Family can be a tricky thing, especially as it is connected to our identity as an individual. The scope of unhealthy family dynamics can range from negligence to idolization.

On the one hand we can make family a golden calf, worshiping our image of what the “perfect” family would look like and how it should function. We trade a dependence on God and an inter-dependence with community for a co-dependency with a vain imagination that ends up self-sabotaging the very ideal we were seeking to attain.

On the other hand, we, especially us as leaders, can make decisions to secure the health and longevity of an organization or community yet to the detriment of those who are closest and most dear to us. This even plays in the family structure itself with the picture of a parent working overwhelmingly to provide for the future, yet at the injury of relationship with their spouse or children.

The story of Jephthah (Judges 11:1-12:7) has many layers to it. One of the threads running through the account is that of family.

Jephthah was an outcast, a son of a prostitute whose family and community drove him away. That was, until, they were in dire circumstances and needed his skill and leadership. He proved to be a good warrior, attempted to be diplomatic to avoid war, helped saved Israel and is listed in Hebrews 11 as someone whose faith accomplished great things. But like all the other men and women in Hebrews 11, he made some disastrous choices.

Jephthah made a vow to the Lord before a battle, that if God would give him victory he would offer a burnt offering, sacrificing the first thing that came out of his house upon his return. In the Ancient Near East, some animals were often in sections of the house, like an attached barn, to keep safe and warm at night. But it wasn’t a goat or a bull that came out of the house first, rather it was his only child, a nameless daughter.

There’s debate due to language, theology, and cultural context about whether Jephthah killed his daughter or dedicated her to temple service. What is clear is that she was sacrificed one way or another. This caused devastation (12:35), weeping (37), and a remembrance (40) of the incident into Jewish tradition. But hey, the battle was won, and Israel was saved for the time being. Jephthah succeeded, right?

As leaders and servants in the kingdom of God, we have all wrestled with issues of legitimacy and significance. Jephthah had hurtful words spoken to him about being an illegitimate son of a prostitute (a matter he had no choice in). I can imagine that when the community who ostracized him now wanted him back, there was a deep thought that this could be the chance to redeem himself in their eyes.

God loves taking the “loser” or the nobody and turning things upside down to display His power and grace in them. We see this over and over in scripture. But this redemption is the work of God and when we try to add to God’s work, whatever our intention, or redeem ourselves or lead in order to prove ourselves things can get twisted. Allowing wounds of our familial past to continue to speak over us can lead to the loss of family in the future.

Jephthah already had everything he needed to do the work set before him; the Spirit of the Lord came upon him (12:29). Being led and empowered by the Spirit doesn’t sanctify everything we do, nor does it all of a sudden take away our responsibility, putting us on some type of autopilot. The vow he made to perform a burnt sacrifice came afterwards, almost like a religious insurance policy. He didn’t need to make the vow and ended up sacrificing something that God never asked him to sacrifice.

Being in flow of God’s Spirit means not being negligent but also not forcing something into being, which will lead to a false security. Being in the flow of God’s Spirit means both responding to a call to “Go” and the wisdom to say “No” to things.

As children of God and disciples of Christ, there is no doubt we are called into generosity, sacrifice, and participation through the various ways we minister, whether in suffering or resurrection. But all of this is in light of the finished work of Christ and His sacrifice. God will take care of His family and cares a lot more than any of us (or all of us combined) about His church. May we have faith in God’s heart for His people and His creation.