The School of Love: How the Family Teaches Flourishing
By Joseph Sunde
In For the Life of the World: Letters to the Exiles, Evan Koons discovers a new approach to Christian cultural engagement. Revolving around “God’s economy of all things,” he proceeds to explore key areas of human engagement. But it’s no wonder that the subsequent explorations begin with the family— the economy love.
It is here, in the transcendent exchange of love and nurture and sacrifice, that deep and long-term transformation begins. The family sets the stage for our service and the scope for our gift-giving. It is in the family where we first learn to love and relate, to order our obligations, and to orient our activities toward others-oriented ends. It is in the basic, mundane exchanges between husband and wife, brother and sister, parent and child that we learn what it means to flourish.
“Family is the first and foundational ‘yes’ to society because it is the first and foundational ‘yes’ to our nature,” Evan says, “to pour ourselves out like Christ, to be gifts, and to love.” As he says later on, the family is the “school of love.”
Evan has previously shared similar insights here on the blog, offering an “acceptance letter” of sorts to the school of love, including encouragement, cautionary advice, and guidance. All are accepted and called to steward their love wisely and sacrificially, but we would do well to remember that the family is not immune from the destruction of sin. As students of such a school, Christians have a unique responsibility to approach our gift-giving and burden-bearing accordingly.
As a student, you must remember that you learn in a broken world and that you, yourself, are a broken student—a shattered image of God and his love and grace. You will struggle with the mystery, for your acceptance into the School of Love was not based on merit, but the grace and love that overflows from the mystery of God. In these hallowed halls you will be confronted with your own vulnerability and inadequacy. You will be confronted by the brokenness of your classmates. Your true character will be revealed — the old nature as well as the new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). Allow the Triune God to form you into his likeness. Humbly trust that this is his desire, that by abiding in him, you may grow in the grace of Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit…
…Keep offering yourself to your Teacher, God our Father, WHO IS LOVE. Keep offering yourself to your classmates—your family—and your main assignment: to be fruitful and multiply, to replenish the earth and have dominion. Be like our greatest teacher and your adopted brother, Jesus, who empties himself out for you as a glorious sacrifice. Be a loving gift to your class, to your family, at all costs. This is how everyone will truly flourish. This is your first and foremost calling for the life of the world.
Herman Bavinck, the Dutch Reformed theologian, goes a step further in his book, The Christian Family, writing that the family is a “school of life, because it is the fountain and hearth of life”:
The family is and remains the nurturing institution par excellence. Beyond every other institution it has this advantage, namely, that it was not constructed and artificially assembled by man…Even though the family has existed for centuries, we cannot create a likeness; it was, it is, and it will continue to be a gift, an institution that God alone sustains. Furthermore, the family does not consist of a number of empty forms that we need to fill, but it is full of life…A wealth of relationships, a multiplicity of characteristics, a treasure trove of gifts, a world of love, a wonderful intermingling of rights and duties—all of these, once again, are brought together not by human determination but by God’s sovereign determination….
Therefore the nurture that takes place within the family possesses a very special character. Even as the family itself cannot be imitated, so too one cannot make a copy of family nurture. No school, no boarding school, no day-care center, no government institution can replace or improve upon the family. The children come from the family, grow up in the family, without themselves knowing how. They are formed and raised without themselves being able to account for that. The nurture provided by the family is entirely different than that provided by the school; it is not bound to a schedule of tasks and does not apportion its benefits in terms of minutes and hours. It consists not only in instruction, but also in advice and warning, leading and admonition, encouragement and comfort, solicitude and sharing. Everything in the home contributes to nurture—the hand of the father, the voice of the mother, the older brother, the younger sister, the infant in the bassinet, the sickly sibling, grandmother and grandchildren, uncles and aunts, guests and friends, prosperity and adversity, celebrations and mourning, Sundays and workdays, prayers and thanksgiving at mealtime and the reading of God’s Word, morning devotions and evening devotions.
Everything is serviceable for nurturing each other day by day, hour by hour, without plan, without appointment, without technique, all of which are set beforehand. Everything possesses power to nurture, apart from being able to analyze and calculate that power. Thousands of incidents, thousands of trivia, thousands of trifles all exert their influence. It is life itself that nurtures, that cultivates the rich, inexhaustible, multifaceted, magnificent life. The family is the school of life, because it is the fountain and hearth of life.
We may be fallen, and the family may be broken, but God seeks to restore the soil of human relationship and bring life to the economy of love through the blood of the Lamb and the power of the Holy Spirit.
The invitation to be fruitful and multiply is a primary call to God’s people, and it coats and colors all else. We are invited to participate in the restoration of the family, and in doing so, to lay the foundations for the replenishing of the earth. What may seem utterly earthy and mundane — changing diapers, breaking bread, teaching “yes” and “no,” driving kids from here to there — is the starting point for something deeply divine and eternal. The school of love is a school worth attending.
“We learn our nature of love not in grand gestures to save the world, but in the normal, everyday struggle to love, to encourage, to bless those beside us,” Koons concludes. “In family, our character is formed and given to the world.”