Dealing with Difficult Relatives During the Holidays

Dealing with Difficult Relatives During the Holidays

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There are two kinds of people in the world: Christians and non-Christians. Within these two groups are subgroups consisting of those you prefer to hang with and those with whom you would rather not spend your time. Loving others the way God loves us can be challenging anytime, but the difficulty intensifies during the holidays because some of our family members rub us the wrong way. (Of course, we might rub them wrongly too.)

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Take Uncle Biff, Please

Thanksgiving is a time to be thankful, so we are told. The challenge is that the holidays are when people who do not ordinarily hang together come together in an “expected” spirit of love and gratitude for each other—especially if they name the name of Christ. Extended family get-togethers are not always inspiring events. I talk to many individuals about the holidays, and it never fails how dealing with those you do not care for is a point of discussion during this season. Some people look at the holidays with partial dread because of their family’s seemingly unresolvable relational conflict.

Thanksgiving and Christmas are family contexts where you do not entirely control who appears at your door. Inevitably, there will be at least one person in these situations where you have to wear your fake smile while treading the waters of superficiality. I’ll call him Uncle Biff; he’s that guy. Honest and enjoyable conversations are hard to have with him. Each get-together with Uncle Biff is a mental challenge as you wrestle through the moral merits of being friendly. To be honest with Biff is to invite conflict and controversy. To ignore the over-stuffed elephants romping around the room is a call to suppress your candid thoughts about Uncle Biff.

Then there is that momentary thought about being honest with him, and your sinful temptations overpower sound reason because you want to give Biff a piece of your mind. It is in those moments when our daughter used to say, “Zip it, lock it, and put it in your pocket.” So, you choose the “zip it, lock it approach” as your annual default. You bite your tongue while resisting the added temptation to sin in your heart. But you know that deep down, it makes more sense to say nothing than something that could lead to protracted and unresolved splits in the family tree.

The Irreducible Minimum

Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little (Luke 7:47).

The Bible urges us to seek peace with everyone (Romans 12:16-18). The resistant retort, of course, is usually something like this: “It says if possible, and I do not think this is possible. You have never met Uncle Biff.” Indeed, I have not met Uncle Biff, but I know that when I am in those moments of potential conflict, I have to bring myself back to the stabilizing truths of the gospel. The gospel breaks through the fog in my mind and the stubbornness of my heart. It is a beacon showing the way to a blind seaman. The gospel brings relational difficulty down to the irreducible minimum.

The irreducible minimum is Uncle Biff is no more and no less of a sinner than I am. We all have this one thing in common: we were equally guilty before God and were ultimately unable to better our condition apart from His grace. It is only because of God’s unmerited favor that we stand a chance of being saved from ourselves. It is that truth that must impact and rivet my heart daily. The degree to which God’s gospel is piercing and affecting my heart will be the extent to which I will respond in a Christlike way to the Uncle Biff in my life. If the gospel does not rightly influence me, I will not enter any relational context redemptively.

The Christian’s goal is to love God and others above all else. If you are affected rightly by the gospel and are thinking correctly about the gospel, you will be obedient to the gospel. Your obedience is how the Lord will partner with you to help Uncle Biff change—if it’s God’s will for him to change this season or any season. God mysteriously partners with us, allowing us to be ministers of reconciliation so others can know Him. Someday, Biff will stand before God and give an account of his life. Will you be a minister of reconciliation, cooperating with God to provide a genuine attempt for heart change?

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself (Luke 10:27).

  • Are you out to prove a point? Are you more interested in winning an argument?
  • What is your goal with the family member who annoys you? Is your desire to withhold your love from him because of how he has treated you?

We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others (2 Corinthians 5:10-11).

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Go, Make Disciples

Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18-19).

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you (Matthew 28:19-20).

Are you ready to help Biff? The point of the gospel coming into our lives was not to give us all our dreams or meet our expectations. The Lord did not grant salvation so we could relax but get busy sharing Christ with others (Philippians 1:29). The gospel is a rugged cross that must be modeled and taught to needy men and women. The gospel is the message that He wants us to carry to those who need to hear it, like Uncle Biff. We have no gospel worth discussing if our gospel cannot transcend our differences. I do not know if Biff will change this year, next year, or any year. He may transform. Biff may come to Christ. He may become born again. I do not know. But that is not the central question for our consideration. God did not call us to change people. He invites us to model and share the gospel with those who need its power. I suspect most of us will have at least one opportunity to present the gospel to an extended family member this holiday season. One of the most effective ways to display the gospel is by modeling it.

  • Do you want others to be affected by Christ?
  • Do you want others to see and experience the power of the gospel?
  • Do you want others to know and share what you know daily?

If these are your goals for your friends, you are on the right track. And if so, let us press the point a bit more as you think about how God responds to you:

  • How did the Father respond to you when you were in your sin?
  • How does the Father respond to you when you sin now?

The answer is that God’s kindness led to our repentance; that is one way the Father motivates us to change. Kindness is core to who He is and how He encourages us to transform. This idea is our call to those who trouble our souls (Romans 5:8). When was God kind to us? It was while we were sinning. He did not love us after we got our acts together. He loved us while we were living in sin. Maybe Biff needs that kind of loving, fatherly motivation from you.

Call to Action

Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance (Romans 2:4)?

Let those thoughts settle in your mind over the next few days. Ask the Father to remind you how He responds to you each time you sin. It was His kindness that led to your repentance. He patiently persevered through many years of your rebellion. It is not wise to presume on the riches of God: the riches of His kindness, the riches of His forbearance, or the riches of His patience. We should not take these things for granted because those things may lead someone to change. If we forget God’s methods of change—kindness, forbearance, and patience, we will soon begin to presume against His grace, and those marvelous things will only be impotent reminders of our past. And Biff will not experience any of them through us.

  1. Will Biff change this year? I do not know.
  2. The better question is, “Will I model the kindness of the gospel to him rather than obscuring the cross by my self-righteous attitude toward him?”

I appeal to you to begin praying for your Uncle Biff today, asking the Lord to allow you to model the gospel to him during your time together. For example,

  1. How can you serve Biff?
  2. How can you surprise him with grace—the thing he does not deserve or merit?
  3. How can you respond in grace, similar to the Lord’s responses to you?

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Genuine Thanks

I give thanks to my God always for you (1 Corinthians 1:4).

Some of the most divisive, challenging, and angry people in Paul’s life were the Corinthians. They did not like him and did many things to discredit his apostleship and the vision he was trying to build in the church. One of the most influential verses in the Bible, as it pertains to how to relate to difficult people, is found in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. I think it would be accurate to say that some Corinthians hated Paul. Even so, Paul was unwavering in his affection and attitude toward those undeserving people. We see this in 1 Corinthians 1:4 as Paul gives us a peek into his prayer life.

Paul was free and untethered from the slanderous and manipulating behavior of the Corinthians. His freedom led him to his closet, where he got down on his knees and genuinely thanked God for the people hurting him. Let me suggest you go to your closet and pray to God like the apostle Paul. Perhaps the gospel has not changed your heart like Paul’s. Maybe you have some work to do with God before you engage Uncle Biff. My prayer for all of us this holiday season is as follows:

  1. To be able to pursue God genuinely,
  2. While appropriating His grace upon ourselves,
  3. Which releases us to be ministers of reconciliation toward those who need what God gave us.

I hope the Uncle Biff in your life will be surprised by the gospel as he perceives it working in you as you practically model it before him. Ask Him to give you the grace He gave to Paul. Ask Him to help you pray for the mean, disappointing, and challenging people in your life. May your gospel-motivated attitude and behavior lead to a much-needed redemptive conversation.

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