Oaks of Righteousness

by Heidi and Jim Unruh | September 05, 2008

Many churches have mission statements. Families can have mission statements, too. Our family’s sense of mission derives from Isaiah 61:1–3. Jesus cited this text as the foundation for his earthly ministry (Luke 4:18–19), and we have adopted this as a cornerstone passage that drives and guides the decisions we make as a family. 

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion — to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, to display his glory (NRSV).— Isaiah 61:1–3 

In particular, we have been drawn to Isaiah 61:3: “They will be called oaks of righteousness…to display God’s glory.” “Oaks of righteousness” is a metaphor for living in a way that pleases God by loving God, others, and ourselves. The image of a tree helps to make the abstract concept of righteousness more concrete to our young children, three-year-old Elise and five-year-old Jacob. We show our children how we use this Scripture as a lens to focus our priorities and our choices. For example, we tell them, “Mom and Dad are going to work, which is part of how we are oaks of righteousness. You can help us to do our work by going to day care and learning and having fun.” 

We use this passage as a framework to correct our children when they are not treating one another or their friends the right way: “Is teasing being an oak of righteousness?” We also cite the passage as a way of showing appreciation to our children: “Thank you for being an oak of righteousness when you shared with your brother.” Or we affirm that they are being an oak of righteousness when they draw a picture to cheer up a neighbor in the hospital. 

We also use this passage in reflecting on our day during our nightly prayer time. We sometimes ask one another, “How were you an oak of righteousness today? What do you think you can do to be an oak of righteousness tomorrow?” In this way, this metaphor for how we are to live and serve God and one another becomes encoded in our family’s DNA. 

Several key values or principles are particularly important to our family. These principles flesh out what we mean by being “oaks of righteousness”:  

God’s kingdom — Isaiah 61 is linked with another favorite passage, “Seek first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness” (Matt. 6:33). We aim to put God at the center of our family, and to live according to God’s kingdom. We trust Jesus, our King, to bring us salvation — to make us “the planting of the LORD,” to display God’s glory. 

Community — We seek to consider what is good for one another and the family as a whole, not just our individual interests. The value of community leads us to share, because we want others to enjoy what we enjoy. We encourage our children to share with one another but also with others beyond our family. When Heidi took our two young children to a rally for SCHIP (state-funded insurance for low-income children), she explained that they were going because we believe people should share so that all parents can afford to take their kids to the doctor. 

Equality — Ultimately, our community includes all humanity. We are all called to be oaks of righteousness, regardless of age, ethnicity, social status, or gender. We all have equal standing before God. My children learned the common mealtime prayer, “God is great, God is good, let us thank him for our food…” at their church-based pre-school. At home, we revised it slightly: “God is great, God is good, let us thank God for our food…” Jacob and Elise protested because we weren’t “saying it right.” We explained that we wanted to say it that way because God is not a him or a her.  Then Jacob matter-of-factly informed us, “But God is a boy.” We try to help our children understand that God is not made in our image, but we in God’s. This means that we must treat everyone as a precious child of God. And we must not limit God by assigning God a single gender in our language, or a single skin color in our Bible illustrations. 

Kindness and peacemaking — Elise asked the other day why some older children in the playground were acting like bullies. We explained, “They have meanness in their hearts, and it comes out in being mean to other people.” We tell our children that everyone has some meanness in their hearts at times, and our job from God is to make the meanness in the world smaller. This means that Jesus wants us to be kind to others even when they are mean to us. When one of our children gets mad and hits the other, we ask, “Did that make the meanness smaller or bigger?” Then we encourage them to find ways of dealing with the problem to make love grow like an oak tree. 

Reconciliation — God’s “good news” (Isa. 61:1) emphasizes restoring relationships and making things right. We tell our children that we don’t expect them to be perfect (and we acknowledge our imperfection as parents). But we do expect that when they make a mistake or hurt one another they need to acknowledge it by saying sorry, and then asking, “What can I do to make things right?” Usually the other person asks for a hug and an assurance that the offender will try not to do it again. We try to model this by seeking our children’s forgiveness and being reconciled when we lose our temper with them. We also remind them (and ourselves) that we can ask God to give us new hearts. When we realize that our meanness is coming from inside our hearts, the only way to really change and make things right is to ask God to share Jesus’ good heart with us.

Purpose — We tell our children (and ourselves) that God created us for a reason — to fufill the Great Commandment: Love God and love one another. We want to encourage lives of God-honoring virtue and respect for parents, not rote compliance with rules. We want to experience joy, rather than mindless, selfish pleasure. We try to keep growing and expanding our minds and cultural horizons, so that we can be all that God created us to be, and love God with all our being. We want to use our gifts and resources intentionally to make the world a better place. 

Isaiah 61:3 helps provide the framework for defining this purpose: bringing good news to the poor and healing for those in darkness, binding up the brokenhearted, proclaiming God’s deliverance from injustice, comforting those who mourn with new hope. Some aspects of this mission are beyond what our children are ready for. For example, Jacob took an instinctive dislike to a woman struggling with homelessness and addiction whom we had befriended. He was too young at the time to understand her situation; we could only explain that she had a sad life, and that God wanted us to show her love even if she made us uncomfortable. For both their sakes, we limited his exposure to her. As they get older, our children will discover more about the world’s injustice and the power of Christ’s salvation. We pray that our children will be sent by God to “bring good news to the oppressed.”

Yet our children already have a unique contribution to this purpose. Elise’s ministry began as an infant: she softened the rough-edged teenagers who would sometimes attend our church and visit our home. In church, whichever youth was holding her invariably was less of a disruption during the service. She is our “Princess Sweetie” whom we affirm for showing kindness and bringing “the oil of gladness” to all people. 

Jacob is gifted in the realms of music and sports, but he is also caring and sensitive to others’ spiritual condition. When we told him about a Compassion child we were sponsoring who is about his age, he offered half his savings to buy him a toy. Nearly every night for weeks he prayed for a neighboring child to come to church. Then she started coming to church, so now we are praying that God gives her a new heart. 

Our eldest son Maurice has also been used to bring good news to others. He is an extrovert who enthusiastically draws others in and makes them feel welcome. When Jim was interviewing for his pastoral position he told the church that our son would invite his friends, so the congregation needed to be prepared to receive ethnically diverse, special needs youth. And that’s exactly what happened. 

From our (Jim and Heidi’s) very first serious conversation, sixteen years ago, we sensed that we shared the same life mission and values. Over the years these ideals have unfolded in clarity and have been tested and refined in practice. And they are still evolving, as our children teach us new ways of looking at old ideals. We are all learning together how to be oaks of righteousness.