The Cross and Family Sins
Redemption, Hope, and Healing
by Dr. Russell Moore
A few years ago, I felt my knees buckle as I knelt down during the closing hymn at the church where I preached at the time, to receive a trembling little four-year-old boy who took my hand and said, “Can you please pray that my Mama and Daddy don’t get a divorce.” I stifled tears as I heard in his voice, and saw in his face, the sense of powerlessness he felt. I steamed internally with self-righteous anger at these parents. How could they, I asked myself, put their own bickering—whatever it was about—over the security and identity of their own defenseless child? But then I felt a sense of horror hitting me not long after when I realized how, in the frenetic “busyness” of my ministry, I hadn’t been home to pray with my own sons at dinner or at their bedtime in over a week. I was a failure. I needed repentance, and sought it, but I needed more than a course correction; I needed mercy.
Perhaps some of you look back on a parent, now dead, that you wish you had told that you loved. Maybe you look back on words you wish you could take back. Maybe you broke your wedding vows in an affair, or in abandoning your spouse. Maybe you left your children, or left them to the side as you poured your whole identity into your work. You cannot undo the past either. You can, if the family members you have disappointed or hurt are still living, apologize and ask for forgiveness. Do not, though, expect that they must immediately forgive you. A woman who had broken up her marriage with an affair with another man apologized to her grown children for what they were forced to live through in their childhood and then, when they didn’t immediately accept her apology, went into a rage, quoting Scripture at them about their lack of forgiveness. This displays not repentance, but entitlement. We cannot micromanage the spiritual formation of other people’s hearts. We can ask for forgiveness, but then we must give them the room to extend that forgiveness, or not.
It may be that your past, whether as the one hurt or the one hurting others, leads you to conclude that you are doomed to repeat all of your old patterns or all the old patterns that were imposed on you. You may look at your family and wonder, as one who has lived through brokenness, if you are predestined to break their home now. Such is not the case. Perhaps you feel, even now, the pull to walk away. Perhaps it seems too difficult, especially if you haven’t had good models, to be a faithful brother or sister within the church, a faithful husband or wife, a faithful father or mother, a faithful grandfather or grandmother, a faithful son or daughter. The pull itself is no sign that you are doomed to dissolve the family. It is instead a call to spiritual warfare, to cry out for the Spirit, to walk in the way of the cross. It is a call to exercise, as J. R. R. Tolkien once wrote to his son who was growing cynical about the state of the church, “the virtue of loyalty, which indeed only becomes a virtue when one is under pressure to desert it.”
But again, you cannot go back and undo the past, even if you were to reconcile with an ex-spouse or start speaking to an estranged child or drop the lawsuit against your parents over your grandmother’s will. Sometimes what leaves you paralyzed is the guilt and remorse and regret you feel looking backward on how you have fallen short of your duties to others in your family, and even how, in your selfishness, you have robbed yourself of lasting joy. Look to the cross.
That is far more painful than it sounds. When the Israelites were in the wilderness, wandering between the land of slavery and the land of promise, disobedient to the God who delivered them, they were cursed with an attack from fiery serpents. In their pain and dying, their leader, the prophet Moses, intervened with the Lord, who provided a vehicle of healing for them in a bronze serpent aloft on a pole. In order to be healed, they looked to the very image of what afflicted them: a snake, high and lifted up before them (Num. 21:4–9). Jesus said, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14–15). In order to be delivered, we must look to that which frightens us most, to that which exposes us for who we really are, in all of our sin and all our brokenness. We look to the crucified Christ, bearing for us the curse we have brought on ourselves, and upon him. That’s true in every aspect of our lives, but is perhaps especially painful and difficult when it deals with our failures within our families, revealing as these often do the vast distance between who we are and who we pretend to be.
As Fleming Rutledge has rightly noted, one sometimes assumes that he, by his own power, comes to repentance and then God’s grace is activated. In so doing, this person forgets that it is by God’s grace that awareness of sin is awakened in the first place. “When this recognition dawns on us, we are already standing within God’s grace,” she wrote. “Were it not for the mercy of God surrounding us, we would have no perspective from which to view sin, for we would be entirely subject to it,” Rutledge writes. “That is the reason for affirming that wherever sin is unmasked and confessed, God’s redemptive power is already present and acting.” This is indeed the case. If you are longing for deliverance from the hurts you have caused, or the hurt you endure, you are not waiting on God’s grace to find you. God’s grace is already there.
This excerpt is from the chapter “Family Tension, Family Traumas” of Russell Moore’s latest book, The Storm-Tossed Family: How the Cross Reshapes the Home.