When father in-law doesn't know best

by Tricia Goyer on Tuesday, September 20, 2005

This article is courtesy of HomeLife Magazine.

Most families have had at least a taste of in-law discord, whether it's deciding where to spend the holidays or how to discipline the grandkids. But when you and your in-laws clash over issues of faith, that can make an already touchy relationship even more prone to conflict.

Maybe your mother-in-law uses language you'd rather your children not hear. Perhaps you get upset when your father-in-law suggests that your faith in Christ is ridiculous. Or maybe you just desire to tell your in-laws about Jesus, but you don't want them to feel like you're shoving religion down their throats.

If you regularly face such tension when it comes to in-law visits, here are six tips for relating when you're just not on the same spiritual page.

Adjust your expectations

Our in-laws have the right to their own opinions - even when their ideas conflict with ours. While we may not agree with their lifestyle or beliefs, a realistic view of our in-laws can help us develop understanding and also overcome impractical expectations.

"It helps to remember that non-Christians will not embrace all our ideas," says Leslie Vernick, a licensed counselor with a private practice in Pennsylvania. "This isn't something to get offended or hurt about. We can't expect our in-laws to live as Christians when they don't have Christ in them."

"Sometimes my in-laws will do something I don't understand, and I get a little miffed," adds David*, a husband and father from Mississippi. "But it helps to see them as people who live the best they know how."

Consider how God is using this person to mold you

The Bible is filled with examples of God's followers dealing with difficult family members. Consider Jacob and Laban (Genesis 29-31). While Jacob's father-in-law brought problems to Jacob's life on numerous occasions, Jacob honored Laban and stayed with him until God instructed Jacob to return home.

"Dealing with my father-in-law has been a learning experience for our kids to put their faith into practice," adds Kristin Billerbeck, a Christian novelist from California.

"Grandpa is a surgeon and very bright, but he believes in things like aliens rather than the biblical Jesus. My kids' faith is strengthened when they discuss issues of faith with their grandfather and realize his answers don't always make sense."

"God has put my mother-in-law in my life for a lifetime," Vernick adds. "When the relationship is challenging, I ask, ‘God, how can I use this person to teach me how to be like Christ?'"

Stand your ground

"My in-laws don't understand many of our decisions," says Nancy*, a pastor's wife and mother. "The truth is, they might never understand."

Sometimes, standing your ground means setting boundaries that both you and your spouse will stand by as a united front.

"My husband and I had to set boundaries with our wedding," Vernick says. "We knew [our in-laws] wouldn't understand our God-centered focus on the ceremony. Yet we made it clear up front that this is who we are and what we believe."

Communicate God in ways they can understand

"Since my husband is in ministry, church-related events are just a part of our lives," says Mary Hampton, a wife and mother from Oregon. "Yet it's hard to share these things with my in-laws. Instead, our conversations remain on surface topics. There's no deep territory to connect on."

While you may never be able to have the same soul-searching conversations that you enjoy with friends, there is opportunity to share God's goodness.

"We share what God has done, but do it in more simple terms than we would use with our Christian friends," Mary adds. "We still want to expose my in-laws to that part of our lives. Yet we're sensitive as to how far we can take it."

Show that you truly care

"People can tell when you truly care," Vernick says. "I make an effort to show my mother-in-law love in ways she appreciates. I take time to enjoy some of her favorite things, such as lunch dates or inviting her to cook together - which she really enjoys. And because of this outpouring of love, my mother-in-law is more interested in hearing about God than she was 20 years ago."

Once Helen*, a wife and mother from New York, was married, she wanted to escape from her mother-in-law. Instead, the Lord moved Helen just 10 miles away from her. "She was integrally involved in our lives and our kids' lives. Yet during that time, our family learned about caring, kindness, gentleness, and patience - while also recognizing that Granny's advice and point of view weren't always the ones God would want. As a result, one of my daughters led her to Christ at age 86. She's now nearing the end of her journey, and I'm thankful we extended the love of Christ to her at every opportunity."

Treat them as any other seeker

Finally, just because our in-laws are part of our family doesn't mean they don't deserve the same respect we'd give to any other person. Don't consider your in-laws as "potential converts," but as people in great need of your love - and the love of Christ through you.

"They love you, or at least your spouse, in the best way they know how," David offers. "Seek to find out who they are as people."

While the relationship may never be perfect, the seeds of love you plant will reap rewards of their own - in their lives and in yours. As Jesus said, "Just as I have loved you, you must also love one another" (John 13:34).

How can we argue with that?

*Name has been changed.

Tricia Goyer is a wife, mother of three children, and an author living in Montana.

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