Loving difficult family members over the holidays

Loving difficult family members over the holidays

For some of us, being with family over Thanksgiving and Christmas is an enjoyable and even energizing experience. But for many of us, even when we truly care for our family (be it the in-laws or our own), spending time with them over the holidays can be extremely challenging.

In fact, it can bring out the worst in us.

Yet Jesus’ teaching on family, as strong and as subversive as it is, can bring out the best in us, regardless of our exact role in the family.

Here’s how.

Jesus truly redeems the idea of family:  On the one hand, at its best a family is beautiful because of its amazing ingredients, like unparalleled devotion, shared traditions, collective memory, its profound sense of identity and belonging, as well as its complementarian synergy (epitomized in having a ‘family business’)–these are but a few joys of family life. But on the other hand, a family is nothing if it is not exclusive:  if you’re not a family member, you don’t really belong.

But Jesus redeems this, leaving the bad while making all that is good really shine.

At one point in his ministry, Jesus’ own biological family members, embarrassed by his outlandish claims about himself, showed up to “take charge of him,” at which point Jesus redefined family as follows:

“‘Who are my mother and brothers?’ he asked.  Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, ‘ . . . Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.'”

The truest, most lasting, most real family, says Jesus, can include anyone–absolutely anyone:  “whoever” abandons their own will for God’s, whoever says (as Jesus himself did), “Not my will but your will be done”–they are in the family.

To such persons Jesus is now devoted like a brother, welcoming, supporting, defending them, etc., without qualification.  They share with Jesus a common Father–Israel’s God, the Creator of the heavens and the earth.

In redefining family in this way, Jesus gets rid of the biological exclusivity of family while keeping all the aspects of family that are beautiful–indeed, essential (who doesn’t need a family?).

But in redeeming the idea of family, Jesus not only redefines family identity (removing its exclusivity), he also in no uncertain terms radically redirects family allegiance. Listen to his shocking words, recorded in Luke’s Gospel:

“Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said:  ‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters–yes, even their own life–such a person cannot be my disciple.'”

Wow.  Okay.  What does Jesus mean here by ‘hate’?

Often interpreters of Scripture, especially preachers, say that Jesus is exaggerating–i.e., using hyperbole.

More likely, however, the English verb “to hate” fails to communicate accurately the Greek verb, which probably means something more like “to hold in low(er) regard.”

(To give but one example of the verb’s usage elsewhere–lest this turn into a Greek lesson:  in Genesis, we learn that Jacob prefers his wife Leah over his other wife Rachel.  In 29.31 we read, “When the LORD saw that Leah was not loved [so NIV, NAS, NRSV], he enabled her to conceive.”  When translating the Hebrew of “was not loved” into Greek, Jewish translators fairly used the same Greek word found in our present passage:  Jacob certainly did not hate Leah; rather, he held her in lower regard than Rachel.)

Now make no mistake:  “to be held in lower regard” (i.e., to be #2 on someone’s list) can be humiliating (as it probably was for Leah), but it is hardly the same as outright hostility. However, it can be downright offensive to someone–say, a parent?–who is used to being in the #1 spot.

Jesus, then, is saying, without qualification or equivocation, that, if anyone is to follow him, their family members cannot be in that #1 spot:  they must be demoted.  A Christian’s fundamental allegiance must be to Jesus:  the one whose opinion matters most, whose interpretation is final, whose criteria for determining worth, and whose instruction simply must be obeyed cannot be a parent or sibling or child or even oneself; it must be the Lord Jesus.

Now at first all of this may sound anti-family.

But, wonderfully, nothing could be further from the truth.  Rather, Jesus’ teaching enables the follower of Christ to return to their biological family and be a (far) better son, sibling, spouse, etc.

Why is this so?

For this simple reason:  if our identity and allegiance are ultimately traced back to our biological family, we will not be able to family members well by addressing the very important, very difficult topics that are sure to rise in even the best of families.


There will be too much at stake.

For example, to call into question another family member’s selfish, sinful behavior may mean risking one’s sense of identity in the family (“Anyone who accuses me of that is no son / daughter of mine!”).  Addressing sensitive topics–e.g., the need for an aging parent to move closer to one of their children for health reasons–can be interpreted as an act of disloyalty and of disturbing the peace (“Everything was fine, until you had to bring that up”).

But when we embrace the way that Jesus redeems family and truly live it out, so that, along with Jesus, our fellow followers of Christ (e.g., those in a small group) have become our truest family–our social, emotional, and even financial lifeline, our fundamental identity and allegiance originate outside of our biological family, in the family of God.

And when that happens, we are freed and empowered to engage our biological family–especially at Thanksgiving and Christmas (but, really any time of year!)–with a genuine love that sacrifices in any number of ways–to list but a few:   we can practically serve family members (e.g., doing the dishes) without need or expectation of appreciation; we can be excluded from a parent’s financial generosity; we can endure the undeserved disappointment from a parent or sibling for not meeting their criteria for vocational “success”; we can receive undeserved criticism for our parenting; or we can address a longstanding, deeply wounding wrongdoing or conflict in the family’s past that has tragically been left unaddressed.

When we sacrificially love our biological family in these ways, we have both our older brother Jesus and a small band of brothers and sisters in the Lord who are sympathizing and strategizing with us, interceding for us, admonishing us concerning our blind spots, and to whom we can return (after Thanksgiving and Christmas) to be welcomed and encouraged.

Where to begin?  Well, that depends, of course, on your specific family situation. But, generally speaking, there are four things to do:

(1) if you haven’t already, commit to pray daily for family members, asking God not only to change their hearts but, perhaps, yours as well; ask God for a heart that can truly celebrate the good in your family members while responding to the bad first with tears, second with compassion, and third with indignation–it has to be in that order.  (For more on how to respond to wrongs done to us, go here).

(2) though as family members we often feel powerless, the most powerful thing we can do is to confess our own sin.  Consider writing this out, perhaps getting help from a mature follower of Christ or minister.  (For more on confession, go here. To learn more about forgiveness, go here.)

(3) if family dynamics are anything, they are confusing, so get good counsel from someone who can offer you clarity, compassion, practical wisdom, and–this is important–accountability (i.e., someone who won’t just take your side and assume you’re in the right):  we cannot rule out that, at least in part, we are that challenging family member.  Yet they should be someone who will offer true comfort and affirmation (e.g., “Look, very sadly, your parents have adopted our culture’s standards for success; in that regard, their perspective of you is deeply flawed; Jesus doesn’t call you to listen to them”).

(4) when with family, we will often (perhaps unavoidably) experience a sense of sadness or loss, and it is right and good to grieve; whether alone with God or with a close friend (or, if safe, a family member), give voice to your sorrows.

There is blood that runs deeper than the blood of our kin.

This blood cleanses us from all our iniquity, granting us full forgiveness forever and reconciling us to the Creator and giving us a permanent place in His family.

Christian, you are a dearly loved, celebrated member of God’s family, and nothing can change that.

As you spend time with family this Thanksgiving and Christmas, ask yourself:  Why did Jesus die for me?  Why has God adopted me?  Why is He so forgiving and forbearing of me?

We often presume we have all the time in the world to talk with family (I know I do), but in truth we have no idea what tomorrow holds.  There will come a day when we will no longer be able to spend time with some of our family members.

Perhaps part of us looks forward to that day.

But on that day–as a pastor I can practically promise you this–you will ask yourself:  Did I do it right?  Could I have done it differently?  If I had just five minutes, what would I say?  If I could spend a day with them, what would I do?

We have that time now. It is a gift. How will we use it?

Christian, how is your heavenly Father wanting you to love and serve your difficult family this coming holiday season?  How is He calling you to be part of His rescue operation of one or more of your family?  Will you regard it a privilege, or a burden, to be a part of what He is doing in your family?

Be encouraged:  God can and will use all that you are–your strengths and weaknesses, your faithfulness and failure–to draw your family to him, as we seek to do His will, not our own.

As we enter into the Advent season and into the homes of family, let us consider the One who was rejected by his own family, that we might be received into His Father’s family:

“He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God–children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” – John 1.10-13

. . . . . . .

Every generation
Blames the one before
And all of their frustrations
Come beating on your door

I know that I’m a prisoner
To all my father held so dear
I know that I’m a hostage
To all his hopes and fears
I just wish I could have told him
in the living years . . .

I wasn’t there that morning
When my father passed away
I didn’t get to tell him
All the things I had to say

I think I caught his spirit
Later that same year
I’m sure I heard his echo
In my baby’s new born tears
I just wish I could have told him
in the living years

Say it loud, say it clear
You can listen as well as you hear
It’s too late when we die
To admit we don’t see eye to eye

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