How can we celebrate the holidays and spend time with family when disappointment and conflict is the family norm?
I find myself wistfully believing somehow sin and depravity will take a break during the Christmas season. In my own life, where time with family is mostly enjoyable, we have recently experienced the ongoing reminders of life in a broken world.
We attended both a funeral and a birthday party. I officiated a wedding and watched a marriage fall apart. I took my daughter to the Nutcracker alone because my wife was in bed recovering from surgery. We are anticipating the birth of a new baby nephew while experiencing the deteriorating effects of Alzheimer’s disease in another family member.
How can we celebrate the holidays and spend time with family when that time is anything but joyful? What do we do when disappointment and conflict is the family norm?
Try writing a new Christmas wish list.
1. Receive to give
Have you received the kindness, mercy, grace, and forgiveness of God? Put receiving God’s grace at the top of your Christmas list this year.
We know this is a time of year for giving. Jesus says, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). But the truth is that none of us can truly give unless we receive from Christ first and foremost.
We are unable to extend grace until we receive his grace. We can’t be kind to someone who has offended us unless we receive the loving-kindness of Christ. We can’t hope to forgive those who have sinned against us unless we receive God’s forgiveness first (Eph. 4:32).
Grace and forgiveness never ignore or excuse sin. Look to the cross: the most gracious moment in history was also the most confrontational. At the cross, God declared war on sin, Satan, and death while freely extending grace to any hopeless sinner who will receive it.
Maybe this is the year God wants you to stop using your family as an excuse to reject his grace to you. From the richness of his unending grace comes the ability to gift grace to others.
2. Pray for yourself
Next on your list, start praying specifically for yourself and your heart.
We often pray for others and surrounding circumstances. There is nothing wrong with this, but we have no control over others or life’s events. With God’s help, we actually have control over our own thoughts, words, and actions. We are most likely to recognize God’s transformation in us when we pray for our own hearts to change.
As you spend time with family this year, pray that you would respond differently to the strife that will surround you. Pray that you will hold your tongue when you are tempted to lash out in frustration. Pray that you will be willing to have that difficult conversation that needs to happen. Pray that you will overlook an offense that might sting, but will not destroy you. Pray that God would give you opportunities to shine light into family darkness.
It only takes one person to confess wrong, extend forgiveness, and repent of sin. Pray that you will initiate doing that. Don’t wait for the other person to make the first move.
3. Be a witness of Jesus
Make sure Jesus is on your list.
Jesus came to earth as a baby in a manger. But he didn’t leave. If you are a Christian, he has taken up residency in your heart, through the Spirit.
At Christmas, we celebrate the Incarnation of Christ, literally meaning, “God became flesh.” Christ became like us so we might become like him. He is embodied, or incarnated, and we share this good news with all.
God incarnate was no pushover. Jesus demonstrated true strength in the face of his enemies and in dying a horrific death on the cross. His strength and faith in the Father is described in 1 Peter 2:23: “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.”
We can be a witness to what Christ has done and entrust ourselves to the Father very practically this Christmas. Family relationships often bring deep wounds. Even Jesus’ family did hurtful things to him (Mark 3:21; John 7:5). Hurting is different than harming. Harmful, destructive, and dangerous family relationships might need to be cut off.
But most of us have disappointing and painful family relationships instead of harmful relationships. We avoid, run from, and dance around issues that need to be addressed or seek vengeance against others who have hurt us, when God is asking us to do something radically different. Jesus does not respond sinfully to us when we hurt him. He will not spare us from the hurt and pain it takes to bring us to a point where we are a faithful to witness to his person and work. That’s why he might be calling you to hurt in your family relationships for the sake of making him known.
What family relationships do you need to press into even if they are painful? What would it look like to love members of your family who have not loved you well? How can you serve family members when you might not get anything in return?
But Jesus came humbly, he endured for you, and he empowers you through the spirit to be an agent of love toward others as he has loved you.
For those who are hurting and struggling through difficult relationships this season, my hope is that this Christmas wish list will bring you joy for the new year.