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Thursday 23 December 2021

Prepping For The Holiday Season Sermon 2: Dealing With Difficult Family


Video version here 

Introduction –

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Remember when you genuinely felt that as a child? Some people genuinely do still feel this way. Christmas can be wonderful. I think for me Christmas peaked when I was in France for Christmas back in 2011. That was the best Christmas I can remember, it was like being in a Christmas movie, set in a small European Village, it was incredible. Walking through the Christmas markets in small towns, seeing the passion for Christmas in Paris, watching atheist French choirs putting more love and care into traditional Christmas carols than every single televised Australian carols show I’ve ever seen was amazing. Christmas is really a European winter tradition, and outside of Europe we don’t get to experience it at its best. If you don’t believe me, if you ever get the chance spend a Christmas in Europe. It is amazing.

But for most adults, there are things about Christmas we love, and a lot of things we would prefer to do without. It’s the holiday season, there is a lot of joy in different places, but it is filled with so much busyness, and so much pressure from every direction. And one of those sources of pressure is family.

We all obviously love family. God designed us for family, we are all from a family of one kind or another. But family has been affected by the fall of this world into sin, just like any other aspect of this world. We all have good experiences with family and we all have difficult experiences with family, and many of those difficult experiences can occur on the holidays.

So, for our next message in the prepping for the holiday season series, I want to talk about dealing with difficult family. Maybe for you Christmas has no stress or drama about it, it is one of those times of year where it is all just fun. If that is the case, then I think that is wonderful. But I also think there will still be something in this message for you to apply at other times. Our last message was focused on reminding you what evangelism is and why it is important to get back to basics of evangelism. If you missed that message I encourage you to listen to it, and seek to apply it. This message is designed to give you to tools you need to help you think through how to deal with one of the challenges Christmas presents: difficult family. Let’s see what wisdom the Bible can give us on this issue.

      1. Busting A Strange Myth - First, I want to dispel a myth, that family is not meant to make you happy, but make you holy. This is one of those things Christians say that I just think contradicts so much of Scripture. You most often hear this in the context of “marriage is meant to make you holy, not happy.” But it is applied to family as well.

1.1  Could you think of a worse marketing slogan for marriage? You’re not meant to enjoy it. It is meant to make you suffer and call out to God to refine you! What a terrible message to tell young people. No wonder so many young people in our churches avoid marriage like the plague. They see many of their parents unhappy and hear from preachers all the time that marriage is not meant to make you happy anyway. What a disaster.

1.1.1       Imagine if they tried to market a product like this: it’s meant to taste bad. I mean I know that works for Dr pepper, but not for most products. Generally, if you want to sell something that you want people to do, you cast it in a positive light. Telling people marriage, or family is meant to be painful isn’t a great slogan, nor is it biblically correct. I mean it can be painful, just look at some people’s experience, but it is not meant to be painful.

1.2  The Bible itself sells marriage in a positive light, Psalm 45:1, 13-15, a wedding Psalm, says, “My heart overflows with a pleasing theme; I address my verses to the king; my tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe… 13 All glorious is the princess in her chamber, with robes interwoven with gold. 14 In many-colored robes she is led to the king, with her virgin companions following behind her. 15 With joy and gladness they are led along as they enter the palace of the king.”

1.2.1       What is the goal of marriage according to this wedding Psalm? Joy. The goal of marriage is joy. The goal of life is joy. The highest goal IS joy. Psalm 16:11 – “11 You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”

1.2.2       Indeed, there is a whole book in the Bible, song of Solomon which is all about enjoying marriage, and a lot of stuff mentioned in that book is only holy if you are doing it in marriage. Proverbs 5 says to delight yourself in the wife of your youth. So many Scriptures can be brought to bear to show that both marriage and family are things God gives us for our joy.  Psalm 127:3-5 – “3 Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward. 4 Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one's youth. 5 Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them! He shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies in the gate.” Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them. Blessed, filled with a deep and abiding joy is the man with a family. The goal of marriage and family is most certainly happiness. Scripture says this over and over again. Marriage and family are God’s good gifts to his children.

1.3  But you may respond: “Matthew you are misinterpreting what people mean they say marriage is not meant to make you happy, but holy. When they say the goal of marriage is holiness, not happiness, they mean that holiness is more important than the fleeting pleasures, like adultery, or divorcing a difficult spouse.” I respond to this by saying I get what they are saying completely, and it is still wrong, because they are inverting the goal of holiness.

1.3.1       Look at this: Psalm 1:1-2 – “1 Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; 2 but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” The result of living life God’s way is joy. Much joy.

1.3.2       Blessed, you can think of blessed as happy, but it is more than that. It is a deep and abiding joy, that is firm and unshakable. Here we see that to be blessed, to be happy, to be filled with joy is the effect of righteousness and the goal of holiness. Psalm 65:4 - “Blessed is the one you choose and bring near, to dwell in your courts! We shall be satisfied with the goodness of your house, the holiness of your temple!”

1.3.3       Holiness is designed to create joy. So why are we exploring all of this for today’s message?

1.4  Because if your family does not contain more joy than not, then you are doing things wrong. Don’t settle for: family is meant to bring holiness, not happiness, that is substandard and sub-biblical thinking. Recognize that if there is little happiness in your family, there is something seriously wrong. The goal of life is joy in the presence of God as we read in Psalm 16:11 - “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”

1.4.1       This gives you a baseline for how to approach family events: they should be about joy founded in holiness, and they should bring you joy. If they don’t, if they create stress, anxiety, unhappiness, then they are being done wrong. And you do not need to put yourself through that.

1.4.2       The goal of family is not holiness, it is about joy, happiness. Holiness serves joy. If you seek for joy in sinful pleasures it will just bring hardship sooner or later. But true and lasting joy comes from applying God’s ways to your life. The goal of life is joy through living God’s holy way. The only way to truly be happy is to live your life according to the word of God and his commands. It’s not a temporary joy, but a lasting one.

1.4.3       We cannot choose our family, but you are free in Christ to choose how you engage with them, especially if the family event is not fulfilling its biblical role: joy. This applies doubly with relatives and extended relatives.

1.4.4       With your husband and your wife, and your live at home children, you are obligated by God to stay with them, through thick and thin and not just run away because things are hard. But if your marriage is joyless, don’t accept this as just a means for your holiness, work to bring joy to that situation. You can’t just leave this situation. If you want true joy, you have to work to fix the conflict, you are bound by commitment to work for it.

1.5  But with extended family, once you are married, your parents, and your siblings are now your extended family or relatives, not your direct family.

1.5.1       This is addressed to the wife in Psalm 45:10-11 - “10 Hear, O daughter, and consider, and incline your ear: forget your people and your father's house, 11 and the king will desire your beauty. Since he is your lord, bow to him.” After marriage, a wife is to create distance between the family of her birth and come under her husband from this point on.

1.5.2       This is also addressed to the husband in Genesis 2, even before the fall: Genesis 2:24-25 – “24 Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. 25 And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.” The husband is to become the leader of his home and separate himself from his parents.

1.5.3       Your obligations change once you are married. Husbands are obligated to wives and wives to husbands, and you have an obligation to make your family as joy filled as you can. This will require putting limits on how you interact with your relatives. But there is more we can apply to Christmas as well.     

2    2. Religious Festivals Are To Be Joy-filled: We all know that Christmas is not a festival commanded for Christians to celebrate in Bible. This does not make it bad, indeed, it is a very good thing, but we are shown some religious festivals that people were obligated to attend, and let’s see what at least one of them can teach us. The festival of the tithe: (Deuteronomy 14:22-27) - “22 You shall tithe all the yield of your seed that comes from the field year by year. 23 And before the Lord your God, in the place that he will choose, to make his name dwell there, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, of your wine, and of your oil, and the firstborn of your herd and flock, that you may learn to fear the Lord your God always. 24 And if the way is too long for you, so that you are not able to carry the tithe, when the Lord your God blesses you, because the place is too far from you, which the Lord your God chooses, to set his name there, 25 then you shall turn it into money and bind up the money in your hand and go to the place that the Lord your God chooses 26 and spend the money for whatever you desire—oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves. And you shall eat there before the Lord your God and rejoice, you and your household. 27 And you shall not neglect the Levite who is within your towns, for he has no portion or inheritance with you.”

2.1  This is obviously not a Baptist party because there is allowed to be wine and strong-drink, and I don’t think strong-drink means protein shakes. It’s also not a vegetarian party, I mean how can it be a party if it is vegetarian? But notice the aim of this party, this festival: “And you shall eat there before the Lord your God and rejoice, you and your household.”

2.1.1       You shall get together with your family, and household and you shall rejoice. The aim of such a festival is joy. The aim is to have fun, together. The goal is not to just suffer through it but have fun.

2.1.2       So, we can say for certain that if good, Christian holidays like Christmas are not fun for the family things are being done wrong, and you need to rethink the whole approach.

2.1.3       A lot of family just do things a certain way because that is how they have always been done, and many of the people involved are miserable. You are under no obligation to be miserable. Indeed, what is the stated goal of Christmas: “Peace and Goodwill to all mankind.”

2.2  Christmas is different to the feast of booths, because it is a good tradition, but not a command. The Jews were commanded to celebrate such festivals, whereas Christmas is a choice. So, what is your obligation for Christmas? You are free to approach it as you see fit for your family however you can most bring righteous joy to your family.

2.2.1       We saw in Romans 14 last week, this important point: Romans 14:5-6 - “5 One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. 6 The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God.” Despite what some people believe, in Christianity there are no sacred special days, really because every day is the Lord’s. But for some people, certain days are sacred, and have a certain way they should be treated. Here is the key point, you must be convinced in your own mind.

2.2.2       Colossians even drives this point home more significantly, Colossians 2:16-17 - “16 Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. 17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” Let no one judge you. No one includes who? Relatives, family. I get this is pretty radical for some people to hear. But think about this: this is being written to converted Jews and Pagans. Imagine how many family traditions were wrapped up in these two different belief systems, all those obligations, etc, etc. If in such a culture Paul is saying be free, how much more should we be free in our culture? But you say we have to suffer through it, because it’s a family day. Well Paul says let no one judge you if you don’t want to suffer through it.  

2.3  This sets some solid foundations for our Christmas celebrations: we are not obliged to do anything, we do not have to tolerate anxiety because it is more holy, we are free to structure our holy days in the way that can best bring righteous joy to our family.

2.3.1       This allows you to draw some boundaries with your difficult family. You are actually free to say: I don’t need this. See you in January.

2.3.2       You don’t have to say this either. You are free. For some people getting together with family on Christmas day is the best day of the year. If that is your family praise God. This is really how it should be.

2.3.3       For others, it is just better, and happier for the family to grit their teeth through Christmas, because it makes the rest of the year easier. That is fine too, you have freedom on this issue. A lot of people feel like they don’t, they feel like big chains are dragging them one way or another. I understand. Life is a challenge. But God gives us great freedom and he wants you to be happy, a happiness based on holiness.  

      3. Don’t Let Difficult Family Get To You – For some people having difficult family is a source of real struggle in life. But can I encourage you, I have never met anyone who doesn’t have some difficulty in their family somewhere. We even see this in the Bible.

3.1  The first wife took the first opportunity she could to rule over her husband, and that husband then just submitted to it passively. The result? The fall of the world and also something very personal, their first son murdered their second son.

3.1.1       Then there is the dishonor that Noah’s son Ham does to him, in uncovering his nakedness.

3.1.2       Then there is Abraham’s mess with a childless wife, a young slave woman and an unwanted pregnancy that fractures the family. This is a mess that still affects the world today.

3.1.3       Then there is Jacob’s family. Most of the second half of Genesis is spent dealing with the struggles of this one family. The fights between brothers. The clashes of Jacob’s wives. The pain this causes all of them.

3.1.4       There is the mess of David’s family, many of the families in the book of judges, and so much more.

3.2  Be encouraged, that if you have brokenness in your family, you are not the first, you are not the only, and you are likely not the worst. Many people feel like failures because of the struggles in their families, but even good families aren’t perfect.

3.2.1       Some families are genuinely healthier than others, that is for sure. Some families exude peace. Some families exude chaos. Most are in the middle of these two positions. None are perfect. The difference between a healthy family and a bad family, is the healthy family have ways of reconciling issues, rather than just manifestly expanding them.

3.2.2       Family is a wonderful gift, that we must steward as God’s people wisely. Don’t think your family is the only one with struggles. But don’t settle for unhappiness being ok. It’s not, the family should be a place of more joy than pain.

3.3  I know some of you will want to go all the family events this year, and this is good. I know some of you will feel obligated to do so, even though you don’t want to.  So, let’s look at some practical wisdom from scripture, about how to navigate the day.

      4. Navigating The Family Gathering – So everything we have explored so far has been setting the theology of family and holiday celebrations so that you know your freedom in Christ, and that the goal of holiness is happiness. The goal of family is happiness, through holiness. The goal of festivals is happiness founded on holiness. But we also want to know how to navigate the difficult situations we can find ourselves in at family events. So, here are some principles of application.

4.1  Come with a spirit of joy – Deuteronomy 14:26 - “And you shall eat there before the Lord your God and rejoice, you and your household.” Coming together with your family is supposed to be about joy, especially at a holiday celebration. So, check your spirit before you go. You need to be intentional about this.

4.1.1       If you go with an expectation of conflict, you will likely find it. If you go with a spirit of joy, you might find conflict, but at least it won’t be your fault. You might just get lucky and not find it all. Proverbs 10:28 – “28 The hope of the righteous brings joy, but the expectation of the wicked will perish.”

4.2  Keep Your Expectations Low – Philippians 2:3 – “3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” Go with low expectations about what you deserve, about what you will get, about how you will be focused on. Think not about what you are going to get, but about what you will give.

4.2.1       If you go in expecting this and expecting that you are likely going to have fights, because you will become offended. Some people this is pretty much all they do to everyone else. Demanding behaviour creates a whirlwind of conflict.

4.2.2       I am not saying allow yourself to be pushed around, I am just saying don’t be the one who pushes their wait around.  

4.3  Think like an adult – 1 Corinthians 13:11 - “11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.” Paul quotes this passage in the context of talking about Spiritual gifts, but he is using a principle of wisdom that has far wider application. We need to leave childishness behind us, and act like the adults we are.

4.3.1       Many people when they go back home for Christmas, default to their instinctive home-based behaviour from childhood. This is the source of so much conflict.

4.3.2       I genuinely think if at all possible avoid having Christmas at the folks. Have everyone at your house, or another siblings house, or somewhere neutral. Or don’t all get together at the same time. A change in environment can help with this issue.

4.3.3       But also recognize that get-to-togethers at Christmas are pretty much a day for kids and for grandparents, not parents with childlike behaviour.  

4.4  Be Reticent To Talk – Proverbs 10:19 – “19 When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.” I am the first to admit I suck at this. I love a good debate. I don’t tend to start them, but sometimes people say something, and I am like: I cannot let that go.

4.4.1       But the less you say, the less likely you are to say something that will cause conflict. It’s a simple principle. All the extroverts suck at this. All the introverts are like, yes please.

4.4.2       Most family gatherings are not great places for robust conversation, they should be, but the reality is they just aren’t.  

4.5  Lead With Humility – Proverbs 11:2 – “When pride comes, then comes disgrace but with the humble is wisdom.” This one speaks for itself. Come with humility and avoid pride. Pride is the source of many evils, and for some reason, pride is often as close as the apple sauce and Christmas cake at the family Christmas get together. Remember pride is your enemy.

4.6  Don’t Be Afraid To Be Honest – Proverbs 11:3 – “3 The integrity of the upright guides them, but the crookedness of the treacherous destroys them.”

4.6.1       None of what I am saying means you cannot share your honest opinion, and challenge what you think is nonsense. Just wrap it up in these previous pearls of wisdom from Scripture. Be honest and be cognizant that not everyone is going to like that.

4.6.2       It is what it is.

4.7  It’s Not About Possessions – Proverbs 11:4 – “4 Riches do not profit in the day of wrath, but righteousness delivers from death.”

4.7.1       Don’t be obsessed with what you get or don’t get. Envy and jealousy and greed are other sources of many evils.

4.8  Be Kind – Proverbs 11:17 – “A man who is kind benefits himself, but a cruel man hurts himself.”

4.8.1       And last of all be kind. If you approach the day with all of these tools of wisdom under your belt, you have the best chance of successfully dealing with any difficult family.

      5. Conclusion – I am the first to say I have not applied these principles perfectly. We have had some wonderful family Christmas’, like last year, and some not so wonderful ones in past years. Some people are just so difficult nothing you do can make it peaceful. Remember in such cases you are free, you are under no obligation, no one is allowed to judge you for choosing not to go along with tradition on Christmas day. Be free, and work hard to have fun, righteous and holy joy with your family this Christmas. 

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