Freedom from Family Dysfunction

It's midnight. A 15 year-old boy lies down in the middle of the street. Feeling trapped and absolutely alone in the world, he asks God to let a car come down the hill and put an end to his painfully confused, lonely and worthless life. He has just left a woman’s apartment in which he has been involved in a confusing and scary yet seemingly necessary sexually-abusive relationship. He dreads the thought of walking home, because he might be interrogated about where he has been after school when he arrives.... 

(Part 1)
This is a true story about me and my attempt to live out a life “between a rock and a hard place.” Thankfully, that car never came over the hill to take my life.

Why did I consider suicide? I felt frozen because of a lack of unconditional love and affection in my family. Though my home was religious, it was an atmosphere in which the uncomfortable issues of telling truth and expressing feelings were not welcome.

Why did the sexually abusive situation seem necessary? Because I was offered affection and a sense of connection in my isolation. Whenever tension and confusion confronted me at home, I ran to the other “home” where my need for reassurance and solace were met. However there was a great cost because that family system was also ungodly and dysfunctional.

You or someone you know may be “in the middle of the street” of despair, helpless and hopelessness. You may feel like you can’t cry out for help and, in your desperation, you might be imagining drastic actions.

If so, this article is dedicated to you right where you are, right now. The goal of United Church of God, and especially of those contributing to this Breaking Free Journal, is to offer help in the “street” where hurting brethren feel paralyzed, and to help them transform their lives. That transformation leads to a personal relationship with God our Father and our Elder Brother, Jesus Christ.

Sins of the Fathers
“Choose your ancestors well,” suggested noted architect Frank Lloyd Wright, to emphasize the importance of familial and parental influence on children. Although we can’t choose our parents, we can choose our companions and other influences that will be conducive to mental and spiritual healing and health. Typically, people look only to other people (family or not) with their mixture of truth and error. But we also need to consider the God Family, our heavenly Father and His Son Jesus Christ. Their desire is to bring everyone into that Family (1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9).

We should avoid condemning others or playing a “blame game” but the Bible in many places tells us to choose our companions carefully. says: “
We must stay aware of the reality of how others are influencing us, and to be diligent in choosing own our response. We are accountable for how we live the life we have been given. We can choose to stop the cycle of sin in our generation, or to repeat it. See Ezekiel 18:1-3, 14-17 about how God judges each person individually.

There is tremendous power in the first laboratory of life—the home and family—with its mixtures of good and bad. That is where God intended for us to learn about ourselves and others, about relating and communicating, and about dealing properly with authority figures.

So many times, people say “Oh, we all come from dysfunctional families.” The implication is that there is nothing we can do, or even should do, about it. But that is not true even though no family or person is perfect. God’s desire for every family is expressed in
All children ultimately belong to God, and He is jealous for their well-being. Therefore, we have the obligation to forsake the sinful examples of others, even when they are parents, grandparents, siblings, friends or others.

Reconciliation with those who have hurt us is not always possible. Some in recovery have learned that the only way they can relate to parents or other authority figures is by praying for and staying away.” In some cases any reconciliation will only be possible at another time in God's time and plan.

Sadly, some people in the Church of God find the discussion of “dysfunctional family issues” unnecessary and perhaps even un-biblical. Some have said “sin” is the issue and that is all we need to deal with. Sin is certainly involved. But we should use every kind of effort that is both biblical and practical to foster healing and personal growth. This is why United Church of God has a Focused Education program which offers the Breaking Free Journal—to offer help and hope, specifically applying ‘Bible-salve” to hurting parts of the body of Christ.

Consider the following contrast which is largely accurate: The dysfunctional family says, “We don't have any problems in this family, and don't you dare tell anybody about it!” The functional, Bible-based family says, “We have problems in this family, but we are committed, however imperfectly, to admitting, facing, and resolving them.”

(Part 2)    Pain and Energy Management

Those who have grown up in dysfunctional families are likely to be dysfunctional to varying degrees. Like carriers of a disease, they are left with these symptoms unless some intervention is sought or brought upon them.    

Perhaps you know, like I did when I was a boy, what it is like to feel ashamed or terrified of telling your family or your minister what you are struggling with because you would be breaking the code of silence about sin—your sin. I knew my family would preach to me and maybe shun or disown me, because of their attitudes about certain sins. My sexually abusive relationship with that other person would not be looked at as a cry for help, but as rebellion and as the antics of a deepening juvenile delinquent.

Some who have come through a terrible background will not come through a church door because they feel unwelcomed until they get all cleaned up. If our pain is unresolved we are tempted to reach for some “medication” such as alcohol, drugs or pornography. The number of possible addictions is almost endless, and a person might not even know when his or her addiction began. Some of the unhealthy coping mechanisms could be: perfectionism, alcohol abuse, pornography, unresolved anger, workaholism, resentment, people pleasing, need for approval, etc.

These behaviors are often based on an attempt to create what we think is a safe, controllable relationship with something which will not be a threat. Hence, pornography and overworking, for examples, are not about real intimacy or providing for one's family, but about using our energies to blunt the pain induced in early, confused childhood. We are avoiding being confronted with opening ourselves up to God and others in our life who are able to help us. David gives us hope and a promise in Psalm 27:10—“When my father and mother forsake me, then the LORD will take care of me.” In Psalm 94:18-19, he says, “If I say, 'my foot slips,' your mercy, O LORD, will hold me up. In the multitude of my anxieties within me, your comforts delight my soul.” The Bible talks straight about real life, and we need to value its promises to meet our needs.

Our anxieties can be medicated, denied or acted out. Or they can be given in honesty to God and others who can teach us how to rely on God for meeting our needs instead of the sins we can choose as empty substitutes. Surely, we want to see others choose to live a functional, Godly life. We must also bestow that same compassion upon ourselves and offer the mess we are living to God for healing.

In John 6:35, Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me shall never hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst.” Jesus can feed us, unless we choose other food or refuse to sit at His table. God can only comfort our anxieties if we allow ourselves to be comforted. God is lovingly calling us to drop the behaviors that are all about guarding, defending, protecting, and hiding so that we can acknowledge, change, overcome and be spiritually healed. If you are broken-hearted and the glue with which you're trying to mend your heart isn't working, try turning to God! God says He is near to the broken-hearted, and saves those who open up to Him (Psalm 34:18).

Recovery and the Bible

True biblical recovery is based on the conviction that God's love letter to us, the Bible, is critical for living. Some have experienced the Bible as something thrown at their pain as a quick fix or simplistic solution. Perhaps you've been told to “pray and study about it, and you should be fine in a week or so.” Well, probably not!

Simplistic “cure-alls” are only irritating. Proverbs 25:20 is insightful: “Like one who takes away a garment in cold weather, and like vinegar on soda, is one who sings songs to a heavy heart.” It takes time to get to know the Bible's recovery program. Begin by telling God you want to open up your heart to Him to be healed. Hold Him to His promises to provide guidance, permission and clarity. Find your life, your pain and your questions in its pages.

God’s Word tells us to “love your neighbor as yourself.” That implies that you won’t be loving your neighbor if you have no love for yourself. In the Bible, “love” is usually an action verb. To love someone means to treat the person lovingly. We must take care of our own health so we can help bring about health in others. For example, do you find yourself putting yourself down in your own self-talk? Or are you with loving yourself properly as we ought to do? We can and should stop living under condemnation.

We need to bring our thoughts to the daylight and challenge them with truth. Otherwise we can easily continue the contamination cycle, and be guilty of perpetuating the sins of the fathers. Maybe someone you were influenced by was self-condemning or self-loathing, and you are a “carrier” of that false, debilitating belief. This must cease! Proverbs 19:8 says, “He who gets wisdom loves his own soul. He who keeps understanding will find good.”

Biblical recovery offers the growth of wisdom, which is all about acknowledging the truth of your situation. That may involve learning about your family’s influence on you and helping you choose your response. You will grow in understanding as you practice sorting fact from fiction. You will be loving yourself by becoming the “new man” in Christ (Colossians 3:9-10). Check with a concordance or other resource materials which will help you to locate scriptures you need for answers. The work of recovery begins with your willingness to endure legitimate pain, to look at the “beam in your own eye” and then, be more clear-sighted where others in your life are concerned (Matthew 7:3-5).

(Part 3)    Hope, Vision and Action

A young man attended a family issues presentation at a critical time in his life. He was living amidst a family bogged down in drugs and alcohol, dishonesty, confusion and divorce. He was struggling to find his way and since then he has. When asked what kick-started his healing, he wasted no time in identifying it.

“I came to see and admit that my family is not normal. It was an evil, dangerous place to have been in. God, my Bible, and the healthy people of God have shown me what God says is normal. That's how I want to live!” He is married and expecting his first child and making decisions to “leave and cleave” to create a new family, one with God's blessing (Genesis 2:24).

To the degree that we as individual members of the body of Christ heal our broken hearts, the body—the Church— is healing and we are in a better position to love our neighbors as ourselves. God wants a relationship with you and me, not with our stuff, our performance or our arguments. Yet He patiently and mercifully works with us when we put our hands in His. He wants us free to live a godly and joyful life. Jesus said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free” (John 8:32).

The following is fundamental to gain the goal of freedom: Admit to yourself, to God, and to others you trust the truth about your inner life and relationships.

Unshakeable pain, anger, confusion, isolation and sadness often are the residue of toxic family environments. David tells of the pressure of not admitting his true pain and sinfulness (see Psalm 32:3-5). To the degree we haven't or weren't allowed to express our feelings in a timely way, we then struggle to maintain an emotional and rational balance.
In Matthew 22:39, Jesus said the second great focus in relationships is to love your neighbor as yourself. Someone has said that the trouble with the world is that people do love their neighbor as themselves, meaning not well at all. Proverbs 19:8 says, “He who gets wisdom loves his own soul.” Very valuable is the wisdom which helps us know how to properly relate to past and present persons or circumstances. As we take ownership and responsibility for how we respond to others, we begin to break free from the snare of the “fear of man” (Proverbs 29:25). As we choose to quit imitating the “sins of the fathers,” we are loving ourselves and others simultaneously.
The poet Robert Frost famously said, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Sometimes it is necessary to maintain physical, mental, and emotional space between you and family members as long as they are a “snare” for you. For some of us that may mean we “pray and stay away” until it is safe to “live peaceably” with them (Romans 12:18).
Do your best to not reproduce yet another dysfunctional family. Ask your Father to give you people who can be part of your “new” family, with whom you can learn skills and experience support. Those of our own household can act as “enemies” in terms of religious persecution, but they can also act as enemies when they react badly to our stepping away from their influence. We are not in control of their responses once we have done our part to respectfully “speak the truth in love” as best we can (Ephesians 4:15). We are in control, along with God, on how to learn from the past and go forward with our own actions. Ask God for His help and guidance.
Sometimes it can be hard to find scriptures that are relevant to your particular problems. As with anything else, it takes some digging to find the gold. Some helpful digging tools are:
**Reread this article, looking for passages cited and their connection to a point made. Example: James 5:16.
**Look for stories and Proverbs which describe your experience, feelings, etc.
**Consider additional articles here in Breaking Free and at a whole range of serious personal problems and family dysfunctions. You can contact the United Church of God for more information from its Focused Education division. There are valuable articles on issues of abuse, emotional healing, anger management, etc., and videos on alcohol, eating disorders, and homosexuality. They are certainly recommended for detailed discussion of issues that survivors face. Please contact the United Church of God for back articles and videos.
**Consider attending a support group for the problem you are dealing with. As a first step, begin talking to others: friends, church members, extended family, etc. about the unusual family foibles which we once believed were absolutely right, but which, as we mature, we realize were not reasonable. These may include foods, family traditions, strange things our parents did, etc. Accepting that we can move beyond these smaller things, may give us the confidence and courage to discuss some of the larger and more potent family issues.
**Above everything else, know that your Creator is pulling for you all the way, because a relationship with you is what He has always wanted. He says, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5).
As God told ancient Israel, “For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the LORD, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon Me and go and pray to Me, and I will listen to you” (Jeremiah 29:11-12).
If you have suffered family dysfunction, may God lead you to right knowledge and action that will bless you with freedom from that stress and sorrow. And know that your heavenly Father will always want you to be part of His loving Family!

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