Have you ever noticed that it’s hard to communicate openly with your in-laws? Maybe you heard from your husband that your mother-in-law is ticked because you didn’t call her on her birthday. Or perhaps the kids were permitted to watch something you deem inappropriate while spending time with the grandparents and you’re hesitant to bring it up.
Throughout this in-law series I’ve mentioned a couple of times that the best help we Christians can find on how to treat our in-laws is in a place where this topic is rarely even mentioned: the Bible. Yet “doing Christianity” is often hard when it involves your spouse’s family. People who are committed to doing things like serving, believing the best, being patient and overlooking offenses (or at least trying to!) in other relationships stumble when it comes to their in-laws.
Why? Let me be honest with you. I truly believe that the primary reason is that Christians have bought into worldly thinking that in-law relationships are just not meant to be good. Sarcasm and jokes abound that we don’t even realize have seeped into our thoughts and hearts.
Take Beth, for example. One morning Beth’s mother-in-law spontaneously invited her to lunch the next day. This wasn’t something they regularly did together, so Beth was curious about why Jean extended the invitation — especially last minute. She and Jean had gotten along well over the seven years since the wedding so she wasn’t apprehensive about spending the time with Jean. Just curious…
Shortly after their food arrived Beth assumed it would become clear why Jean had invited her to lunch. Yet the small talk continued. Beth found herself becoming impatient because she was going to need to leave soon for an appointment. Why wasn’t Jean just coming out with whatever she wanted to share? She decided to drop a hint by glancing at her watch.
“Look at the time! I’ll keep my eye out for our waitress so we can get the check. Ethan’s class will be over soon.” Jean was aware that Ethan attended a weekly co-op for home schoolers at their church and Beth hoped this would invite her to reveal the reason for their lunch.
“How is Ethan doing, by the way?” Jean asked. “I know he was having some challenges with reading. Are things better now?” Oh, so that’s what this is about, Beth concluded. Chuck had mentioned to her that his mom was worried about Ethan — and Beth knew her in-laws weren’t supportive of their decision to home educate the kids. She was glad she needed to leave soon because Chuck was the one who needed to hear his mother’s concerns anyway. Beth shared that Ethan’s reading skills were steadily improving and thanked her for taking an interest in how he was doing. Their lunch ended soon thereafter.
If you’re a child-in-law I would encourage you be careful not to assume you know what is motivating your in-laws. Weeks later, Beth was having coffee with a close friend. During their conversation it seemed natural to mention that she wished Chuck’s parents were more supportive of their decisions and choices about the kids. When her friend asked what she meant, Beth shared her lunch experience with Jean and how she left worried that her in-laws would always be looking for reasons to shoot holes in their decision to home school.
“Have you asked Jean about that, Beth?” her friend inquired. Beth hadn’t because she knew what Jean was doing. She waited until the end of their lunch conversation to ask about Ethan’s reading because “that’s what she does.” Her friend gently challenged her to not assume that was Jean’s motive. She then appealed to Beth’s strong commitment to biblical truth and suggested she to go back to ask if Jean’s reading questions were related to any lingering concerns about them home schooling.
Beth hesitated, saying this just wasn’t how she and Jean related. Her friend lovingly persisted. “If I said something that you thought indicated I was bothered by something you were doing, would you ask me?” she asked. “Of course!” Beth responded. “But this is different. She’s my mother-in-law! And she’s not a Christian, so….”
Beth’s friend helped her to see two things: First, she was presuming that Jean asked her to lunch primarily to subtly communicate her ongoing concerns about home schooling. Second, Beth was unwilling to take some simple biblical steps to either confirm or correct this assumption…steps she would have taken with most other people.
Gratefully, Beth saw the need to reach out to Jean. She called and thanked her for lunch. Then she said, “Jean, I’ve been thinking about your question about Ethan’s reading. I really do appreciate you taking an interest in how he’s doing, but I’m wondering if you’re concerned that he’s not going to make good progress in his education at home. I know you love him and want the best for him. Would you mind clarifying for me if there was any other reason why you asked about that?”
What Beth learned was that Jean had been looking online for Christmas gifts for the grandchildren and had found a set of children’s books she hoped to purchase for Ethan. The last time she gave him books, he was embarrassed that he couldn’t read them well. She was trying to avoid that happening again.
“Beth, you know that Bruce and I aren’t real sure about home education, but I just wanted to know if I should go ahead and order the books,” she responded.
Beth’s quickness to presume she knew what was motivating her mother-in-law is common. (Mothers-in-law have the same temptation with our children-in-law!) And based on past interactions, she had reason to wonder if Jean was finding a way to reiterate her concerns. What was uncommon, however, was her willingness to reach out to allow Jean to offer another explanation.
It was risky. Because we live in a world that projects parents-in-law (and especially mothers-in-law) as opinionated meddlers that approve of little their children-in-law do unless it’s the result of soliciting parental counsel or approval, what Beth did required courage and humility. It also required facing the possibility that she would hear more concerns about a decision that was her and Chuck’s to make.
Perhaps your mother-in-law meddles and is opinionated. And I am not a good example of someone who regularly follows up on interactions with people the way Beth did. Yet the truth is this: we can’t allow worldly thinking to give us permission to dismiss biblical teaching on how to treat others.
Beth did a good job of approaching her mother-in-law with a question rather than an accusation. She affirmed her love for Ethan. Then she asked for specific clarification and invited her concerns.
Does this sound impossibly simple to you? Yeah, me too, because simple truths are hard to live out in real life. Realizing I might be wrong about someone’s motives is easy to admit sitting here in my living room with a computer in my lap, yet not nearly as hard as humbly giving the person the chance to prove me wrong.
Resisting worldly thinking about in-law relationships is sometimes the first step to realizing the importance of following through on something simple like graciously asking your mother-in-law what she meant by a question or comment that didn’t set right with you.
Sometimes we Christians pray for faith and courage to do heroic things for God that require sacrifice beyond our natural abilities. What if the opportunity He provides is to simply treat our mother-in-law with Christian love that refuses to be influenced more by culture than by scripture?