By Esther Liu
John and Mary were both excited about the upcoming Christmas holiday. This would be their first Christmas together as a “family.” Having moved far away from home, the newlyweds wanted to make this time special for each other. On Christmas Eve, with great anticipation, Mary called John into their small living room, with a carefully decorated Christmas tree and several well-chosen gifts under it, “Come on, let’s open our gifts!” John walked in with a puzzled look on his face, “Opening gifts now? But this is Christmas Eve. Shouldn’t we open the gift on Christmas Day?” Now it was Mary’s turn to be puzzled, “Christmas Day? But Jesus was born on Christmas Eve and the three Kings brought gifts. So we always opened gifts on Christmas Eve.” John looked wearily at Mary, “Come on, Christmas Day is the day you celebrate Jesus’ birthday, so we always open the gift on Christmas Day.”
This is just a simple, maybe even funny story about the powerful influence our family of origin has in our life. From smaller issues such as when to open gifts, how to celebrate a holiday, expectations of who does what in a family, to much deeper and larger issues such as our world view, value system and our most fundamental sense of self, we are tucked, pulled and pushed by this deep-rooted power from the past. In my previous article, I talked about how some of the past events/ people in our lives (especially the “secrets”) are part of the “debris” that needs to be cleaned out so that we can continue to grow in Christ without hindrance. In this article, I would like to point out yet another significant influence from our past: our family of origin, when not faced head on, accepted and dealt with, can also become “debris” that stunts our spiritual growth.
We are probably all familiar with the story of Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 20:1-18 where, for the second time, Abraham presented Sarah, his wife, as his sister (first time at Genesis 12:10-20). What is most interesting is that in Genesis 26:1-11, his son Isaac did the exact same thing to his wife Rebekah. This generational pattern was also quite evident in the record of the Kings of Israel (such as 2 Kings 15:8-9, a negative example, 2 Chronicles 34:1-2, a positive example)… “he walked in the way of his father….” The truth is that none of us came from a vacuum. Our parents, siblings, and our extended families all played significant roles in shaping and molding us to be who we are today. By studying the Gospel of Matthew and Luke, we can even observe that God had good reasons to choose Joseph and Mary so that Jesus, as a human, was born and raised in a godly family (Mary’s obedience to the angel’s message, her song that praised God using OT passages, Joseph being a righteous man, and both Mary and Joseph’s commitment to follow God’s command and guidance all at great personal cost are a few examples).
One of the tools that has been extremely helpful in understanding this influence is a “Genogram” (a family tree diagram outlining the history of the behavior/relational patterns from gender, birth order, age, education, illness, to divorce, abortion, or suicide, of a family over several generations). Understanding one’s past is not to find excuses to justify one’s behaviors now, but to help each of us to know the reason why we behave and think certain ways. With a clearer understanding of our past and past influences, we can learn to accept and deal with all its effect on our present lives and relationships (i.e. with God and with our fellow men and women).
In 1 John 1: 5, the scripture states: “God is light; in him there is no darkness. If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth.” The darkness here mostly means our sins. However, from my many years of pastoral care experience, I realized that too many of us “walked in darkness,” not intentionally sinning, but dreadfully unaware of the powerful shaping of the past, acted and re-acted out of that ignorance, hurt by others and continuing to hurt others. The uncontrollable anger inside, the compelling desire to control everything within reach, the inability to trust anyone (even God) many times are the results of physical, verbal and sexual abuse that existed in the family of origins. To be truly freed from our bondages of the past, we need to pray and ask God to shed light into that darkness, humbly follow God’s guidance and look very carefully at where we have come from and how it has influenced us, bringing everything before God until we can find healing and forgiveness in Christ.
I highly recommend a website called “GenoPro” which offers a free trial version for you to use for a period of time. It will take some time to fill in all the information. You might have to talk to your parents, siblings, uncles and aunts, and other significant people in your lives about the past. Some of your family members might find you terribly strange, some might do their best to avoid the topics, and some might even get very angry. But I pray that God will give you strength to go on. I do realize that for some of you, the past is a difficult place to visit. For some of you, the past might even be a frightening place, a place full of tears, pains and sorrows. Therefore, be sure to go back there with God and the love of Christ, knowing that you’re sons and daughters of almighty God and no one can harm you now. God is with you, and surrounding you with His love. I won’t be able to share my personal Genogram with you since it involves other family members; however, allow me to end this article with a personal story that can demonstrate how the Genogram had helped me in understanding myself and my relationship with my husband (Chin-Lee) of 24 years.
Chin-Lee and I came from very different families. My family members are straight-forward types of people and very LOUD (louder when we argue). My parents did not use physical punishment when they were angry, but scolded loudly, followed by cold silence. It always scared and frightened me when my mother would not talk to me. I often felt lost, alone and unloved when it happened. Chin-Lee grew up in a family that was full of conflicts. His father’s temper had a very short fuse. He criticized his mother loudly, and physically punished him and his older brothers, sometimes harshly. Growing up, Chin-Lee was afraid of his father’s loud voice and hated conflicts in general.
After we were married, Chin-Lee and I would go into this strange cycle: conflict started, I raised my voice, he shut down and went into complete silence, I cried and felt abandoned, I raised my voice even louder to draw him out, and he went deeper into colder silence (to avoid any conflict)….and the conflict continued. This cycle would go on for days, sometimes weeks. We never knew why (“walk in darkness”), we only knew that it hurt both of us and our relationship.
One day, we finally sat down and looked closely into our family of origins. We realized that without understanding our past, we had let the past control how we acted and re-acted to each other. From that point on, I learned to speak softly and not to raise my voice in anger (the best I possibly could), and give him space and time when he needed to “cool down.” Chin-Lee learned to listen beyond my sometimes still loud voice, slower to shut down and if he did shut down, he would let me know a set time and place to go over the issue (so I didn’t feel abandoned by him). I believe that in this process of learning, listening, giving ourselves for the other’s benefit and letting go when needed, both Chin-Lee and I became just a little closer to Christ-likeness in our marriage.
You see, my beloved reader, knowing and understanding our past frees us to grow in Christ. It also helps us to deal with deep wounds and hurt brought on by our own family. In the next article, I would like to talk more about the “toxic view” of God that many times comes from our past experiences with family members and significant others in our lives. Until then, may the grace and mercy of God keep you and guide you as you continue in this journey of spiritual formation! I will be praying for you!