A Matter of Survival

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“You need to either get married or put him out,” her pastor said. The alternatives were just that clear. Living with a man who was not her husband, living that sort of lifestyle before her children, was both immoral and destructive. Regardless of the convenience of such an arrangement, it was fundamentally wrong. Even if she weren’t a Christian and had no understanding of scriptural truth, common sense would tell her that living together without the commitment of marriage kept a relationship tentative and insecure at best. But she was a Christian and had made a commitment to live by God’s Word. Even if it meant sacrifice, her pastor told her, she must be obedient and turn away from sinful practices. God could be relied upon to sustain her even if she had to raise the children alone. “You can’t marry him!” her incredulous social worker exclaimed. No matter that he was the father of her children. It would be a disaster to marry a man who hasn’t held a steady job in his whole life. She would lose her welfare benefits, her health coverage for the children. It would be foolish to threaten the fragile support system that had taken her so long to work out, just for the sake of being able to say she was married. If he were disabled, that might be different. Then he’d have an excuse for lying around the house and would at least have some sort of predictable disability income. But getting married now would serve no constructive purpose. And why put him out? He might be lazy and irresponsible but he was OK with the children, right? At least not abusive. A leach, perhaps, but he wasn’t out chasing after other women all the time. And there was something to be said for the children’s daddy being present in their lives.

“All this poverty, all these broken families will never be transformed unless we have faith enough to trust God and do what’s right in His eyes,” her pastor urged. He understood the social worker’s pragmatic reasoning, he said, but it was devoid of moral grounding. It’s the way society thinks: make whatever compromises you have to in order to get by; don’t report the children’s father to the authorities for non-support; tell half-truths to keep the checks coming. How would we ever make a redemptive impact on our world unless we chose the higher ground, difficult though that may be? Honorable work, keeping the law, striving to be a people of the highest integrity — this is what God requires of His children. Do this and we can count on Him to supply all our needs “according to His riches in glory.”

“And who’s going to watch the children while you’re at work?” her social worker challenged. Childcare would be far too costly, even for one child, let alone three, especially on a minimum wage job. And their grandmother was just not physically able. It could work if their daddy were at home. Yes, that was undoubtedly the best solution. And staying under 30 hours per week would not threaten their government health coverage. A decent-paying full-time job with a family health care plan would not be a reasonable expectation for an employee with no marketable skills. Work was important, her counselor affirmed, but first priority was taking care of those babies.

“So you’re not going to get married?” her pastor inquired. “And continue living in sin?” Disappointment registered in his eyes. If she put it off, as she was hinting, until the children were through school, much of the damage would have already been done. Irrevocably. The broken model of family that would be imprinted in the children’s values would inevitably be replicated in their lives. When would it all end? When would children of the city see living examples of Godly courage, of women who demanded to be treated with dignity and respect, of intact families with two parents committed to each other and sharing equally in the joys and responsibilities of home? Perhaps she was just too weak, too beat down to muster the strength to do what was right.

“I’m amazed at your strength,” her social worker affirmed. To work a nearly full-time job, keep a household running, juggle the schedules of three children, endure the frustrations of an unproductive live-in man, keep the government agencies at bay, and still find time to have the kids clean, dressed and ready for school five days a week and church on Sunday — this was a monumental accomplishment. What love! What an example to her children!

Bob Lupton

An excerpt from my new book, Compassion Justice and the Christian Life: Rethinking Ministry to the Poor

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