Some marriages are entered into by two reasonably healthy people who have learned to use effective boundaries in their lives and who rely primarily on God to meet their needs. We find such a family in the New Testament story of Joseph and Mary, the mother of Jesus.
1. Both marriage partners must be completely dedicated to God and desire the will of God in their lives. Doing God’s will should be even more important to them than becoming married to a particular person. Mary was so humble and dedicated to having the will of God carried out in her life that she risked her coming marriage to Joseph. When the angel came to Mary, she openly accepted the will of God even though she did not understand it. Becoming pregnant before she was married would probably bring her disgrace, emotional pain, and an end to her engagement to Joseph.
Lu 1:38 And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her. They were both submitted to the direction of God in their lives and to each other.
Joseph was also open to the will of God and took Mary to be his wife in spite of the fact that she was already pregnant. It must have been hard for him to believe that she was somehow pregnant without having a relationship with other man even after the angel of the Lord revealed this to him in a dream. It is doubtful that any of his friends or the people of Nazareth would have believed this “story.”
Mt 1:20 But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost.
2. They must believe that God has their best interests in mind no matter what He asks them to do. Elizabeth complimented Mary on her faith in God and declared that what was promised would come to pass.
Lu 1:41 And it came to pass, that, when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost: 42 And she spake out with a loud voice, and said, Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. 45 And blessed is she that believed: for there shall be a performance of those things which were told her from the Lord.
3. They must be dedicated to working together as a team to do what God directs, in spite of what difficulties life might bring. A joint vision is essential to a strong marriage. The fact that Mary accompanied Joseph all the way to Bethlehem to register for the census when she was about to give birth is amazing. This trip is more than 70 miles mostly on rough trails and must have taken a number of days! Later, when Joseph had a dream that Herod would try to destroy the child, they left immediately that night for Egypt. When Joseph received another dream, they returned to Israel.
4. They must learn to work together for the betterment of the family and not easily give up. Joseph and Mary’s unity and teamwork are clearly illustrated when Jesus was twelve years of age. He stayed behind in Jerusalem after the Passover celebration and somehow they were not aware of it. When they did not find Him immediately, they sought him among the relatives. When they did not locate Him, they both returned to Jerusalem and kept searching together for three whole days. They did not seem to blame each other. (Luke 2:43-50)
5. The parents of a healthy family must demonstrate the healthy use of boundaries to resolve family disagreements. When they finally found Jesus, they simply asked Him why He had stayed in Jerusalem. Jesus’ answer shows that His action was the result of a boundary disagreement. It should be understood that when, in the Hebrew tradition, a boy turned 12 years old, he was considered a man and capable of making his own decisions. They expected Jesus to follow them home because He was their son, but He felt that He needed to stay longer in Jerusalem to prepare for what his Father in heaven was calling Him to do. He expected them to understand this. Even though they probably did not really understand His point of view, they accepted it; and He returned home and was obedient to them. The result of their healthy handling of this boundary situation was that Jesus increased in wisdom and favor in His relationships.
Lu 2:48 And when they saw him, they were amazed: and his mother said unto him, Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing. 48 And he said unto them, How is it that ye sought me? wist ye not that I must be about my Father's business? 50 And they understood not the saying which he spake unto them. 51 And he went down with them, and came to Nazareth, and was subject unto them: but his mother kept all these sayings in her heart. 52 And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.
6. Effective and honoring communication skills are essential for a healthy family. At the wedding in Canaan, they ran out of wine. Mary succinctly approached Jesus with care that appropriate boundaries be maintained between them. He made it clear that He was now a grown man, so she did not have the right to tell Him what to do. She honored Him by telling the servants to do whatever He said and did not even suggest what choice He should make. This showed faith that He would do the right thing.
Jo 2:3 And when they wanted wine, the mother of Jesus saith unto him, They have no wine. 4 Jesus saith unto her, Woman, what have I to do with thee? mine hour is not yet come. 5 His mother saith unto the servants, Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it. When I counsel families, I sometimes use Boundaries (1992), the Boundaries Workbook (1995), Boundaries in Marriage (1998), and Boundaries with Children (1999) by Cloud and Townsend as resources. For communication and gender differences I use Hidden Keys of a Loving Lasting Marriage (1988) by Gary Smalley. For families on the verge of divorce, I recommend Before a Bad Goodbye (1999) by Tim Clinton, and for families with older children who are out of control, I suggest Parenting Teens with Love and Logic (1992) by Cline and Faye. More recently I have found Safe Haven Marriage (Hart and Morris, 2003) and Love and Respect (Eggerichs, 2004) especially useful.
7. Doing the will of God must be even more important than the family itself. When Jesus’ mother and brothers came wanting to speak to Him; He clearly set a boundary concerning His priorities. As a grown man, he must do the will of God rather than the desires of His family.
Mk 3:31 There came then his brethren and his mother, and, standing without, sent unto him, calling him. 32 And the multitude sat about him, and they said unto him, Behold, thy mother and thy brethren without seek for thee. 33 And he answered them, saying, Who is my mother, or my brethren? 34 And he looked round about on them which sat about him, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren! 35 For whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, and my sister, and mother.
8. When conflicts arise, healthy family members do not try to control the other members, do not put others down for their choices, and set the other members free to make their own decisions and live with the consequences of their decisions. Jesus brothers suggested that He should go up to the feast, so he could increase his public following. Jesus explained that it was not yet time for him to do that. They went to the feast anyway. This clearly demonstrates a healthy level of separateness in this family, even though they did not agree on everything. In fact, His brothers were not even convinced He was the Messiah.
9. Love for each other (having the other’s best interest in mind) must take priority (even under the most dire circumstances). Even when Jesus was hanging on the cross, he still showed concern for His mother. By that time Joseph must have already died or he would have been there. Jesus directed John to provide for Mary’s needs, since He would no longer be able to do so.
Jo 19:26 When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he saith unto his mother, Woman, behold thy son! 27 Then saith he to the disciple, Behold thy mother! And from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home.
10. The real test of a healthy family is how the members of the next generation function during the remainder of their lifetime. Jesus, Mary’s son, went to the cross for all of mankind. His mother and brothers were all in the upper room at Pentecost. Jesus brother James became one of the main leaders in the church in Jerusalem along with Peter. In spite of all the difficulties that this family suffered, Joseph and Mary successfully passed on the torch of serving and obeying God unto the next generation.
Someone might complain that using the family of Jesus as a model moves it out of the realm of human possibilities. I do not believe that this is a valid point because Joseph and Mary appeared healthy even before Jesus’ birth. Just because one of the members of the family was perfect (Jesus), this did not necessarily insure that all the members would be healthy. David’s family was lead by a man after God’s own heart and was very dysfunctional. We are all called to be conformed to the image of Jesus through faith. No matter where we might be today, God expects us to become more functional through the process of salvation. This is made possible by faith each day until we become the glorious, whole, healthy individuals and family members that He created us to be. It is also God’s goal that our families be transformed in a similar manner.