Beware of family photos that are proudly presented on social media and on Christmas cards because they simply do not reflect the true state of anyone’s family. Publicly displayed, we are shown the ideal of happy, smiling, connected families. But seldom paraded are family issues such as battles over curfews, fights about money, arguments over dress codes, disputes over meals, disagreements over what to stream, quarrels about family events, debates over chores, and sibling conflicts—to name a just few!
Furthermore, it’s always been that way with families. The Bible is filled with stories of imperfect families: Adam and Eve disobey God (Genesis 3:1–6); Cain kills his brother, Abel (Genesis 4:1–8); Jacob cheats his brother, Esau, out of their father’s blessing (Genesis 27); Joseph is sold off as a slave by his siblings (Genesis 37:12–28); David commits adultery (2 Samuel 11).
The reality is that in a sinful world, there is no such thing as a perfect family, which means that we are all part of imperfect families. While there are degrees of imperfection, the family should be a place where differences can be acknowledged and respected, where conflicts are peacefully resolved, and where every member feels valued and, most important, loved. Here are four ways that we can demonstrate and strengthen love in our families.
make time for God
One of the first reports about Jesus’ spiritual life reveals that in all His busy activities, He always made time for God. The first chapter of Mark’s Gospel informs us that “very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed” (Mark 1:35). Like Jesus, the imperfect family makes time for God on a daily basis. This kind of family doesn’t make the excuse that “we don’t have time.” They make time, no matter how busy everyone is. It’s a priority.
Consider the example of Academy Award–winning actor Denzel Washington. Over the course of his three-decade career, he has made nearly 40 movies and earned two Academy Awards. But in spite of Washington’s hectic schedule, his devotion to family and deep faith make him unique in Hollywood.
In a 2020 interview, Washington was asked whether he viewed himself as a spiritual person. Without hesitation, Washington said, “Definitely” and explained that Bible study is an important aspect of his spiritual life. “I read the Bible every day. I’m in my second pass through now, in the book of John. My pastor told me to start with the New Testament, so I did, maybe two years ago. Worked my way through it, then through the Old Testament. Now I’m back in the New Testament. It’s better the second time around.” When asked what books he enjoys reading, Washington bluntly stated: “Books? I don’t have time. Except for the Bible, the number one best seller.”
Parents in an imperfect family take seriously their role in offering spiritual instruction and direction to their children. They offer morning and evening devotional times, understanding that these need to be short and interesting, so they plan carefully, making the lessons age-appropriate. The Bible is a central part of this devotional time because it provides a basic foundation in biblical teachings.
Additionally, the imperfect family knows that making time for God should include weekly church attendance. Research links many positive benefits to families who attend church regularly. Research on children and spirituality that was published in 2010 indicates that children who are exposed to spiritual teachings are less likely to be involved in violence, theft, and vandalism. They are also less likely to struggle with substance abuse than are their peers. This research concludes that when people engage in daily devotional time and attend church regularly, overall mental health and happiness increase while stress levels decrease.
Because we are all imperfect, there will be times when we feel hurt by what other family members say and do. The imperfect family is an ideal place to learn how to overlook the little hurts and forgive the larger ones. And when forgiveness is experienced and learned in the context of family life, the benefits are lifelong.
Neil Farber, MD, PhD, who is an adjunct professor of psychology at Arizona State University, explains: “Forgiveness boosts connectedness and kindness. When you forgive, you feel more positive toward someone who hurt you. You are also more likely to want to help and be more altruistic in general. It is not just bad people who hurt us. At some point we will all be hurt or disappointed in some way by friends and family. Holding grudges makes you less likely to develop or maintain strong relationships. Forgiveness can help repair relationships, resolve conflicts and maintain stronger, more satisfying relationships, including marriage.”
To facilitate forgiveness, follow these guidelines:
- Talk to God. When you feel hurt, spend some time in prayer talking to God before speaking to the person who hurt you. Author Joyce Meyer says: “When we pray, we open the door for God to come into our problems and situations and work on them.”
- Examine your motive. As your prayer concludes, take a moment to examine your heart to make sure your motive isn’t revenge. Keep in mind that the goal is understanding and reconciliation.
- Balance your perspective by recalling the many other ways the offending family member has been kind and helpful to you in the past. Don’t permit one moment of hurt to offset many other positive interactions.
- Put yourself in their shoes. Your anger can be softened and displaced by simply taking a few moments to see the situation from the other person’s point of view. Remind yourself that no one is immune from making the mistake of acting or speaking harshly. It’s likely you’ve done the same thing in the past. Now, stand in the shoes of the family member who has hurt you, asking yourself, “Would I want to be forgiven if I were the one who said this or did that? Would I want my mistake to become the permanent breaking of a relationship?”
- Cultivate a spirit of love. Remember that your intent is getting things worked out in order to achieve reconciliation. Apply this wisdom from the apostle Paul to your situation: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs” (1 Corinthians 13:4, 5).
- Talk to the person. After you’ve followed these steps, it’s time to approach your family member in a spirit of humility and love, again following this biblical advice: “Stop all your dirty talk. Say the right thing at the right time and help others by what you say” (Ephesians 4:29, CEV*).
Set aside time for doing fun things as a family, such as camping, playing with the children, going on picnics, riding bicycles, game night, or going for an evening walk together. I know of one family whose fun activity is volunteering at a homeless shelter twice a month, something they have been doing for nearly 10 years. The Kovalik family volunteers at the First Covenant Church Homeless Shelter in downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota. First Covenant provides shelter for approximately 50 men and women a night as well as a hot evening meal prepared entirely by volunteers such as the Kovalik family. To provide the meal, the family first purchases all the ingredients, makes the food in the First Covenant kitchen, serves the hot meal, and cleans up after everyone has finished eating.
This volunteer session takes about three hours, from five thirty to eight thirty, every evening. Dinner is served at six thirty, including weekends and holidays. “I started volunteering here with my family because it is one of the few places that allows kids to do this kind of volunteering,” explained parent Kris Kovalik. And their son, Ryan, added, “We’ve been doing this as a family for several years now, and we go twice a month, sometimes more.”
Another family generates fun activities by connecting events to the seasons of the year. Amy Carter and her children Emily, Jasper, and Natalie brainstorm a list of activities they want to do seasonally. For example, in the spring, fun activities could include planting flowers, going on a scavenger hunt, and exploring unfamiliar parks. The family in Franklin, Indiana, makes a list, checking off the activities as they do them “I tend to get wrapped up in the necessities of life,” Amy explains. “The lists make sure we plan some fun every week.”
And in Elk Grove, California, the Sanders family uses three bags that have fun ideas written on index cards. Simple ideas, such as a park picnic, go in one bag. Activities that require a little more planning, such as a trip to a museum, go into another. The most costly plans, such as a trip to an amusement park, go in a third bag. When it’s time for a fun activity, the family draws a card from the appropriate bag. There’s only one rule, explains Barbara, the mother “Whatever that card says, we do.”
The father and mother are the authorities in the family, and the imperfect family is united in the training and discipline of the children. When children disobey, the parents talk rather than scold, and they avoid shouting and lecturing. They’re guided by two biblical teachings about parental discipline. The first one says, “Do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4), and the second one says, “Do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged” (Colossians 3:21).
Educators and child psychologists stress the importance of discipline when raising a family, but they also recommend that the discipline be positive rather than harsh and negative. “Kids don’t learn when they’re feeling threatened,” says Jane Nelsen, EdD, author of the book Positive Discipline and a licensed marriage, family, and child counselor. The goal of the positive discipline approach is to pilot children in the right direction while simultaneously empowering parents to understand discipline as an instructive, not punitive tool, teaching their children right and wrong.
Dr. Nelsen identifies these five vital benefits of positive discipline:
- It’s equally kind and firm.
- It helps children develop a feeling of connection (belonging and significance).
- Its effects are long-term.
- It builds good character in children by teaching social and life skills.
- It shows children that they’re capable and can use their personal powers in constructive ways.
This type of positive parenting still insists on child discipline while creating an environment where children feel safe, protected, and guided.
Even though you may, at times, feel you’re part of a highly imperfect family, remember that a family surrounded by and raised in love is a gift to the world. As Mother Teresa once said, “If you want to change the world, go home and love your family.”
Imperfect families do that!
* Bible quotations marked CEV are from the Contemporary English Version®. Copyright © 1995 American Bible Society. All rights reserved.
Victor Parachin is a freelance writer who lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He is a frequent contributor to Signs of the Times®.