By Brian Jennings
I was pretty excited about my first opportunity to referee a basketball game. It was a meaningless intramural game. What could possibly go wrong?
You guessed it. Everything!
For some reason, the action on the court was faster and more confusing with a whistle in my mouth. As for the players, they had really sharp opinions about calls that could have gone either way. They quickly grew angry at each other and at me. By the time the halftime buzzer sounded, I was ready to run for the exit door.
Dealing with conflict is no fun on the court, but it is even worse in the kitchen or the car. Families do not have a buzzer to end the conflict. The game just keeps on going.
Have you ever pondered the potential of your family? What are your highest goals? What is your grandest mission? Try this mission on for size: Your family can glorify God!
John 17 is loaded with glory talk. In verse 5 Jesus prayed, “Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began.” The Son and the Father (and the Spirit) were glorified in perfect unity. We get a glimpse of this when God said, “Let us make mankind in our own image” (Genesis 1:26). He spoke in the plural, not the singular.
Deuteronomy 6 says, “The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” How is God three persons yet only one God? many have wondered. I do not have a perfect answer, but I know this: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are perfectly unified. They are one, and God’s glory is reflected in this unity:
• Before the beginning of time, the unity of God expressed glory.
• In the garden, hours before Jesus’ crucifixion, the unity of God expressed glory.
• When the Holy Spirit empowered the church, the unity of God expressed glory.
• Still today, the unity of God expresses glory.
God passionately desires for his glory to also be expressed through our unity. Jesus prayed that “they may be one as we are one” (John 17:11). Jesus longs for his followers to be united, even those who are related to each other.
Few things are more beautiful than a family glorifying God as they live in unity with each other. And few things are more ugly than a family broken by disunity.
The Ugly List
Galatians 5 names the fruit of the Spirit. It’s a beautiful listing of the characteristics that God’s Spirit matures in us. But the preceding list in Galatians 5 is not so beautiful. It is more of an ugly list. “The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery, idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like” (Galatians 5:19-21).
Did you notice anything about that list? It includes some terrible things, which is what usually catches my eye, but look at the list again. A careful look shows eight consecutive sins that fall under the category of not getting along: hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, envy. Disunity matters greatly to God. And those eight sins can drive wedges deep into families.
When spouses erupt in anger, when jealousy consumes children, or when parents selfishly ignore their families, unity splinters. Christ is disobeyed. God is not glorified.
A bubbly, redheaded, grade school student plopped down by my family at a recent school program. She responded to my greeting by whispering, “Did you hear the news?” I had already heard the news of the dysfunction wreaking havoc on her family. I could see the pain in her eyes.
One thing is for sure: God is not glorified when families crumble. He still loves, he still hurts with the hurting, he still offers forgiveness and healing, but he is not glorified when our unity is splintered.
Don’t underestimate his grace, but also, do not underestimate the damage caused by disunity.
The Real Enemy
Ephesians 6 depicts the spiritual battle we face, and verse 12 speaks loudly to feuding families:
“For our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the world powers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavens” (Ephesians 6:12, Holman Christian Standard Bible).
The text is crystal clear. No human being is your enemy, including a lazy child, an argumentative spouse, or an overbearing parent. Your enemy is Satan. He hides in the shadows. He finds delight when family members destroy each other. He loves “friendly fire.”
When I counsel families in the midst of conflict, I draw a picture for them. (It needs explained because my artistic ability got stuck at age 4.) My picture shows people on opposite sides of a fence. I explain how we cannot live in unity when we view someone from our family on the other side. But when family members embrace the idea that they are all on the same side of the fence, with plenty of problems on the other side, it can be a game changer. Families can then point their angst away from each other and toward the issues. They can take aim at their problems—together.
Proverbs teaches us that some words can lead to fights and sin—harsh words, foolish words, and even simply lots of words. Families will never find unity without exercising great caution with their words.
I was blessed beyond measure to be raised in a family who spoke gently to each other. I can count on one hand the number of times that I heard my parents speak to each other, or to my brother and me, with harsh words. Gentle words were what I knew, and that led to many things for which I’m eternally thankful.
Your family may not be there yet. Don’t give up. Unity can be restored—one word, one apology, and one action at a time.
Four Keys to Reconciliation
Family members hurt us and family unity gets broken. Sadly, it just happens. We can respond with explosive anger, we can quietly allow a toxic bitterness to poison our souls, or we can pursue a third way. Ephesians 4:25-32 includes four principles on the path less taken—the path to reconciliation:
1. Reconcile as fast as possibly healthy.
If we do not reconcile quickly, we give the devil a foothold. Ephesians 4 says to reconcile before the sun goes down. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said that if we are preparing to give our offering but then remember that there is an issue separating us from our brother or sister, we should get up, find that person, resolve the issue, and then come back to give our offering (Matthew 5:23, 24).
This still applies. Ever tried to participate in worship with others but were distracted because of your jealousy? Ever tried to lead a family devotion when you are angry with the child sitting next to you? It’s pointless.
We must reconcile—but only as fast as possibly healthy. I counsel married couples to do this because oftentimes they each have a fear: one fears the conflict will be buried, while the other fears that the conflict will escalate (and usually needs a few minutes or hours to process, think, and pray). I advise couples to acknowledge the conflict and agree on a time to resolve it. One might say, “It’s obvious we need to resolve this conflict, but can we do so after I go for a walk?”
Reconciliation must be done in love, therefore, the timing matters. We must consider the needs of the other person and set a fair time to resolve matters.
2. Speak truthfully.
Exaggerating the truth deepens conflicts. We tend to minimize our shortcoming while exaggerating the faults of others. Reconciliation requires us to own the full extent of our mistakes while not exaggerating others’ faults, even in the slightest way.
3. Speak lovingly.
Harsh words completely derail reconciliation. They mask truth, fuel anger, and void the content of what is said. True words without love should not be spoken. Ever!
“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephesians 4:29).
We may not forget, and we may set new boundaries with a family member, but we must forgive. Again. And again. And again.
Jesus says to forgive 70 times 7. Some of you understand this. You have been forgiving someone from your past for decades. It has become easier, but it is still a choice.
Colossians 3:13 tells us to forgive each other as the Lord has forgiven us. Jesus warned in Matthew 6:15, “But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”
Soak that in for a moment. If anyone had the right to be angry or bitter, it was Jesus, but he chose forgiveness, even on a cross.
Reconciliation is not easy work. It is for the brave and compassionate. But it is worth it to rebuild unity. You will be happier, your family will flourish, the world will be blessed, and Jesus’ words will be fulfilled in your family: “I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one” (John 17:22).
Brian Jennings is a minister and freelance writer in Tulsa, Oklahoma.