Today, we are at the final leg of our series, Broken. Last week, Jorg spoke about various kinds of broken relationships and the importance of knowing we are loved by God. Today I would like to focus on the brokenness of our families and how that impacts our lives and our relationships, even now. We all know that our families of origin have a huge impact on our emotional make-up and our present-day relationships. But we may not be aware of the intricacies and significance of how we carry some of these “old” wounds and brokenness into our current lives and relationships.
Family stirs up a mixed bag of emotions for most of us. While some families are able to give love and nurture, all families have their own unique dysfunctions that contribute to each of us developing some unhelpful beliefs and assumptions regarding ourselves and others. Many of our beliefs and assumptions about ourselves and others were formed as we were growing up. It’s not always a conscious process. Some of those beliefs are good and helpful, such as “I am cared for and a vital part of this family”. But some can be very damaging and unhelpful. Beliefs such as “I am only worthy of love and respect when I do well in school or in my career” or “My thoughts and opinions don’t matter”. As children, it was hard for us to distinguish between what is accurate and helpful, and what isn’t. So we believed and were consequently hurt by the unhelpful things that were expressed or modelled by adults in our families. And we may not always be aware of how these “old” wounds continue to linger within us, and how we are easily triggered by people close to us now — why we feel so much pain and hurt when a close friend or partner does or says certain things.
As we close this series, I thought it might be valuable for us to take a step back and reflect on how our families contribute to making us the people we are today — both the good and the bad. And more importantly, how can we shed old patterns of thinking and ways of being that are not beneficial to us so that we can grow and transform into the people that God has made us to be.
But first, let’s look at what Jesus thought about the biological family. Many people, especially Christians, proclaim that the family is the foundation of society. Now I’m not saying that family is unimportant but these people believe that the nuclear, heteronormative family is the bedrock of society. Therefore they champion to protect and promote their version of family (usually a very narrow definition of family) and claim that any threats to this definition and formation of “family” is a threat to society as a whole. So I thought it would be interesting and necessary to see what Jesus actually thought about the biological family.
If you recall in the Gospels, Jesus didn’t seem to be very big on the family. Jesus didn’t marry or have children, a highly unusual choice at that time. In fact, people would have found that rather suspicious. There were times his teachings seem harsh, even disdainful of the Jewish culture and notions of family. When a potential disciple asks if he might bury his dead father before following him, Jesus responded, “Let the dead bury their own dead.” (Luke 9:60)
If that sounds harsh, he even told the crowds that in order to follow him, they must hate their family (Luke 14:26-27). 25 Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: 26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. 27 And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
On another occasion, when informed that his mother and brothers were waiting outside to see him, he challenged people’s definition of family and said, 33 “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked.
34 Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:33-25)
Jesus wasn’t big on the biological family. And this was in a nation that was obsessed with genealogies and bloodlines. To the religious leaders of Israel, one’s bloodline and genealogy guaranteed salvation. They believed that was how God’s grace was transmitted – from generation to generation. But Jesus challenged that idea and completely redefines family.
As Charles E Moore writes,
“Contrary to the tradition that salvation is guaranteed by ancestry or that one’s highest social obligation is to family, he reminded his listeners that the covenant that first drew God’s people together was based not on bloodlines but on faith and the miraculous power of God (John 8:31–59). This is why Jesus dethroned the biological family. While he never denied the family’s worth as a creation of God, he made clear that its importance is not absolute; it is not the primary means by which God’s grace is transmitted to this broken world. Something else is.”
In Jesus’ new definition of family, we don’t just love our own. His is a radically new, expanded social order, a welcoming, open community not formed by ancestry or marriage, but one that is forged by a shared love and discipleship. It’s a family that welcomes widows, orphans, strangers, people of all colors and backgrounds. In Jesus’ definition, the church is not just made up of families, the church is a family.
As you might be familiar, this is something that we at Free Community Church strive to uphold. But I am also very aware of how far short we fall at being family for one another at times. It is no coincidence that the overarching theme for us this year is “Welcome Home”. The Council had pondered about it and we decided there was a need for us to re-examine, and deepen and widen our understandings and combined experiences of “Welcome” and “Home” here at FCC. Even though we have noble aspirations, like any family, we experience hurts, conflicts and brokenness at the inter-personal and at the inter-ministry levels. As we pay attention to these areas of brokenness, I realized that many of the conflicts and hurts that we experience arise out of our individual beliefs and assumptions about ourselves and others. Many of our beliefs and assumptions about ourselves and others are significantly influenced by our families of origin. All our families are different and dysfunctional in some way. Perhaps this is a good opportunity for us to go deeper into ourselves and become more aware of how the dynamics and interactions within our families have influenced our own fears, expectations, and tendencies to hurt and be hurt. And this in turn affects our relationships at work, at church and at home.
I was thinking about my own experiences with my family. I realized that while both of my parents were not eldest children, they were the de facto eldest children in their own families due to various reasons. They had to take on the responsibility of eldest children and they really went and continue to go the extra mile to take care of their families and their siblings, even now. Consequently, they had a lot of expectations of me as the eldest child, although it was often unspoken. So I grew up taking a lot of responsibility for my siblings and the people around me. To a large extent, I think maybe I did so to win the approval of my parents, although I wasn’t conscious of it then. While being responsible is not a bad thing, it can be unhelpful when I take responsibility for other people’s feelings or reactions. So I had to unlearn some of these old beliefs and patterns of behaviour, and learn to draw healthier boundaries for myself. I had to learn to take responsibility for my own feelings and allow others to take responsibility for theirs. It seems like such a simple thing but it made a lot of difference once it became clear to me.
Another thing I had to unlearn was that I don’t have to earn the love and respect of others by excelling in my studies or my career. My grandfather grew up in poverty due to a series of famines in China at that time. I remember him telling me that his family was so poor they had to choose which child to feed and they couldn’t afford to feed the female babies so they let them die. It was horrifying and heart-breaking to hear his stories from that time. He left home in his teens to come work in Singapore because he wanted to help provide for his family. He was very enterprising and determined, and he managed to start a business after many years of hard work. He never had a chance to go to school and remained uneducated all his life. I still remember him trying to teach himself to read the Mandarin newspaper in his later years. Because of his background and experiences, he highly valued education and wanted to encourage his grandchildren to study hard and excel to the best of their abilities. His values and desires were completely understandable and his intentions were positive. However, families being families, I found myself growing up in a very competitive environment. Parents would be comparing the grades of their children every Chinese New Year, and I started to believe that I had to prove myself and my own worth through my academic achievements. Thankfully, this was something I began to unlearn when I became a Christian and slowly realized that God loved me even before I could do anything to deserve that love. In fact, God desires the wholeness of my being, not my doing. But it took time for me to unlearn beliefs that I acquired as a child growing up.
There are still many things that I’m discovering about and working on myself, and being in a relationship is oftentimes a helpful arena where old wounds and issues surface for healing as we tend to trigger and are triggered by the people closest to us. I think the key is not to fear these situations but recognize that these are opportunities for healing and growth, if both parties are willing to work on themselves.
“We often underestimate the deep, unconscious imprint our families of origin leave on us. In fact, my observation is that it is only as we grow older that we realize the depth of their influence. Each of our family members, or those who raised us through childhood, has “imprinted” certain ways of behaving and thinking into us. (Likewise our cultures, the media, our interpretation of events that happen to us also imprint onto us.) These behavioural patterns operate under a set of “commandments”. Some of them are spoken and explicit. Most are unspoken. They were “hardwired” into our brains and DNA, so much so that…we simply bring these expectations into our closest relationships as adults.” -Peter Scazzero
Peter Scazzero gives the example of how every family has their own “commandments”. These are the values and directives about what’s favourable and what’s not, and we absorb and learn them from a very young age. They are both spoken and unspoken. Very often especially in Asian families, they are unspoken. A frown or raised eyebrow can convey annoyance, disappointment or a warning about behaviour that is not acceptable within that family.
This is an example of what a list of “commandments” might look like for a family (show visual).
I wonder what does your list of family “commandments” look like? What messages did you receive about gender roles, conflict management, money, sex, responsibility, the expression of feelings and emotions, etc.?
Some of us have had or continue to have very difficult relationships with our parents. The other day, one of our church members told me he got very upset and affected when someone said something to him that sounded critical. He said it reminded him of his mum and how she often puts him down. This happens to all of us. Often something someone says can trigger an “old” wound and as a consequence, our anger and hurt can feel greatly magnified due to the underlying layers of pain that we already carry.
So what do we do with all these emotions? And how do we move out from under the shadows of unhelpful or unhealthy family influences? For this next portion, I consolidated some points by referring to the work of a psychologist, Dr Gail Brenner, and to the writings of Henri Nouwen because they have a lot more expertise and experience in these areas than I do.
1) The past isn’t really about the past.
Dr Gail Brenner, a psychologist, says:
Everything that happens happens in the present – it can’t be any other way. Memories of events are thoughts occurring in the present. Anger or hurt about the past is happening now. Your present moment experience in the now is what keeps the past alive. What is amazing about this understanding is that it shows you that the way out of your suffering is always in the present. You can change your perspective – now, focus on something different – now, feel your feelings – as they are right now.
If you want to heal from the past, put your attention on your present moment experience.
2) Memories are not the problem.
A memory is a thought, and a thought has no power or meaning whatsoever, unless you give it power or meaning. You have many thoughts about things that happened long ago, and these thoughts cause no problems. But some thoughts are sticky. You have an emotional reaction to them and you think them over and over. You may even have beliefs related to them, for example, “I am justified in thinking this” or “I need an apology so I can move on.” This keeps them very much alive, affecting your ongoing experience.
If you want to be free of the past, lose interest in these sticky thoughts. Know that it doesn’t serve you to repeat them and that thinking they are justified only delays your freedom. Be prepared to take a look at the pure experience of your feelings without the layer of thinking that solidifies them.
3) Beliefs about healing can get in the way.
Besides getting stuck in the story, you might become aware of beliefs you hold about what needs to happen for you to let go. These are simply more thoughts that keep you distracted from the heart of the matter. Here are some possibilities:
• “I feel justified in staying stuck because I was wronged.”
• “It is someone else’s responsibility to make this better for me.”
• “If I let go, I’m somehow approving others’ bad behavior.”
• “I need an apology.”
• “Life is unfair.”
• “It was so bad that it’s not possible for me to heal.”
Your life begins now, in this very moment. You can always start anew. Don’t feed these limiting thoughts, and you won’t need them to disappear.
4) Finding out who you are is the ultimate freedom.
If you define yourself by your past, you will be living as a fraction of what is possible for you. Say you think of yourself as wronged or abused or victimized. Or you see yourself as having gotten the short end of the stick. Defining yourself by what happened doesn’t help you now. It’s like wearing clothes that never fit. Is it time to take them off?
It’s easy to believe in a mistaken identity. It feels so true to think we are the result of what happened or the sum total of our thoughts and feelings. But the truest thing about you is that you are aware. Life presents a passing array of experiences – thoughts, emotions, events, people. These all arise in you but are not you.
Who you are is that you are the beloved of God.
“The world tells you many lies about who you are, and you simply have to be realistic enough to remind yourself of this. Every time you feel hurt, offended, or rejected, you have to dare to say to yourself: ‘These feelings, strong as they may be, are not telling me the truth about myself. The truth, even though I cannot feel it right now, is that I am the chosen child of God, precious in God’s eyes, called the Beloved from all eternity, and held safe in an everlasting belief.” -Henri Nouwen
5) Dare to Claim the First Love – Henri Nouwen
“The spiritual life starts at the place where you can hear God’s voice. Where somehow you can claim that long before your father, your mother, your brother, your sister, your school, your church touched you, loved you, and wounded you—long before that, you were held safe in an eternal embrace. You were seen with eyes of perfect love long before you entered into the dark valley of life.
The spiritual life starts at the moment that you can go beyond all of the wounds and claim that there was a love that was perfect and unlimited, long before that perfect love became reflected in the imperfect and limited, conditional love of people.
The spiritual life starts where you dare to claim the first love. “Love one another because I have loved you first” (see John 4:19).”
We probably know a lot of this, but we need to be willing to take the first step towards change. Are we willing to put aside what’s not working for us and do something different?
“Before we can enter into God’s new life, we must leave our old one behind, and the only way to fully do so is to die. This, if we consider it seriously, is a terrifying thought—which is presumably why many refuse Jesus’s invitation to new life. New life sounds appealing, but death is what most of the world spends all of its energies trying to avoid. In reality, birth and death are both mysterious and incomprehensible in their own ways…Death and birth occur in the same moment: this is how we are born again.
Often, Christians speak of being born again as if it happens only once, at the “conversion moment.” Though this is true, it is perhaps more useful to think of the spiritual rebirth as something that happens on a seasonal basis, just as it does in nature. We are continually dying—shedding old patterns and ways of being—to receive new life from God: renewed relationships, renewed courage to take the next step of faith, renewed beliefs about God and ourselves, all leading to renewed love for God, ourselves, and others.” -Christina Gonzalez Ho
I think in the context of family, we need to do this: shed old patterns and ways of being and receive new life from God – renewed relationships, renewed courage to take the next step of faith, renewed beliefs about God and ourselves. Hopefully this leads to renewed love for God, ourselves and others. And that’s what Good Friday and Easter is about – dying to our old ways and entering into new life with God.
I believe if all of us within this church family is willing to look deep inside ourselves, work on shedding unhelpful patterns and ways of being, and journey with each other compassionately, we might witness how God redeems our collective brokenness and create something new and beautiful out of it.
1. What old patterns of thinking and ways of being would you like to shed?
2. What new ways of thinking and being would you like to adopt?
3. How would daring to claim the first love of God help you take the first step towards change?