How to Handle Family Conflict This Holiday Season

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The 17th-century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes said the state of mankind without civil society is “nothing else but a mere war of all against all.” For many of us, this describes the state of family gatherings during the holiday season. Before we pass the turkey and dressing or open the presents on Christmas morning we endure internecine spats with our siblings or parents.

Perhaps this should not be surprising since the oldest type of human conflict is family conflict. It started when Adam blamed his wife, Eve, for his disobedience (Gen. 3:12), continued with one of their sons murdering his sibling (Gen. 4:8), and affected just about every major character in the Bible. Even Jesus had to deal with conflicts with his family (Mark 3:21).

“The early chapters of Genesis explain that the brokenness of nearly every facet of family life stems from God’s judgment against our first parents,” Richard Pratt Jr. says. “No family is ‘fine,’ ‘without problems,’ or ‘great’ until someone destroys it. Every home is broken from the day it begins.”

We should expect conflict among sinners who were or are confined to the same space and a forced to interact with people we’ve known all our lives. This is why children have more conflict with their siblings than they do with their friends. As Scottish researcher Samantha Punch points out, siblings will be there tomorrow, no matter what. “Sibship is a relationship in which the boundaries of social interaction can be pushed to the limit,” Punch says. “Rage and irritation need not be suppressed, whilst politeness and toleration can be neglected.”

Research has shown that when siblings between the ages of 3 and 7 are together, they clash an average of three-and-a-half times per hour. The studies found that on average, those fights lasted a total of 10 minutes out of every 60. On an average day (12 hours of interaction), young children are likely to be in conflict for the equivalent of two hours. Unfortunately, we don’t often outgrow this type of conflict. Other studies have found that adult siblings also experience conflict and rivalry, even if they no longer reside with each other or their parents. As The Atlantic notes, these tensions were especially pronounced between siblings who were close in age and of the same sex.

We are broken people, which is why the first and most essential step for handling family conflict is to constantly remind ourselves that our homes are broken because we are all sinners. The most important tool for handling family conflict is to keep your focus on Christ and to constantly search his Word to understand his commands for you and your family. But you should also keep certain principles in mind as you deal faithfully with family conflicts this holiday season.

Know Your Roles

Conflict inevitably arises when we try to subvert or avoid the roles God has given us in the family. We should know and understand the familial responsibilities the Bible outlines for husbands and fathers (Eph. 5:25-33, 6:4; Col. 3:19,21; 1 Pet. 3:7), wives and mothers (Eph. 5:22-24; Col. 3:18; 1 Pet. 3:1-6), and children (Eph. 6:1-3; Col. 3:20). Commit yourself to obeying God’s commands for how you should relate to one another.

This is particularly important if you have children. Your kids may follow your example if you fail to honor your own father and mother.

Duties of Fellowship

We often use the term “fellowship” in its colloquial sense of an association of persons having similar interests. And at times we do, regrettably, engage in fellowship only at that most basic level. The term, though, has a much richer meaning in the New Testament—a meaning that can apply to fellowship with our Christian family.

Scripture makes it clear that we have fellowship with other Christians because we first have fellowship with Christ (1 John 1:3). If our family members are believers, we are connected to them not only through the familial bond but also through our union with Christ. We may be their son or daughter in the flesh as well as their brother or sister in Christ. This means we need to be especially careful how we approach conflict with our Christian family members—especially when non-believing family are watching.

When embroiled in conflict, we must ask ourselves whether it is an issue we should address as family member to family member or as one believer to another. In other words, do we deal with the conflict from a position of familial hierarchy (father to son, older sister to younger brothers) or on a more equal setting, as we would in fellowship with other believers outside our family? The categories (familial and fellowship) aren’t mutually exclusive, of course, and they may overlap in ways that make it difficult to determine which to apply. But by recognizing we are not only dealing with a family member but also with a fellow believer, we can gain a clearer perspective on the conflict.

Winning by Losing

Conflict is inevitable, but our goal as Christians is to live in peace. As Paul says, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Rom. 12:18). One of the ways we can make it possible is to avoid unnecessary conflicts. Sometimes this means refusing to use our own power and authority. When Jesus was faced with violence, he simply walked away (Luke 4:28-30). He could have overpowered anyone who threatened him—and yet he chose to submit to the will of his Father and avoid further confrontation.

Sometimes, avoiding unnecessary conflicts means allowing ourselves to be wronged. The best approach to dealing with a minor slight or insult is often to simply forgive it. As Proverbs says, “It is to one’s glory to overlook an offense” (19:11).

Some conflicts, however, are both necessary and unavoidable. We shouldn’t expect to suffer abuse (or allow others to be abused) simply to avoid conflict. But we need to ensure we understand that sometimes the best way to win at life is not to be afraid to lose at interpersonal conflict.

The good news is that the good news—the gospel—frees us from this interminable and inevitable war of all against all. We are free to pursue peace with others, with ourselves, and with God. This does not mean, though, that we will not have conflicts. As President Ronald Reagan once said, “Peace is not the absence of conflict, but the ability to cope with conflict by peaceful means.” Jesus has not freed us from a life of conflict (at least not yet), but he has made it possible for us to deal with conflict peacefully.

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