God uses family as a powerful analogy in the pages of the Bible—but before we can understand the analogy, we have to understand family.
I have 14 nieces and nephews, with a 15th on the way.
That is, in technical terms, a lot of nieces and nephews.
When my wife and I lived in Virginia, we saw most of them on a fairly regular basis. We played with them, babysat them, taught them and, when necessary, tossed them around like human bean bags.
(It was, of course, frequently necessary. And done safely.)
We live farther away now, but we come back and visit every chance we get—and when we do, the changes are obvious. Our nieces and nephews are getting taller, running faster and learning quicker. Their individual personalities are emerging more and more. There’s no mistaking it—the little munchkins are growing up.
But what’s really remarkable isn’t the fact that they’re growing up—it’s how much they’re growing up to be like their parents.
My nieces and nephews don’t know it, but every day, they’re bringing an important verse to life: “Therefore be imitators of God as dear children” (Ephesians 5:1).
Children have an incredible knack for imitating their parents. They pick up on everything. The way their parents talk, the way they walk—every mannerism and every quirk becomes a template for how to behave. They see the values and beliefs their parents live by, and those become their cues for what to make a big deal about and what to shrug off as unimportant.
It’s an incredible thing to watch that process in motion with my nieces and nephews. There’s never any doubt which child belongs to which parent—it’s clear even from casual observation who’s imitating who.
Of course, as we get older, things get more complicated. None of us stay little children forever—we grow up, adopt our own ideas, make our own choices and become our own person.
Jesus knew this and reminded His disciples, “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). As the children of God (1 John 3:1), we ought to be making the conscious decision to imitate our Father in heaven.
But then, that’s easier said than done. The very concept of “God” can be difficult to wrap our heads around: an immortal, all-powerful, all-knowing spirit being, unbound by time and space, without beginning and end, who inhabits eternity and commands the universe.
What does that mean? What does that look like? How are we supposed to begin to understand a God who is, by His very nature, beyond our understanding?
Again and again, God uses the concept of family to help us relate to Him. Yes, He is the omnipotent and eternal God of the universe, but He is also “our Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:8). That makes more sense. Fatherhood is a thing we can make sense of. We know what it means, what it looks like. We’ve seen it, and some of us have even lived it.
Family isn’t just a convenient analogy for understanding God. In fact, God is a family—and the families we have here on earth were designed to mirror that divine institution.But it goes deeper than that. Family isn’t just a convenient analogy for understanding God. In fact, God is a family—and the families we have here on earth were designed to mirror that divine institution.
The apostle Paul wrote about “the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named” (Ephesians 3:14-15)—or, as the New American Standard Bible translates it, “from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name” (verse 15, NASB). God the Father isn’t just a father—He’s the Father, and His family is the model for all families across the world.
Here’s where things start to get uncomfortable:
How you view family is going to affect how you view God.
There’s no way around it. Some of the Bible’s most meaningful insights into the nature of God and His plan for the human race are revealed in terms of the family unit. In other words, if our understanding of family is flawed, so is our understanding of God.
When you read about God “the Father,” how does that make you feel? Proud? Angry? Distrustful? Content? Safe? Scared? Depending on your own father, it could be any number of emotions—because your own experience taught you what the word father means and how to feel about it.
The sad truth is, the way things are and the way God designed things to be are often two different things. The human race has been ignoring God’s instructions for thousands of years, and as a result, the family unit has sustained heavy damage. Because of that, we’re each coming to the table with our own understanding of what family looks like and how it should be.
Maybe you grew up in a single-parent home. Maybe you were adopted or grew up in foster homes. Maybe your parents divorced and remarried. Maybe you lost a parent at an early age. Maybe you were abused.
Maybe you never experienced any of those things and can’t even begin to imagine them. If that’s the bucket you fall into, then good—but remember that for some people, the hypotheticals you just read are a reality they have to live with.
There are other variables too. Maybe you had a dozen siblings; maybe you were an only child. Maybe you grew up wealthy. Maybe you grew up poor. Maybe your parents were great at expressing love. Maybe they weren’t.
The list goes on, but the point is the same: in so many ways, what we mean when we talk about “family” depends on our own personal experiences, for better or worse. But if we really want to understand the family of God, we’ll have to start by letting the Bible redefine our views on what a family really is.
The core of the family
The family unit begins with two people: a husband and a wife. That was God’s intention from the dawn of human history. In the first few pages of the Bible, we read, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24).
God didn’t settle on this “one man, one woman” combination at random. He had a very specific reason for building the family around a tightly knit husband-and-wife team, although the reason why wasn’t completely clear until much later.
In the first century, the apostle Paul offered some instruction for husbands and wives. On the surface, it’s rather simple: “Husbands, love your wives” (Ephesians 5:25), and “Wives, submit to your own husbands” (verse 22). Nothing especially profound there—until we keep reading.
There’s a wealth of insight behind both those verses. Paul continued, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her” (verse 25, emphasis added throughout).
The analogy doesn’t stop there. To the wives, Paul explained, “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church” (verses 22-23).
Paul’s instructions weren’t arbitrary. He wasn’t some first-century preacher on a power trip—He was inspired by God to reveal the reasons behind the family structure. When God instituted marriage all those thousands of years ago, He intended for the relationship between a husband and his wife to reflect the relationship between Christ and the Church. Paul confirmed that for us by going back to Genesis and tying it all together:
“‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church. Nevertheless let each one of you in particular so love his own wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband” (verses 31-33).
Practice makes better
Christ loves the Church; husbands should love their wives. The Church follows Christ; wives should follow their husbands as their husbands follow Christ.
That should be so simple, but it’s not. Loving like Christ loves—even when it’s hard, even when someone is being unlovable, even when it means making a sacrifice—doesn’t come naturally. It takes effort.
And following like the Church follows Christ—even when it’s not clear where we’re going, even when we’re not sure how things will work out, even when the way is difficult for us—that takes effort too. These are traits we develop over a lifetime of practice.
The beauty of these traits, though, is that they work in a cycle. The better we understand the relationship between Christ and the Church, the more we understand about how to be better husbands and wives—and the more we practice being better husbands and wives, the better we understand the relationship between Christ and the Church.
All that is just one aspect of the family of God—just one way it should mirror itself in our own families. We could write books on every aspect—the character traits of God the Father and how they should translate into our own parenting, for example, or what we can learn from Christ as our older Brother, or how being the children of God can teach us to be better children for our own parents.
Each of those subjects is worth exploring and studying on your own, and the more you do, the more you’ll find that the key to understanding God is family—and the key to understanding family is God.
Improving your illustration
In the beginning of this article, I mentioned my nieces and nephews and how they’re bringing a verse to life without even knowing it. Subconsciously or not, they’ve been watching their parents: picking up cues, borrowing phrases and copying mannerisms. When I read about imitating God as “dear children,” they make it easy to visualize what that means.
What about you? What aspect of the family of God are you illustrating—and who’s watching?What about you? What aspect of the family of God are you illustrating—and who’s watching?
Because you are illustrating a family role that goes beyond the physical—even if you don’t know it. Son or daughter, brother or sister, husband or wife, father or mother—if any of those labels apply to you, that makes you a model in someone else’s eyes. That can make you a leaping-off point for understanding God.
Husbands, the way we treat our wives is going to impact the way they look at Christ. If we are oppressive or childish or disinterested and disengaged, how much harder will it be for them not to paint their Savior with the same brush?
Wives, the way you treat your husbands is going to impact the way they look at their role in the Church. If you belittle them or subvert them or consistently second-guess them, how much harder will it be for them to be led by Christ without doing the same thing?
Parents, the way you treat your children is going to impact the way they interact with their Father in heaven. If you don’t show them love and give them boundaries and teach them right from wrong, how much harder will it be for them to come before their Heavenly Father without resentment or indifference?
What will they see?
One of the hardest things to find in the Bible—even when it comes to God’s most faithful servants—is a solid family unit. From Abraham to David, you’ll find many families that are rocky at their best moments and tumultuous at their worst.
Why? Because families aren’t easy, and you and I aren’t perfect. We’re never going to set the perfect example—and even if we could, that’s only part of the equation. We’re setting an example, yes, but what others do with that example isn’t up to us. All we can do is our best, keeping in mind that what we do matters.
Whoever you are, your actions are helping to define what “family” means in the eyes of those you influence. It’s up to you whether those actions make it easier for them to understand God—or more difficult.
So let them see love.
Let them see respect.
Let them see a dedication for doing the right thing, no matter the cost. Let them see a heart that cares and hands that serve. Let them see humility and patience and gentleness. Let them see, in every word and in every action, a servant of God eager to do His will.
And then, maybe—just maybe—we can be part of the reason they see what it means to be in the family of God.
For further reading, see our article “Building Strong Families.”