Aun Quek Chin—Singapore
“And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates." (Deut 6:6–9)
Moses exhorted God's people to put His words into their hearts and conscientiously teach them to their children. Binding His words as a sign on their hands and frontlets between their eyes was a reminder not to transgress God's word in thought or deed. Writing the words of God on their doorposts and gates emphasized observance of God's word both inside and outside the home. Today, while there is no need to write the words of God on our doorposts literally, we must still teach them in our homes. The best way to do this is by building the family altar, establishing a time for all in the household to read the Bible, sing hymns, and pray together. During this time, everyone in the family should put aside non-faith-related matters and share God's word to encourage one another. Such an altar will please God and be blessed by Him.
The Bible records four family altars we can learn from, as we build our own.
1. ADAM'S FAMILY ALTAR: PASSING DOWN THE FAITH
By faith Abel offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts; and through it he being dead still speaks. (Heb 11:4)
Offering sacrifices was not something Abel invented. It had been taught to him by his parents. After Adam and Eve sinned, they became conscious and ashamed of their nakedness. In His mercy, God instructed them to kill a lamb and use its skin to cover their shame—the first sacrifice. Learning of this from his parents, Abel accepted this practice, which perhaps influenced his career choice of shepherding. Humankind did not begin to consume meat until after the flood (Gen 9:3). So Abel tended sheep, not for food, but likely as sacrifices to be offered to God. Today we believe that the Lord Jesus is the Lamb of Atonement. To avail ourselves and our household of God's salvation grace given through Jesus, we must build a family altar of faith.
[W]hen I call to remembrance the genuine faith that is in you, which dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice, and I am persuaded is in you also. (2 Tim 1:5)
Paul commended Timothy's faith and nurtured its growth. But before Paul appeared in Timothy's life, how had Timothy's faith been established and built up? Paul testified that faith was passed down from Timothy's grandmother to his mother and subsequently to him. The passing on of faith from one generation to the next is fundamental. While the church plays a vital role in nurturing faith, the primary seedbed is within the family. Therefore, we should prioritize the cultivation of our personal faith and that of our family by building our family altar of faith.
Some people say, "My children are too young" or "My children have too much homework, and we're so tired from work. There's no time for a family altar." What is an altar? It is a place on which sacrifices are offered. If our faith is essential to us, we must firmly set aside time for it. We willingly expend our time on various things—some may be worth the sacrifice, but others turn out to be worthless, leaving us tired and empty. Time spent on the family altar may cause us to feel tired, but we would definitely not feel empty, for we are spending time in communion with eternity.
Time spent on eternity is never wasted because our eternal God will remember and reward us for the time we spend on and for Him. If we esteem our relationship with the Almighty God and heavenly Father, He reciprocates. When God sees how we prioritize our family altar despite the busyness of our lives, the sacrifices we make will be pleasing and acceptable to Him. Blessings will follow (Mt 6:33). Conversely, time spent on other temporal matters will ultimately be futile, no matter how exciting they may be.
How much time do we spend connecting with eternity? How many of the things we do today will last till eternity? If we want to optimize our time on earth, then spend time establishing the family altar.
2. NOAH'S FAMILY ALTAR: THANKSGIVING
Then Noah built an altar to the LORD, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And the LORD smelled a soothing aroma. Then the LORD said in His heart, "I will never again curse the ground for man's sake, although the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth; nor will I again destroy every living thing as I have done." (Gen 8:20–21)
Noah's family was saved from the flood. Coming out of the ark, Noah led his family to set up an altar to give thanks for God's grace.
Today we have been redeemed by God, and our families are more blessed than in the past. But has our thanksgiving increased to match? Sometimes, people do not sincerely give thanks because they attribute their success to personal skill and diligence rather than God's grace. We can see this from history. Moses warned the Israelites against being lifted in their hearts when their riches multiplied in Canaan (Deut 8:11–18). He exhorted them to remember that their wealth was due not to their diligence but to God, who gave them life and the opportunity to gain wealth. Without health or life, diligence is meaningless. Hence, we ought to constantly give thanks to God for giving us life and the opportunity to enjoy the fruits of our labor.
Noah built an altar to thank God for providence and protection. The family altar serves to remind our families to give thanks to God for all we have. During family celebrations—birthdays, school achievements, work successes—or when we are delivered from harm, do we put aside time to give thanks to God wholeheartedly?
The family altar is also a valuable platform for us to show appreciation to our family members and acknowledge that their help and support were integral to our success. God sustains us by giving us parents who nurture us. When we are prospering, besides offering thanks for God's grace, let us also recognize our family members' quiet and unwavering efforts.
3. ABRAHAM'S FAMILY ALTAR: TRUST IN GOD'S GUIDANCE
Then Abram took Sarai his wife and Lot his brother's son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the people whom they had acquired in Haran, and they departed to go to the land of Canaan. So they came to the land of Canaan. Abram passed through the land of Shechem, as far as the terebinth tree of Moreh. And the Canaanites were then in the land. Then the LORD appeared to Abram and said, "To your descendants I will give this land." And there he built an altar to the LORD, who had appeared to him. (Gen 12:5–7)
Abraham believed in God, and heeded God's call to lead his family out of the land of Ur. Leaving their home for a strange and unknown place, they may have felt helpless, frightened, and alone. God knew what Abraham was experiencing and so appeared to him. He affirmed His promise that, even though Abraham was living in an unfamiliar place with no kinsmen, God was with him. Abraham was comforted and encouraged. But he realized that, besides being personally assured, he had to lead his family members to trust in God amid their respective weaknesses, worries, and loneliness. They, too, needed to know that God was with them. This was why he built the altar to the Lord. Today, we must build such a family altar to demonstrate that we need God's abidance.
Unless the LORD builds the house,
They labour in vain who build it;
Unless the LORD guards the city,
The watchman stays awake in vain. (Ps 127:1)
This verse clearly describes human limitations and God's limitlessness. We may be able to construct our dream house but may not have a happy family, despite our efforts. Far too often, a big beautiful house is filled with an ocean of regret. Observers may envy the owners for the opulence of their possessions, but the beauty only serves to mask the pain and tears.
We strive to watch over every family member and worry over their spiritual setbacks, but we can do little to ensure the preservation of their well-being and faith. If our family members fall away in their faith, we can only pray for them. We cannot always watch over them, but our God watches all the time. Hence, we must appeal to God for His preservation, guidance, and help in our weakness—that we can still rejoice in our sorrow, and that our prodigal family members can return from their wanderings.
The present generation is a rebellious one. However, they may not see their actions as rebellion but as merely exercising their rights to self-expression and freedom. They are thus unaware that their acts of freedom and self-expression could hurt others. For example, when they backslide in faith or go astray, they still think they are on the right path, although they bring much grief to those who love them.
Some parents blame society for corrupting their children and blame the church for not teaching their children well. But Sabbath is only one day of the week. Where have these parents taken their children on the other six days? Attending service and religious education (RE) classes only takes a few hours. What are we encouraging our children to do for the rest of the hours left in the week?
In short, societal influence on our children is inevitable. Preachers and RE teachers play vital roles in mitigating adverse social trends on our children, and we ask God to imbue them with His wisdom. However, much of our children's time is spent at home. Parents cannot rely on the two hours of RE lessons in church for their children's religious upbringing. They must shoulder most of the responsibility.
Learn from Abraham in setting up an altar of trust in God's guidance; lead our family to do the same. Seeing how parents give their faith the highest priority, even the most rebellious children would recognize this effort and understand how much their parents care for their faith. Knowing their parents' concern would help these children restrain themselves from sin. Even if they do not repent immediately, they know they should. Eventually, the family altar will affect the restoration of their faith.
4. JOB'S FAMILY ALTAR: SEEKING GOD'S FORGIVENESS
So it was, when the days of feasting had run their course, that Job would send and sanctify them, and he would rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings according to the number of them all. For Job said, "It may be that my sons have sinned and cursed God in their hearts." Thus Job did regularly. (Job 1:5)
Job set up the family altar for his children. He was well aware of their weaknesses. In fact, every parent knows what his or her child is like, having lived with and observed each child from birth. Parents know their children's character, strengths, and weaknesses and how they may transgress the word of God. Job was worried that his fear might become a reality. He did not set up a family altar only when his children sinned—he set it up lest his children sin and curse God. Job did this regularly, and his children would have been well aware of his serious worry over the possibility of them sinning. They knew he was interceding for them, seeking forgiveness from God, even before any sin was committed. Even if they did not verbally express their gratitude, they would have been moved. We need to set up the family altar of Job because we and our children have weaknesses, and we need the word of God to guide us, lest we go astray.
When we advise our children, their immediate reaction may be to ignore us. Our advice and encouragement may appear to fall on deaf ears. But these words have been sown in their hearts. When they wander astray, these loving reminders will come to mind. At the very least, it would make them pause and consider if they should continue on this path or repent. If we, as parents, have not advised them, there would be nothing to make them stop and think. Children would interpret their parents' silence as a lack of concern about their backsliding; they would conclude that faith is unimportant and continue to do as they wish. When we know our children have sinned, we must find an opportune time to talk to them about it. The family altar can be such an opportunity—it is a time and place for all to encourage each other with God’s word.
The word of God is indeed a critical element in the family altar. If a family member has stumbled, we use God’s word to encourage them to repent. If a family member is feeling sad, we use God’s word to comfort them. Sometimes there is nothing we can do to help, especially regarding matters of the heart, which is why we need the word of God. If our family members face problems, this time can be used to encourage them not to keep things locked up in their hearts. Although we may not be able to solve the problem, at the very least, we can share the burden and pray about it together.
CONCLUSION: STAYING STRONG TOGETHER
Home is a place where we can experience great happiness but also much sadness. We love our family members dearly, but we may also argue with them. There are times we trust one another and times we do not. But if every family member exalts God as the center of his or her life, we will learn to forgive and accept one another just as He has forgiven us. Then the family will be able to love one another amid the inadvertent conflicts or inevitable storms of life. But if God is not the center of our lives, the home becomes a battlefield where we fight fiercely to protect our self-interests, or a hotel where we share a roof but stay separate in our rooms, not sharing with each other what we are going through.
The family altar is critical as it reminds us to keep God—the Source of love—as the center of our homes. Let us learn from Adam, Noah, Abraham, and Job to set up the family altar of faith, thanksgiving, trust in God's guidance and forgiveness, so that our entire family may be guided to receive God's blessings.