If there is one topic that everyone has settled opinions about, it’s family. Every single person has a family. And no family looks or acts the same. Most are basically loving, all are dysfunctional to some degree, but no family is worthless because families can begin to meet the universal human need for belonging. I can relate to the way Matt Groening, creator of the TV show The Simpsons, sums it up: “Families are about love overcoming emotional torture.” If I could put my finger on what he’s saying, it’s that family is wonderful and heartbreaking, sometimes in the same day.
How would you describe your relationship with your family? Do you feel like you truly belong in your family? Do you feel like you fit, are accepted for who you are, and are a vital contributing member? None of us is an island. We are all born to a father and mother, and we all come from a particular people who in many ways define and possess us. But there is also a competing message our culture tells us: while we should love our family, we must not be defined by our family, but instead must go find ourselves in a chosen tribe through individual accomplishments, shared values, or common interests. In this way we must define ourselves by looking within. But here’s the problem: we do not remain the same, and our chosen tribes are subject to the changing times, making us vulnerable to rejection. Can we fall back to find belonging in our family of origin? Many people do this, but some measure of disappointment, heartache, loneliness, loss, and possibly rejection awaits them. Thankfully, the Bible has answers to these questions. And I hope to show you what God has to say in Romans 8:1-17 on the topic of family and belonging is deeply satisfying. Everyone longs and searches for the unconditional love and acceptance that one gains by belonging to a family. Only in the family of God will you find such a sure and unchangeable belonging, which is rooted in the Father adopting us by his Spirit as his own children alongside his only begotten Son, Jesus Christ.
Our Search for Belonging
Justification (vv. 1-4)
Normally we think of the doctrine of justification in sin and guilt categories. This is the legal, objective perspective that the Bible usually emphasizes. But sometimes we forget the subjective side of justification—the way you feel when someone declares you righteous. From this angle you can see the human heart receives justification as acceptance and belonging. We search for a people to declare us righteous and acceptable. If we do not receive a declaration of righteousness from our group, we will feel rejection and won’t feel like we belong. That’s why it’s so difficult for people to be on the receiving end of “I cannot approve of what you believe or how you live, but I still accept you.” It feels like a total rejection because it’s a withholding of justification. And therefore a withholding of belonging.
This is not hard to understand. Everyone who remembers the experience of Middle School and the dynamic of peer groups understands how justification and belonging are connected. It’s fairly easy to be accepted during the elementary school years. If you’re nice and friendly, people will accept you and you’ll find plenty of groups in which you belong. That’s why parents arrange “play dates” for their young children. We say, “See these kids? These are your friends!” It’s sounds ridiculous, but for little kids it works. Most of the time the kids accept each other and form a tight-knit group that shares a sense of belonging. At this stage kids are “justified” (declared acceptable) by other kids simply because they are the same size. But there’s something about a kid turning 10 or thereabout that changes how he is justified. Now he has to search for belonging, and in order to prove he belongs he must show himself worthy of acceptance, worthy of being justified. I had the privilege of helping coach my son’s Little League baseball team this spring. And it was a joy to see this group who didn’t know each other, of different ages and abilities, practice and play together, slowly gelling as a unified team who cheered each other on through adversity—and there was a lot of it! By the end of the season everyone knew their role and relationship to the team. Every kid found they belonged.
Here’s the point: this search for belonging through justification never stops. We all do it, whether we search for justification on a team, in a fraternity or sorority, in the classroom or at the office, with war buddies, in a gang, a group of friends, in a romantic partner, or in your family. Human beings not only need to belong, we need to feel we belong and that we deserve to belong. It’s this sense that you deserve to belong is what the Bible describes as your felt need for justification.
Life and peace (vv. 5-8)
Why do we search for belonging through justification? Because we hope that once we belong, we can stop our restless searching and the life we long for can finally begin. What you really want is peace and to experience a full life, right? No one seeks death and strife. If it appears so then peek under the surface. You’ll discover that if someone is fixated on death and strife, then he is really seeking these only as a means to find life and peace now or later, either on earth or in heaven. We believe if we can truly find life and peace then our search for belonging is over. And so, surrounded by our affirming tribe, we hold out hope that someday we’ll find that elusive sense of belonging. “At last! These are my people. I belong to them and they belong to me. Finally I fit and they accept me. Now I can stop searching and get busy living according to our shared desires, interests, and values.”
Our Obstacle to Belonging
The law of sin and death (vv. 1-4)
Have you ever wondered why your search for belonging always feels unfulfilled? If you’re honest with yourself, you can see that it’s partly your fault, but also partly the fault of others. This passage focuses on the part that is your fault. One way the Bible describes this problem is by explaining a first principle or “law” that is working in every one of us by nature (i.e., in our flesh). This law governs your thoughts, your will, your desires, your words, and your actions. Everything about a person who is governed by this first inherited principle of human nature is controlled by what the Bible calls the law of sin and death. Theologians call it original sin—the fallen nature everyone inherits from our first parents Adam and Eve after they brought sin into the world when they broke the first commandment. This internal law of sin and death impedes your search for belonging by sabotaging you—tempting you to do what you know is wrong and leading you to make awful decisions and do terrible things—resulting in the ruin of your search for belonging and eventually destroying your life. We can see how this works in verses 1-4 by observing the negative side of the contrast. The law of sin and death working within the natural man (the one governed by the flesh) brings condemnation (v. 1). Not just disapproval, but negative judgment and sentencing. Condemnation is about the strongest way of saying “because of what you did, you don’t belong and I will not accept you.” The internal law of sin and death enslaves the natural man—it’s a controlling principle from which you cannot escape—not by your morality, your decision, or your effort. Because you cannot escape, you must be released from this law—set free from its bondage (v. 2). Not even God’s good law can help. Putting your hope and trust in your ability to obey the Moral Law of God, summarizes in the Ten Commandments, has no power whatsoever to set you free (v. 3). In other words, knowing God’s will for your life—what you should believe and how you should behave—still leaves you utterly powerless to escape the law of sin and death that controls everything about you. And here’s the worst part. The law of sin and death doesn’t enslave you against your will. In fact, the Bible says this law fundamentally changes you—it corrupts the way you’re supposed to think so you willingly dwell on and desire the things of the flesh.
The mind-set of the flesh (vv. 5-8)
The law of sin and death creates a mind-set in the person who lives according to the flesh. Whereas the law of sin and death does its controlling work in you and on you, the result is you willfully, actively, and purposefully set your mind on the things of the flesh. Now what does that mean? Paul explains this in his letter to the Galatian church whose members naively believed they could overcome by sheer force of will the law of sin and death working inside them. Listen to what the Bible says the mind-set of the flesh necessarily produces.
Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19-21)
So a person with this mind-set is someone who not only thinks about such things, he also meditates on them, fantasizes about them, and let’s his thought-life run amok concerning them. That doesn’t mean you’re stewing with anger all the time, or constantly rehearsing fictional dialog in your mind with the person you’re at odds with, or never ceasing to recall for private pleasure the sexually explicit images you’ve downloaded into your head. But it does mean that you sometimes, even frequently, entertain such thoughts with the secret glee of feeding on forbidden fruit. Again, the Bible says that when you set your mind on the flesh, you trade in death (v. 6). It doesn’t say the mind-set of the flesh is quite dangerous and might lead to death if you go overboard with it. No, God says the mind-set of the flesh is death.
I saw a tragic story in the news about a little boy who drowned nearly a week after swimming. For those of you who don’t know what “secondary drowning” is, it happens when a person takes water into the lungs where eventually the fluid builds up causing pulmonary edema which results in trouble breathing and leads to death. It’s a terrible way to die, partly because it’s such a surprise, and partly because it seems so inexplicable when it’s happening. The mind-set of the flesh is like secondary drowning. It’s like swimming in the stuff that will certainly kill you. Setting your mind on the flesh is like swimming in death with your mouth wide open, taking it into yourself where it will kill everything about you, including your ability to connect with loved ones. It destroys any chance you have of finding belonging. How is that? Because the sins that the mind-set of the flesh inevitably produce hurt you and others. Sin destroys relationships—tearing apart families, friends, communities, societies, and leaves you alone and estranged in the mess you made. Belonging to no one and no one belonging to you. And the scariest thing is it’s only a matter of time before it happens unless something changes for us.
I’ve tried to paint a stark but accurate portrait of the dilemma you and I face. We need to belong, and most deeply we need to belong to a family that loves and accepts us—to people with whom we fit in every way. Some of you have been searching all your life for that kind of belonging because you still haven’t found who you’re looking for because your family let you down, or hurt you, or even rejected you. Others of you think you’ve found belonging in your family of origin, or the family you’ve created, or in the relationships that provide you some semblance of belonging. But even when your experience of family and sense of belonging are healthy, they cannot bear the weight of ultimate expectations that your heart wants to place in them. Here’s the point: your experience of belonging, whether good or bad, is only a shadow of the real thing—merely a sign pointing to the real and lasting belonging that only God can provide.
God’s Provision for Belonging
Spirit (vv. 9-13)
Some of you might be wondering if I’ve shoe-horned the topics of family and belonging into this Bible text. After all, isn’t this passage about life as a Christian contrasted with people who don’t believe in Jesus? Isn’t it about the contrasts between the flesh and the Spirit, and justification by faith and condemnation for sin? Yes, but look how the rest of the passage describes God’s provision for the obstacle that keeps us from experiencing strife, condemnation, and death. The first thing God provides is himself. Not a command, or a law, or a principle, or an impersonal controlling power, but his very own Spirit. Specifically, when God saves a person from the obstacle to belonging, he gives his Spirit to indwell you, to empower you, to set you free from the law of sin and death, and to change the controlling principle in you from death to life. Verse 9 says that anyone who has the Spirit living in him belongs to God. Having God’s Spirit forever ends your search for belonging, because now you belong to the all-loving, never-changing, life-giving, eternal Father! Your search for life and peace will finally end when you receive the Spirit of life, and then set your mind on the Spirit. How does the Spirit-mindset release you from the law of sin and death? By changing your thoughts, goals, desires, values, and direction in life, and directing you toward the fruit of the Spirit.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. (Galatians 5:22-24)
Don’t miss that this Spirit-mindset is a result of belonging to Christ Jesus.
Family (vv. 14-16)
God’s second provision, which is family, flows from the first. We find belonging when God adopts us into his family. This radically changes our status from spiritual orphans to children of the heavenly Father. Now adopted as children who belong to God, we become fully accepted members of his family, which means that God’s other children become our spiritual brothers and sisters. To get a grasp on this idea we need to briefly consider the nature of family as we know it. The natural family is a good gift from God—a common grace that humans may enjoy regardless of their religion or spiritual state. But the natural family is a temporary shadow meant to point as a sign to God’s eternal family. Please understand that I am not disparaging the natural family. In God’s mysterious plan, the natural family and the spiritual family are not identical, but they are connected for God’s purposes. How so? God makes a covenant with his adopted children to work in and through their natural families.
And Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.’ (Acts 2:38-39)
And then there is human adoption, the grafting of an unnatural child into a natural family. Adoption is also a temporary shadow meant to point as a sign to God’s family. Both signs, natural and adopted children, highlight different truths about God’s family. You are loved and accepted as one who truly belongs to God, even though you are totally reliant on his grace and mercy because in your flesh you do not belong to God. Some of you may be wondering, “OK, I think I understand, so how do I know whether I am in God’s family?”
And so you might ask, “Help me to see how this actually looks in practice?” This notion that Christians are those who have God’s Spirit and who have been adopted into his family is not as abstract as it sounds. One way is listed in verse 16: “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” Have you ever noticed how often Christians can spot another believer? Some of you are better at it than others. But I think every Christian demonstrates a certain ability to sniff out other believers. Yeah, you know what I’m talking about! It’s kind of a sixth sense. How is this possible since Christianity is the most diverse religion in the history of the world? Christians don’t look at all the same. We don’t generally share the same skin color, ethnicity, language, dress, cultural practices, social class, age, sex, ability, or anything else that tends to make people similar. So what explains the phenomenon of Christian Radar? Here’s what I think is the answer: we have the same Spirit living in us which marks us with the same spiritual family resemblance. What this means is if you are being remade inside by God to be more and more like Jesus, you recognize the image of Jesus in others because you know what Jesus is like. You know what he’s like from reading the Bible, and then from observing other Christians as they mature in the spiritual family likeness of Jesus. What is he like? As the Son of God, he possesses every fruit of the Spirit and absolutely no sin. He is so utterly unique compared to every other human being who ever lived. He is the only man who so perfectly embodies truth, goodness, beauty, righteousness, spiritual zeal, humility, boldness, holiness, justice, wisdom, love, sacrifice, and acceptance. He is not imbalanced, limited, or immature at all. In other words, he’s so different he shines in the crowd. When you glimpse a little bit of the image of Jesus in another person, you can see how God’s indwelling Spirit and the adoption of that child of God really shows. That’s why Christians can sense the presence of another spiritual brother or sister. Only by God’s Spirit can anyone cry out to the Almighty, “Abba! Father!” which is like saying to God, “I love you, Daddy!” Loving affection for God the Father and his Son Jesus Christ is a very reliable sign that you are an adopted child in God’s family.
Inheritance (v. 17)
If you’re still wondering how this sense of belonging in God’s family is categorically different than what you’ve happily experienced with your family and friends, then listen closely. There is a tremendous implication that becomes true of a person the instant he is adopted into God’s family. It’s the third provision for belonging that follows God’s first two gift to us (Spirit and family). Being an adopted child of the Father entails sonship and everything legally included in it. When you are adopted into God’s family, you belong to God and become his rightful heir. I doubt most Christians have begun to comprehend what this means! Have you laid hold of the truth that literally everything Jesus Christ inherits as the only begotten Son also belongs to the Christian? The Bible plainly teaches in many passages that Christ’s spiritual brothers and sisters are fellow heirs with him. When a believer is united to Jesus by faith, he shares in everything that belongs to Christ—from the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings to the glory that has already been bestowed upon him. What do believers inherit through Jesus the only begotten Son of the Father? The kingdom of God, heaven and earth, all spiritual blessings, salvation—absolutely everything (Mt 5:5; 19:29; 25:34; 28:18; Rom 4:13; Gal 4:6-7; Eph 1:3-23; Tit 3:4-7; Heb 6:11-12; Jas 2:5; 1 Pet 1:3-5). The amazing thing about God’s provision is that we inherit all the groups we tried to find lasting belonging in before. Now we can enjoy our families and friends because we know who we ultimately belong to. We can enjoy belonging to others as God’s good gifts. We no longer need to belong to them for justification, life, and peace because we have those as children of God.
All God’s provisions only come to us in and through Christ. You won’t find true and lasting belonging any other way except in Jesus Christ. Do you see how the Bible teaches this? Do you feel your heart confirming the truth? Do you believe it? God’s provision of his Spirit is called the Spirit of Christ. We can be adopted into the Father’s family because the Son laid down his life for you and I—he became estranged so we could find true belonging. And we inherit all things as God’s children through our union with Jesus who is the Father’s heir. Remember that even Jesus had a human family, and when they came seeking him while he was teaching, the crowds assumed the family had privileged access to Jesus, thinking his human family took precedent. “But Jesus answered them, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother’” (Mk 3:33-35). C.S. Lewis understood what Jesus said. He put it this way. “God gave us family. And what a precious gift! But it is a gift, not the Giver. Jesus will not allow Himself to be demoted to High Priest in the Temple Of Family Values. When we come to Christ, we leave that Temple behind, never to return, and we spend the rest of our lives recruiting our families to worship Jesus.” Let this sink in. All of us need to reconsider where we are searching for belonging. We need to do a self-assessment of our hearts. Who is your true family? With whom do you belong?
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