We tend to idealize holidays, but human depravity doesn’t go into hibernation between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. One thing that will hit most Christians, sooner or later, are tensions within extended families at holiday time. Some of you will be visiting family members who are contemptuous of the Christian faith and downright hostile to the whole thing.
Others are empty nest couples who now have sons- or daughters-in-law to get adjusted to, maybe even grandchildren who are being reared, well, not exactly the way the grandparents would do it. Still others are young couples who are figuring out how to keep from offending family members who are watching the calendar, to see which side of the family gets more time on the ledger. And others are new parents, trying to figure out how to parent their child when it’s Mammonpalooza at Aunt Judie’s house this year.
And, of course, there’s just always the kind of thing that happens when sinful people come into contact with one another. Somebody asks “When is the baby due?” to an unpregnant woman or somebody blasts your favorite political figure or…well, you know.
Here are a few quick thoughts on what followers of Jesus ought to remember, especially if you’ve got a difficult extended family situation.
1.) Peace. Yes, Jesus tells us that his gospel brings a sword of division, and that sometimes this splits up families (Matt. 10:34-37). But there’s a difference between gospel division and carnal division (see 1 Cor. 1, e.g.). The Spirit brings peace (Gal. 5:22), and the sons of God are peacemakers (Matt. 5:9). Since that’s so, we ought to “strive for peace with everyone” (Heb. 12:14).
Often, the divisiveness that happens at extended family dinner tables is not because an unbelieving family member decides to persecute a Christian. It’s instead because a Christian decides to go ahead and sort the wheat from the weeds right now, rather than waiting for Judgment Day (Matt. 13:29-30). Yes, the gospel exposes sin, but the gospel does so strategically, in order to point to Christ. Antagonizing unbelievers at a family dinner table because they think or feel like unbelievers isn’t the way of Christ.
Some Christians think their belligerence is actually a sign of holiness. They leave the Christmas table saying, “See, if you’re not being opposed, then you’re not with Christ!” Sometimes, of course, divisions must come. But think of the qualifications Jesus gives for his church’s pastors. They must not be “quarrelsome” and they must be “well thought of by outsiders” (1 Tim. 3:3,7). That’s in the same list as not being a heretic or a drunk.
Your presence should be one of peace and tranquility. The gospel you believe ought to be what disrupts. There’s a big difference.
2.) Honor. The Scripture tells us to fear God, to obey the king, and to honor (notice this) everyone (1 Pet. 2:17). If your parents are high-priests in the Church of Satan, they are still your parents. If cousin Betty V. does Jello shots in her car, just to take the edge off the cocaine, well, she still bears the imprint of the God you adore.
You cannot do the will of God by opposing the will of God. That is, you can’t evangelize by dishonoring father and mother, or by disrespecting the image-bearers of God. Pray for God to show you the ways those in your life are worthy of honor, and teach your children to follow you in showing respect and gratitude.
3.) Humility. Part of the reason some Christians have such difficulty with unbelieving or nominally believing extended family members is right at this point. They see differences over Jesus as being of the same kind (just of a different degree) as our differences over, say, the war in Afghanistan or the future of Sarah Palin or the Saints’ winning streak this year.
Often the frustration comes not because of how much Christians love their family members as much as how much these Christians want to be right. The professional Left and Right cable-TV and talk-radio pontificators may value the last word, but we can’t.
Jesus never, not once, seeks to prove he is right, and he was accused of being everything from a wino to a demoniac. He rejects Satan’s temptation to force a visible vindication, waiting instead for God to vindicate him at the empty tomb.
Often Christians veer toward Satanism at holiday time because we, deep down, pride ourselves on knowing the truth of the gospel. The rage you feel when Uncle Happy says why “many roads lead to God” might be more about the fact that you want to be right than that you want him to be resurrected.
Plus, we often forget just how it is that we came to be in Christ in the first place. This wasn’t some act of brilliance, like being accepted into Harvard or some exertion of the will, like learning to put a Rubik’s cube together in 20 seconds. “What do you have that you did not receive,” the Apostle Paul asks us, “And if you received it, then why do you boast as though you didn’t receive it?” (1 Cor. 4:6-7)
Satan wants to destroy you through his primal flaw, pride (1 Pet. 5:7-9; 1 Tim. 3:6). He doesn’t care if that pride comes through looking around the family table and figuring out how much more money you make than your second cousin-in-law or whether it comes by your looking around the table and saying, “Thank you Lord that I am not like these publicans.” The end result is the same (Prov. 29:23).
Unless you’re in an exceptionally sanctified family, you’re going to see failing marriages, parenting crises, and a thousand other shards of the curse. If your response is to puff up as you look at your own situation, there’s a Satanist at your family gathering, and you’re it.
4.) Maturity. The Scripture tells us that if we follow Jesus we’ll follow the path he took: that’s through temptation, to suffering, and ultimately to glory. Often we think these testings are big, monumental things, but they rarely are.
God will allow you to be tested. He’ll refine you, bring you to the fullness of maturity in Christ. He probably won’t do it by your fighting lions before the emperor or standing with a John 3:16 sign before a tank in the streets of Beijing. More likely, it will be through those seemingly little places of temptation—like whether you’ll love the belching brother-in-law at the other end of the table who wants to talk about how the Cubans killed JFK and how to make $100,000 a year selling herbal laxatives on the Internet.
Some of the tensions Christians face at holiday time have nothing to do with outside oppression as much as internal immaturity on the part of the Christians themselves.
I’ve had young men who tell me they feel treated like children when they go home to see their extended families. Their parents or parents-in-law are dictating to them where to go, when, and for how much time. Their parents or parent-in-law are hijacking the rearing of their children (”Oh, come on! He can watch Die Harder! Don’t be so strict!”). Some of these men just give in, and then seethe in frustration.
Sometimes that’s because the extended family is particularly obstinate. But sometimes the extended family treats the young man like a child because that’s how he acts the rest of the year. Don’t live financially and emotionally dependent on your parents or in-laws, passively dithering in your decisions about your family’s future, and then expect them to see you as the head of your house.
Be a man (if you are one). Make decisions (including decisions about where, and for how long, you’ll spend the holidays). Teach and discipline your children.Your extended family might not like it at first, but they’ll come to respect the fact that you’re leaving and cleaving, taking responsibility for that which has been entrusted to you.
5.) Perspective. Remember that you’ll give an account at the resurrection for every idle (that means seemingly tiny, insignificant, unmemorable) thought, word, and deed. At the Judgment Seat of the Lord Christ, you’ll be responsible for living out the gospel in every arena to which the Spirit has led you… including Aunt Flossie’s dining room table.
A version of this article originally ran on November 21, 2011.