In this, the second-to-last post in our Helpful series, I'll be answering a question I received from multiple people about something MANY of you deal with on a regular basis, and that's this: difficult family members.
One reader wrote, "Both sets of our parents are divorced and are absent & toxic. When an effort is made, there is usually drama involved. We've basically had to cut them out for our kid's sake. It's hard not to feel resentful of everyone else who posts about how great their parents are and how much they love their grand kids. We feel cheated and isolated."
Another reader asked, "How do you love family members who exclude you to avoid confrontation or disagreements?"
Others have asked how to love family members who've decided to walk away from God's desire for their lives.
For the sake of today's post, we're going to lump all of that together and make a few observations about dealing with difficult family members.
The first thing we have to acknowledge is that everyone is a difficult family member--including me. Including you. None of us is perfect when it comes to loving our parents or kids or cousins. None of us always remembers birthdays, calls every week, and extends patience like it's water from a hydrant. Not one.
BUT. Some family members ARE exceptionally and frustratingly difficult--usually because they've chosen to head down some sort of destructive path or because they vocally and aggressively don't agree with or approve of yours.
As I'm speaking directly to Christians today, I think it's important to note that often our faith can (and must) complicate some relationships.
Here are a few things I know about living with and loving family members:
1. Your primary family is the family of God.
If that includes your physical family, awesome. If not, that's okay. You should be more dependent upon, more involved with, and more faithful to your spiritual family than your physical family. I know that's the primary mark of a cult. It's also a mark of a Christian.
Jesus said, "Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to 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)
When you have intimate, powerful relationships with God and your Christian family, the burden of fulfillment in blood relationships lightens--resulting potentially and ideally in hope for family bonds that don't currently seem super-promising. When you don't depend upon your physical family for all your belonging and love, you're more able to serve them, help them, forgive them, and patiently love them.
2. You can't write off your family (blood or otherwise).
I saw this article on Facebook yesterday called Ten Reasons To Dismiss Someone From Your Life, and I'm not sure what to do with it. I understand that sometimes people hurt us in ways we can't sit back and abide. I understand the need to put distance between ourselves and people bent on our destruction. I totally believe in letting people know when they've injured us. AND I believe in a love that refuses to give up on people, a love that comes back again and again hoping to help, shed light, heal, and forgive.
I worry that sometimes "boundaries" is a modern code word for a refusal to forgive--not always. But sometimes.
We have a responsibility to be as available to our family members as we can be--even when they act like idiots. We shouldn't condone what they do or participate in it, but we should love them--which usually looks like showing up, listening (when they're willing to be civil), and speaking hard truth.
3. You can't change who you are to please your family.
I'm not talking about what kind of food you like or what sports team you root for. I'm definitely not talking about embracing your faults and failings and calling them identity.
I'm talking about your identity in Christ. No matter what, loving your family does NOT mean compromising what you believe. It doesn't mean changing the way you act or the things you talk about just because you're at your sister's house. It doesn't mean you ignore things that bother you or pretend things don't bother you that do.
I have a friend who recently had to decide whether or not he'd attend a relative's wedding. He knew the wedding wasn't what God intended for this couple and knew he'd feel wrong about going, but he wanted to be sure and act in love. So, he invited the couple out to dinner, told them he loved them and explained why he wouldn't be at the ceremony. Then he picked up the check. After dinner they all played putt putt golf. And that's what it looks like to be who God calls you to be in love.
Jesus said "You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven."
Don't put a bowl over your light. If your family wants to spend time with you, they'll have to be okay with you being yourself--so long as "yourself" is kind, gentle, and overflowing with love.
4. Some family members won't like you, and there's nothing you can do about it.
Do you have an obnoxious uncle who's always posting angry stuff on Facebook and tagging you in it to make you feel bad or small or stupid? You don't have to like him, and you don't have to make him like you. That's not your job. You don't even have to follow him on Facebook (Hallelujah!).
You don't have to like anyone or make anyone like you--not even your family. You just have to love everyone--even your family.
And if you do love them well, some people will probably hate it.
Jesus said, "Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed."
There are people in your family who feel exposed when you're around. Because you know that's true, you shouldn't take it to heart when they overreact at something you say or roll their eyes when you talk about Jesus. Remember, the darkness inside them hates the light inside you.
If it seems like your family member is consistently refusing the light, violently spewing hate and evil your way, it's okay for you to walk away. Just remember to come back every so often. God has a way of drawing even the darkest hearts into the light.
5. You're not alone in this.
Almost every person I know has at least one troubled family relationship. One of my friends holds a prayer meeting every time her mother comes to town. Another friend psyches herself up with Bible verses and online sermons every time she needs to call her dad. I have a friend who's recovering from an abusive relationship with his father and yet refuses to give up on it--calling him weekly, making regular visits home, and otherwise seeking what can feel like an impossible future, a healthy, loving relationship. I have a friend whose parents have spent years addicted to drugs. Every day she fights to love them well, securing housing, talking to rehab facilities, appearing in court, and faithfully praying for their hearts.
No matter what you're going through with your family, know you're not alone. Know God is walking beside you, empowering you to do what seems impossible to do. And know you have a spiritual family eager to fill in some of the blanks your physical family inevitably fails to fill in.
May God bless you as you lean into your relationships. May He fill you with His Spirit and direct your paths. May He use you to bring light into dark places, to heal hurts, and to love the hard-to-love.