As we pursue A Meaningful Christmas, we talked last week about how giving, sharing, and gratefulness impact how we’re feeling, our outlook on life, and even our health. Celebrating Jesus birth is a great time to give, share and be grateful for the blessings that we’ve received. Doing this as a family can make a real difference. Harvard University conducted a seventy-five year study into what leads to true fulfillment in life. It concluded that fulfillment comes through relationships. If we are lonely or struggling to connect with the most important people in our lives, our family, it will be difficult to have a meaningful Christmas.
One of the challenges Deedee and I faced was understanding what led to healthy relationships. No one ever sat us down and taught us what the building blocks of a healthy relationship were nor did we have great models to follow.
It’s clear if we are to have a meaningful Christmas we need to enjoy our time both with God and together as a family, but how do we get there? How do we improve our relationships with our family members and with God?
(This series is also available as a podcast click here to listen)
An Easy Relationship with God?
Let’s start by talking about our relationship with God and how we make it more helpful, enjoyable and real. As I was preparing for this program, God brought back a strong memory that impacted my relationship with God in a very positive way. Every year both as a student and a staff member of Campus Crusade, I went to the Christmas Conference. It was an amazing time. What made it so great for me was that an entire huge multi-story hotel conference center was booked. There would be two to three thousand college students attending who were committed to God, a great national speaker, amazing worship, and a day of going out and serving the community. The Holy Spirit used our time in life-changing ways.
One year a pastor addressed our relationship with God. He shared an amazing story that hit really close to home for me. He shared that he often felt guilty while in seminary. He felt guilty because other students and even some staff members would ask why he had such an amazingly passionate and close walk with the Lord. They would often share all they were doing to have a close intimate walk with the Lord; they would be doing prayer times that were hours long, spending hours both in quiet time, and studying the word, but they were struggling to feel close and connected to God. The pastor felt guilty because he did not put that much effort into his relationship with the Lord.
His Relationship with God did not Require a Ton of Effort
He wasn’t putting that much effort into his relationship with God because he was doing it in an unconditional manner. A love relationship with God does not require a bunch of performance hoops to jump through. He understood this and approached his relationship in this light. Rather than forcing time together, he would talk to God throughout the day, praying as he headed to the car, walking or while he was driving. He would throw up little prayers to God throughout the day when he was in difficult situations and wasn’t sure how to respond. This is why I feel we need to separate the time we spend studying the Bible or the time we spend or do not spend serving others from the truly secure love relationship we have with God. When we mix these things together we can slip into a performance mindset and believe we are doing well when we are not talking with, relying upon or interacting with our Heavenly Father much at all.
Developing a Genuine Love for People is Easier than We Think
Part of what I saw in this pastor was a genuine love for people. He valued the same thing that Jesus valued and that was love. Jesus left us only one commandment to love God and love one another. And I believe that part of what made his walk with God so close was the fact that he was communicating with Him throughout the day. He was loving and serving people with a genuine heart like Jesus.
In this love he needed to rely on God more. He saw God use him and give him words to speak that caused him to have greater trust and a closer connection to God. The great news for us is that we do not need to flog ourselves to love others, we just need to seek the Spirit to do what it says in Roman 5:5 “the Spirit pours love into our hearts!” Pray for a love for the people in your home, work, or school and watch what happens, what God does.
I had Felt Guilty for Years
I had felt guilty for years for not doing enough quiet times, enough in depth study, or long prayer times seeking the Lord. Hearing what the pastor shared was a breath of fresh air. It fundamentally changed my relationship with God. I began to pray little short prayers throughout the day as I was working on campus with students. And it was amazing what I saw happen in the lives of students as I did that. God often tapped me on the shoulder and changed the way I was approaching things or altered what I was going to say or gave me words to say that really connected with the students’ hearts. As we ponder having a meaningful Christmas, we need to ask how is our relationship with God? If it is distant, if there’s something that has led to hurt or mistrust in your relationship with God, we must face and address it.
It maybe something we need to grieve. It may be someone we need to forgive. There are a lot of things that happen to us in life that can cause us to guard or distance ourselves from the Lord. Often we just need to turn to him, confess those things and ask him to change our heart. Relationships shouldn’t be based upon performance, whether it is with God or within our families. Remember God loves us and forgives us unconditionally.
I want to encourage us to stop and take stock of where our relationships are not just with God but also with the members of our family. If fulfillment in life comes through these relationships, and if the relationships aren’t going well, we’re probably not going to be enjoying life and we’re certainly not going to feel close, connected and have the meaningful Christmas we desire.
Our Family Relationships Aren’t What We Desire!
I’ve found that in far more families than we believe, relationships are struggling and not going as well as we’d like. Often this is because we have started to slip into a performance mindset with our family members and especially our kids. If we really want to have a close, heart connected, meaningful Christmas, we’ve got to stop and ask ourselves some hard questions. How are our relationships really going, not in our eyes, but through the eyes of our spouse and our kids?
Do they feel like they’re living under a performance standard? Are they feeling true unconditional love that will cause them to stay connected to us and want to spend time with us, whether they’re three, five, nine, twelve, thirteen or even seventeen?
The Best Gift We Can Give Our Family this Christmas is Better Relationships!
A performance mindset is often the very issue that’s getting in the way of parents and kids connecting and communicating deeply, openly and honestly. Consider this, that the best gift we can give each other this Christmas is to really get our relationships working. Everybody in the house will be lighter, happier, more joyful. They’ll spend more time together when relationships are going well. I know this is important not just with our kids, but also with our spouses. I find it fascinating that research shows that the longer we’ve been married to our spouse, the less we actually understand them.
One study proved it that we start to operate based upon assumptions. Unresolved issues get in the way and spouses start to interpret each other through those things. This leads to a greater and greater disconnect in what we believe each other is thinking, feeling, and their motives for doing things. This can rob us of intimacy in our relationship with our spouse.
I found that the same thing is often at work between parents and kids. In fact, recently while coaching a family, I was helped them debunk many of the misunderstandings, assumptions and conclusions that they had drawn about each other. As I got them really talking, hearing, and seeking to understand each other, their assumptions and misunderstandings quickly came to light. Tears welled up in a dad’s eyes as he heard what was really on his daughter’s heart as opposed to looking at her through the assumptions he had constructed as to why his daughter was doing the things she was. The only way to address this is to stop and really ask, “What are my kids really thinking and feeling about our relationship?” “What is my spouse really thinking and feeling about our relationship?” Perhaps one of the best things we can do before Christmas is to sit down with each person in our family individually and ask them for some honest feedback. Ask them where they’re really at, how they’re really feeling, do they feel understood, do they feel believed in, do they feel heard? All of these things will deeply impact your relationship with them. Having relationships repaired could lead to just an absolutely amazing Christmas.
What are the Building Blocks of Healthy Relationships?
I know that when Deedee and I got married, we didn’t really understand the true building blocks of a successful relationship and so we could not build them into our kids. This is why knowing and understanding them is really important to consider. Initially I looked at a lot of the research about relationships and most of it is about romantic or spousal relationships. There wasn’t much regarding the relationship between parents and kids. My research with over 4,000 kids stepped in to fill in some of the blanks.
Building Blocks for Healthy Family Relationships
I believe there are thirteen basic building blocks for healthy relationships and more specifically healthy family relationships. Fascinatingly enough, secular research agreed with Jesus.
- Real Unconditional Love
We’ve all heard it, but have we encountered it and are we giving it to our kids? Secular researchers said, “Many people think of love as a feeling of liking someone very much, but love is a commitment that you make. It’s a personal decision to ensure that you always treat your partner, your family member in the right way and honor them wherever you go.”Jesus, of course, defined love as laying down your life for a friend. It is clear that unconditional love is an essential building block for any family relationship and it’s vital in our relationships with our kids. This is love that is completely apart from performance, guilt and shame. It is essential and can be cultivated by prayer that seeks the Spirit to pour love into our hearts. Unconditional love releases our doubts and fears as well as the hurts kids can send our way. IF WE HOLD ON to the hurts, their failures or our doubts about them, our kids will feel it and withdraw. Complete forgiveness is essential to unconditional love.We need to stop and consider what really causes our family members, especially our kids, to feel loved by us and what causes them to withdraw from us!
- Complete Loyalty
Part of what will help our kids feel secure and unconditionally loved is the second building block, loyalty, all encompassing loyalty!According to the research all encompassing loyalty is so important because it leads to feelings of security and stability that build a sense of confidence in the one who is receiving that loyalty. This can really be difficult for us as parents. Why? Because what this loyalty looks like to our kids is not talking about the problems that they have or the issues we’re encountering with them with people outside the home. I know this because I’ve sat with so many kids who feel completely betrayed, embarrassed and deeply hurt because their mom or dad speaks with other people about them. Their parents share their behavior issues, their mental health issues, whatever may be going on and it hurts them deeply. Sometimes this happens accidentally when a mom or a dad is on the phone with a friend and they share things, which the kid overhears and is mortified.I’ve also seen a parent actually share these things with people outside the home in front of their kids. I think this may be done as a way to motivate them to change. But normally it causes the kid to dig their heels in because they’re hurt, embarrassed and feel so betrayed that they lose any desire to please their parents. This is why loyalty is right behind love. We need to create an environment in our home where everyone feels safe, secure, and supported. Then we’ll build a culture where we can truly trust each other because we have unending, all encompassing loyalty.
- TRUST: Can Be Tricky: (We must think it through)
We live in a culture that pounds into our heads and hearts that trust must be earned. Research shows something very different. In fact, it talks about having total trust for your family members, especially for your spouse. This trust must manifest itself in terms of both a feeling and a belief that no one in our family will intentionally harm us.Our trust must extend beyond performance and letting each other down. It’s a trust that we need to keep for each other constantly if we’re going to have a healthy relationship. When trust breaks down and suspicion creeps in, it changes our emotional connectedness. It changes our communication and leads to further distance in our relationships.That’s why I believe we see in many translations of I Corinthians 13 the phrase, “love always trusts.” We must continue to trust our kids even when they fail because we’re all imperfect. If we begin to mistrust them and they pick up on our mistrust, it deeply damages our relationship. This is why I believe the whole thought process of earned trust is such a scourge on families today because we’re going to let each other down. It doesn’t mean we intended to or we meant to. It doesn’t mean we meant ill. In fact, it’s often the opposite.We want to do what’s right, but wherever we go, sin is right there beside us. (Romans 7 and Paul) When we’re freely extending trust to each other, we’re naturally closer and more loyal to each other. Love increases instead of decreases, which leads us to the next building block, forgiveness
- Forgiveness: (Essential)
Too often I find that forgiveness between parents and their kids is lacking in both directions. One reason is that issues are not truly being discussed. There are arguments that never turn into real conversation, understanding and genuine apologies. Conversations need to come after emotions have settled and they must be bilateral. By bilateral I mean we hear each other and come to understand each other both intellectually as well as emotionally. We must hear our kids’ true thoughts and feelings and really weigh and consider them rather than letting our doubts or fears trump our kids’ desires and hearts.This is essential if we are to really forgive each other. If either we or our kids do not feel heard or understood, forgiveness will be blocked. Another reason for the absence of forgiveness is the lack of effective apologies that speak to the heart of the person that was hurt. If apologies aren’t spoken, it is likely that forgiveness will not naturally flow. Forgiveness is essential if we’re going to continue to trust each other.If we can’t resolve the issue and we can’t let go of the sense of betrayal, mistrust or hurt that resulted from the situation, continuing to trust each other is going to be really difficult.Trust is essential to a healthy relationship and I find Christmas is a great time to begin to talk about forgiveness in the context of our relationship with God. Then broaden that conversation to forgiveness within our families.
The next building block depends on a sense of unconditional love, loyalty, trust, and forgiveness, which we will begin with next week, Emotional Transparency.
Don’t feel bad or guilty… Do this instead!
As you’re listening to all of this, it may seem a bit overwhelming or maybe you’re getting hit with a sense of guilt. I know there are things that I can do better coming to my heart and mind as I’m sitting here covering this with you, but one thing I’ve discovered is that guilt, feeling bad and beating ourselves up doesn’t lead to change.
What does bring change is a dependence on God’s grace and forgiveness and a dependence on his Spirit to grow and heal our hearts so that we’re able to trust even when trust isn’t warranted. He enables us to forgive like He forgives us as far as the East is from the West so it doesn’t impact our trust. If there are things that you’re feeling guilty about or wish you had done differently, it can really help to write them down and begin to create an apology list that you can issue to your spouse and your kids. Make that list very specific and make sure you apologize with the four elements of a healthy apology.
- Don’t say I’m sorry. Say I apologize.
- State the specific item you need to apologize for.
- Include what you’re going to do differently in order to be better in this area.
- Ask, will you forgive me?
If you are apologizing, you may want to consider attending the online Influential Parenting Program as a commitment to your kids. The best way to have a great Christmas is to restore your relationships with your family and with God. God will be so pleased. Our Influential Parenting program will change the way you see your kids and your role in their lives. It covers vital topics like: the redefinition of childhood, where potential comes from, the Good Shepherd’s leadership secrets, the power of influence and how to use it and many more.
Next week we will finish the remaining building blocks of a great relationship. They all build upon each other to give us the type of family relationships that will lead to a meaningful Christmas and a great 2020 as a family.