GIVE ME a word picture to describe a relative in your life who really bugs you.”
I was asking the question of a half-dozen friends sitting around a lunch table. They all gave me one of those what-in-the-world? expressions. So I explained.
“I keep meeting people who can’t deal with somebody in their family. Either their mother-in-law is a witch or their uncle is a bum or they have a father who treats them like they were never born.”
Now their heads nodded. We were connecting. And the word pictures started coming.
“I’ve got a description,” one volunteered. “A parasite on my neck. My wife has this brother who never works and always expects us to provide.”
“A cactus wearing a silk shirt,” said another. “It’s my mother. She looks nice. Everyone thinks she’s the greatest, but get close to her and she is prickly, dry, and … thirsty for life.”
“A marble column,” was the way another described an aunt. Dignified, noble, but high and hard.
“Tar baby in Br’er Rabbit,” someone responded. Everyone understood the reference except me. I didn’t remember the story of Br’er Rabbit. I asked for the short version. Wily Fox played a trick on Br’er Rabbit. The fox made a doll out of tar and stuck it on the side of the road. When Rabbit saw the tar baby, he thought it was a person and stopped to visit.
It was a one-sided conversation. The tar baby’s silence bothered the rabbit. He couldn’t stand to be next to someone and not communicate with them. So in his frustration he hit the tar baby and stuck to it. He hit the tar baby again with the other hand and, you guessed it, the other hand got stuck.
“That’s how we are with difficult relatives,” my fable-using friend explained. “We’re stuck to someone we can’t communicate with.”
Stuck is right. It’s not as if they are a neighbor you can move away from or an employee you can fire. They are family. And you can choose your friends, but you can’t … well, you know.
Odds are, you probably know very well.
You’ve probably got a tar baby in your life, someone you can’t talk to and can’t walk away from. A mother who whines, an uncle who slurps his soup, or a sister who flaunts her figure. A dad who is still waiting for you to get a real job or a mother-in-law who wonders why her daughter married you.
Tar-baby relationships—stuck together but falling apart.
It’s like a crammed and jammed elevator. People thrust together by chance on a short journey, saying as little as possible. The only difference is you’ll eventually get off the elevator and never see these folks again—not so with the difficult relative. Family reunions, Christmas, Thanksgiving, weddings, funerals—they’ll be there.
And you’ll be there sorting through the tough questions. Why does life get so relatively difficult? If we expect anyone to be sensitive to our needs, it is our family members. When we hurt physically, we want our family to respond. When we struggle emotionally, we want our family to know.
But sometimes they act like they don’t know. Sometimes they act like they don’t care.
In her book Irregular People, Joyce Landorf tells of a woman in her thirties who learned that she needed a mastectomy. She and her mother seldom communicated, so the daughter was apprehensive about telling her. One day over lunch, she decided to reveal the news. “Mother, I just learned that I am going to have a mastectomy.”
The mother was silent. The daughter asked her if she had heard. The mother nodded her head. Then she calmly dismissed the subject by saying, “You know your sister has the best recipe for chicken enchiladas.”
What can you do when those closest to you keep their distance? When you can get along with others, but you and your kin can’t?
Does Jesus have anything to say about dealing with difficult relatives? Is there an example of Jesus bringing peace to a painful family? Yes, there is.
It may surprise you to know that Jesus had a difficult family. It may surprise you to know that Jesus had a family at all! You may not be aware that Jesus had brothers and sisters. He did. Quoting Jesus’ hometown critics, Mark wrote, “[Jesus] is just the carpenter, the son of Mary and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas, and Simon. And his sisters are here with us” (Mark 6:3).
And it may surprise you to know that his family was less than perfect. They were. If your family doesn’t appreciate you, take heart, neither did Jesus’. “A prophet is honored everywhere except in his hometown and with his own people and in his own home” (Mark 6:4).
I wonder what he meant when he said those last five words. He went to the synagogue where he was asked to speak. The people were proud that this hometown boy had done well—until they heard what he said. He referred to himself as the Messiah, the one to fulfill prophecy.
Their response? “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” Translation? This is no Messiah! He’s just like us! He’s the plumber’s kid from down the street. He’s the accountant on the third floor. He’s the construction worker who used to date my sister. God doesn’t speak through familiar people.
One minute he was a hero, the next a heretic. Look what happens next. “They got up, forced Jesus out of town, and took him to the edge of the cliff on which the town was built. They planned to throw him off the edge, but Jesus walked through the crowd and went on his way” (Luke 4:29–30).
What an ugly moment! Jesus’ neighborhood friends tried to kill him. But even uglier than what we see is what we don’t see. Notice what is missing from this verse. Note what words should be there, but aren’t. “They planned to throw him over the cliff, but Jesus’ brothers came and stood up for him.”
We’d like to read that, but we can’t because it doesn’t say that. That’s not what happened. When Jesus was in trouble, his brothers were invisible.
They weren’t always invisible, however. There was a time when they spoke. There was a time when they were seen with him in public. Not because they were proud of him but because they were ashamed of him. “His family … went to get him because they thought he was out of his mind” (Mark 3:21).
Jesus’ siblings thought their brother was a lunatic. They weren’t proud—they were embarrassed!
“He’s off the deep end, Mom. You should hear what people are saying about him.”
“People say he’s loony.”
“Yeah, somebody asked me why we don’t do something about him.”
“It’s a good thing Dad isn’t around to see what Jesus is doing.”
Hurtful words spoken by those closest to Jesus.
Here are some more:
So Jesus’ brothers said to him, “You should leave here and go to Judea so your followers there can see the miracles you do. Anyone who wants to be well known does not hide what he does. If you are doing these things, show yourself to the world.” (Even Jesus’ brothers did not believe in him.)
Listen to the sarcasm in those words! They drip with ridicule. How does Jesus put up with these guys? How can you believe in yourself when those who know you best don’t? How can you move forward when your family wants to pull you back? When you and your family have two different agendas, what do you do?
Jesus gives us some answers.
It’s worth noting that he didn’t try to control his family’s behavior, nor did he let their behavior control his. He didn’t demand that they agree with him. He didn’t sulk when they insulted him. He didn’t make it his mission to try to please them.
Each of us has a fantasy that our family will be like the Waltons, an expectation that our dearest friends will be our next of kin. Jesus didn’t have that expectation. Look how he defined his family: “My true brother and sister and mother are those who do what God wants” (Mark 3:35).
When Jesus’ brothers didn’t share his convictions, he didn’t try to force them. He recognized that his spiritual family could provide what his physical family didn’t. If Jesus himself couldn’t force his family to share his convictions, what makes you think you can force yours?
We can’t control the way our family responds to us. When it comes to the behavior of others toward us, our hands are tied. We have to move beyond the naive expectation that if we do good, people will treat us right. The fact is they may and they may not—we cannot control how people respond to us.
If your father is a jerk, you could be the world’s best daughter and he still won’t tell you so.
If your aunt doesn’t like your career, you could change jobs a dozen times and still never satisfy her.
If your sister is always complaining about what you got and she didn’t, you could give her everything and she still may not change.
As long as you think you can control people’s behavior toward you, you are held in bondage by their opinions. If you think you can control their opinion and their opinion isn’t positive, then guess who you have to blame? Yourself.
It’s a game with unfair rules and fatal finishes. Jesus didn’t play it, nor should you.
We don’t know if Joseph affirmed his son Jesus in his ministry—but we know God did: “This is my Son, whom I love, and I am very pleased with him” (Matt. 3:17).
I can’t assure you that your family will ever give you the blessing you seek, but I know God will. Let God give you what your family doesn’t. If your earthly father doesn’t affirm you, then let your heavenly Father take his place.
How do you do that? By emotionally accepting God as your father. You see, it’s one thing to accept him as Lord, another to recognize him as Savior—but it’s another matter entirely to accept him as Father.
To recognize God as Lord is to acknowledge that he is sovereign and supreme in the universe. To accept him as Savior is to accept his gift of salvation offered on the cross. To regard him as Father is to go a step further. Ideally, a father is the one in your life who provides and protects. That is exactly what God has done.
He has provided for your needs (Matt. 6:25–34). He has protected you from harm (Ps. 139:5). He has adopted you (Eph. 1:5). And he has given you his name (1 John 3:1).
God has proven himself as a faithful father. Now it falls to us to be trusting children. Let God give you what your family doesn’t. Let him fill the void others have left. Rely upon him for your affirmation and encouragement. Look at Paul’s words: “You are God’s child, and God will give you the blessing he promised, because you are his child” (Gal. 4:7, emphasis added).
Having your family’s approval is desirable but not necessary for happiness and not always possible. Jesus did not let the difficult dynamic of his family overshadow his call from God. And because he didn’t, this chapter has a happy ending.
What happened to Jesus’ family?
Mine with me a golden nugget hidden in a vein of the Book of Acts. “Then [the disciples] went back to Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives.… They all continued praying together with some women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, and Jesus’ brothers” (Acts 1:12, 14, emphasis added).
What a change! The ones who mocked him now worship him. The ones who pitied him now pray for him. What if Jesus had disowned them? Or worse still, what if he’d suffocated his family with his demand for change?
He didn’t. He instead gave them space, time, and grace. And because he did, they changed. How much did they change? One brother became an apostle (Gal. 1:19) and others became missionaries (1 Cor. 9:5).
So don’t lose heart. God still changes families. A tar baby today might be your dearest friend tomorrow.