Updated: Dec 10, 2021
3 reasons to be (more) OK with familial breaks.
The holiday season can be difficult for all sorts of reasons. For one thing, the stretch between Thanksgiving and Christmas is loaded with sacred cow expectations of family that at turns hurt our hearts or fill us with "righteous" rage, now more than ever. Despite our best efforts, Covid and all its thorny controversies, ongoing political and social division, swirling fear and grief, and the more traditional seasonal stressors magnify fractured family ties. Biblical insight can radically change our perspective, enabling us to understand, endure, and even transcend the pain of fractured families. Jesus Himself offers us three reasons to be OK with familial breaks and-- gulp--even to thank God for them. His red-letter words can comfort you if you let them.
1. Jesus warned of family fractures in His name.
"51 Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I have come to divide people against each other! 52 From now on families will be split apart, three in favor of me, and two against—or two in favor and three against.
53 ‘Father will be divided against son and son against father; mother against daughter and daughter against mother; and mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.’[a]”
54 Then Jesus turned to the crowd and said, “When you see clouds beginning to form in the west, you say, ‘Here comes a shower.’ And you are right. 55 When the south wind blows, you say, ‘Today will be a scorcher.’ And it is. 56 You fools! You know how to interpret the weather signs of the earth and sky, but you don’t know how to interpret the present times." Luke 12:51-56 (NLT)
I'm starting with the theological grenade because it appears first in the Gospels. I encourage you to study the whole chapter for the big picture. Here, Jesus is speaking explicitly about the end times. However freakish some folks might feel such talk to be, there's no denying there's a conspicuous amount of drama unfolding on the planet right now and plenty of Biblical evidence that it's spiritually significant (1.) Apart from global turmoil, many people glimpse the trouble in their own families.
Jesus' words are clear: Family schisms are harbingers of the last days.
I used to think religious persecution or division looked like lions feasting on the faithful in Rome, the Crusades, theocratic tribunals, imprisonment, or other Hollywood-worthy images of martyrdom. In reality, religious division can be Facebook rants and unfriending, silent scorn or sarcasm, subtle sabotage, frenemies, unreturned phone calls, or outright termination of relations under false pretenses or otherwise. Empty seats at holiday dinners are among the symptoms.
In Luke 14:26, Jesus goes even further, saying “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple." Ouch! Scholars agree that Jesus isn't actually telling us to hate our families--that would violate the fifth commandment and His own law of love. He's simply strongly hammering the point that our primary allegiance must be to Him.
Whatever role you play in a family schism, consider the fact that Jesus predicted that the day would come that spiritual division would not be surmounted by kindness, good manners, or light-hearted table talk.
Reflecting on what Jesus says in light of our current reality can alleviate the agony of grief, hasten healing, and if fully embraced, even lead us to experience the joy and blessing of suffering for Christ's sake (2.). We can be sure Christ sees and sympathizes with our wounds. The pain is not in vain.
2. Jesus assures us our relational sacrifices will be rewarded.
There are many places in Scripture that highlight the reality and rewards of suffering for our faith, and one stands out specifically as it relates to family.
“Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel 30 will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. Mark 10:29-30
Once again, Jesus is really clear. Even a superficial read tells us we may have to leave family (or be left) to answer God's call, either voluntarily or as a result of persecution. He's also clear we'll be rewarded for our sacrifice here and in eternity.
Some of us have such a cleaving attachment to family that it prevents us from fulfilling God's purpose for our lives, one way or another. While family can seem untouchably holy, anything we put before God is an idol. Historically, God tends to shatter idols that compete with His primacy in our lives, one way or another.
Jesus' metaphorical pruning tells us that certain people being removed from our lives ultimately prospers us, just like a well-shorn rosebush bears more beautiful blossoms in due season. Resisting the surgery only increases and prolongs the pain.
The Bible offers some powerful and explicit examples of pruning.
Comforting case studies.
Scripture is full of broken or non-traditional families in which the fracture—however messy-- was vital to fulfilling God’s purpose. Here are just a few, each rich with wisdom and consolation for all of us who have faced the pain of family fracture:
Moses: Moses’ birth mother set him afloat in the Nile River to protect him from Pharaoh’s genocidal spree. In a powerful plot twist only God could devise, Pharoah’s own daughter fished him out of river and adopted him. By rights, Moses was heir to Pharoah’s dynasty but was moved to intentionally reject his rich, adoptive birthright to align himself with the oppressed Hebrews, eventually playing the starring role in their liberation.
Joseph: Again, a conspicuously favored son, Joseph guilelessly (but obnoxiously) asserted his favor, inciting his jealous brothers to sell him into slavery. Joseph’s traumatic ride to glory eventually led to his heroic role in saving the people from famine, including his own family. It was a decidedly untidy and long-coming restoration.
David: By some accounts, David was considered something of a runt of his family, ridiculed and marginalized by both father and big brothers. Later, he was rejected by another important authority figure in his life, King Saul. David leaned into this rejection to fulfill his God-given purpose over and over, including becoming king. Eventually, David played a dastardly role in his own family’s dysfunction, yet all of it worked together to ensure everyone moved God’s story along to its saving conclusion. The Psalms testify to how this process felt. Namely, bad.
The Disciples: While we don’t dwell on it much, many of the disciples are believed to have had wives and children they left behind to follow Jesus. There’s some evidence that families may have traveled along at times, but generally, The Bible is unclear.
I have personally been painfully marginalized by extended family and can easily identify with elements from each of these Biblical narratives. I can trace the fissure from when I was saved, ever widening until the breach was impossible to bridge. I pray and hold onto hope because I know Christ can bridge any gap if we let Him.
(We could fill reams unpacking each of these stories for their relevance to our own family turmoil. A project for another time, but I urge you to read for yourself!)
Having an open-handed posture before God--yes, even with family--frees to follow wherever He leads, and to do whatever He calls us to. In so doing, our thoughtful Heavenly Father may leave us feeling bereft to help us grow in dependence on Him. Even so, He does provide support and fellowship for the journey.
3. Jesus endorses "family of choice."
48 He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” 49 Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” Matthew 12:48-50
I've always found it difficult to envision Jesus actively dissing his mom and brothers, as this verse seems to suggest. In fact, that's not the point at all, yet the message offers solace. As Jesus is "talking to a crowd" of people, Mary and His brothers showed up, wanting to see Him. Jesus's response seems rather harsh, but underscores that spiritual family supersedes blood ties.
Some of us are blessed with natural families that share and nurture our faith. That's a beautiful thing. Others have kin who tolerate it, while still others have family who are covertly or passive-aggressively hostile. Finally, some have family that outright reject us or put us in a position where we have no choice but to remain at a safe distance.
People in Twelve Step programs talk about "Family of Choice," those people who by spiritual affinity, shared challenges, and common goals and values, become a supplemental or surrogate family. Like Jesus, we can build family of choice, cultivating our closest community with people who are seeking to do the will of our Father.
Don't draw your saber.
If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Romans 12:18
Let's face it, in today's climate some folks are itching for a fight, with family or otherwise. As with anything else in Scripture, we have to view Jesus's words in the broader context of His message of love and forgiveness. Jesus urges us to not pick fights, and to be kind, loving, and at peace with people whenever possible. HOWEVER, not at the expense of our integrity, Truth, or honoring God.
God indeed tells us to be angry at sin, injustice, and immoral behavior, but not to hate people. We may even be called to confront wrong-doing, but our posture should always be one of restorative love--if not restoration to us, then loving delivery to Christ. We remain called to "love your enemies and bless those who curse you," (Matthew 5:43) including those in our own family. This cringey but hilarous SNL skit casts Adele as family peacemaker. If only!
Even coming from a loving place can be met with indifference or hostility. You're in good company. Jesus' own people rejected Him (John 1:11). He even told the disciples to move on and shake the dust off their feet as a warning to people who rejected the Gospel message (Luke 10:11, Matthew 10:14). At the end of time, people's hearts are predicted to harden against God's Truth.
Coping with the pain of failure and fracture.
The pain of family fractures is real and can be almost unbearably intense. We can feel at once heartbroken and outraged. If we know we've contributed by our own lack of tact or grace, it magnifies the pain.
Jesus' cross bridges the chasm of our failures and losses here on earth, whether we're victims or perpetrators or a combo. He warned we'd have trouble here, especially as His return draws nigh. He also assured us He's overcome the world. Viewed in the context of a perfect eternity, we can both survive and thrive through family schisms.
Bring your heartache to Jesus, confess your part, receive His love and forgiveness, and enjoy the rich blessings of the grace-filled season in peace and gratitude. Whatever your family status, Christmas reminds us of our ultimate tribe.
The perfect, unfailing eternal family.
The Good News is that in Christ, you are a fully accepted member of God's family, and nothing can separate you from your Father's love. Ephesians 1: 3-6 says this:
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will—to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.
That's very Good News indeed. Remember: God loves you no matter what.
Grace & peace,
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A PRAYER FOR YOU:
14 For this reason I kneel before the Father, 15 from whom every family[a] in heaven and on earth derives its name. 16 I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
20 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.
For Additional Study:
Key End Times Verses:
1 Timothy 4:1
2 Timothy 3:1-5
2 Corinthians 4:4
2 Peter 3:3-4
2. Key verses of suffering for Christ.