The Holy Spirit in family life

Lecturer, author and mum, Helen Collins shows us how we can let the Holy Spirit change and improve the sometimes mundane, chaotic and difficult aspects of our closest relationships.

This article was published in the May to August 2022 edition of Rapport magazine.

Recently, I have been wrestling with ‘the second shift’ of emotional labour which I do each day in addition to my job.

I work full-time as a tutor in a vibrant theological college. Each day, I prepare and teach classes, mark assignments, supervise research projects, care for students and oversee placements. I write reports, academic papers, sermons, evaluations, and occasionally get to work on my own research. Just like many other jobs, each day is full and demanding. I juggle complex responsibilities, trying to respond professionally and compassionately to diverse situations, all whilst trying to keep on top of my inbox and to-do list, which increase profusely whenever my back is turned.

At the end of each working day, what I most crave is a cup of tea and 30 minutes lying down in a darkened room. However, with three school-aged children and a working husband, my second shift begins the moment I walk through the door. Each morning and evening, in addition to sharing the cooking, washing up, laundry, cleaning, tidying, shopping, gardening and finances, and alongside the life admin, taxiing around, homework-helping, argument-resolving, friend-hosting, cake-making, present-buying, toy-mending, screen-policing, touchline-cheering, music-practising, church-volunteering and holiday-planning, I am called upon to provide what I have termed ‘emotional labour’.

This additional workload became particularly apparent with the pre-teen years of my children and seems set to increase, exponentially, over the next decade. This work is nebulous and unpredictable, usually emerging right when the dinner is burning, the washing is getting wet in the rain and the Zoom church meeting is just about to start. Its content can be anything: relationship struggles, boundary negotiation, identity formation, decision-making, emotions management, ethical wrestles, faith questions, ideas interpretation, and worldview-testing to name a few. Its needed response is especially mysterious, and may require listening, affirmation, gentle challenge, giving advice, humour, offering suggestions, discussing ideas, empathising, internet research, professional help, or no response whatsoever. Usually, the only way you know which response is appropriate is after you have already given the wrong one!

Of all my many tasks in any given day, this is the one which feels the most difficult, costly and significant. And so, like all theologians, I escape into my research work, in the hope of finding a Holy-Spirit-enthused response to my state of overwhelm. I am currently writing a book which is seeking to define Charismatic Christianity, and I am using seven headings to organise my definition: expectancy, enchantment, encounter, expression, equality, empowerment and enjoyment. In the Lee Abbey week in July, I shall be using these same headings to structure discussions about how we partner with the Holy Spirit in the challenges of contemporary family life. This is the beginning of my attempt to do that under three of the headings.

Expectancy

‘When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place’

Acts 2:1

The outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost which birthed Christ’s church becomes a pattern for our own discipleship. It means we can expect God, in Christ, by the Spirit, to act in the world and in our lives in tangible ways which are visible to others. God is not far off, nor disinterested in human affairs, nor unfathomable in his holy transcendence. Rather, God gives His very self to us by His Spirit, through repentance and baptism into Christ’s church, and gifts knowledge of Him and relationship with Him to those who believe. Thus, we can expect to know and to encounter God right in the chaos and monotony of our daily lives. We can expect to discern Christ at work in the world, bringing transformation, healing, salvation, reconciliation, comfort and justice. We can expect to encounter His Spirit both personally and corporately, as the Spirit is poured out on each one gathered together.

Having this general sense of expectancy means that I can approach my emotional labour with my children in hopeful anticipation that God is already at work within it. Rather than something to fear or resent or be overwhelmed by, I can engage in this daily labour receptive to the possibility of meeting God precisely in those places. I can be expectant that God is ‘doing stuff’ in the lives of my children: perhaps He is quietly expanding horizons, challenging injustice, growing compassion, inviting intercession, or inspiring action. And in the mode of expectancy, I can welcome the interruption of God, in the guise of my children’s emotional needs, as an invitation to draw close to Him and prayerfully sift through the drama, trying to notice the threads of grace.

Equality

‘… each one heard them speaking in the native language of each’

Acts 2:6

When the Spirit comes, He reconciles all that divides humans, and gifts the miracle to transcend language barriers and enable communication. This is not a miracle of outsiders assimilating into the dominant discourse but of disciples lending their tongues and voices to speak on the listeners’ terms. Willie Jennings calls this a miracle of joining, where God’s desire for those outside overflows in multiple different languages, and in so doing, makes each different language holy. Through this tongue-speaking exchange, the Spirit transforms both speakers and hearers, but not into one homogenous mass of sameness. Rather, each is transformed and embraced into a united community of difference, where the differences are maintained and celebrated.

Sometimes speaking with my pre-teens can feel like we speak different languages. A recognition of the egalitarian nature of the Spirit’s work means that I can approach those conversations not as me trying to convince them of my viewpoint, nor, conversely, feeling like I have nothing of value to offer. Rather, I can engage knowing that the Spirit delights to reveal Christ in diverse tongues and loves to pour out the gifts of interpretation and discernment on His people.

‘When the Spirit comes, sons and daughters prophesy, the young see visions and the old dream dreams.’

Acts 2:17

How can I hear the prophetic voice of the Spirit through my children, how can I rejoice over the language of their young visions, whilst also sharing the language of my old dreams? I realise I am not seeking assimilation, domination or divergence, but rather I can embrace unity in difference. Seeing us as both speakers and hearers of the Spirit creates space for mutual learning and exploration, within which we hope to discern together God’s deeds of power.

Enjoyment

‘Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God …’

Acts 2:46-7

This Spirit-birthed community must embrace the task of living well together as Christ’s body. Whilst this account of the early church can sound quite idealised, we see plenty of occasions in Acts where tensions and disagreements arise within the community, and thus Luke isn’t trying to give us a picture of a perfect community, just the distinctive markers of a Christian one. Central to their life together is devotion to the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, eating, sharing and praying. These daily Christ-shaped practices bring gladness, generosity and favour as they enjoy time with one another and with God.

When my daughter read the beginning of this article, her response was ‘it sounds like you don’t enjoy being a parent!’ I certainly find it helpful to be reminded that eating daily with fellow believers is a grace, and a privilege which many of my brothers and sisters around the world do not have. Wondrously, this gift of table fellowship includes daily meals times with my kids. Therefore, I am consciously seeking to enjoy family mealtimes as opportunities for spiritual fellowship. We intentionally recount stories from our day, tell jokes, play games and each share something from the day for which we have been thankful. This daily choice to enjoy one another’s company might only last 10 minutes and continues amidst sibling squabbles and frequent spillages. Yet hopefully, despite the obstacles, these small practices nurture fellowship which situates the emotional labour in something bigger and more enduring than these whirlwind few years of parenting teenagers.

Whilst these three themes don’t give easy answers or step-by-step how-to guides, they are, in small ways, helping me to reframe my emotional labour within the wider context of discipleship and spirituality. I am learning to see these times as opportunities to meet God and be formed by Him. When I can be expectant of meeting God through equal exchanges with my kids as part of enjoying one another’s company, I notice in myself an increased sense of peace and perspective. I am learning to receive God’s grace for my mistakes and to create space and find joy in the opportunities for fellowship. Maybe in this way, the emotional labour can become less about additional difficult work at the end of each day, and more about labour as birthing the new life of Christ in us, one chaotic day at a time.

Helen Collins is a Lecturer in Practical Theology at Trinity College, Bristol. She is the author of Reordering Theological Reflection: Starting with Scripture (SCM), and has also published a booklet entitled Mary the Worshipping Mother: Reclaiming Mary’s Motherhood for Contemporary Mums (Grove). Her forthcoming publication is called Charismatic Christianity with Baker Academic Publishers. Helen is married to Simon and they have three children.

Join Helen at Lee Abbey Devon in July

Helen Collins is leading a family holiday week on this very topic at Lee Abbey Devon this summer.

The Holy Spirit in Family Life
25–31 July 2022 (Mon–Sun)

“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and you will be my witnesses…to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8). All very well for the first disciples, but what does this mean for busy parents in the chaos and routine of 21st century family life? How can the gifts of the Spirit equip and sustain us in the ministry of parenting? What does it mean for the Holy Spirit to nurture and guide family life? These are some of the questions we hope to answer this week – or at least wrestle with together.


Posted on 27 April 2022