You sit down for Christmas dinner with your extended family. Uncle Philip, the Grand Poo-bah of the Knights of Columbus, leads in prayer to the Virgin Mary. You wonder if last year’s train wreck of a conversation in which you described the “unbiblical, sometimes cultic regard for the saints” may have somehow precipitated this new emphasis.
Or maybe your family is Jewish. Your conversation deals with the prophecies of Isaiah, and you suggest that they were fulfilled in Messiah Jesus. The effect of your interpretation among relatives is like a hand grenade detonating in a septic tank—loud and rather messy. In either case, you’re now off and running—another holiday with the family in which religious discussion will create social combustion volatile enough to blow the roof off the house.
This year, as we approach family gatherings, we have an opportunity to do so with the wisdom and grace of Christ, every bit as devoted to the gospel, and also committed to the people whom we love. At the end of the day, we understand that the word of the cross is still folly to those who are perishing. But we are nonetheless required to comport ourselves in a winsome and gracious manner; or, in the words of Paul, to make our speech gracious and seasoned with salt (Col 1:6). Here are four practical suggestions to help you toward this end.
1. Understand Grace and Truth
Jesus embodied grace and truth with a perfectly balanced poise (John 1:14), and we should follow his example. Our personalities often lean toward one or the other poles, grace or truth. Some of us naturally resemble lambs; others are more like pit bulls. That’s life in a world full of uniquely created people. Consequently, we shouldn’t be surprised when we disagree on how to handle specific issues. But such disagreement shouldn’t undermine the enterprise of trying to sensitively navigate through our differences. Although we must agree to disagree in some places, courteous dialogue is a much more Christian approach than firing polemical missiles.
One of the reasons why Christians fail to engage the process of balancing grace and truth is overconfidence coupled with a lack of respect for the other person. In his book Humble Apologetics, author John Stackhouse elucidates this idea:
To put it more sharply, we should sound like we really do respect the intelligence and spiritual interest and moral integrity of our neighbors. We should act as if we do see the very image of God in them. . . . It is a voice that speaks authentically out of Christian convictions about our own very real limitations and our neighbor’s very real dignity, not cynical expediency. We are rhetorically humble because we are not prophets infallibly inspired by God, let alone the One who could speak “with authority” in a way no one else can speak. We are mere messengers of that One: messengers who earnestly mean well, but who forget this bit of the message or never really understood that bit; messengers who never entirely live up to their own good news; messengers who recognize the ambiguities in the world that make the message harder to believe; and therefore messengers who can sympathize with neighbors who aren’t ready just yet to believe everything we’re telling them.
Being humble doesn’t mean that we have compromised our conviction of what constitutes truth any more than being meek suggests that one is devoid of strength. Jesus was all-powerful, and yet he humbled himself to the point of death, even death on a cross (Phil 2:1-11). It’s only when we have an informed conviction, having taken time to listen, learn, and think, that we possess the requisite courage to relate to others in a vulnerable, humble way. Conversely, when we attack the jugular of the one who disagrees with us, we demonstrate our insecurity. Once again, Jesus is our example. Although God, Jesus did not exploit his deity, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant (Phil 2:6-7). This is indeed the Christian way.
2. Be Mindful of Your Familial Position
Communication with family is especially difficult. It was a challenge for Jesus. The Lord says in Matthew 13:57, “Only in his hometown and in his own house is a prophet without honor.” In context, Jesus is referring to the people among whom he grew up, including family, who had difficulty receiving his message. This isn’t surprising; familiarity breeds contempt.
It helps to understand the position you hold in your family. Your Aunt Louise who changed your diaper when you were an infant is probably not immediately disposed to learning from you about God. Even though you’ve earned your M.Div. and Ph.D. in theology and have been a pastor for more than 20 years, at one level she still sees you as the little kid who used to drool on himself. We must identify these relational obstacles and pray for God’s wisdom to handle them properly.
3. Regulate Emotional Intensity
When we discuss faith with family members, our conversation tends to be so freighted with emotion that it is practically doomed from the start, especially in families where there has been a history of disagreement on such issues. This is so partly because evangelical belief, which often centers on doctrinal propositions, differs from the viewpoints of other religions that tend to subsist in a full-orbed culture including one’s personal, familial, and ethnic history. Because these commitments run deep into one’s identity, questions of personal belief simultaneously address the larger culture into which those views are woven. The potential for emotional combustion in this scenario can’t be overestimated.
4. Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing
When talking with family about the gospel, we face a host of potential rabbit trails. We may enter into a conversation to explain how Jesus provides abundant life and suddenly find ourselves enmeshed in a debate about the Crusades, the historicity of the Exodus, or the doctrine of Eucharistic adoration. Sometimes it is appropriate to broach these subjects, but too often we do so at the expense of the gospel. This approach is not only a mistake, but it is also a travesty. What does it profit a person if he explicates all the theological conundrums of the world without focusing attention upon the death and resurrection of Jesus? This, I would contend, is the “main thing”—bearing witness to the splendor and majesty of our Savior, the one who died, rose, and now lives.
May God richly bless you and your family this season as you consider, celebrate, and testify to the beauty of Jesus Christ!