Barbara and I were having dinner with four couple friends of ours. As the evening progressed, one friend told about his struggle with a sister, who at the age of 45 is chronically ill and likely a hypochondriac. That prompted another friend to share how his brother was in a very unhealthy codependent relationship with his 90-year-old mother. He expressed that he didn’t know how his brother would survive after his mother died.
Another friend shared a touchy situation with his 53-year-old sister who remains emotionally tethered to her parents and is regularly financially rescued by them. A fourth friend shared about a sibling who, at 60, is in complete denial about life, doesn’t work, can’t make a basic decision, and spends most of his time “playing” with his teenage grandson and going to NASCAR races.
By the time we finished dessert, I commented, “I wonder if this group is abnormal or if this is just what occurs in most families?”
And then, as Barbara and I drove home, the thought struck me: The problem with families is that all of us come from one!
No, I’m not suddenly down on families—they remain the most powerful human influence in all of our earthly existence. However, I’ve been surprised by the number of conversations I’ve had recently with adults who are facing difficult situations with brothers or sisters.
Weathering the storm
Adult sibling relationships in families are like the weather—stormy at times, defying predictability, and disruptive. It may be that you have a distant relationship with a sister. Perhaps you and your brother are estranged. Maybe you have a sibling who is taking advantage of your parents, or is displaying the symptoms of addictive behavior. Whatever your situation, I thought I’d offer a couple of thoughts and some biblical wisdom that might help you, your spouse, or a friend weather the storm.
Let me begin with the obvious: Realize that everyone comes from a less than perfect family. There’s something in our souls that longs to believe that the family we come from should be different. Not weird, but better than the average. You might expect the family next door to be abnormal, but not those who are genetically related to us!
But why should we expect our families to be normal?
In Scripture we find that the first family experienced the ultimate in dysfunction and adult sibling rivalry—Cain murdered Abel. Joseph’s brothers put a price tag on him and sold him as a slave. Absalom (King David’s son) was an adult terror as he tried to overthrow his dad’s rule, bringing enormous pain to his father. You likely haven’t had those levels of imperfection, but the reality is when any kind of abnormal or ungodly behavior occurs, it’s unpleasant at best.
So you are not alone in dealing with your defective family and its degenerating relationships. Read that sentence again: You are not alone.
Also realize that, as life progresses, the results of your siblings’ life choices are going to become evident—both the good decisions and the foolish ones. Their decisions about how they handle money, debt, marriage, raising their children, jobs, values, and God will all reflect the kind of worldview they embrace.
You may be dealing with a brother or sister who has lived his entire life rebelling against God. In the words of Solomon, this sibling has become a fool. A life of foolishness creates chaos and disrupts life with all that it touches.
When a sibling is not making wise choices
The question for you and me is this: How will we respond to a sibling who is not making wise choices? The following is not an exhaustive list, but it is both convicting and freeing:
1. As much as it depends upon you, be at peace with all men (Hebrews 12:14).
2. Stop trying to change your sibling. At some point, you may have to let him be who he is and realize that he may never grow up or out of his current state.
3. Give up your “911” job in your sibling’s life. If you have a tendency to take responsibility for his life by rescuing him, stop moonlighting and resign from that role. Let God be God in his life.
4. Repent and forgive him. Resist resentment. Stop punishing him. Give it up. Give him the grace and mercy that you have been given by God.
5. Love him. You may be the incarnation of 1 Corinthians 13 in his life—the closest thing to seeing and experiencing the love of God.
6. Seek the counsel of wise and godly friends. Gather a couple of godly truth-speakers and ask them to give you some guidance.
7. Don’t do anything that helps your sibling continue making unwise choices. Instead speak the truth in love. In severe cases, a formal intervention by family members may be necessary.
8. Create boundaries around your life, your family, and if appropriate, your parents. Some siblings have unhealthy, codependent relationships with their parents or other family members. It may be time to call it what it is and create some protective boundaries in those relationships.
9. Take an inventory of yourself—are you a godly sibling or a part of the problem? Have you done anything to wound your family that you need to ask forgiveness for?
10. Be a “big-God” person. It’s easy to lose hope in these situations. Give it (and the person) to God and trust Him with it. He is capable of doing what you can’t.
A final thought: As you seek to love and live in grace with your family, keep in mind the words of the apostle Paul: “Do not lose heart in well doing, for in due time you will reap if you don’t grow weary” (Galatians 6:9).
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