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About this series
Overcoming the Pain of Your Past
Pain. It is part of the human experience, and one of the things that helps us grow to maturity. But for some of us the pain we have experienced feels crippling. Broken promises, dysfunctional families, damaged relationships and rejection keep us from experiencing the abundant life Jesus promised. Sometimes it's a challenge just to get through the day, let alone to extend love and strength to those around us. The Bible, however, offers great hope for pressing on. From the book of Ephesians, learn who you really are and why the pain of your past doesn't have to obscure God's plan for your future.More from this series
Talking of dysfunctional families one of the best websites I’ve found is Kansas State University and it opens the website with a testimony. And it is a testimony that, as I read it I thought after thirty years of pastoring people, this is a very typical one, but it captures so much of what happens in a family of origin.
The person says, “I was a kid but I was really a miniature adult. I cooked, I cleaned, I made sure my little brothers got off to school, my mom was always depressed and stayed in bed. She was in the hospital a lot.
“I guess I never really was a kid. Now, I worked hard and got As and had lots of responsibility and I put on this competent front but inside I still feel really empty. My dad’s an alcoholic. I was always afraid to invite other kids over because I didn’t want them to see what my family was really like.
“I never really got close to people and now I don’t seem to know how to let others get close to me. I really don’t know how to have a good relationship most of the time. I just feel pretty alone.
“My parents have always been having these big ambitions for me despite all these problems. They tell me what my career ought to be, and who my friends should be, and what kind of car I should drive and who I should date. It’s like they expect me to be perfect but they don’t really believe I can do anything on my own.
“I feel like I’m suffocating but if I get the least bit independent they try to control me with money.”
And then a counselor at Kansas State writes, “When problems and circumstances such as parental alcoholism, mental illness, child abuse, or extreme parental rigidity and control interfere with family functioning the effects on children can sometimes linger long after the children have grown up and left their problem families.
“Adults raised in dysfunctional families frequently report difficulties forming and maintaining intimate relationships, maintaining a positive self-esteem, and trusting others. They fear loss of control and they deny their feelings and reality.”
There are a lot of us that could say, “Been there and done that,” right? It then has something that’s interesting. It gives us a definition of a dysfunctional family and I’ve put that in your notes.
And it says, “A dysfunctional family is that which is not operating according to its original design. Faulty, impaired, not working properly for optimal results.” And the question I think I’d ask is, “In what ways?” I mean we all have our struggles but in what ways, when you think about your family growing up, no blaming just the reality of how did it function in a way that wasn’t very healthy?
Some of the specific things are families that have very minimal relational connection, workaholism, families who gathered around the TV but never talked face to face, a lack of love, lack of communication, little time together, affirmation, failure to respect one another, no boundaries set, lack of nurturing encouragement.
And then I came across a little test and what I want you to do, there are about twelve to fifteen questions and in your mind I just want you to say, “Yes,” or “No.” First thing that comes to your mind, yes or no, yes or no? And you can count how many yesses or nos on your fingers if you want. If you’re here with someone close to you that you would be embarrassed how many fingers come up then do it in your head. But it’s a pretty safe place.
And I’m going to read these pretty rapidly and I don’t want you to think, “Well, I’m not sure, I don’t…” Just whatever your first reaction would be is probably the most accurate one, and then I will let you know the implications. It’s just a little test from their website.
Question number one: Do you find yourself needed approval from others to feel good about yourself? Yes or no? Do you agree to do more for others than you can comfortably accomplish? Yes or no? Are you a perfectionist? Yes or no?
Do you tend to avoid or ignore responsibilities? Yes or no? Do you find it difficult to identify what you’re feeling inside? Yes or no? Do you find it difficult to express your feelings? Yes or no? Do you tend to think in an all or nothing terms? Yes or no?
Do you often feel lonely even in the presence of others? Yes or no? Is it difficult for you to ask for what you need from others? Yes or no? Is it difficult for you to maintain intimate relationships? Yes or no? Do you find it difficult to trust others? Yes or no? Count on those fingers.
Do you tend to hang onto hurtful, destructive relationships? Yes or no? Are you more aware of others’ needs and feelings than you are your own? Yes or no? Do you find it particularly difficult to deal with anger or criticism? Yes or no?
Is it hard for you to relax and enjoy yourself? Yes or no? Do you find yourself feeling like a fake in an academic or a professional life? Yes or no? Do you find yourself waiting for disaster to strike even when things are going well in your life? Yes or no? And do you find yourself having difficulty with authority figures? Yes or no?
Now, you know how these tests are. They say, “If you said yes to more than half of those, there were eighteen in all, you may have come from a dysfunctional family.” If you answered three, four, or five, chances are you came from just a regular group of people like many of us with all of our hang-ups. We’re all going to say “yes” to some of those things.
Now here’s what we know. Dysfunctional families are not new but we do know that the level and the extreme of what’s happened in families in more recent years, there are more dysfunctional families with more extremes. And here’s what we’ve learned from the recovery movement and what we’ve learned from the psychological literature over the years that there are four very specific things we know about dysfunctional families. And I just listed them right on your notes.
Dysfunctional families, left to themselves, produce dysfunctional children. Ah-ha. You know? That’s, like, wow! But, you know, it’s important. Number two, dysfunctional families require an intervention to break the cycle of destruction.
I think back to my father losing his father when he was thirteen. I think of him going into the Marines at sixteen. I think of my mother’s background and what she came from and they married and the alcoholism in her family, the alcoholism in my wife’s family, in our family, it gets passed on.
We just pass on our dysfunction and it requires an intervention. You don’t slide out of that. Because here’s the big “ah-ha” moment. I thought my family was normal. I had a rebellious older sister, a sister with an eating disorder, and I was trying to rescue the world. Isn’t that what everyone has?
See, because when you’re inside of a system you can’t see the system. I want you to really think about this because when God begins to speak to us about when He wanted to help the dysfunctional family called “mankind” it required an intervention.
Third, genuine recovery never begins until a person hits bottom. And fourth, genuine recovery is never complete until another person has helped another person recover. If you’re familiar with the twelve steps you know that toward the very end you need to help someone else, you need to sponsor someone else. You help someone else get healthy.
And so I don’t want to spend our time just looking at psychology, and our dysfunctional families, and in many cases this has been used, “Oh I’m from a dysfunctional family. It’s how I blame my past, I blame other people.”
I will tell you, some of the greatest people on the face of the earth, who have done the most good, have come from dysfunctional families.
Everyone gets a choice, everyone has the responsibility, everyone gets to decide how you respond to the background and the family you came out of. The victim mentality, “It was my mom’s fault, my dad’s fault, this or that,” that only causes you to continue in whatever you came out of.
Some people come from dysfunctional families, they never come out of it. Other people realize, you know something? There are some amazingly good things that come out of that pain and that hurt. I mean the most extreme example, can you imagine being Helen Keller? I mean you can’t hear, you can’t see. When you begin to understand everyone gets cards dealt to them that are “not perfect,” fair, wonderful, nurturing. It’s how you respond to them.
So, this message is not going to be about finding someone that we can blame. But the other side is we can’t deny where we came out of and try and make up fairy tale stories and reframe our past and put a nice smiley face on it when it really wasn’t very good because it makes us feel so bad about…you don’t want to feel bad about one of your parents.
I just had a very interesting experience. I have two older sisters and we have lived in different parts of the country, and so very rarely do we all get together in the same room. And I had an event in Columbus, Ohio and I have a sister who lives there and one in Kentucky, and we did a little teaching for some pastors and my sister said, “Well, spend an extra day.”
And so I did and the three of us got together and we had adult conversations, we’re all in our fifties. And we had a conversation we’ve never had before. We all talked about what it was like to grow up in our home, three different homes.
We got to talk about, without trying to candy coat it or anyone of us taking up, “No, mom really wasn’t, she didn’t, dad didn’t…” we just, you know, our parents needed to own this. This was not good stuff. This is what it did to me, this is what it did to you. Okay.
And then, then we said, then we took another layer and we said, “This is where our parents came from and, boy, do I understand what they got and how they passed it on, and we need to be very kind, and gentle, and merciful, and realizing, you know what? In view of where they came out of they were great parents to us. They gave it their best shot.”
You know when you get to be in your fifties and you have grown kids, you get way less critical, right? You know, as you have passed on some of the same junk.
And then, each one of us talked about what do we need to own in our journey? What happened, what do we need to own about how we responded to our family? One that rebelled and went through horrendous times, one with an eating disorder, and me, trying to save the world. You know? Mr. Workaholism.
And then we talked about the intersection, at different stages, of where Jesus met us. And now in our fifties, sitting around talking about our grown children and our journey, and it was the first time ever I can remember no one trying to defend one of our parents, or no one trying to blame anyone. But objectively walking through, in the sovereignty of God, this is where our parents came from.
In the sovereignty of God, this is what we experienced. Here’s the good that came out of that. I praise God my dad was a Marine. I praise God that He pushed me hard. I praise God I learned to be disciplined. I praise God I learned to set goals. I praise God that I grew up with tons of confidence.
I don’t praise God that I had this performance orientation that I’ve been working through. But a sovereign God knew His plan for me and my sisters, and you need to look at it and understand it. But the greatest part was the faith intersection of when and how we met Jesus, and our journey since then, and how God can use, if you, by faith, begin to look at what the good is, what my responsibility is, and what kind of intervention needs to happen, for you to grow through the dysfunctional family, if you come from one of those.
And probably everyone here is thinking, “Well, we’re all dysfunctional to a degree.” To which I’d say, “You’re right.” In fact, God’s solution for dysfunctional families goes way beyond emotions, way beyond even our personal human relationships, and way beyond any psychology.
God’s solution for dysfunctional families, let’s examine the problem. Here’s what He’s going to say. He’s going to say, “We are all members of a dysfunctional family.” He spent all of chapter 1 saying, “You’re in Christ, in Him, in Him. Here’s all that’s true of you. Now this is true of you.”
Now, in chapter 2 he’s going to say, “But I want to remind you where you came from.” And he’s going to say, “Your dysfunctional family was not one generation ago. It wasn’t two generations ago. It wasn’t five generations ago. It wasn’t your great, great, great, great, great, great, great, double great grandfather or grandmother.”
He’s going to say, “Your dysfunction goes all the way back to your original parents. Every issue, every problem, of every family goes all the way back.” Listen to what he says, Ephesians chapter 2 verse 1, “As for you,” speaking to these Ephesian Christians, “you were dead in your transgressions and sins in which you used to live.”
Literally, your lifestyle and the word is, “in the way you used to walk.” When? “[W]hen you followed the ways of this world and the ruler of the kingdom of the air,” speaking of Satan, “that this spirit namely that’s in the work of those who are disobedient.”
And then he says here’s the scope. This wasn’t just some people. “All of us who lived among them at one time,” speaking of their life before Christ, “gratifying the cravings,” or the word literally is “the lust of our sinful nature,” “and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest we were, by nature,” in our DNA, “by nature objects of wrath.”
I want you to circle in the first line the word “dead,” then I want you to skip down four lines and circle the word “disobedient,” and then I want you to go all the way to the bottom and circle the word “objects of wrath.”
The gospel is only good news when you face the bad news. God says, “Ephesian Christians, I gave you a lot of good news, you have been chosen, you’ve been adopted, you have an inheritance, you’ve been sealed with the Spirit, God loves you. All that is in Christ, in Christ, in Christ. But here’s what I want you to remember. As for you, you were, one, separated from God. You were spiritually dead.”
When our first parents sinned and rebelled against God, they didn’t keel over physically. They were separated from God. They were disconnected from a relationship with their Creator.
And he gives two reasons. He says, “By transgressions.” That’s the idea of being on a trail and knowing you should go to the right way instead of the left way and you choose the left way. He says, “Your sins and your transgressions, your wrong paths,” so that’s what you actually did, “in which you lived,” it was a lifestyle, it’s how you lived.
You knew what was right; you didn’t do it. You fell short of God’s perfect standard. In fact, you were living your life by the ways of this world that’s energized by the enemy and the spirit of the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, the pride of life, selfishness and greed.
That’s who you were!
So, you were dead spiritually, and you were disobedient to truth and to God, and He says, “You know what the results were? You’re an object of wrath. God is absolutely loving, and kind, and compassionate, and holy, and He’s absolutely just.
And the just wrath of God is when we do things that hurt people, when we do things that sin against Him, there is an anger of God that is righteous to preserve His creation. And He says that’s what you were like. And it came out of your relationship with your dysfunctional family.
The source of our dysfunctional family, in a verse, is Romans 5:12. Listen carefully, it says, “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man,” Adam, “and death through sin this death came to all men because all sinned.”
And so, if you want to really talk about dysfunctional families, you go back to the first family there was a dysfunction that created death, disobedience, and the wrath of God. And he says now we all have carried this.
And so the results are three Ds is what I give them. D number one in the past is death. D number two in the present is disobedience, you can fill that in. And D number three is destruction.
That’s what dysfunctional families do. And I’ve shared a little bit about mine, and you could share a little bit about yours, and I will tell you that there was separation in our family. Separation from God. My dad grew up in a religious system, we went to the religious system, the people didn’t believe the Bible, we said little prayers, there was no reality.
There was disobedience, we were externally good, moral people, my parents were nice, good, moral as in by the world’s standards. They were both schoolteachers, they were both well educated, we had the G.I. World War II “be good people,” buy a house in the suburbs, raise your kids well, get a good education, don’t commit any really big, bad sins. Project that you’re a little bit better than you are.
And we were far from God. We were externally religious, it was so external that by the time I got in my mid-teens it was like, “I don’t know if I believe in God and I don’t believe in this and all this hypocrisy,” and it was, I just, “I’m out of here.”
And so, as a result of my father’s growing pain, it was a couple beers after school, then it was four or five beers after school, then pretty soon He didn’t come home for dinner and then pretty soon it was eleven o’clock at night and then pretty soon I heard the screaming of my parents with my older sister.
And you know what? My dad had a broken arm. I don’t mean literally, but it was as if he had a broken arm, in a cast, and we all needed a hug, and he couldn’t give it to us.
And so my sister didn’t get loved, so she went and found love someplace else. And she rebelled. And her life ended up, for a while, a mess.
And he’d be sitting there, I remember Saturday mornings, there would be two cases of Mabel Black Label, that’ll date some of you. And he had a friend and all I knew, his name was John. Saturday mornings start at nine o’clock.
Now, he was at the bar right after school, he was a schoolteacher and he was a great schoolteacher. And he’d be at the bar from three all the way to eleven at night.
But Saturday mornings there would be two cases of beer and my dad would drink one and John would drink one. And they’d sit and talk and then he’d get up to go to the bathroom about a dozen times throughout the day, and when he got up I’d say, “Excuse me, John,” and I’d take my dad’s beer and I would go over to the sink, and I would pour it out and then I would put it back so he thought that he drank it.
I thought, I’m going to save my dad. By the time I was in late high school I had one of those Hoosier moments where my dad was drunk, and it was one of my basketball games. And he didn’t like the way the coach was calling the game, and my role in that particular game, and all I heard was from my buddies later, “Hey, man! The police came and had to drag your dad out of here!”
My middle sister who becomes the invisible one and, by the way, in dysfunctional families we create roles and we fulfill them. So the scapegoat is my older sister, I’m the rescuer, and my other sister cooked the meals, took care of everyone, just wanted there to be peace and harmony.
And all I remember was it was really weird the last two years of high school because she would always walk around… and all she had was this little bowl of wheat puffs or something. They had no calories in them.
And she just got skinnier, and skinnier, and skinnier, and skinnier until she was just skin and bones and had an eating disorder. Because, see, we didn’t get loved. But, I mean, if you asked someone in the community, man, our family looked squeaky clean.
What we were experiencing was death, or separation, in our relationships, we were living in disobedience to God, and we were experiencing the just consequences of sin.
Now, my mom was the enabler. My mom was the most amazing person but she was a guidance counselor, she helped everyone. I remember drug addicts would be asleep on our floor and I’d get up and we were loving them. And she was an amazing person, the most emotionally intelligent person I’ve ever seen or met in my life. I mean amazing.
And what she did, unconsciously, was she wrote my dad’s papers, she covered for him, she took care of everything, she painted the positive picture, all out of a very sincere heart of loving and holding the family together. Sound familiar to some of you?
Now, my dad was a pretty functioning alcoholic; He had a violent, violent temper that I saw on some occasions and I probably blocked out a number of others. But I remember when it got to where my mom couldn’t manage it anymore. And she did an intervention.
Dysfunctional families require an intervention. You don’t slide out of them. Now I’d like to say that there was a lot of research and there was great counseling and a lot of people to help her. My mom was a very savvy, very smart person who understood life. She took all these counseling courses and so let me just tell you, here’s her intervention.
My dad’s name was Reb, it was Ralph but He went by Reb. “Reb?” And I came in because I had separated my parents a couple of times when it got, felt, crazy. You know?
And he was never violent towards my mom or anything like that but it just was scary. “Reb, you got forty-eight hours. You can have this bottle or me and this family. You make a decision. We’re done.”
My dad thought about it, he was a three and a half pack Lucky Strike guy, I mean, he was trying to kill himself. But he looked at what he had, looked at that bottle… did he go to counseling and figure out the deep root issues? Did he go to find what happened during the war? Was he trying to figure about how his self-esteem and losing his father affected him? My dad is a Marine.
“Marty and the kids or the bottle? I quit.” And he quit. And after about three months, I wanted to give him a beer. You know? And it was just like a good alcoholic has got to be way better than this. I mean the pain, and the stuff wasn’t getting sedated anymore, and he went through seven tons of gum and a number of outbursts, and later my father trusted Christ.
And that still was a very long journey. Here’s what you need to hear: Until someone intervened and helped him see the crossroads that he was on, and forced him in that crisis to make a decision, he, me, you, everyone in humanity, will continue on the dysfunctional pathway that our original parents created by their sin - they passed it on to us in our heredity, in Adam, and we confirmed it by our behavior and our own personal sins.
And what’s exciting is the Scripture says to these Ephesians: Everyone is a member of a dysfunctional family but the good news is point number two. Jesus’ intervention broke the cycle of destruction.