I breathed in slowly through my nose, the way I always do when trying to stay calm. My hands gripped the kitchen counter like my life depended on it, turning my knuckles pale white. It was all I could do to try and keep it together; to not say something I would regret.
It had been less than two hours since our families had gotten together. Less than two hours before the first tense moment rippled through us, bringing a screeching halt to the conversations and putting everyone on edge.
I wasn’t even surprised when it happened.
It was the same old behaviors. The same complaints and sharp tongues. The same people bursting into tears. It was like watching a horror scene from a movie in slow motion, knowing that something horrible was about to happen, but still unable to do anything about it.
I’m usually on the periphery of these outbursts; the outsider, looking in. I watch in silence, thoughts whipping through me like a raging storm: Should I step in? Should I try to “help”? What would I say? What if I made things worse? Why is my family like this?
Families can be difficult. That’s probably the understatement of the year. But it’s true. Sometimes, I wake up and wonder, How is it that the people I have spent most of my life with can be so different from me? Or, perhaps the question I should be asking is, Why am I so different from the rest of my family?
It’s amazing that people who practically spend 24/7 with each other can come to have dialectically opposing personalities, political views, theological stances, parenting philosophies, and lifestyle choices.
There can be such heartache in families. Frustration that our families are trying to change us. The grief of not being accepted for who we are. There’s constant bickering, trying to get the other person to think or behave more like us.
Constantly trying to change each other is a recipe for disaster, and a good excuse to avoid family get-togethers during the holidays.
But something I’ve learned over the years is that my job is not to change my family; it’s to point them to the Change Maker.
In Ezekiel 36:26-27, God says, “I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.”
The way God compels people to change is like a gentle current, like the breeze on a cool autumn day. His Spirit guides and nudges us, slowly tuning our hearts toward Him, and toward the goodness of His ways.
Most often changing a person’s heart from stone cold to warm and pliable takes time. Whether it’s realizing they need help or choosing not to say hurtful things; whether it’s turning from a life of sin or being open to new ideas, change in a person will be measured by the course of decades, not months, and certainly not minutes.
Nevertheless, the power to change a person is God’s and God’s alone. Not mine.
Knowing that it’s not my job to change my family is liberating. When I’m with my family, I don’t need to win arguments or put someone in their place. I’m not trying to be the smartest person in the room. I don’t need to be that annoying family member who harps on someone over and over until I’m beating a dead horse with my advice.
My job is simply to love and encourage my family in ways that align with Scripture. The last thing I want is to communicate that I will only love them if they act and think like me. Making our family feel like our love is conditional based on their level of transformation does not represent the heart of God.
So now, in moments of family conflict, I try doing the following:
- I try to make sure everyone involved feels heard and understood.
- I work toward helping everyone feel acknowledged and validated for their views or feelings.
- I remind my family that they love each other and are on the same team.
- I share a Bible verse that would encourage someone and make them feel empowered.
- I ask how I can pray for them.
It’s much easier to love our families just as they are when we see ourselves as cheerleaders instead of coaches. We’re not trying to make them more like us. We’re trying to gently, lovingly point our family toward Christ, and trust that He will bring about His good work in them according to His perfect timing.