Healing for Estranged Relationships

Are you struggling with a broken relationship? Estrangement has become common in our culture, but is not what God desires for our relationships. I shared in a previous article the good news that God knows our pain. This is most clearly seen in his cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” God does not stand far off while we suffer. Jesus himself experienced estrangement in his life as well as in his death. Indeed, he is with us in the thick of it. God’s empathetic presence guides us toward hope. Delving into biblical stories helps us glimpse the healing God provides.

Estrangement in Genesis

One of the earliest accounts of family estrangement in the Bible is found in the book of Genesis. In Genesis 37, after Joseph is shown favoritism by his father, his brothers hatch a plan to get rid of him once and for all. Thanks to his brother, Reuben, sticking up for him, the brothers decide not to kill him but instead to sell him into slavery. They make up a heart-breaking story about Joseph getting attacked by a wild animal and then they feed that lie to their father. He buys it hook, line, and sinker. Before long, Joseph found himself in a land miles away from his family and sentenced to a lifetime of estrangement.

We grieve it

I find this story of Joseph helpful because of how estrangement so often feels like a death, even though it’s not a death. Joseph’s brothers spent their lives pretending that Joseph was dead. Their father spent decades grieving his son’s death. Yet, in reality, Joseph was very much alive. He was just completely detached from the rest of the family. Likewise, in modern-day estrangement, the loss of the relationship can hold as much grief as a death might.

Generous forgiveness

Decades after being shipped off to Egypt, Joseph is confronted with his brothers once again. This time, the power dynamics have shifted. Joseph is Pharaoh's right-hand man and his brothers are starving foreigners desperate for their next meal. As his brothers’ stomachs rumble, Joseph racks his brain to figure out what to do with them. After a few unskillful attempts at connection, including holding one of his brothers hostage and framing his brothers as thieves, he finally practices generous forgiveness by inviting all of his brothers and their families to join him in Egypt. Forgiveness brought healing that would not have come if Joseph were angry and vindictive. This forgiveness ensures that his brothers and their families would thrive for generations to come.

Letting go of resentment

Yet, generous forgiveness can often feel unbelievable. Which is what Joseph’s brothers felt after their father died. They figured, Joseph was only being nice to them because of their dad, but they were wrong. Joseph comforted them by saying, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children” (Gen. 50:19-21). Joseph was committed to forgiveness even when his brothers didn’t deserve it or expect it. This is the kind of forgiveness necessary to heal estranged relationships. It’s a forgiveness that chooses to let go of bitterness and resentment and choose love.

Estrangement in Jesus’ parables

One of Jesus’ most famous parables is a story of estrangement. The story of the Prodigal Son describes a son abandoning his family for selfish reasons (Luke 15:11-32). He’d rather have his father’s money than his father’s love. So, he runs off with pockets full of cash and spends it all in a hurry. Fleeting pleasures became his drug of choice, but, like any addiction, led him only to despair. Only when he looks up from rock bottom does he decide to risk reconnecting with his father.

The need for repentance

Unlike Joseph, the prodigal son is the perpetrator rather than the victim. He has more in common with Joseph’s brothers than Joseph. The prodigal son chose to make his own life miserable and was the root cause of pain for his father. I wonder if the father ever wanted to run out his front door and find his lost son. I assume he did, but would that have been productive? Without recognizing his need to change, the prodigal son would have most likely disregarded his father. It wasn’t until he had come to the end of himself, that he recognized his need to change. As his father embraced him upon his return, that repentance cemented into a new way of life. In our estranged relationships, we must examine our actions and ask God to convict us of where we need to repent to find restoration. If we are the victim, has the perpetrator acknowledged their behavior to find a path forward together?

Humility is key

There isn’t always a clear perpetrator and victim in estranged relationships. Sometimes, both parties are to blame and have been hurt. Humility is key to recognizing your own part in the problem. The self-righteous attitude that says, “I’ve done nothing wrong,” will never lead to healing. We must ask tough questions of ourselves and be honest about our part. Of course, that doesn’t mean you have to make something up, but it does mean you take seriously the fact that you are not perfect. Your imperfection has hurt others and you can apologize for that.

Maintaining safety

Everyone deserves to feel safe in their relationships. We never want to give an abuser access to hurt someone again. Matthew 18:15-20 shows that boundaries and accountability are tools for relational repair and the protection of those who have been wronged. This keeps abusers from inflicting further damage while protecting those who have experienced harm. If you are in an abusive relationship and don’t know where to turn, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233. God does not ask us to submit to abuse. We are to hold one another accountable for behaving as Image-bearers of God.

Shunning is unbiblical

Estrangement is not God’s desire for his people. He desires shalom between all people. Yet, some Christians continue to twist scripture to justify shunning people they disagree with. When Matthew 18:17 says “...if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector,” this does not mean shunning them. We may need boundaries in place, but this does not mean someone is dead to us. When Jesus says to treat them like a sinner, he does not instruct us to cut them off, but rather, we are called to pray for them and love them in whatever way we can. We are called to love sinners and pray for the reconciliation of relationships.

Asking for God’s Help

You might be experiencing estrangement with someone you love right now. You may be feeling vulnerable and powerless in the midst of it. If that’s you, then reach out for help. Reach out to someone you trust who can carry this burden with you. Reach out to God through prayer. God is ever-present in your pain and is powerful enough to bring about resurrection after death. So, he is our most reliable guide. Jesus promised his disciples that he would not leave them as orphans. Likewise, he will not leave you. The Holy Spirit abides with you even when others won’t.

A Prayer

May the God of unconditional love be present in you. May you know his presence as you wash dishes, pick up your keys, or drop your child off at soccer. Though other relationships experience brokenness, your love for us never fails. Even in seasons of heartache, grief, and pain, may God’s grace wash over and fill you. He is the comforter. He is the healer. May you be comforted. May you be healed.

About the author — Rev. Travis Jamieson

Travis Jamieson pastors a church in the heart of Silicon Valley and hosts The Faith (In)Forming Podcast. He’s married to Annie and they have two beautiful red-headed children

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