"If the Lord thinks you need punishing, you can trust him to see to it. He knows where to find you. If he's showing you a little grace in the meantime, he probably won't mind if you enjoy it." Marilynne Robinson

The Challenge of Faith and Forgiveness in a Christian Family

I’m watching a miracle unfold in my family. Four sons, imperfectly parented, are growing into healthy, responsible, and strong young men. Two of them have even gone on to become imperfect parents themselves, and somehow, by grace, we just keep on forgiving one another for offenses, both big and small, with the understanding that family ties are God’s great gift for teaching us how to get along. When we forgive, we discover how to start over, how to fall back and regroup relationally, and this is also how we receive God’s love and forgiveness for our many failures.

It’s been six years since Marilynne Robinson last added to her Gilead series, and Jack, the fourth in the series, is definitely worth the wait. The eponymous hero of the story gets my vote for literature’s most frustrating character. He shows up as the troubled (and troubling) fly in the ointment in both Gilead and Home, but my heart softened toward him this time as I read backstory that connected the dots between the unhappy man and the rascally boy who functioned as a complete mystery to his father, the Reverend Boughton, a Presbyterian clergyman.

A Puzzling Character and a Tragic Setting

This fourth novel in the series puts meat on the bones of Jack’s life story as, with pure loveliness, Robinson’s narration gives voice to Jack’s interior monologue which reveals a man just as puzzled by himself as he is inscrutable to others:

On the one hand, there was jail time and destitution and a slightly battered face, and on the other, there were neckties and polished shoes and a number of lines of Milton.”

A self-confessed atheist, Jack continually evokes the name of Jesus, and it’s not always clear whether he’s praying or cursing.

Sliding into love, almost against his will, Jack’s interracial romance with Della stands in opposition to his resolve to make a vocation of “harmlessness,” a condition that has always seemed just out of his reach and for which he has no natural talent. How does a man pursue the woman he loves when they live in an era in which their relationship is considered a crime and his presence in her life would undo everything she has accomplished and alienate her from her close-knit family?

Entering into this dilemma with Jack allows the reader to put flesh and blood on an egregious fault line in our country’s history. Ironically and tragically, when Jack has finally begun to behave honorably toward a woman, a racist society discredits the relationship as dishonorable.

"If the Lord thinks you need punishing, you can trust him to see to it. He knows where to find you. If he's showing you a little grace in the meantime, he probably won't mind if you enjoy it." Marilynne Robinson

Faith, Family, and Forgiveness

In an interview with the New York Times in 2014, Marilynne Robinson lamented “There’s a lot of writing about religion with a cold eye, but virtually none with a loving heart.” Certainly faith and those who practice it professionally show up in her books, but there’s no getting around the sadness in this novel– or the uncomfortable stiffness to the Christianity Jack learned and practiced in his home. The hollowness shows up in his load of shame carried forward, and if home is a metaphor for the soul in literature, Jack’s having a hard time finding a place to land on both levels.

It’s no secret that Christian families (and ministry families in particular) have unique challenges: passing along a vibrant faith free of church politics; living truth before our kids in the grittiness of our everyday routine; engaging in worship that does not feel like work. Jack’s faith appears to have been shaped by his father’s existential fear for Jack’s soul, a fear that found its way into Boughton’s sermons and most of his conversations with his son. Sadly, Jack may speak for many adults who have grown up in a pew and are struggling to find their way into ownership of their faith and a place to stand in the church gathered:

I guess I feel at home in a church. Not at ease, but at home.”

Even though his lifestyle choices continually put him in the way of misfortune, Jack still gravitated to the church, and his mind was full of its words and music. It was in his conversations with Pastor Samuel Hutchins that Jack began to reveal some of his deep regrets and the load of shame he carried. Clearly, Jack was an enigma to Pastor Hutchins who, nonetheless, struggled to blaze a trail back to grace for an obviously troubled man:

If the Lord thinks you need punishing, you can trust him to see to it. He knows where to find you. If he’s showing you a little grace in the meantime, he probably won’t mind if you enjoy it.”

Jack is a cautionary tale for Christian families. As tempting as it may be to re-work our theology to accommodate the sins of our children and as slippery the slope into despair over our prodigals may be, God is still in the process of dispensing grace to us and to our children. In the meantime, I’m grateful for fiction that invites me to own the brokenness in my own story, to embrace my need for repentance and meaningful change, and to trust for clear-eyed judgment concerning all the ways in which I may be my own worst enemy.

Many thanks to NetGalley and to Farrar, Straus, and Giroux for providing a copy of this book to facilitate my review, which, of course, is offered freely and with honesty.

Michele Morin

I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees. If you should decide to purchase Jack, Gilead, or Home, simply click on the title, and you’ll be taken directly to Amazon. If you decide to buy, I’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you.

Order your copy of Oh Wondrous Grace Chronicle here and buy one for a friend. I have an article in the current issue on the gift of work. (I know, it’s hard sometimes, but truly, it’s a gift from God, and he was the very first homemaker.)

To, you’ll also find good words on the blessing of “Monday Night Dinners” from my friend Sue Moore Donaldson, the queen of hospitality.

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Photo by Stephen Roth on Unsplash

34 thoughts on “The Challenge of Faith and Forgiveness in a Christian Family”

  1. This sounds like a fascinating series. I have not read any of these books.
    I love what you say about your own family. When I was still working as a counselor I routinely would say to clients that God has two powerful tools to shape our character and humble us. The first is marriage and the second is parenting.😊

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have read all four of Marilynne’s novels–excellent reading. She is a master of telling the inside story of characters’ thoughts, emotions, motives, etc. Will look forward to picking up Jack! As a pastor’s wife of forty years (now retired) I can attest to her understanding of parsonage life. In my opinion it is most difficult for the children–under more scrutiny, perhaps, than most, moving to new churches occasionally and making all the adjustments that requires, and (as you alluded to) spending a lot of time in pews and fellowship hall chairs. For some, the difficulties do cause resentment. But praise God He “is still in the process of dispensing grace to us and to our children”–in spite of such challenges and our parenting mistakes to boot.

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  3. I have not read any of these books and to date I read very little fiction, it always seems to be put aside for when I have more time… Loved your reflection and how you finished – that clarity to see when we are our own worst enemy, reflecting on that!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve not read any books in this series, Michele, but you definitely have me intrigued with this review. And at the end, this phrase stopped me a bit cold: “As tempting as it may be to re-work our theology to accommodate the sins of our children.” That seems to be be happening more and more these days, doesn’t it? I understand why, but I pray that if this scenario ever shows in my family, God would give me the strength to stay close to the Truth. My own parents did this well, and I’m so thankful for their example.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Our imperfect family is no strangeer to faith and forgiveness either, Michele. I am one of the few people who have never read any of the the Gilead series. This review makes me think it’s time to remedy that. Loved this line: “God is still in the process of dispensing grace to us and to our children.” Amen!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you for a look into this book and series Michele. I haven’t heard of these before. I appreciate how you’ve connected it with our real life struggles and reality as well. I’m visiting from the Friday Favorites link up today! Have a great weekend!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Oh so excited to know there’s a new book out from one of my favorite authors! Thanks for the heads up. And the enticing review notes!

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  8. Michele, thanks for another great review. I especially liked this statement and saw so much truth in it, “Jack is a cautionary tale for Christian families. As tempting as it may be to re-work our theology to accommodate the sins of our children and as slippery the slope into despair over our prodigals may be, God is still in the process of dispensing grace to us and to our children.”

    Blessings to you!

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  9. ********************************************************
    Thank you for sharing at #OverTheMoon. Pinned and shared. Have a lovely week. I hope to see you at next week’s party too! Please stay safe and healthy. Come party with us at Over The Moon! Catapult your content Over The Moon! @marilyn_lesniak @EclecticRedBarn
    ********************************************************

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  10. Thanks for the review. Forgiveness, or the need to forgive, is something that is common to all of us.

    I’m happy to see your link at ‘My Corner of the World’ this week!!

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