Families are paradoxes. On the one hand, family relationships can be the source of the greatest comfort, strength, and stability in our lives. On the other hand, — who doesn’t know what’s coming next – family relationships can be the source of the greatest heartbreak, sadness, and anxiety of anything in our lives. No other aspect of our lives can bring us as much joy and as much pain as our family.
I think we become more aware of that than ever during this season of the year when we observe the two great “family” holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas. Family expectations are higher during this time of the year and so also is the level of anxiety and dread. These holidays are settings in which we appreciate the blessing of healthy family relationships most and in which we feel the pain of broken family relationships with special sharpness.
Here are some thoughts about navigating the hopes and sorrows of family life in this season:
A fundamental truth about relationships is that they are always repairable. The fractures can always be healed, if the parties are willing. They are not like Humpty-Dumpty, who couldn’t be put back together again. God has given us tools for healing relationships. Forgiveness and apology are two basic tools by which broken relationships can be healed, and reconciliation can be accomplished. In forgiveness, we declare that an offense has been committed but that we are choosing not to hold onto our hurt and resentment. Rather, we are choosing to let go of that and choosing not to keep ill-will in our heart toward the one who has hurt us. In apology, we admit that we have done/said something that hurt someone else; we accept responsibility for what we have done and affirm that we regret having done it; and we commit ourselves to make a determined effort not to do it again. In reconciliation, we both, offender and offended, affirm our desire to have a restored, healthy relationship of love and acceptance. Then we begin to do the things necessary to make that restored relationship a reality.
All of this is more complicated and difficult sometimes than a simple paragraph of text can cover. But in essence these things – forgiveness, apology, and reconciliation – are the simple foundational tools that allow us to heal the broken relationships in our lives.
“Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.” James 1:19
This is simple straightforward advice from James about how to maintain healthy relationships in a family (or in a church or a club or in any group of people). It is sort of like installing a fire suppression sprinkler system in your family life. Most new public buildings are required to install a comprehensive sprinkler system throughout the building. If a fire breaks out in a such a building, the sprinkler system is triggered, causing water to spray down throughout the building, putting out the fire, and preventing it from spreading.
Some families are like a dry, old barn with lots of bits of dry straw and hay lying around. In a place like that, the least little spark that is struck will cause all that straw and hay to burst immediately into flames. Then those flames spread to the old dry timbers of the barn, and in a moment the whole structure is ablaze.
Some families are like those dry, old barns. One family member makes a sharp remark, and someone else takes offense and replies in kind. A third member jumps in with another quick complaint. Still someone else remembers an old, unresolved hurt from a previous time together. And before you know it, the whole family is fuming and looking for their coats.
If we institute James’ advice, we will find that this story plays our very differently. James wants us to come together with the commitment that we will not assume bad motives of other people. We will come together with the determination to first understand each other, and so we listen – that is we will listen with the intention of fully understanding the other person – before we presume to speak. Instead of starting with, “Let me tell you what I think of you.” James wants us to start with, “Tell me how it is with you.” Then, we listen with love.
All of this, according to James, is based on love. “If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing right.” James 2:8. Love doesn’t require us all to agree on some matter. Love requires us to care about each other and to treat each other in the way we ourselves want to be treated and to genuinely seek the well-being of the other.
If we do all this, there need be no relational fireworks around the Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner tables, only love.
Make genuine affirmation and encouragement the norm; make criticism rare and gentle.
I’m not sure I really need to explain that statement. If you create a culture in your family in which genuine affirmation and encouragement are the normal way of talking to each other and in which criticism is rare, gentle, and done one-on-one, you will find that your family gatherings are warm, positive, and up-lifting events. Who doesn’t want that?
“Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.” 1 Thessalonians 5:11. What Paul wants for the church, we should also want for our families.
Be aware that not everyone has a good, healthy, or happy family situation. Be sensitive to them.
Be thoughtful toward others around you whose families may be torn apart by broken, angry, unforgiving relationships. Support them. Pray with them. Invite them into your own family.
Be attentive to those who have lost family members recently, especially within the past year. First holidays without a loved one can be especially painful. Be understanding and patient if such folks are not particularly joyful during these holidays. Show them your love. They may be willing to join in with you. Or they may want to be alone. Respect their wishes. If they don’t want to join you, maybe you might simply deliver a meal to them instead.
Be alert for people who have no family or no family nearby. Include them in your family. These are times for us to open and expand our ideas of family. It will invariably enrich our own family gatherings when we do that.
May God richly bless your family in these holidays. And may God use your family to be a blessing to the world.