Leo Tolstoy famously wrote, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The problem is that I’ve yet to meet a family that fits into Tolstoy’s tidy categories of “happy” and “unhappy.” The reality is far messier. Put tears and laughter, love and betrayal, fights and hugs into a blender and out will come a family. Even in homes where the walls are decorated with portraits of grinning moms and dads and kids, there’s usually a closet door that’s kept shut. Last week we were reminded of that, when the media flung open that door in the Duggar family home. And the skeletons came spilling out.
Josh Duggar, now twenty seven, the oldest son in TLC’s hit show, “19 Kids and Counting,” sexually abused five underage girls—four of them his sisters—when he was in his early teens. On the family’s Facebook page, Josh, his wife, and his parents have acknowledged this, as well as described how they addressed the abuse a dozen years ago when it occurred. Josh, who had been a lobbyist in Washington D.C. for the Family Research Council, has since resigned his position. And TLC will not be airing any episodes of “19 Kids and Counting” for the foreseeable future.
What happened within this family is many things—tragic and abusive, shameful and selfish, destructive and deceptive. It is all manner of evil, no matter how you look it. But there is one thing that it is surely not: it is not surprising. Not in the least. The only ones stunned by this revelation of abuse are most likely those who assume that the Duggar family image on their reality show does, in fact, accurately reflect reality. But there is no reason why this family’s secret should be shocking, especially to the Christian. The Duggars are not the pristine, ideal family that their television show portrays them as being. They never have been, nor will they ever be. Nor is any family. They are parents, sons, and daughters who have a civil war raging within each of them. It just so happens that Josh’s particular battles, and the pain he inflicted upon others as a result, have taken center stage.
Consider these words: “I don’t understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” These are the words of Paul, the one we’ve dubbed Saint Paul. He frankly admits that he’s anything but a model of moral perfection. “I do the very thing I hate,” he admits. He’s got a civil war raging inside him, too. He’s fully sinful in himself and fully righteous in Jesus Christ, all at the same time. He is what the Reformers called simul justus et peccator (simultaneously saint and sinner). What Paul’s particular struggles were, what those things he hated were, he doesn’t say. He doesn’t have to. He’s simply upfront about his condition—the fallen, curved-in-on-itself human condition.
As it was with Paul, so it is with the Duggars, and so it is with every Christian: each of us lugs around an old corrupt nature that we won't shed this side of the grave. Of course, that nature rears its ugly head in different ways with each person, sometimes in ways that must be addressed with spiritual as well as psychological help. With Josh, sadly, it was through sexual abuse; with others it's through addictions and greed and hate and selfishness of every kind. But one thing is certain: not just Josh but all of us harbor our demons. And the sinful nature within us is daily clawing its way out to manifest itself in ways great and small, public and private. Only liars and fools pretend otherwise.
The sooner we as individual Christians, as Christian families, and as churches present ourselves to the world that way, the better. Believers face more than petty allurements, make more than “mistakes.” We fail and fall in mega ways.
Dear world, do you struggle with alcohol or drug abuse? So do we believers.
Dear world, has your family been wounded by infidelities? So have ours.
Dear world, have your children hurt each other through sexual abuse? Yes, ours too.
Dear world, do your families members commit crimes and end up in prison? Ours too.
Dear world, do you have a closet full of skeletons? So do we Christians.
The greatest witness that Christians can present to the world is not their own morality, their ideal family, or their dream marriage, but their weaknesses and sins and failures, all of which have been atoned for by the crucified and resurrected Jesus. Our witness is never, “Look at how well we’re doing at being good,” but always, “Look at the good Savior who died for our evils.”
Here’s what happens inside the closed doors of Christian families: sinners live together in very close proximity. And you know what that means. Husbands who are righteous in Christ, but sinful in themselves, do and say mean and hurtful things to their wives. Wives who are righteous in Christ, but sinful in themselves, do and say mean and hurtful things to their husbands. Christian children mess up big time, rebel, and yes, sometimes sexually abuse others. We do terrible things. Tempers flare, eyes lust, tongues yell. In other words, sinners act the way sinners are. We are no better than the world is. Nor should we claim to be. We are far from perfect. We are by nature sinful and unclean. And because of that, we return, again and again, to the blood Christ shed that atones for our sins—the same blood, dear world, that has atoned for yours as well.
Christians families do not live on the mountaintop of morality but at the foot of the cross of Jesus Christ. In his shadow is shelter from the burning sun of iniquity. Whatever repercussions Josh may experience from what he’s done, he will find at the foot of the cross a God who does not punish him, but says, “I love you. I have forgiven you. My blood has made you whiter than snow.” If this seems scandalous, then you’re beginning to understand the grace of Christ. Christ’s love is a scandalous gift. He didn’t die for the not-so-sinful portion of humanity. He was crucified for all. He died for sexual abusers, murderers, gossips, hatemongers, adulterers, pornographers, and you—whoever you are, whatever skeletons may be piled in your family closet.
But there’s still more that Jesus did. Christ took upon himself the shame that others inflict upon innocent victims. He lived and died and rose again for the girls that Josh abused. The battered wife, the rape victim, the child whose bedtime lullaby was the screams of a drunk father—these who have been physically, emotionally, and psychologically harmed by the evils of others, they too find peace and wholeness in the battle-torn, broken body of the Son of God. He didn’t just die to forgive us for the wrongs we do, but to provide us with healing from the wrongs others do to us. For in Christ, the Spirit puts us into communion with a restoring God. He gives us the peace that passes understanding. Not the evil that others have done to us, but the good Christ has done for us, is what defines who we are. We are God’s sons and daughters. We are adopted into the family of a Father whose greatest joy is loving and embracing us as the dearest things in all creation to him.
Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar have said, “We pray that as people watch our lives they see that we are not a perfect family.” We would echo that prayer, and add to it. I would pray that as people watch their lives—and as they watch the life of my family as well—they would see families that boast only of their weaknesses, that do not deny their flaws, and that find peace and healing only in Jesus Christ.
We are all the Duggars. We are all dysfunctional sinners living in flawed families upheld by grace. There is only one who is perfect, the one who became our sin, that in him we might become the righteousness of God. And in his wounds, bleeding with love, all of us find healing.
Chad is an author and speaker who's devoted to honest Christianity that addresses the raw realities of life with the liberating Gospel of Jesus Christ. Chad has served as a pastor and assistant professor of OT theology, contributed hymns to the Lutheran Service Book, and cohosts the podcast “Forty Minutes in the OT.” He holds Master's degrees from Concordia Theological Seminary and Hebrew Union College. In addition to writing the books, Christ Alone and The Infant Priest, he has contributed articles to Modern Reformation, The Federalist, Concordia Pulpit Resources, and other journals. His new book with Eerdmans, Night Driving: Notes from a Prodigal Soul, is now available for pre-order at Amazon. His writings and other resources can be found at his website, chadbird.com. Chad and his wife, Stacy, enjoy life together in the Texas Hill Country.