Relatives can avoid extended family conflict because of their busy lives and lack of intentional interaction. It is another story during the holidays. Relatives are expected to engage each other during the holidays, and if their relationships are not strong, the joy of the season can turn into a long and conflicted winter.
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The marriage of a man and woman is an instantaneous formation of an autonomous domestic empire. It’s a fancy way of indicating the formation of a new family at the wedding altar. A family is constituted at marriage, not at the birth of their first child or the adoption of a child.
It does not take a child to make a family. It requires a marriage, and the marriage is a freestanding entity, which separates from all other families, including the families from where the man and the woman came.
A man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. – Genesis 2:24
This separation from two families to form one family is the “leaving and cleaving” idea in the Bible. Some in-laws prefer to call it “leave, cleave, and weave” to maintain an ongoing interaction with the newly formed family.
Certainly, there should be some weaving between the families, which you can do humbly, wisely, and–at times–courageously. A biblical way to engage extended family members is the point of this article.
What About Boundaries?
It seems every year I meet with couples during the holidays who want to talk about how to entertain family members who have proven to be difficult to enjoy. The initial question typically goes like this: “How do we set boundaries for our (relatives)?
I dislike the question as phrased, as well as the worldview the questioner is typically uploading when asking about boundaries. It is possible to pull the boundary idea from the Bible, but I do not like the word or the negative connotation associated with it. There is a better way to talk about how to weave your relatives into your autonomous domestic empire.
Here is a better question: “What is a solid gospel-motivated worldview when it comes to engaging relatives?” Framing this as a gospel opportunity rather than a boundary opportunity makes it redemptive rather than reactive.
- Boundaries connote fences, hedges, and maybe some razor wire.
- The gospel indicates redemptive thinking and restorative acts (John 3:16).
Both approaches anticipate you saying hard things, but if you come from a gospel-motivated presupposition, there is a greater chance you will say what you have to say with a better attitude and restorative words.
Living out the gospel before your relative does not prohibit you from awkward conversations. In fact, if you’re going to live the gospel out in your community, it is imperative you lovingly say and do hard things.
Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. – Ephesians 4:29
What About Relating?
But he replied to the man who told him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” – Matthew 12:48-50
In this passage, the Lord laid down a clear idea to think about when it comes to relating to people. This interesting tidbit conveys that bloodlines do not factor into how you connect with people.
Jesus did not draw a line between relatives and non-relatives. He drew the line between those who did God’s will and those who did not do God’s will. Your connection or lack of connection with others does not alter your redemptive hopes for all people.
Being related to people is necessary to enter into the human family but being related is not your primary relationship with people. This perspective may cause you to rethink how you think about your camps. Christians engage all people regardless of the camp they belong.
There are only two camps that matter, one goes to heaven and the other to hell. These two groups have different eternal destinations. There is the camp of the saints and the camp of the doomed. That is how you are to think of people. They are saved or eternally lost.
There is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free, but Christ is all and in all. – Colossians 3:11
What About Honoring?
Then there is the question of honoring those not in your camp, like parents who are not doing the will of God. You could think of the word honor in a similar way that you think about the word love. It is always right to honor people, and it’s always right to love people, even your parents who may not be following the Lord.
If you center your motives and objectives on the gospel, this is a non-issue. This perspective is one of the reasons I choose to think about family relations through a gospel worldview rather than the culturally familiar boundary idea.
The gospel will biblically govern your heart while setting boundaries can leave the door open for self-serving agendas like vengeance, especially if the relatives are royal pains.
- The gospel is more comprehensive than boundary drawing.
- The gospel gives you redemptive opportunities with people.
The real issue for you to think about is what does honoring mean? It’s not unusual for an adult child to define honoring as submitting to any and every request of the parent. This interpretation is problematic, particularly if the parents are manipulative or self-serving. Always giving in to what someone wants from you is not honoring them.
Is it redemptive to say “yes” to every desire of your parents? Probably not. It depends on what the parents are asking you to do. The Lord does not give you everything you ask.
If you desire to imitate Jesus (Ephesians 5:1), it is wise to measure each request from your relatives to determine what the best response should be in each situation. Sometimes the best thing you can do for them is to deny their requests.
Let’s suppose a parent did not know the Lord. They are in the camp of the eternally doomed. Maybe they had a distant relationship with the Lord, which puts them in your camp. Either way, it would not be good to ignore their spiritual condition by giving them everything they desire.
There are times when the Lord works redemptively through personal disappointment (Genesis 50:20; Luke 22:42). If a relative asks you to do something and you know it is not best to give them what they want, the most effective way you can honor them is by denying their request.
So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin. – James 4:17
What About Leading?
The biggest problem in scenarios like pressure from relatives to bend to their wills is not about honoring them, but about leading them. You see this with Christ. He knew how to love His mother, even if it meant disappointing her. He was not afraid of disappointing her. You also see this in His interaction with Mary and Martha, as their brother was dying in John 11:1-15.
The sisters were making a strong case for Jesus to get a move on so He would help their sick brother. Jesus denied their request because He was a big picture guy. He knew what was best in that situation, so He let Lazarus die. Jesus was taking charge by leading this family.
If you’re afraid to disappoint your relatives, you will mask your fear by thinking wrongly about the situation, which may motivate you to play the boundary card. The fearful person erects a wall rather than doing the redemptive work required, which opens the door for potential repentance to happen.
Are you willing to do the right thing regardless of their responses? I’m asking if you’re ready to lead your family. Fear of man, or in this case, “fear of relatives” can captivate your heart and cloud your judgment to the point that you can no longer make biblical decisions.
With the gospel in view, you’re not clouded by the boundary or honoring rigamarole. You have a higher objective: What is the most effective way to glorify God in this situation? (See 1 Corinthians 10:31) Glorifying God is the primary question you need to ask yourself when it comes to relational tension.
To glorify God is to make His name great—to spread His fame throughout the earth. Or, in this situation, throughout your family. This opportunity may be a call for you to step up and do a hard thing because it is the only right choice for you do.
Can You Leap Over a Wall?
The gospel empowers you to do hard things in loving ways. The Lord disciplines people because He loves them (Hebrews 12:6). You can do this too.
If you don’t lead them, you must question your love for them, and maybe that is where you need to begin. Do not bring corrective care to anyone with whom you do not have affection. Love for others always precedes how you lead them.
How could you withhold challenging and disappointing conversations from those you love? A faithful friend may wound you, but a person who is unwilling to do hard things for the good of others and the glory of God is not a friend at all.
Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy. – Proverbs 27:6
There is grace for difficult conversations. If you desire to speak the truth in love, you can count on the Lord to stand with you while empowering you to do what is loving and honoring. It is His joy to do this for you, which is your reward.
Call to Action
Be of good courage. The relatives are coming, and some of them may be unsavory. Weren’t you this way once upon a time. How did the Lord lead you? Did He chicken out or did he persevere through your nonsense and bring His challenging love to you?
He is a lover of sinners, and you and I are the undeserving beneficiaries of His bountiful love. Jesus will leap a wall to love you (Romans 5:8). The only wall He is going to erect will be an eternal one that will separate the goats from the sheep. In the meantime, as you prepare for your relatives this year, go and imitate your fearless Leader (Ephesians 5:1).
- Do you love your relatives? If not, change this problem before you address their problems.
- Are you going to lead your family? If not, change this problem before you address their problems.
- Don’t define honoring as giving them whatever they want.
- Determine what the will of God is and do it.
- Be amazed at the grace the Lord provides in response to your humility.
Also published on Medium.