Christmas is a time of joy and celebration. It is magic and wonder. It is Hallmark movies and hot chocolate. It is peppermint-scented candles and Bing Crosby.
Christmas can also be manipulation and power struggles. It can be passive-aggressive comments around the cookie tray. It can be not-so-subtle gifts that hurt feelings instead of warm hearts. It can be tears, yelling, silence, regret.
Christmas with the in-laws. To use Charles Dickens’ famous line, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Your Christmas with the in-laws falls somewhere on that spectrum. For those blessed with the best of times, enjoy your extended family this holiday season. For those of you on the “worst of times” end of the spectrum, read on.
When I am looking for answers to life’s questions–big and small–I try to filter them through the Word of God. When the question of handling nasty in-laws was presented to me, I thought, “What would Jesus do?” Well, Jesus didn’t have any in-laws. That got me thinking. Who in the Bible had in-laws and what can we learn from their interactions? I have to tell you, notorious in-laws go waaay back!
Jacob and Laban (Genesis 29:1-31:55)
Jacob’s father-in-law was a class act. He made an agreement with Jacob: seven years of labor for the hand of his lovely daughter, Rachel. Jacob puts in his seven. Like a story line from a Vegas movie, Jacob wakes up with the other sister, Leah (who scripture describes as “weak-eyed,” a.k.a ugly). Laban pulled the old switch-a-roo on the giddy groom. Jacob confronts him, as any man would when he wakes up with the wrong (ugly) girl.
Laban uses a typical in-law excuse; he blames tradition. “It is not our custom here to give the younger daughter in marriage before the older one” (29:26, emphasis mine).
Customs can create conflict with the in-laws. How many times has your nuclear family engaged in extended family traditions just because they were traditions? And how many times has it caused conflict between you and your spouse, your in-laws, or even a quiet rage in your heart? Following custom for custom’s sake is crazy if it invites conflict into your home. You and your husband should discuss what you both want the holidays to look like for your nuclear family. You can present the plan to both sets of in-laws (I hate to tell you, your parents are in-laws, too!) and invite them to find their place in your new family traditions.
That is exactly what Jacob did. He asked Laban, “When may I do something for my own household?” (30:30). They came up with a plan (which involved some trickeration on Jacob’s part–which I do not condone!). Laban began to feel the sting of his son-in-law pulling away like a band-aid being removed ever so painfully slow. “Jacob noticed that Laban’s attitude toward him was not what it had been” (31:2). God gave Jacob clear direction to leave the drama (31:3, 13). The Jacob family packed up and hit the road.
There is some more drama between the two. Read it. The Old Testament is some juicy stuff, girls! I don’t do it justice with this quick wrap-up, but here goes… Jacob promised Laban that he would care for his daughters. Laban blessed them and left them alone. Jacob did what was best for his family. Laban was hurt but ultimately conceded that Jacob was the head of his own household. Ripping that band-aid off hurts, but in the end, it has to be done.
Jethro and Moses (Exodus 18:5-27)
Moses’ father-in-law came out to visit him in the desert. They greeted one another and caught up on old times. It was good bonding time. Jethro noticed that Moses put in a lot of hours at work. He thought he worked too hard and said as much.
What you are doing is not good . . . Listen to me and I will give you some advice, and may God be with you. (Genesis 18:17 & 19)
Do you ever get advice from your in-laws? (I can almost hear a loud and sarcastic “haha!” radiating through my screen!) In-laws have opinions about cleaning house, raising children, and spending (or saving) money. Often, they are not afraid to share that opinion. To be open and transparent, I often have prideful ears when it comes to advice. After all, I know what I am doing, right?!
Let us learn some humility from Moses. “Moses listened to his father-in-law and did everything he said” (18:24). Sometimes there is value in the opinions of our in-laws. They have walked the earth longer than we have. They have learned from their own mistakes and successes. Take the pride plugs out of your ear for a minute and consider what they are saying. (Ouch! That hurts me!)
Mordecai and Xerxes (Esther 2:1-10:3)
This is a pretty familiar Bible story. It made the rounds during your childhood on Sunday mornings while you ate those little butter cookies shaped like flowers and drank red kool-aid. Mordecai is the cousin-in-law of King Xerxes. He saved the king’s life (2:19-23) but went unnoticed. By the king, anyway. The king’s right-hand man noticed and plotted to kill Mordecai and his people (chapter 3). (I told you the Old Testament was juicy!)
Mordecai calls on Esther to go before her husband on behalf of the Jewish nation (chapter 4). This act of bravery could cost Esther her life (4:11). While all the Jews in Susa are praying, Esther approaches Xerxes and saves her people from annihilation. Mordecai eventually becomes the hero he has always been.
What does this account teach us about dealing with in-laws? Let your husband run interference with his family and you do the same with yours. In most cases, your parents love you more and his parents love him more. If difficult communication has to come from someone, it should come from royalty. It prevents you–the in-law–from becoming the enemy. Are you breaking custom and spending Christmas day at your house instead of the in-laws? Let your husband make that phone call. Do the two of you want your parents to scale back a number of gifts your children receive? You make that call.
What if your spouse is reluctant like Esther? Like the people of Susa, drop to your knees and PRAY! Ask God to move in the heart of your spouse, that he would stand up for your family. Pray that your husband becomes a hero like Mordecai.
Mordecai the Jew was . . . held in high esteem by his many fellow Jews, because he worked for the good of his people and spoke up for the welfare of all the Jews. Esther 10:3
Ruth and Naomi (The Book of Ruth)
This is, perhaps, the most beautiful mother/daughter-in-law relationship in the history of the world. I know Christmas is about Luke 2 and Matthew 1, but I encourage you to read the book of Ruth before you take that road trip to visit your in-laws.
After losing her husband and both of her sons in Moab, Naomi decided to return home to Judah (1:3-5). She released both of her daughters-in-law to return to their families (1:8-13). Orpah returned home, never to be heard from again. Conversely, Ruth would not leave her mother-in-law’s side.
But Ruth said, “Don’t force me to leave you; don’t make me go home. Where you go, I go; and where you live, I’ll live. Your people are my people, your God is my god; where you die, I’ll die, and that’s where I’ll be buried, so help me God—not even death itself is going to come between us!” Ruth 1:16, The Message
Keep in mind, Naomi was not a pleasure to be around and she knew it. In fact, she changed her name to Mara, which means bitter (1:20-21). She had a reason to be mad at the world; she lost her husband and both sons. You might have one of those in-laws. One who is bitter because of something in her past. You may not know the reason like Ruth did, but you feel the sting of her pain.
Hurt people hurt people. If you are being wounded by someone, know that it likely comes from their own wounds. I think Ruth understood this and it changed the way she dealt with Naomi-Mara. Ruth served her bitter mother-in-law tirelessly. She pursued a relationship with her, even when Naomi pushed her away. Like Moses, Ruth listened to her in-law’s advice and found love. Ruth cultivated the soil around Naomi’s root of bitterness until it grew into the family tree of Jesus Christ (4:11-22, Matthew 1:5).
We have come full-circle, back to Jesus. What would Jesus do if he had in-laws?
I think he would speak truth to them, even change some of their customs. “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!” Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your traditions?” Matthew 15:2-3.
He would embrace humility. [Jesus] did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant. Philippians 2:6-7.
He would return kindness and forgiveness no matter what they did to him. Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing. Luke 23:34. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. Colossians 3:13.
I know he would love them. Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. John 15:12-13.
May the peace and love of God fill your home (and your in-law’s home) this Christmas.
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