differences, and value and confirm uniqueness. Family members will develop and express themselves (uniqueness) in their family relationships without the pressure to change or modify themselves (unity).
The capacity for family members to communicate feelings freely and openly with one another is contingent on trust and commitment. They are not afraid to share and be intimate with one another. John gives us insight into this: “God is love” (1 John 4:16); “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (v. 18). God expresses perfect love, and we can respond in love because God loved us first (v. 19).
This brings us back to the unconditional covenant love that is the cornerstone for family communication and honest sharing without the threat of rejection. As family members offer their love unconditionally to one another, the security that is established will lead to deeper levels of intimacy.
The unconditional love modeled by Jesus gives a picture of the type of communicative intimacy desirable in family relationships. Recall how Jesus, at the end of his earthly ministry, asked Peter not once but three times, “Do you love me?” (John 21). Peter had earlier denied Jesus three times; Jesus was giving Peter the opportunity to assert what he had previously denied and to reaffirm his love three times. Perhaps the relationship between Jesus and Peter had not been the same since Peter’s triple denial. Likewise, family relationships become strained as we disappoint, fail, and even betray those whom we love the most.
Forgiving and being forgiven are important aspects of renewal. There is a need to confess as well as to receive confession. This is a two-way street that can resolve the unfinished business between family members. Being willing to admit failures and to acknowledge being offended by another person opens intimacy between two people as they seek reconciliation. Intimacy will bring relationships to full maturity.
Applying the Theological Model: From Hurting to Healing Behaviors In examining biblical themes that have a bearing on the nature of family relationships, we have suggested that (1) commitment should be based on a mature (i.e., unconditional and bilateral) covenant love; (2) family life should be established and maintained within an atmosphere of grace, which embraces acceptance and forgiveness; (3) the resources of family members
should be used to empower rather than to control one another; and (4) intimacy is based on a knowing that leads to caring, understanding, communication, and communion with others. These four elements of Christian family relationships are part of a continual process: intimacy can lead to deeper covenant love, commitment fortifies the atmosphere of freely offered grace, the climate of acceptance and forgiveness encourages serving and empowering others, and the resultant sense of self-esteem leads to the ability to be intimate without fear.
Table 1, which represents a summary of our theological model, illustrates how a family that places its allegiance in Jesus Christ can move toward God’s paradigm for relationships. Although believers experience different levels of maturity in Christ, each of them has a capacity to follow God’s way because of the spiritual power within. Inasmuch as all family members are imperfect, with their own individual temperaments and experiences, they progress at different rates in the process of realizing God’s ideals of unconditional love, grace, empowerment, and intimacy. That is to say, all family members fall on a continuum between hurting and healing behaviors. As long as they move in the direction of healing, they will grow and the family will benefit. When they choose hurting behaviors and move away from God’s way, however, the entire family will be negatively affected.
Among the hurting behaviors in a family environment are conditional love, self-centeredness, perfectionism, faultfinding, efforts to control others, unreliability, denial of feelings, and lack of communication. With such behaviors, the focus is on self rather than on the best interests of the other family members. In hurting families, each individual is affected on the personal level. For example, one may not feel loved or worthy of being loved by the other family members. Such individuals are limited in their ability to love others unconditionally. A vicious circular pattern emerges. Such problems at the personal level cause the individual to view interpersonal relationships as potential threats. The result is behavior that perpetuates the root problem. For example, an individual who does not know what it is to be loved unconditionally is prone to approach others defensively.
Hurting families tend to withhold grace, often demanding unreasonable perfection and blaming those members who don’t measure up. Individuals in these families fear they will make a mistake and be rejected because of their
failure to meet the standards. So they try harder to be perfect. What they need is acceptance for who they are and forgiveness when they fail.
Hurting families also tend to control rather than empower their members. Individuals in these families lack the confidence that they can influence others; they fear they will be discredited because of their inadequacies. The result is a desperate attempt to get power by coercing and controlling less powerful family members. What is needed instead is affirmation and validation by the family. Empowerment will build confidence so that all family members can reach their greatest potential.
TABLE 1 From Hurting to Healing Behavior
Problem at the Personal Level
Obstacle to Interpersonal Relationships
Behavior Perpetuating the Problem
Healing Behavior: The Cure
From Conditional Love to Unconditional Love
Feeling unloved Fear of not being loved
Loving others in order to be loved in return
Feeling unworthy of love
Fear of being thought worthless
Focus on self Christ- centeredness
From Shame to Grace
Perfectionism Fear of making a mistake
Fear of not being accepted
Trying harder Acceptance
Faultfinding Expectation of perfection in self and others
Fear of being criticized
Blaming others Forgiveness
From Control to Empowerment
Efforts to control others
Lack of confidence in one’s ability to influence
Fear of losing others
Overcontrol Building others up
Unreliability Lack of control of oneself
Fear of disappointing others
Being out of control
From Lack of Feeling to Intimacy
Denial of feelings
Fear of feelings Fear of rejection Avoidance of feelings
Experience of feelings