My mother-in-law is getting to me. Help!

Before I address this week's question I want to follow up last week’s blog about practicing God’s presence by sharing with you a metaphor that I’ve been using to help me practice abiding in Christ. Jesus used many metaphors to explain the mysterious and unknown things of God in ways people might grasp. For example, he said, “the kingdom of God is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his garden, and it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.” Later on he said, “The kingdom of God is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, until it was all leavened” (Luke 13:18-20)

We may not really understand these word pictures Jesus used because we don’t regularly bake bread or see mustard trees but in Jesus’ culture these were common ordinary things that he referred to in order to help his followers grasp deeper spiritual realities. Last week I was reading in John 14 and 15, where Jesus says, “I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” Later on in chapter 15 he says, “Abide in me, and I in you.” We read that we’re supposed to do this but experientially it’s difficult to grasp how this works.

While on vacation in Hawaii I did something rather ordinary that helped me experience the profound mystery of abiding with God and he with me. While playing in the ocean I suddenly became aware that I was in the ocean and that the ocean was in me. While remaining in the ocean I could float, which I could not do if I stepped out of the ocean.

In the same way Jesus tells us apart from him, we can do nothing. That’s why he tells us to remain in him. We are not God anymore than I am the ocean. The ocean is bigger than I am, but I can be in it and it can be in me. The awareness of that truth empowers us to float (abide). It’s not hard, but we have to let go, open our arms and allow the ocean to carry us. If you’ve floated before, use that experience to help your body and mind experience what it might be like to abide in God and him in you.

Here is this weeks’ question.

Question: I have had an on and off relationship with my mother in law. She’s nice to me as long as I give her what she wants. She is manipulative and controlling and even my husband, her son, wants nothing to do with her. She tells people bad things about me and when she is confronted, she blames others and defends herself.

I want to forgive her and start over but I know she will never change. I want to be the bigger person so I try to be kind. I recently sent her a birthday card but I can’t call her “mom” and don’t know what else to do to deal with this relationship. I have 11 years of hurt and anger and I don’t trust her. What do I do?

Answer: This is a difficult and common problem when someone is a family member but he or she has broken our trust and we really don’t like them very much. As Christians our desire is to forgive them and be reconciled but how do we deal with the hurt and anger that results from not only their sin against us, but also their unwillingness to accept any responsibility for the damage they’ve caused?

First, it’s important to understand that we are not Biblically required to have a close and personal relationship with everyone. It’s not possible. We only have so much time and energy and even Jesus himself wasn’t “friends” with everyone he knew or met. I think that for too long Christians have given themselves unnecessary guilt trips thinking that they have to like and be close to people they do not like or trust. It says of Jesus, “Many believed in his name when they saw the signs that Jesus was doing. But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what is in man” John 2:23,24).

From what you’ve written it sounds like your mother in law has always been this way and although you’ve tried to build a closer friendship with her, she has consistently done things to damage it. In this case it’s probably wisest to accept the reality that she doesn’t know how to have a healthy relationship and let it go. That doesn’t mean you have nothing to do with her, but it means that you have no expectations of mutual caring, mutual respect, or mutual honesty. You can minister to her but not be friends with her. There is a difference.

As your mother-in-law, God wants you to honor her. So what would that look? I’ve already addressed this question in a previous blog last June when a reader asked about honoring an abusive father, but I think honoring is similar to Christ’s command to “love our enemy and to do him or her good.” Jesus is not asking us to be friends with our enemy, but to love him or her. In the same way I think God knows that there are bad fathers and mothers and mothers-in-laws. He’s not expecting us to have close friendships with those who intentionally or blindly hurt us with no repentance but he does ask us to honor them anyway.

Why? Because when we love our enemy or honor an undeserving parent it protects us from being overcome with our own negative emotions toward that person. By practicing the opposite virtue (honoring someone instead of paying them back for the evil he or she does), we are not giving Satan the victory. The apostle Paul coaches us, “Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21). Overcome is a fighting word, an active process you must do in order to not allow the evil your mother in law has done to you to overwhelm you with hurt, anger or bitterness. You already said you do not want to hang on to those emotions. You let them go through practicing forgiveness and living out the opposite virtue toward him or her such as kindness, compassion, honor, forgiveness and goodness. These are the ways we behave toward our friends, but Jesus calls us to act that way even toward our enemy – those we have no personal friendship with but with who we can still be Christ-like to.

Journal out your negative feelings and keep giving them to God. He knows exactly how you feel. He was gossiped about, misunderstood, reviled, abused and rejected. He didn’t allow those awful experiences to turn him into a different person nor was he friends with those people. Yet he continued to be who God wanted him to be and do what God wanted him to do and God gives us the power to do likewise.

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