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Navigating Difficult Family Relationships at Christmas

When you are faced with a divisive family member, remember that this is an example of why Jesus came.

Dec 19, 2019

While they can be the source of some of earth’s greatest joys, family relationships can also be very difficult. Regardless of what some songs say, Christmastime is no exception to this reality. In fact, familial discord has a way of surfacing during this time of the year as we are around relatives we do not see regularly and as we are pressed by busyness and seasonal expectations. Instead of viewing these unpleasant interactions as distractions or inconveniences, however, may they cultivate within you a deeper joy and drive you deeper into Christ.

Magnifying the joy of the Incarnation

When you are faced with a bitter sister, a confused nephew, or a divisive grandparent, stop and remember that this situation is a concrete example of why Jesus came. This Christmas, use that potentially volatile conversation or that particularly dreaded gathering as an avenue for glorifying Jesus.

May it drive you to acknowledge your dependence on Jesus.

Family tensions sometimes feel like they are “just the way things are.” When you are overwhelmed with the seeming impossibility of reconciliation or even cordiality this season, turn to Jesus in humble dependence. Without Him, you can do nothing (John 15:4-5). With Him, you have all that you need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3). Humbly search your heart and repent where needed (Luke 6:41-42), and turn to Christ for strength and wisdom (2 Thessalonians 1:11; James 1:5-6).

May it draw you to give thanks for Jesus’ coming.

When faced with the inarguable brokenness of this world, the promised peace and joy of the Messiah becomes all the more dear. Take captive your worried, frustrated thoughts and turn them into trusting thanksgiving to the Lord for coming into this broken world (2 Corinthians 10:5). May any frustrations, irritations, and miscommunications be occasions for you to give sincere thanks and praise to the One who did not leave us to ourselves, but Who humbled Himself to be with us, to become one of us, to save us (Luke 1:68; John 1:14; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Philippians 2:5-8). “Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!” (2 Corinthians 9:15)

May it push you to pray for the knowledge of Jesus.

Difficult relationships happen between all sorts of people, for all sorts of reasons. If the person you have in mind while you are reading this article is a believer, pray that you may both grow in your knowledge of Christ this season (2 Peter 3:18). Reveling in the supremacy of Christ, the author of Hebrews rejoices that “in these last days he [God] has spoken to us by his Son” (Hebrews 1:2). What a wonder it is that this God has revealed himself to us!

If the difficult relationship you have in mind involves an unbeliever, may the true glory and joy of Christmas weigh on your heart and turn you to pray for them. May the light, warmth, and belonging we associate with this season remind you each day to pray for your relative (Romans 9:1-3). They desperately need to see the Light of the World and to know the glorious joy only the children of God know in belonging to the Father (1 Peter 1:8; John 17:3). 

May it remind you to set your hope on Jesus’ return.

That conversation may still be awkward. That gathering may still be wrought with tension. What then? At Christmas, we celebrate Christ’s first coming, when He took on flesh and became one of us, perfectly fulfilling the righteousness we could not, and dying to bear the punishment for our sins (2 Corinthians 5:21). We are redeemed, but we are still being sanctified. This world is still broken (John 16:33). As we celebrate Christmas, we not only look back – we also look forward. Christ will return to make all things new (Revelation 21:3-6).

This is what produces deep and abiding hope, no matter the circumstance (1 Peter 1:13). This hope will not disappoint. John testifies in Revelation 21:5 – “He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!’ Then he said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.’”

May it present an opportunity for you to be like Jesus.

Recalibrate your heart before the big family dinner, before driving to spend the week with your in-laws, before engaging in conversation that conflicted relative. Pray for the mind of Christ described in Philippians 2:3-8. Paul urged his fellow believers, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant…”

Christ became flesh to fulfill the plan of God, for the glory of God. Part of that plan, part of his purpose in coming, part of his purpose in redeeming you, is to make you like Him. He is working all things together for you who are called according to His purpose, and His purpose is that you may be conformed to His image, for His glory (Romans 8:28-30). How kind the Lord is to provide you with this opportunity to grow in your resemblance to Him as you walk in obedience and faith in this difficult relationship!

Belonging to the Family of Jesus

Most of the truths above could be applied to any relationship, but several passages of Scripture speak directly to family relationships. In Matthew 10:34-39, Jesus teaches the sorrowful certainty that the Gospel divides those who accept it and those who do not, even amongst family. However, we must not falter from treasuring Christ above every relationship and graciously sharing the truth of His coming.

Pray for your family. Hope is held out in Malachi 4:6 – prophesying of John the Baptist, a herald of Christ’s coming, Malachi declares that the Good News of the kingdom offers hope for families who enter it, “he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers.” Christ can change what seems impossible.

As you pray, obey, and wait on the Lord, take joy that you are part of another family – the family of Jesus. In the Church, you are a fellow heir with Christ – and with other believers (Romans 8:17). As you navigate difficult family relationships this season, may you treasure all the more your eternal familial bonds in Christ.

This Christmas, remember that difficult family relationships are examples of why the Incarnation is such “good news of great joy” (Luke 2:10). Jesus came because we are in desperate need (Luke 5:31-32). Praise God, Christ has come “to make His blessings flow, far as the curse is found!”