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Can I Disown My Family?

  • Dr. Roger Barrier Preach It, Teach It
  • 2012 9 Sep
  • COMMENTS
Can I Disown My Family?

Editor's Note: Pastor Roger Barrier's "Ask Roger" column regularly appears at Preach It, Teach It. Every week at Crosswalk, Dr. Barrier puts nearly 40 years of experience in the pastorate to work answering questions of doctrine or practice for laypeople, or giving advice on church leadership issues. Email him your questions at roger@preachitteachit.org.

Dear Roger,

I would like to thank you for all of your insightful posts to the readers' questions. They have served as enlightenment during those sleepless nights of confusion. I do have a question of my own, can I disown my family? Specifically, my mother, her husband, and my sisters. I have had enough of their toxic behavior and ignorant lifestyles. Allow me to explain my sentiments.

I am a Hispanic female, born in Puerto Rico and my parents divorced soon after my birth. My mother relocated to the United States and had three more daughters by a married man. This new relationship was short lived and left my mother raising four daughters on her own. She met another man and after many years together recently married him. My relationship with my mother has always been tumultuous to say the least. I can recall as a second grader, I made her a mother's day gift and she rejected it. She did not attend my high school graduation because she had "nothing to be proud of." I also remember the lack of affection on her part and her rigid way of raising me. Her most popular line was "You should be thankful that I feed you and I don't abandon you."

I received little instructions on life and the legalistic church I attended with my sisters (my mother rarely attended) served as a fear mongering institution, where people believed attending the movie theater was a direct compromise to the sacrifice at the Cross. I eventually became pregnant at 15 and gave birth to a daughter. I didn't marry her father and continued to live with my family. The family unit progressively worsened. My mother adopted a new method of parenting that included cursing, purposely damaging everyone's self esteem. The family dysfunction was blamed on my teenage pregnancy, and church, although legalistic, remained my weekly refuge. By this time, I was the only person in my family attending church. Eventually, I joined the United States Army as an avenue to escape the ghetto, but I had become angry and stopped attending church. After my time in service, I moved back home, where the verbal abuse was still in full effect and my self-worth was dancing somewhere in hell. My season of hell on earth was over after I met the most amazing husband ever, life had finally given me a break.

Today, I am 27 years old, married to an Army officer who loves the Lord and serves at our non-legalistic church, (by the way, he too comes from a highly dysfunctional family). The Lord has guided us in raising a smart and God loving daughter. I am also finishing a master's degree in Diplomacy and Terrorism. I have worked so hard to break the cycle of the impoverished ghetto way of life, and most importantly I have a newly found relationship with Christ, where His GRACE has been so sufficient. BUT, in my recent trip home (I live in California and they in Connecticut) my family continued to delve in their disrespectful, evil-like ways. My mother and her husband now attend church, but lack a relationship with Christ. The cursing, fighting and verbal abuse is alive and the same spirit of brokenness is present. There has never been an apology or an attempt to make amends. My parenting skills are mocked by everyone and my capacity as a human being is attacked every available chance. I'm exhausted of praying for them. Honestly, I am so sick of them. Sometimes, I jokingly wonder if I was switched in the newborn unit after my birth. I know my life transformation is due to the relationship I have with Christ, His forgiveness, His grace, His love, and His mercy. Is there anyway I can justify disowning my family? My compassion tank is completely drained; the last drops evaporated during my recent visit.

Sincerely, “M”

Dear “M,”

Yes, you may justify disowning your family. Based on your letter, I would strongly consider never seeing or talking to them again. Your mental and spiritual health, as well as your self-image, are all too precious to risk more harm by even one more visit or phone call to your mom, her husband or your sisters.

The Bible Teaches That It Is OK To Avoid People Who Hurt You.

Paul recognized this: "If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18).

The key words here are, “as far as it is possible.” Sometimes it is not possible. I don’t believe that it is possible to live in harmony with family members who discourage, beat down, neglect, abandon, ridicule, and criticize you mercilessly. Dysfunctional people like these are better left behind.

Fortunately, some people are much more likely to build you up than to tear you down. Seek out these people and befriend them. “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephesians 4:29).

You may be thinking, “M”, that Christians are supposed to get along with every one. Well, stop thinking like that. There are some people that you should stay away from. For example, Paul advised Titus to identify hurtful and divisive people and avoid them: "Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him. You may be sure that such a man is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned" (Titus 3:10-11).

Once upon a time a man in our church didn’t like a ministry we had begun. He gathered a number of his friends and invited me to teach a Bible lesson on the ministry. About thirty minutes into the lesson, he interrupted me and said, “See, I told you that we gave him so rope he would hang himself!” They verbally jumped all over me and my theology and departed to spread rumors through out the church family. He threw a sucker punch. He threw two more before he was finished.

After everything settled down, he sent a message letting me know that he wanted everything to be back like it was before the initial attack.

I never responded to his message. I had long ago decided to invoke Titus 3:10-11 in his case. I considered him a divisive man and wanted nothing to do with him. I couldn’t trust him. He was too dangerous.

M”, it is OK to invoke Titus 3:10-11 and disown your family by “avoiding” them. They are the very people Paul was talking about.

Let me ask you a penetrating question: “When is the last time you left a visit or finished a phone call from your family feeling better than when you came?” Most people can’t remember. I consider those families to be caustic and dangerous to be around.

After sticking your hand in the fire seven times or so with no improvement, it is probably time to keep away from the fire.

It’s OK to Find Others Who Will Meet Our Needs If Our Family of Origin Won’t

M”, David Ferguson (Great Commandment.net) emphasizes that God has designed three safety nets to ensure that our needs for love, grace, blessing, appreciation, approval, security, comfort, encouragement and respect are properly met.

The primary purpose of marriage is to care for each other’s aloneness by meeting each other’s needs Genesis 2:18). The purpose of marriage is companionship. “M”, your husband is designed to be your best friend and vice versa. Fortunately, you have found a man who can do this with you--and vice versa.

Unfortunately, not all marriages succeed. So, God has provided the family to minister to our aloneness needs. Unfortunately, not all families are safe places. Yours certainly is not.

The third place God has designed needs to our meet our needs is the church. Fortunately, you have a great church. It is OK to leave your hurtful family behind and let the church become the family you never had. Unfortunately, not all churches are safe places.

It’s OK to Forgive Without Letting the People Who Hurt Us Back Into Our Lives

Unfortunately, I have ministered to too many children who were sexually abused by a step-dad who were forced by mom to remain in the same home as stepdad. I can’t imagine! But it happens too often. The abused child needs never to see stepdad again—ever.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean that we must pick up the relationship with the one who hurt us as if nothing ever happened. Something did happen—and it was bad. There are consequences. Sometimes that means a broken relationship which is never regained.

Forgiveness does not demand that we reenter an abusive or toxic relationship with an unrepentant offender. One of the big issues here is trust. Trust is rebuilt slowly and restored relationships usually occur a long time after trust is regained—and not before. We can forgive them and never see or talk to them again.

We can forgive without ever sharing with them how much they hurt us. After all, the soldiers hurt Christ a lot and He forgave them without ever telling them how much they were hurting him.

It is OK to factor in a little grace and forgiveness. After all, the way that our parents treat us is most likely the way that they were treated by their parents.

In the early 1980s Janet G. Woititz published a synopsis of many of the characteristics of adults who grew up in alcoholic families. Shortly after publishing her book, Adult Children of Alcoholics (Health Communications Inc., 1983), she discovered that many people with addictions, who grew up in strict and/or judgmental religious upbringings, who were adopted, who lived in foster care, or who grew up in other dysfunctional environments often exhibited the same adult problems as those whose parents were alcoholics.

M”, I don’t know all of your family’s background but give them a little grace. Most likely they are passing on what they received. It is all they’ve have to pass on!

My family tree is full of alcoholics, drunk drivers, death, sclerosis of the liver, suicides, rebellion and even an abandoned child. Both of my grandfathers were alcoholics. My mother and father never drank, but every one around them did.

Personally, I always considered my family to be a good one—and in many ways it was. But, I never understood just how dysfunctional my family was  until I read Woititz’s work and identified with many of the symptoms.

Now I understand that many of the dysfunctional characteristics she passed on were passed to her from her ancestors. Mom simply passed on what she was given.

According to Woititz, adults whose parents were alcoholics or who grew up in overwhelmingly dysfunctional families:

Guess at what normal behavior is;
Have difficulty following a project through from beginning to end;
Judge themselves without mercy;
Lie when it would be just as easy to tell the truth;
Have difficulty having fun;
Take themselves very seriously;
Have difficulty with intimate relationships;
Overreact to changes over which they have no control;
Constantly seek approval and affirmation;
Usually feel that they are different from other people;
Are super responsible or super irresponsible;
Are extremely loyal, even in the face of evidence that the loyalty is undeserved;
Are impulsive (they tend to spend an excessive amount of energy cleaning up their mess).

I identify with nine of the characteristics. I suppose that our family was about 4/13th functional. How about yours?

I have often heard it said that the things we don’t like about others are often the things we don’t like about ourselves.

It is OK not to disown a hurtful family.

Once we recognize that members of our families are hurting us out of their own hurt, we may decide to make it a personal project to help some in our family heal their hurts and learn to live life better. Listening, understanding, comforting and refusing to return insult for insult or caustic attitude for caustic attitude lay the foundation for healing.

M”, If you want to stay with your family, I recommend that you establish boundaries that provide safe places to keep you from stumbling into situations where you can get hurt again. But, at the same time, set boundaries in place that are close enough to allow you to minister grace to them.

If you want to stay with your family, then consider partnering up with Jesus to lead them toward emotional, spiritual and mental wholeness. I recommend that you read the Christian classic, “Hind’s Feet On High Places”, by Hannah Hurnard for the inspiration you need to help engender healing in your family.

Finally, recognize that even the most caustic of families can be used by God to build character and value into our lives. Remember Joseph’s dysfunctional brothers meant him great harm. But, one day, Joseph was able to say to them: “You meant this for evil; but God meant it for good.”

My paternal grandfather made moonshine during the Prohibition years. One day dad and some high school friends got into my Granddad’s moonshine. One of the boys spilled some on granddad’s black model T car and it pealed the paint right off. It is no wonder granddad died before my father was eighteen. My dad refused to fold. He had a mother who cared and the drive to succeed. He became the vice president of one of the largest airlines in North America.

My mom didn’t quit. Her dad was an angry drunk who continually threatened the family with harm and finally blew out his brains when I was two. Mom didn’t quit. She raised her children well and did community volunteer work helping desperate families until she was past eighty.

All families have problems. Nevertheless, most need not be forsaken or disowned.

However, “M”, in your case I would strongly consider disowning and staying away from the people who are hurting you so deeply and consistently.

Since you live so far away you have some built-in space. Consider using it to your advantage. You might consider that it is best for you and your husband to make no more trips back to Connecticut. Let them come to you if you like. (I bet there is less than one chance in ten that they will.) They have hurt you enough and I believe that no amount of pleading and praying will change their behavior and attitude toward you—unless God works some sort of unforeseen miracle—and that is His business, not yours.

Again, I'm deeply sorry for the pain and suffering you’ve experienced over so many years. I hope that God restores to you the years that the locusts have eaten (Joel 2:25).

Love, Roger

Ask RogerDr. Roger Barrier recently retired as senior teaching pastor from Casas Church in Tucson, Arizona. In addition to being an author and sought-after conference speaker, Roger has mentored or taught thousands of pastors, missionaries, and Christian leaders worldwide. Casas Church, where Roger served throughout his thirty-five-year career, is a megachurch known for a well-integrated, multi-generational ministry. The value of including new generations is deeply ingrained throughout Casas to help the church move strongly right through the twenty-first century and beyond. Dr. Barrier holds degrees from Baylor University, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Golden Gate Seminary in Greek, religion, theology, and pastoral care. His popular book, Listening to the Voice of God, published by Bethany House, is in its second printing and is available in Thai and Portuguese. His latest work is, Got Guts? Get Godly! Pray the Prayer God Guarantees to Answer, from Xulon Press. Roger can be found blogging at Preach It, Teach It, the pastoral teaching site founded with his wife, Dr. Julie Barrier.

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