Christmas and holidays and birthday parties and family celebrations and extended family vacations….
Do these words fill you with joyful expectations and warm fuzzies as you think about your extended family relationships?
Or, would you rather spend time with your dentist undergoing a root canal?
We choose our friends. We don’t choose our family members. But, for better or for worse, our family members seem to stick with us through life.
What can we do when family relationships go sour?
1. There is no such thing as family relationships without problems and conflict.
Family drama and conflict dates right back to Adam and Eve and the first sin. Immediately after eating the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve started pointing their fingers and blaming each other for their problems. Then they had two sons, one of which grew up and murdered his brother.
The patriarch Jacob had serious marital problems (including polygamy) and sons who hated each other so much that they were willing to sell their own brother Joseph into a life of slavery.
King David committed adultery, leading to chaos within his home – including the rape of one of his daughters by her half-brother and the death of two sons.
Even Mary and Joseph did not have perfect harmony within their home. Jesus’ brothers mockingly accused Him of trying to gain popularity. They did not believe that He was the Son of God until after He rose from the dead. (John 7:3-5)
There is no such thing as a family without problems and conflict. All families are made up of individual sinners. There will be conflict. There will be minor disagreements. There will be major annoyances. And, at times, there may even be all-out wars.
2. Accept that you cannot change people.
You cannot change any person in your family. As much as you want people in your family to shape up, lose their annoying traits, magically see things from your perspective, or suddenly choose to make completely different decisions, it’s probably not going to happen.
We cannot change people. But, we can take our difficult family relationships to God in prayer. And, the wonderful thing about taking these relationships to God in prayer is that God has the power to transform our hearts and our perspectives within the difficult relationships.
We need to take the difficult people in our families to God – and then let Him change our own hearts and attitudes.
3. Determine your own response.
Family members may try to hurt us. But they can’t control us. We determine our own responses.
We can choose to be bitter and angry over past offenses. We can choose to focus on only the negative.
Or, we can choose acceptance, love and forgiveness. We can choose to overlook the rude comments, the annoying habits, the cold shoulder that is directed toward us.
Forgiveness does not mean that we make ourselves vulnerable to repeated offenses. Forgiveness means that we relinquish our right to bitterly cling to the past. Instead, we acknowledge the hurt within our hearts and then we take this hurt to God for healing.
We look to God to fix the broken and hurting places in our hearts. We let go of the offense until we can say, like Joseph, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” (Genesis 50:20)
The irony of forgiveness is that, as we release our right to cling to the offense, we also let go of the power that person had in our life to continue hurting us. Instead, we open our hearts and allow God to heal us.
4. Celebrate the good relationships.
We need to intentionally cultivate, grow, and celebrate the good relationships that God has given us.
Maybe you have a strained relationship with your own extended family, but you have found love and acceptance with your husband’s family. Rather than wasting energy regretting that you are not closer to your own family, look for ways to invite your in-laws into your life.
Celebrate the good relationships that you do have.
5. Be intentional about second chances.
God often gives us two chances at every family relationship in life, except the husband/wife relationship. You experienced the mother/child relationship with your own mother, and you will experience this same relationship with your children. You experience the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship with your husband’s mom. Someday, you will experience this same relationship with your son’s wife.
Be intentional to make the most of these second chances. If your mother-in-law is difficult and the relationship is hurtful, learn from it and choose to do things differently with your son’s future wife.
These second chances don’t have to be confined to “family”. If you rarely get to see your own grandchildren, look for some children in your church that need a grandma and “adopt” them as your own. If you are a young mom, far from your own mother, look for an older woman in the church who might be willing to mentor you through these difficult years. Be intentional about second chances.
Christmas is past, and I know that some of you are discouraged, frustrated, and embittered by family relationships that have gone sour. I pray that you might find healing and the grace that only God can give to forgive, look past offenses, and grow to be more like Christ – even in your most difficult family relationships.
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