Picture this: it’s Thanksgiving and everyone seated around the table is digging into the turkey and mashed potatoes. The conversation is light and people are laughing and sharing stories when it happens: your outspoken Uncle Eral—or maybe it’s your cousin Erin—clears their throat and says something controversial and/or cringeworthy. Everyone avoids eye contact. You consider burying your face in your mashed potatoes. Battle lines are already being drawn among the guests.
You strongly disagree with the opinion shared. What should you do?
Ah, the holidays…what could be better than family, friends, and food? Of course, along with those good things often comes one more “f-word”—frustration. If you are a bit anxious about potential tension during this time of year, read on for some practical wisdom from Scripture that may help you survive—and possibly even enjoy—your time with family.
1. Come Up with a Game Plan
It’s a wise practice to come up with a strategy about how you want to navigate any fraught family interactions. Proverbs 13:16 tells us that “every sensible person acts knowledgeably, but a fool displays his stupidity.” Think ahead about any potential conversational landmines and how you want to respond. Don’t think of this as gearing up for battle, though—this is a family gathering, not a war. Meditate on the fruits of the Spirit, as listed in Galatians 5:22–23: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Give some thought about how you could respond to any tension-causing topics with these fruits in mind.
2. Actually Listen
If you’re like me, as soon as someone begins sharing an opinion with which you disagree, you start constructing counterarguments in your head. Perhaps it’s my training as an attorney, but I tend to tune out the other person while I wait for a chance to share my own thoughts. This may be a good way to win a case, but it has no place at the dinner table or family gatherings.
Take a deep breath, and listen to what the other person is actually saying. Ask the Spirit for discernment as you listen to the person calmly and with an open heart. In James 1:5, we are encouraged to ask God for wisdom because he “gives to all generously and ungrudgingly.” Don’t jump to conclusions or assume the worst of what the person has to say.
I have found it a good practice to repeat back, without snark or judgment, what the person said after they finish their thought. This not only demonstrates that you were listening but also ensures that you correctly understood what they were saying. Sometimes asking a follow-up question is helpful, but sometimes it’s better to let the matter drop with a simple “I understand what you are saying, even if I don’t necessarily agree. Thanks for sharing—would you please pass the corn?”
3. Respond with, and in, Love
Paul tells us in Ephesians 4:15 to “[speak] the truth in love.” Sometimes this verse is manipulated to justify an argumentative exchange. Simply telling someone the “truth” isn’t a loving act in itself; it needs to be spoken “in love.” Otherwise, both “human or angelic tongues” are received as noise—a “noisy gong” or a “clanging cymbal” (1 Corinthians 13:1). While sharing, what would it look like to be conscious of extending an open heart, open ears, and grace to the person across from you. Just as drops of water can wear and smooth a stone over time, steadfast gentleness and love will change hearts more than venomous words ever will.
4. Remember Where You Are
You are not at a debate club; you are at a gathering of people who (hopefully) love and care about each other. Not every topic or point of contention needs to be litigated and debated during holiday gatherings. Remind yourself of things that unify you during the gatherings and don’t instigate trouble. Paul encourages us in Romans 12:18 to “if possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” This includes family members with whom you vehemently disagree. It is easy to be pleasant while operating within your own echo chamber, but practicing loving disagreement amidst heightened family dynamics is much more difficult and requires patience and a lot of help from the Lord. Luckily, we are reminded during Christmas that Jesus is called Immanuel, “God is with us” (Matthew 1:23). You are not alone, nor are you responsible for righting every wrong in the world. And thank God for that!
In conclusion, the name of the game here is grace upon grace upon grace. The holidays are a time to reflect, reconnect, and remember that we are called to be ambassadors of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20). Ambassadors build relationships, which is impossible to do from a bully pulpit. Pass the potatoes—and the peace—this holiday season and rest in the goodness of God and each other.