By Dennis Rainey
But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle,
open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.
And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace
by those who make peace. James 3:17-18
Barbara and I were having dinner with four couples who were lifelong friends. As the evening progressed, the conversation turned to the topic of adult siblings. One friend told about his struggle with a sister, who at the age of 45 was 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 didn’t know how his brother would survive after his mother died.
Another talked about a touchy situation with his 65-year-old sister who remained emotionally tethered to her parents; they also regularly rescued her financially. A fourth friend told of a sibling who, at 60, 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 mused, “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 down on families—they remain the most powerful human influence in our earthly existence. However, I’ve been surprised by the number of conversations I’ve had recently with adults who are facing challenging situations and difficult relationships with brothers or sisters … or both!
You are not alone
Adult sibling relationships in families are sometimes like the weather—stormy, defying predictability, and disruptive. It may be that you have a distant relationship with a sister, and despite your best efforts you’ve never been close to one another. Perhaps you and your brother are estranged, and you haven’t talked in more than a decade. Maybe you have a sibling who is a manipulator and is taking advantage of your parents. Another who might be displaying the symptoms of addictive behavior—gambling, drugs, alcohol, or porn. 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 difficult. 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 you!
But why should we expect our families to be normal (whatever that is)?
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 dagger-like pain to his father’s heart. You likely haven’t had those levels of messiness, but the reality is all families are made up of broken people. In a family broken people can bring harm and hurt to other broken family members.
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 (and yours!) are going to become evident—both the good decisions and the foolish ones. Their decisions about how they handle money, debt, marriage, resolving conflict, 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 making foolish choices
Here’s the question for all of us: How will we respond to a sibling who has been making poor choices or hurting others in his/her relationships? The following list of suggestions is not exhaustive, but it is both convicting and freeing:
1. Seek to be at peace with all men. Romans 12:18 tells us, “If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all.” I love this verse because it points out that God understands the real life that comes our way. He understands that not every relationship will experience richness and peace.
I know a man who for more than six decades pursued his brother. He didn’t love him perfectly, but he was quick to admit fault, ask for forgiveness, and seek reconciliation. He went the extra mile, but to no avail.
He was rebuffed. Stonewalled. No effort by his brother to reconcile. Romans 12:18 became a comfort to him as he processed all that was his responsibility. After his brother died an angry, isolated man, he concluded that his brother had become incapable of engaging others and truly loving them.
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 of selfishness. Yes, a family is an institution, but in your sibling relationships it’s not a reformatory.
I once observed four siblings attempt to love their sister in various ways … spending time, communicating, giving gifts for her birthday and for Christmas. Over three decades later, the sister had not expressed gratitude for those gifts, nor had she given a single gift to any of her brothers and sisters. Tragically, her life was a mess. She became isolated and died a very lonely death.
3. Give up your “911” job in your sibling’s life. If you have a tendency to take too much responsibility for his life by rescuing him, stop moonlighting and resign from that role. Let God be God in his life. In fact, your efforts to rescue may be blunting the pain that God wants to use in his life to get his attention. And if this has been a pattern in the past, you may need to establish boundaries of what you will and won’t do, and then communicate those limits to your sibling.
4. Repent and forgive. Resist resentment. Stop punishing him. Give it up. Give him the grace and mercy that you have been given by God.
This can be very challenging … especially over a lifetime of offenses.
One man’s brother cheated him out of a significant amount of money in a business deal they were in together. He had the evidence in over 300 boxes of documents. He decided he would not sue his brother, but legally he had to keep those documents for 10 years. So every January for the next decade he burned 30 boxes of paper, and as those boxes went up in smoke he was tempted to resent his brother. But God used each of those 10 bonfires to remind him he had to forgive his brother.
And he did. Repeatedly.
5. Love your sibling. You may be the incarnation of 1 Corinthians 13 in his life—the closest thing to seeing and experiencing the love of God. Become a student of your brother or sister and what communicates love and appreciation. Ask God to help you communicate your love.
6. Seek the counsel of wise and godly friends. Gather a couple of godly truth-speakers and ask them to give you some guidance. You’ll likely find that you are not alone in your disappointment and that others may be experiencing similar dramas.
7. Don’t do anything that enables your sibling to 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 part of the problem? Have you done anything to wound a sibling or your family that you need to ask forgiveness for?
10. Be a “big-God” person. It’s easy to lose hope in these situations, especially if you forget who God is. He is the Redeemer. He can bring life out of incredibly messy situations. Give your sibling to God and ask Him to do what is necessary. He is capable of doing what you can’t.
A final thought: Life is a journey where God is accomplishing His purposes. The Apostle Paul reminds us, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). As you seek to love and live in grace with your family, keep in mind the words of Galatians 6:9: “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.”
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