E-journal November 20, 2007

How to Survive the Relatives: A Primer in Twelve Lessons

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by Ellyn Davis

We often have friends ask us to pray for them before they celebrate holidays with relatives. For many, holidays are stressful times when family tensions flare up and loved ones misunderstand and lash out at one another. Even worse, Christians who want so badly to be good examples are often drawn into patterns of ungodly behavior and leave the family gathering ashamed and feeling like any future opportunity to witness to loved ones has been ruined.

Here is a primer in twelve lessons on handling the stressful times family get-togethers can generate. The first three lessons are in this e-journal. The last nine will be in e-journals that follow.

Lesson 1: Don’t Shoot the Messenger

Because you are a Christian, you have probably been praying for God to rid you of all ungodly, unproductive habit patterns and ways of thinking. Believe it or not, God is already at work doing just that.

But the way He tends to do it is not the way we might hope. Most of us wish God would bonk us over the head with a magic wand and we would instantly be those “new creations” that we read about in the Bible. Sadly, we eventually realize that it doesn’t necessarily happen that way.

Once of God’s most effective ways of getting through to us is to send us “messengers.”

It works like this. Someone in your life (usually someone closest to you, like your immediate family) “pushes your buttons” and Wham! You have an emotional reaction. You think, surely it’s the other person’s fault that you’re angry or hurt or feeling used in some way.

Sometimes it is, but more often it’s not. All the other person did was trigger some unresolved emotional “stuff” that needs to be brought to light and dealt with. This person is your personal messenger from God bringing you a message.

What’s the message? Hmmmm. There seems to be something lurking beneath your together-looking Christian exterior that needs to be brought out into the open.

So, Lesson number 1 is “Don’t shoot the messenger.”

Lesson 2: Get the Message

Usually we go ahead and shoot the messenger, so never get to Lesson 2.

What do I mean by we “shoot the messenger?” We react to them. We tell them that they shouldn’t have done what they did to us. We accuse them of all sorts of things. We blow them away before they ever get a chance to give us the message that God is sending us. Or we fume inside and shut ourselves off from them emotionally.

In order to “Get the Message,” we have to be open to the idea that our reaction to what the person just did probably has nothing to do with what the person just did, but everything to do with something else that happened to us that we’re still carrying around a reaction to.

For example, when we were growing up maybe we were very poor and we hated being poor. We hated the shame of it, the longing for more and envy of others that it produced, the way we were looked down on….etc. We may have even been angry about it and judged people who were well-off, forming negative opinions about them. Maybe we were even mad at God about our situation.

So what’s God going to do? It’s pretty obvious when you think about it. He’s going to make someone close to you wealthy, usually a fairly obnoxious relative. And when your extended family gathers together for the holidays, that obnoxious, wealthy relative is going to say or do something innocuous (like drive up in his Lexus), but it’s going to make you furious and bring up all the fear, anger, shame, and negative opinions you formed when we were a child. And you’re going to think that relative is being a jerk. But he wasn’t really being a jerk. He was being a messenger.

What was the message? Well, actually there are three messages. Message #1: Stop focusing on the messenger and focus on the mess in your own life. Message #2: You’ve still got some issues about wealth and poverty you need to sort out in order to be spiritually “clear.” And Message #3: You’ve still got a long way to go before you can reach the level of forgiveness about your past that sets you free.

Maybe there are even more messages, like you need to get over your anger at God for letting you grow up in such a poor family, or you’ve got an unhealthy attitude toward money. There could be all kinds of messages, but the point is to “Get the Message.”

At the time, when the “Messenger” is pushing your buttons, it won’t seem funny. But later, after you’ve worked things out with God, you’ll be able to laugh about how you were “set up” so that God could get at some unresolved issues in your life.

What does this have to do with going home for the holidays? Everything.

Families have usually worked out relational patterns over decades and know exactly how to "push one another's buttons." Words, actions, expressions, and situations can be like switches that set old habit patterns into motion or ignite old negative feelings.

Because of this, families are the best “messengers” to bring you messages about what is still undealt with in your own life. And if you don’t get the “message” the first time or even the hundredth time, God will just keep using your family members as messengers until you finally “get the message.”

So, this holiday when you spend time with those people who know you better than anyone else in the whole world but who can also push your buttons better than anyone else in the whole world, think to yourself, “What messages do they have for me from God?”

You’ll be amazed at how you can relax and just let your family members be who they are, obnoxious as they may be, because you have a secret…. You know they are really messengers bringing you messages from God.

Lesson 3: Leave the Policing to the Cops and the Judging to the Courts

Another thing you can do is ask God to let you see your family from His perspective. You may be amazed to discover that he doesn’t care about a lot of things you think need fixing in your relatives.

We usually have hidden agendas when we go home for a visit—agendas like saving everyone, or changing them, or talking them into seeing our point of view, or showing them the error of their ways, or demonstrating that Christianity is what’s missing in their lives.

For some reason, we Christians tend to act like God deputized us to be his little policemen in the lives of our relatives (and everyone else we know). Most people feel uncomfortable being around a cop all the time. So do our relatives.

When we bring our saving, enlightening, policing agendas to our family gatherings, we tend to relate to our relatives as ministry targets instead of as people Jesus loved enough to die for, just like they are.

So lighten up. God may only be interested in us honoring and serving our loved ones, nothing more for now. Take off your “I am a Christian” badge and be a real person. Many, many unsaved people have never known a “Christian” who was a real person. That’s why we’re accused of being hypocrites all the time. If you think about it, the only people in the Bible Jesus judged and corrected while he was on the earth were the religious people, not the sinners.

Maybe you can think of specific ways you can demonstrate love, honor, gratitude and service to your relatives. Wouldn’t that surprise them! What a concept!

Have a great Thanksgiving!

To be continued…..

(Note: Please understand that I’m not suggesting you stand idly by while your relatives engage in really ungodly behavior or when they try to continue abusive patterns from the past. If you find your relatives are trying to place you, your spouse, or your children in a morally compromising or abusive position, cut your visit short. You don’t have to put up with it.)

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