As a Christian, I struggle with some family situations and would like some advice. I am the youngest child in my family, and my mother is narcissistic. While growing up, I was trained to be subservient to all of them and they never stopped expecting that behavior from me even as an adult. For no reason, my sister stopped talking to me, and then three years later wrote me a letter apologizing, but also expressing her extreme jealousy of me. I chose to not respond. My brother has always been a bachelor and I was close to his last girlfriend. When they split up, she sent me emails and pictures she had taken off his computer to prove to me that he had been cheating on her with prostitutes the entire time. He has been involved in sex tourism going to other countries. Trained as I was, I kept my mouth shut about what I knew. A year later, he started dating another lady and wanted to bring her to my house during Christmas. When I said he could not, he went ballistic and threw me out of his life. I told my mother what my brother had been doing with the prostitution, and she chose to ignore it and tried to bully me into ignoring it, too. I don’t speak to any of them anymore. However, the lady my brother was seeing got pregnant. They got married but split up about 4 months later after she found out what he was doing. I now have a relationship with her and my nephew who is 3. I haven’t spoken to my mom or brother for 4 years, nor my sister for 8 years. I am 54. I went to counseling for 6 months, and I pray for all of them and I feel as if I’ve worked through my feelings.
So here’s the issue for me. I live a good, happy life. We have one son, grown and doing great. I go to church regularly, sing in the choir, and have many friends (some, like family). This is the first time I’ve had a group of people surrounding me that mostly think I’m fantastic! I’m a grateful and happy person. But I often hear preachers talk as if all good Christians find a way for reconciliation. When I think about extending a hand of peace to any of these people, I think about the chaos and unhappiness it will bring back into my life. I’ve spent most of my life being bullied by my family, and walking on egg shells. It’s very difficult for me to believe that God wants me to have people in my life that have been and will be abusive to me again if I extend an olive branch. Can you clarify this for me?
Thank you for your thoughts,
Dear Finally Happy,
Thank you for writing to me about your questions. First of all, I would like to commend you for getting counseling and working through your emotions related to your family relationships. And I am pleased that you are now happy and living a Christian life. I can tell that you are a conscientious person who wants to be pleasing to the Lord in everything. Some well-meaning preachers and other Christians tend to make assumptions regarding how Christians are to behave in human relationships, especially family relationships. These assumptions are: (1) “All good Christians will find a way for reconciliation.” (2) “Forgiveness requires that the relationship be restored.” (3) “God wants Christians to maintain relationships with family members, even abusive ones, simply because they are family. Therefore, good Christians must restore broken relationships with their family members.” The scriptures that are most often used to support these assumptions are Matthew 5:23-25 that teaches that a person needs to be reconciled with his brother before offering his gift on the altar, multiple scriptures that teach that Christians must forgive others, and multiple scriptures that say that Christians must be patient and longsuffering. Inherent in all three assumptions is a judgment statement: Christians must do these things. If they don’t, then they are not good Christians.
Assumption 1: “All good Christians will find a way for reconciliation.” There is no such thing as a good Christian or a bad Christian. There are only forgiven Christians. Christians can be faithful or unfaithful. When a brother or sister says that we are not being good Christians, in reality they are making a judgment that we are unfaithful Christians. When they say that a good Christian must find a way for reconciliation with everyone, they are misapplying Matthew 5:23-25. If you look at verse 22, you can see that Jesus is teaching that if you remember that your brother has something against you (i.e. your brother has a cause to be angry at you), then go and be reconciled with your brother (i.e. ask your brother to forgive you). Certainly, we cannot be reconciled with someone who is angry at us without just cause to be angry. We are not responsible for other peoples’ thoughts, feelings, or behaviors. How can we be responsible for restoring a relationship when we have done no wrong? That is why Romans 12:18 tells us, “If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men.” Sometimes with some people, it is not possible to have peace. In other words, sometimes reconciliation is not possible.
Assumption 2: “Forgiveness requires that the relationship be restored.” Forgiveness is not a suggestion. It’s a command. Matthew 6:14-15 and many other scriptures tell us that we must forgive or we will not be forgiven. Forgiveness is something that takes place in our heart (Matthew 18:35). Jesus gave us the formula for how to forgive in Matthew 5:44, which says to love our enemies, bless those who curse us, do good to those who hate us, and pray for those who use us and persecute us. It is nearly impossible to feel anger and resentment toward someone if we are praying that God will bless them and we do good to them. However, forgiveness does not necessarily require reconciliation. How do I know this? Because reconciliation requires a willingness from both people. If the other person refuses to reconcile with you, does that mean that you have not forgiven? Of course not. God is not going to judge us based on the emotions or behaviors of other people. Remember—you are not responsible for anyone’s thoughts, feelings, or behaviors except your own. Does God want you to have people in your life that have been and will be abusive to you again? NO. (Even Jesus did not try to be reconciled with his enemies, and He had many!) Now, if those people repent, then forgiveness with reconciliation will be possible (Luke 17:3-4). If they do not repent, then shake the dust off your feet (Matthew 10:14).
Assumption 3: “God wants Christians to maintain relationships with family members, even abusive ones, simply because they are family. Therefore, good Christians must restore broken relationships with their family members.” I am aware that the fifth commandment says to honor father and mother, but Jesus said that there are relationships that surpass human family relationships (Matthew 12:46-50). Throughout his ministry, Jesus taught that there are more important things than maintaining human family relationships (Matthew 8:21-22, Mark 10:28-30, Luke 14:26). We must not allow any family relationship to hinder our walk with the Lord. We need to surround ourselves with people who will help us to get to heaven and avoid those who are a source of drama, bullying, chaos, and abuse.
In closing, reconciliation with your family members is possible only if they express a desire to reconcile with you and if they demonstrate repentance by treating you better. Those preachers who tell you that “all good Christians find a way for reconciliation” mean well, but they are confused about what forgiveness means and have misunderstood Jesus’ teaching on reconciliation in Matthew chapter 5. Additionally, they cannot judge you. They have not lived your life and they don’t understand your situation. God knows, and He’s the only one you need to answer to.