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TRANSCRIPT: How should I handle family tensions during the holidays?

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Phillip Bethancourt: Welcome back to the Questions and Ethics program with Russell Moore. I am Phillip Bethancourt, and today we want to talk about the holidays, Dr. Moore. There are going to be people traveling all over the country to be with family. Some of them are in great family situations. Others have more of a challenging situation—

Russell Moore: “The holidays” are you saying, instead of Christmas? Is this like a war on Christmas happening here at the ERLC?

Phillip Bethancourt: The Christmas holidays are here. So, how would you advise family members who are traveling and meeting together to navigate some of the complex conversations and issues they will have, especially those in broken homes, or maybe they have got challenging relatives. What would be some counsel that you would have for them on how to handle tensions in the holiday season?

Russell D. Moore: Well, you know, just a few weeks ago before Thanksgiving, there were all of these sites talking about how to argue political issues with your family members. I remember Vox had a list of issues, and you could choose Obamacare or whatever the issue was with a list of talking points to be able to argue with your Uncle Charlie about these sorts of things. That’s one kind of tension that can show up at a table, this sort of arguing over issues, but of course as you mentioned there are many other tension points even in families that don’t sit around and discuss controversial topics of politics and religion.

And some of those have to do with issues of transition in life. Sometimes you have children who have grown up, they’ve married, now they have children of their own. They are coming home. Maybe they are rearing their children in a different way than Mom and Dad think is the best way to do it. Maybe Mom and Dad don’t like this new in-law, this new spouse, or vice versa. Or as you mentioned, a lot of times there are families that have been put together in different ways with stepfamilies and all sorts of things with a thousand back stories going on around the table. And so, I think there are some difficult things that happen any time that you have sinful people, and we are all sinful people, who are coming together around the holiday times, around the Christmas holiday time. And then when you’ve got questions of issues, for instance, of parents who are parenting their children in a specific way, and then they come in with groups of people who are doing things exactly opposite, that can bring points of tension.

So, I think there are several things that particularly Christians, we ought to keep in mind. And I think that the first thing is peace. We ought to be working for a spirit of peace. And when I say that I recognize and I know some people will immediately say yeah, but Jesus said that he didn’t come to bring peace, but he came to bring a sword and that that sword will split daughter-in-law

against mother-in-law, as he puts it in Matthew, chapter 10. That’s true. But he’s talking there about gospel division, that the gospel brings division between people—people who are following Christ sometimes find those who will say we are going to marginalize you because you are following Christ. But there’s a difference between that sort of gospel division and the kind of carnal division we have where what we are arguing about is not about whether we are going to follow Christ and seek the kingdom but about our own personal preferences and agendas. And of course the Bible tells us that the Spirit brings peace, that’s a fruit of the Spirit, and Jesus tells us that the sons of God are those who are peacemakers, which is why the book of Hebrews and the book of Romans both tell us that we ought to strive for peace with everyone so far as it is possible with you. So, you need to recognize that sometimes the arguments that we get into and the tensions we have, it’s not because an unbelieving family member is trying to persecute the Christians. It’s because sometimes we as Christians, we want to go ahead and sort the wheat from the tares in the now rather than waiting for Judgment Day. We want to show who’s right and who’s wrong right there at the table.

Now, it’s true that the gospel exposes sin, but the gospel exposes sin in order to point to Christ. It doesn’t expose sin simply in order to antagonize and certainly not simply in order to win an argument. And so, I think we need to always be reminding ourselves that belligerence is not in and of itself a sign of holiness. And the problem is that quarrelsome people always tend to think that they are instead simply those who are standing up for righteousness. And they will conclude, if they are being opposed, oh well, you know, if you are not being opposed then you are not really with Jesus because Jesus was opposed. That’s true, but the scripture says that we must not be quarrelsome, and that’s in the same list repeatedly in scripture along with not being heretics and drunks. So, we need to be those who are striving so far as it is possible with us to bring peace. If the gospel disrupts, that’s great. If you disrupt, then that is a different problem.

The second thing I think we need to keep in mind is honor. And so, when we are gathering together, we need to be remembering that the scriptures tell us to fear God, to obey the king—I Peter, chapter 2—and to honor everyone. That’s everybody. And so, that honoring of father and mother is often a very difficult thing to do. If your parents are the high priests in the church of Satan, they are still your parents. And if your cousin Betty Jo does Jell-o shots in her car before she comes in to the Christmas dinner, well, she’s still made in the image of God. And if your cousin Freddy says hey, I want to kind of take the edge off this cocaine before we sit down and start arguing about President Obama, well, he’s still made in the image of God. So, we can’t do the will of God by opposing the will of God. We have to honor. So you can’t really evangelize people—if you have lost family members—maybe you have lost parents—you can’t evangelize them by dishonoring or by disrespecting them. And so, try to find ways to find places where you can honor the people that God has put in your family and to teach your children how to do that in showing respect and gratitude. That doesn’t mean that you honor things that are dishonorable. You ought not to do that. But find specific areas where you can show honor and count them as more important than yourselves.

And then there’s humility. I mean one of the reasons I think that we have such difficulty with our unbelieving or our nominally Christian family members is because we tend to see differences over Jesus as being the equivalent of differences over everything else. So, if we have at the table somebody who is a diehard Saints fan and a diehard Steelers fan, they may argue about those things and they think well, you know, it’s really the same thing when we are arguing over the gospel. Or somebody who is a really strong Republican and somebody who is a really strong Democrat and they are argue back and forth, we think well that’s the same thing when it comes to these issues of belief, except that it’s not. Jesus, in the gospels never once seeks to prove that he’s right. And Jesus is accused of everything from being a wino to a demon-possessed occultist, but he never forces a vindication of himself. Instead he waits for God to vindicate him. And I think sometimes, especially at Christmas holiday time or any time you have families getting together, we kind of tend to veer toward Satanism, that sense of I want to be proven in the right, right now. And so we feel rage when Uncle Ronny sits there and pontificates well, I just think there are many roads that lead to God. The issue sometimes is not that we want Uncle Ronny to be resurrected. It’s that we want to be proven right. And I think that’s a dangerous impulse.

And we also tend to forget somehow how it is that we came to Christ in the first place. Paul says that you ought to—what do you have that you didn’t receive, and if you received it then why do you boast and brag as though you did something for it? And I think that’s a really important point. We didn’t come to Christ because of our brilliance. It’s not like being accepted into Harvard. And we didn’t come to Christ because of some exertion of our will like putting together a Rubik’s Cube. Instead, we came to Christ through the grace of God. And we ought to be reminding ourselves of that and crucifying pride when we are there.

And the problem is that being together in families tends to bring out those vulnerabilities of pride. And you know that pride can come in many ways. Sometimes it’s kind of looking around and saying who’s making the most money here. Who has got the best life here? And sometimes it comes down to looking around and saying thank you, Lord, that I am not like these publicans and tax collectors. But we know that is not a spirit that God receives. And so, you are going to see—unless you are in a really, really unusual family—you are going to see people in your family who are going to have marriages that are failing. You are going to see people who are epically bad parents in your family. You are going to see that all over the place. You are going to see people who are addicted to prescription pain pills. You are going to see who knows what going on in your family. And the temptation shouldn’t be, when you see your sister-in-law sitting down and pleading, you know, with her little daughter to please let mommy through the hallway right now, your temptation is going to be to say good grief! Look at how bad a parent she is! Thank you, Lord, that I’m not like that, and when, you know, your cousin Linda is sitting there taking Lortab with her beer at 8 a.m. in the morning at breakfast, to say thank you, Lord, that we’re not in that situation, but that puffs you up and that turns you into a spirit of pride, which is more like the devil than it’s like Christ. So, we need to remember humility.

And then finally, I think we need to remember maturity. Jesus says that we are going to be tested, that we are going to walk through temptation, we are going to walk through suffering, and then ultimately to glory. And sometimes that’s in really big things, and we tend to think of that in terms of big things—cancer and losing a job and those sorts of crises—but a lot of times it’s in those littler sorts of situations. It’s not necessarily fighting lions in the coliseum or standing there with a John 3:16 sign in front of the tanks of some tyrant coming through. Instead, it’s these little places of temptation, like am I going to love that belching brother-in-law at the other end of the table who wants to sit here and talk at length about why the Cubans killed J.F.K. and you know how you really ought to become involved in his scheme to sell herbal laxatives over the internet or whatever it is that he’s pontificating about. The testing and the temptation can come in those very little moments.

And sometimes I’ve had a lot of young men particularly who tell me that when they go home for Christmas or they go home for some other holiday with their extended families they feel like children. Their parents or their parents-in-law are trying to dictate to them where they are going to go. You are going to come to our house for this much time or the other house for that much time. And sometimes they have their parents coming in and hijacking their rearing of their children. I had one guy tell me you know, we go home, and we have all of these patterns of how we raise our children, and then I go home, and my wife and I walk out the door, and we come in, and the kids are watching Diehard, you know, with the parents, and we have to say no, no, no, no. We’ve been working all year long on making sure that our children see things that we want them to see, and now we leave you for a half a day, and we come in, and they’re watching American Pie on cable. I mean that’s distressing. So, they feel like they’re children and that their parents are somehow now their parents again, and a lot of times what I see is that these parents tend to just seethe in frustration.

And I think a lot of times that’s not because the extended family is just so stubborn. It’s just because the extended family, they don’t see those adult children living like adults the rest of the year. And so, I think that this is a good opportunity to be a man, if you are one, or be a woman, if you are one, and make those decisions about where you are going to go, how long you are going to be there, where you are going to spend the Christmas holidays. Teach and discipline your children. That’s your responsibility. And your extended family might not like that at first. They might not respond well to that at first, but they are will come to respect the fact that you are leaving and cleaving, and you are taking responsibility for that which has been entrusted to you.

And so, just remember that this is going to be a time of testing for you right now, but live out the gospel. The Spirit put you there, no matter where it is that you are, and have a sense of perspective. It’s going to be over before long, and then you move on with your life. This isn’t the sort of ongoing skirmish that you ought to have at Aunt Flossie’s dinner table. 

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