Friday, May 08, 2009

A way forward

Some Christians come from terrible homes. As a result, they are alienated from other family members. After they become Christians, what should they do about this? What helpful advice can the church offer in this situation?

I suspect that, in many cases, the church is offering counterproductive advice. There’s a tendency to fall back on facile slogans about love, forgiveness, and reconciliation. But I also suspect that, in many cases, that only makes the situation worse. That contributes to the feeling of alienation.

To begin with, some people are impossible to deal with. Irascible and irrational. Totally unreasonable. They get on your nerves. They go out of the way to be antisocial. You can’t get along with them because they can’t get along with anyone else.

A working relationship is a two-way street. It can’t move along in just one direction. Say you have a parent or sibling like that.

This, in turn, can spill over into other relationships. Other family members may take sides. By taking sides, they force you to choose.

There are many different variations on this theme. I’m sure we can all think of some examples from our own observation–involving friends or relatives or classmates.

To deal with the situation, some people move away. Put some physical distance between themselves and the source of the problem. Try to start a life of their own. Make new friends. Start a family.

And there are circumstances in which I think that may be a necessary step. People sometimes have to put some space between themselves and the source of the problem to preserve their own emotional wellbeing. They can’t be constantly immersed in same emotionally destructive environment.

They need some time to themselves. Some alternative relationships. They need to insulate themselves from the situation, and cultivate some emotional compensations.

However, that, of itself, may be insufficient. For a person who comes out of that pressure cooker environment may also have a lot of pent up rage and resentment. And this spills over into other relationships.

To vary the metaphor, he’s a power keg. One little slight, one cross word, one mild criticism–which may be pretty trivial, considered in isolation–is just like striking a match. And that’s because it’s piled atop years of accumulated kindling, drenched in kerosene. It only takes one spark to go up in flames.

So he needs to develop a coping mechanism if he’s to move forward with his life. Be a good spouse and parent. Find happiness in life.

What practical strategy can we offer? At this stage, talking about love, forgiveness, and reconciliation can be counterproductive. It’s like telling someone who’s upset to “calm down.” If someone is upset, then telling him to calm down is not a very good way of calming him down. To the contrary, it’s just irritating. It aggravates the situation.

To begin with, there’s not much point talking about forgiveness and reconciliation if one of the interested parties is defiant.

As for love, it’s important to keep in mind that, in Scriptural usage, love is generally an action rather than an emotion. What you do, not what you feel.

And that’s a practical distinction. It’s possible to do things for a person without doing things with a person. You can do things for a person at a distance. Do things which are beneficial for them, without being directly involved in their life.

You can keep tabs on how they’re doing–say, from a friend of the family. Find out what their needs are. Then do something helpful.

Doing is a biblical way of showing love. Doing little things, now and then, here and there, is an incremental way of overcoming rage and resentment. Even if the offending party dies impenitent, you’re not saddled with guilt–because you know you were trying to act in his best interests.

You can also use your independence as a beachhead to maintain some level of contact, while limiting your contacts. Even if every conversation turns out to be just another source of aggravation, you’ve developed a coping mechanism which allows you absorb that encounter.

I also suspect that people with this background are a bit like recovering alcoholics. They may occasionally relapse. Have bad days as well as good days. The point, though, is to make progress, even if you have the occasional setback.

In a fallen world, some relationships are irreparably broken. Try as we might, we may be unable to fix every situation involving next-of-kin.

The church needs to offer people realistic, Bible-based solutions, and not utopian advice.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Steve,

    Is this counsel from the voice of personal experience?