‘Unless the Lord builds the house...’

Here are five pointers for how a Christian family should live. They pertain to the very structure of family life. They serve to set the Christian family apart as a distinct “community of life and love.” Ideally these practices would be adopted from the very beginning of a family, that is, from the time that husband and wife each say “I will” at the marriage ceremony.

1. Reject divorce as something non-existent. Jesus was clear that this is distinctive of a Christian family. When the Pharisees asked him whether it is lawful to divorce, he replied that husband and wife “are no longer two but one flesh” and that “what God has joined together, no human being must separate.” Later, when his disciples asked him about this, in order to make it clear that divorce is not simply impermissible but also impossible, a non-reality, he added, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mk 10:11-12). This must be clear to husband and wife from the very beginning of their marriage. Divorce is simply not an option, because it is impossible. This shared understanding then gives an entirely different tone to all of family life. It sets the family apart by placing it in the hands of God and insulating it from the conventions of mere men.

2. Tithe. Aim to give away fully 10 percent of your income after taxes. Give this to your church, the pro-life movement, missionary work, and worthy charities where administrative expenses are low. Adopt this practice from day one of a marriage, and it will be easy to observe and keep. What are the reasons for tithing? First, it acknowledges the Lordship of Christ over one’s household. Second, it is a concrete way in which we offer a sacrifice to God, as did Abel and the patriarchs. Third, it is an act of faith which brings down upon a household the blessings of God: “Dare a man rob God? Yet you are robbing me! And you say, ‘How do we rob you?’ In tithes and in offerings! You are indeed accursed, for you, the whole nation, rob me. Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house, and try me in this, says the Lord of hosts: Shall I not open for you the floodgates of heaven, to pour down blessing upon you without measure?” (Mal 3:8-10).

3. Honor the Sabbath. It’s a commandment, after all. Just as by tithing we acknowledge the Lordship of Christ over our material goods, so by honoring the Sabbath, that is, “the Lord’s Day” (Sunday), we acknowledge the Lordship of Christ over our time. Do not do work on Sunday. Refrain from shopping. Spend the time on the things of God. Make attendance at Sunday worship the evident center of the day (and therefore of the week). Use the rest of the day to learning more about the faith. (Have you read the Catechism yet? Why not, if you can do so every Sunday afternoon?) Spend extra time with your family and friends. Go to parks, museums and concerts. Visit nursing homes or veterans’ hospitals.

4. Pray in common. Mother Teresa never tired of repeating the corny saying that, “The family that prays together stays together”-- because the saying is true. But husband and wife need help in finding time to pray and can assist each other in this. What about a resolution to spend time together reading the Bible first thing in the morning? Or 10 minutes in prayer together just after dinner? We need to reflect each day on how we lived, and express our sorrow to God if we displeased him in any of our actions, affections, or thoughts. This is a basic requirement of Christian life. But husband and wife can help each other by resolving to do this together in the evening for two or three minutes before bedtime.

5. Take meals in common, especially dinner. The way in which we best show our love for someone is by simply spending time with him, and in a family we do this most naturally and best over a common meal. A family which regularly has dinner together around the table is therefore saying through this practice that it values simply being together over everything else. It values being over having or doing. Yet, as studies have shown, there are also many benefits that follow from this. Children do better in school if their family regularly eats together, and they have fewer problems with drugs, alcohol, and obesity. They become more articulate and acquire habits of civility. They learn more about how the world works, and they learn this from their parents.

The psalm says, “Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build. Unless the Lord guard the city, in vain does the guard keep watch. It is vain for you to rise early and put off your rest at night, To eat bread earned by hard toil-- all this God gives to his beloved in sleep” (Psalm 127:1-2).

But how does the Lord build your house? He builds a house, when a house is built upon him -- by practices that shape how it uses time and money, and which serve to orient everything in family life toward God.

Michael Pakaluk is a visiting professor of philosophy at The Catholic University of America.