By Blair Parke, Crosswalk.com
The saying goes you can’t choose your family, but you can choose your friends. Nothing is closer to the truth when it comes to living with difficult family members.
The Bible is filled with countless examples of family members at odds with each other: Jacob and Laban, Joseph and his brothers, Abraham and Sarah, and even the first family, Adam and Eve and their children, Cain and Abel.
Challenges with families are nothing new. They can lead to awkward holiday dinners, spats over juvenile things, and maybe even being completely estranged from one another. But God didn’t bring family members together for them to only fight with each other, but to grow with one another; and sometimes it is to grow through the pain caused by a family member.
There are ways to handle difficult family members in a Christian manner, seeking more to exemplify the love of Christ than letting pride, shame, or hurt get the best of you. Armed with Scripture verses, stories of warring biblical figures, and tactics to lessen difficult situations before they start (or get worse), you can be a godly witness to your family members, even if they aren’t to you.
Equip Yourself with Scripture
Nothing can be solved or achieved if you are not ready to battle against the enemy holding your family’s souls captive. Envy, anger, indifference and hostility are all weapons of the enemy, Satan.
The best way to prepare yourself for handling your family with God’s grace and strength is to keep in your heart and mind Scripture verses that pertain to God’s peace during the storms of life (which includes family). Here are some to keep in mind for situations involving your challenging family members.
Psalm 27:1: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; Whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; Of whom shall I be afraid?”
1 Peter 5:7: “Casting all your cares on Him, for He cares for you.”
Romans 3:23: “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”
Hebrews 12:14: “Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord.”
Isaiah 41:10: “Fear not, for I am with you; Be not dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, Yes, I will help you, I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.”
Prepare Yourself before Encountering Difficult Family Situations
Almost everyone can attest to having some issue with family, from full-on arguments every time you see one another, to feeling victimized by a family member’s gossip or high standards, to sometimes being completely abandoned by family during crucial times.
Instead of believing this will always be the way you will interact with your challenging family members, take some necessary precautions that might help alleviate current or future issues with them.
1) Remember, hurt people hurt others
You may wonder why particular family members seem so hard to spend time with. But because it’s family, you probably know history of them that might explain their behavior. Your family member could be dealing with a past hurt or wrong that has manifested in how they behave toward you or others. Though that doesn’t excuse how they act toward you, it should give clarity to the situation and make you realize you may only be the recipient, not the culprit, of their hurt.
2) Be mindful of triggers for fights and discomfort
Does your family member not approve of your spouse, or your job, or how you raise your children? Do fights seem to happen over meals or if alcohol is involved? Think about what causes your family to become difficult or abusive or when gossip seems to start up. Remind yourself of those triggers (conversations, activities, situations) so you can make strategies to avoid them when possible.
3) Read Bible stories about family squabbles
If it helps, know that there are stories in the Bible of people who experienced far harsher treatment from family members than you have. Consider the story of Jacob and his father-in-law Laban (Gen. 29). Though Jacob worked seven years for the hand of Laban’s daughter, Rachel, Laban tricked Jacob and had him marry his oldest daughter, Leah, instead. Then Laban forced him to work another seven years in order to marry Rachel. So, keep in mind that whatever family drama you may be experiencing, others in Scripture have also faced.
4) God sees more in you than your family member
Words and actions can still sting, even if they come from someone dealing with unresolved hurt or pain. When what your family says about you or how they make you feel comes rearing its ugly head, remind yourself that God sees you differently. He sees potential, love, and growth in you, the image of Himself with talents and skills uniquely created in you.
What to Do When Facing Difficult Family Members
Sometimes you can prepare all you want for encountering your difficult family members, but they might pull a rabbit of their hats in the form of an awkward situation, or maybe their interactions are more personal that day than previously. What do you do to avoid acting out in a way that you may not like?
1) Maintain your calm
It isn’t easy when your family member says something to you that hurts or treats their dog better than you, but before you lash out at them with words or fists, take a breath. If you need to excuse yourself outside or to the bathroom, do so to get a grip on your anger, calm down, and maybe say a quick prayer to God for wisdom. Don’t make a bad situation worse, even if you feel justified in your actions.
2) Douse them with kindness
What better way to stifle an argument than with kindness? You could compliment your family member in some way (there has to be something), change the conversation to something more pleasant, or maybe simply say, “Thank you for sharing. I will pray on this and seek God’s direction.” Kindness can stop a harsh word in its tracks.
3) Take a stand, but as Christ would do
Maybe the time has come for you to take a stand against the unnecessary treatment from your difficult family member, whether it is directed at you or someone else in your family. Who better to look to for taking a stand than Christ? Christ was regularly met with confrontation from others who should have been His godly brothers and sisters, but instead of acting out in anger and bitterness, He spoke with love and God’s truth. He didn’t let the words of the Sanhedrin or unbelievers (or even believers) get the best of Him, but stood firm in God’s Word and didn’t agree just to fall in line.
The same could be said for us, as the time might come for you to let your difficult family member know that their words and/or actions have hurt you over the years and you would appreciate the behavior to stop. Maybe this presents an opportunity for you to talk with your family member away from others, to ask if you could pray for them, or to just reveal more of your heart in what God is telling you.
Probably God has orchestrated this moment because it is time for your family member to face their hurt and start their healing process.
If the situation gets worse and none of these tactics work with your family member, don’t be afraid to set up boundaries to ensure that you and your immediate family don’t continually feel hurt. It might mean avoiding certain situations where the issues could be worse, or maybe speaking with other family members to see if there could be space (family interference) so you don’t miss out on family memories just because of that family member.
Don’t Give Up
Living with difficult family members is not an easy feat and can make it hard to represent Christ to this person. However, God doesn’t want you to experience repeated ridicule or hurt just because it is someone related to you through blood or marriage.
What would help most is to take steps before and during time with your family members to not only stay calm and collected, but to also display God’s love to someone who may need it more than they know. Keeping God’s Word in your mind and taking steps to mentally prepare for facing your family member are ways you can offer Christlike love to your challenging family member.
Healing takes time, especially between family members, but God doesn’t give up on people and neither should you.
Photo credit: ©Getty Images/Valentina Shilkina
Blair Parke is a freelance writer for BibleStudyTools.com and freelance book editor who wrote her first book, "Empty Hands Made Full," in 2021 about her journey through infertility with her husband. She previously worked for eight years with Xulon Press as an editor. A graduate of Stetson University with a bachelor's in communications, Blair previously worked as a writer/editor for several local magazines in the Central Florida area, including Celebration Independent and Lake Magazine and currently writes for the Southwest Orlando Bulletin. She's usually found with a book in her hand or enjoying quality time with her husband Jeremy and dog Molly. You can order her book at Christian Author Bookstore - Xulon Press Publishing and visit her website at Parkeplaceediting.