take you to Matthew 1 and show you where most of these names appear in the ancestry of Jesus Christ.

When Jesus came and lived among us, he wasn’t born from a perfect family line, and he didn’t associate only with decent families. Jesus showed concern for prostitutes, and many of them became his followers. He shared God’s love and grace with a half-breed woman who had been through five divorces and was living with a sixth man whom she hadn’t bothered to marry. Jesus befriended various outlaws, lowlifes, and people who had broken every rule in the book for good family life.

We don’t have time to go into the details of all these mixed up family situations, but each story is part of God’s Word to us in the Bible. God’s Story doesn’t just include squeaky-clean heroes and ideal families. God’s Story includes failing families and people who have made a mess of their lives. The Bible is full of surprises at the people God chooses for himself, and it’s full of surprises at what God is able to make of them.

Tamar and Judah certainly aren’t the kind of people you’d want to lead Boy Scouts or teach Sunday school. But they are the kind of people who exist in a sinful, mixed-up world. Maybe you can identify with them. Maybe you haven’t sunk quite as low as they did, but, then again, maybe you have. Either way, you know the pain of family problems. You know what it feels like to be shamed and shattered. And if God could bring something good from their mess, he can bring something good from yours.

What did God do in Judah’s life? Judah was a harsh, proud man, but the Lord used Tamar to humble Judah and destroy his self-righteousness. One moment Judah was condemning Tamar’s prostitution and demanding her death, but the next moment she exposed him as the one who got her pregnant. Judah’s hypocrisy was shattered, and he admitted that he was even worse than Tamar.

After being humbled, Judah began to change. Earlier in Judah’s life, he had been so hateful and heartless that he led the way in selling his own brother Joseph into slavery. But later, when another of his brothers was at risk, Judah offered himself as a hostage and slave in place of his brother (Genesis 44:33). The man who had once been hardhearted enough to sell his own brother and hypocritical enough to demand death for a sin he himself was involved in–this man’s heart changed so much that he was willing to sacrifice his own life in order to save someone else’s.

Years later, Judah was standing at the bedside of his dying father, Jacob. As Jacob lay on his deathbed, God inspired him to give a great prophecy about Judah. Although Judah had once lived like an alley cat, Jacob called him a lion. And Jacob said that Judah’s (and Tamar’s) line would be a royal line that would eventually give birth to the Ruler of all nations (Genesis 49:10). That prophecy was fulfilled in Jesus Christ, whom the Bible calls “the lion of the tribe of Judah” (Revelation 5:5).

Good News for Sinners

What does the story of Tamar and Judah say to failing families and mixed up people today? It says that if God could change a man like Judah, he can change you. And if God could carry out such a great purpose in Tamar’s and Judah’s family by sending Jesus the Messiah, he can certainly carry out a great purpose in your family, no matter how badly it has failed. It all depends on God’s blessing, not on your qualifications.

The story of Judah and Tamar shows us the ugliness of sin, and it shows how easy it is for even the worst sinner to be self-righteous. When Judah first learned that Tamar was pregnant, he wanted to have her burned. Then he found out that he himself was the father, and he had to admit that he was even worse than the woman he wanted to kill. He mumbled, “She is more righteous than I,” and that was the end of his self-righteous indignation. This humiliating experience marked the turning point in Judah’s life.

Many of us need to be humbled as well. When it comes to the muddled situations that exist today, those who snarl the loudest condemnations might find, like Judah, that we’re as bad or worse than the people we condemn. Some of us look down on those who don’t measure up to proper standards. But if we could put ourselves in their shoes and get away from our double standard long enough to see ourselves as God sees us, we might have to say even of a woman we despise, “She is more righteous than I.”

But, as we’ve seen, the story of Tamar does more than pop our balloons of self-righteousness. It also shows that God can bless us in spite of ourselves. It shows how amazing God’s grace really is. And the surprise ending sets us up for good news that is even more surprising. When Judah ordered that Tamar be burned, she held up Judah’s seal and staff to prove his involvement with her and said in effect, “Let him who is without sin be the one to light the fire.” Judah had to give in.

Now look at Judah’s and Tamar’s great descendant, Jesus. Jesus also had to deal with a woman caught in sexual immorality, but unlike Judah, Jesus was not involved in her guilt. When some officials caught this woman in the act of adultery and dragged her before Jesus and asked Jesus whether she should be stoned to death, Jesus answered, “Let him who is without sin throw the first stone.” The woman’s accusers walked away, one by one. And that isn’t the best part. After all those self-righteous sinners walked away, one man was still left: Jesus himself. He really was without sin. He had the right to throw stones at her. He didn’t have to say, as Judah did, “She is more righteous than I.” Jesus had every right to condemn this woman and kill her. But he didn’t. Instead, he said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin” (see John 8:1-11).

That is God’s good news for sinners. The gospel isn’t just the message that nobody’s perfect and so we should all be more tolerant. The gospel isn’t just a list of good morals that we can follow if only we try a little harder or a set of stories about nice people we should imitate. The gospel is the message that a holy God, who has every right to judge us, has instead decided to set aside our past and give us a fresh start through Jesus Christ. The gospel is the voice of Jesus saying to sinners, “Neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin.” The gospel isn’t just good advice. It’s good news! Jesus isn’t just a good role model. He’s a great Redeemer!

The Bible shows again and again that even in sinful lives and failing families God can direct things toward his gracious ends. If you’ve already got a family life that’s holy and healthy, I’m happy for you. A stable, loving family is a great gift from God, and you can be very thankful. But if you’re in a family that seems like a hopeless failure, God announces good news that you need to hear and believe.

Jesus doesn’t avoid sinners. He saves them. Jesus was willing to join a family tree that included incest, prostitution, adultery, and murder. Jesus was willing to eat with embezzlers and prostitutes. Jesus died on a cross between two criminals. Jesus didn’t leave the glory of heaven and give his life on the cross just so that nice people could become a little nicer. He came to bring you forgiveness from sin and power to start anew.

There’s nothing to keep you from a new life except unbelief. There’s nothing to keep you from Jesus except stubbornness. Listen to Jesus speaking love and hope. Trust him. Come to him. Jesus promises, “Whoever comes to me I will never drive away” (John 6:37).

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.