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When You Sound Like Your Mother: The Holy Work of Understanding Your Family’s Sin

  • Nicole Unice Nicole Unice
  • 2018 21 Aug
When You Sound Like Your Mother: The Holy Work of Understanding Your Family’s Sin

Margaret Thatcher once said, “You may have to fight a battle more than once to win it.” There is no place this is more true than the powerful and often hidden pattern of sin and dysfunction that we carry forward from our childhood into our daily life. We look to the past to make sense of the future, and often discover that the past controls our present choices much more than we might want to admit. We continue to struggle with old fears, insecurities, and resentments that grab us by the wrist and drag us back to old patterns, some we’ve been living in since our formative years as kids. Freedom in Christ is accessible to us all—but we often must look back before we can go forward. God chose family as the place where we first form an identity, establish values, define love, and understand (or misunderstand) forgiveness. Our own experiences with family become a crucial component to our growth and maturity in Christ.

Family is complicated. But family is also one of God’s creations where He most frequently reveals Himself. We are instructed to honor our parents in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:12). A sign of a faithful leader in the church is the ability to manage one’s family (1 Timothy 3:4-5). The Bible calls people who believe in Christ his sisters and brothers (Hebrews 2:11), and a special kind of love and care is reserved for the “family of believers” (1 Peter 2:17). If God is going to use the family as a critical picture for understanding life in Him, and if we are going to bring all kinds of our own baggage to that word, then it’s worthwhile for us to pay attention to what we know about our earthly families and how those relationships impact our struggles today and choices tomorrow. Discovering, accepting, and allowing Christ to redeem family experiences is the high and holy work of the person who desires to experience a wholehearted and free life. Let’s take a look at how we move forward into that freedom:

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Family Matters

Family Matters

Think about a challenging relationship in your life today. Chances are, the person who comes to mind is a family member. Your interaction with that person has likely shaped many of your beliefs about human nature, about choices, about acceptance, and about worth. Said another way, we are deeply shaped by both the good and the bad of our family life. To understand our family is to understand the world we grew up in so we can make wise choices for the world we are now creating. So often, we struggle against invisible forces that we have not looked at or named in our life. We see only the struggle; we don’t see the source. Believing that family matters and understanding the family we grew up in is beneficial not just so we can find a scapegoat in our past for whatever we struggle with today. It is, however, a way to bring some understanding to our struggle. It’s a way to follow the roots of bitterness or discontent down to the place of wounding or hurt, to trace back and find that place in our story so that we can bring it into Jesus’ loving gaze.

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Crossed Wires

Crossed Wires

Not only does your family deeply shape you, but what you brought into your family deeply impacts how you experienced life as a child. Your temperament impacts your experience, which is why two siblings with the same parents can experience family memories in wildly different ways. You may have been raised by great parents in a loving home—but maybe you were particularly sensitive to conflict, so that even healthy conflict felt unstable and frightening to you. You may have been a strong-willed child raised by a sensitive mother—and her insecurity about how to parent you has led to your own insecurity about your strength of personality today. Understanding what we bring to that family system helps shape our understanding of the particular joys and struggles we remember—and understanding our own temperament impacts the way we move forward with relationships today. Taking the time to seek deeper awareness of our own wiring helps us reshape our interpretations of our past and redefine how they impact us in the future.

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Dysfunction Is Contagious

Dysfunction Is Contagious

We bring our own temperament and experiences to the “who we are” component of the story, but we are also deeply impacted by those around us. Simply put, when we are around unhealthy people, we are far more likely to respond in unhealthy ways. Conversely, when we are around healthy and generally happy people, we are far more likely to be happy ourselves. This concept has been coined “emotional contagion,” but long before any psychologists studied it, God made this concept clear in Scripture. Proverbs 13:20 says, “Walk with the wise and become wise, for a companion of fools suffers harm” (niv). Most of us are neither all healthy nor all bad. We are a mix of both. Acknowledging that reality allows us to embrace the good that we’ve learned from our families while releasing the bad.

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Every Family Is Dysfunctional

Every Family Is Dysfunctional

Every family is dysfunctional because every family is made up of sinners. Because we all sin, we all fall short. We fall short in our love for one another, in meeting each other’s needs. As children, our innocent hearts really need perfect mothers and fathers—but that’s not what we get. And God certainly doesn’t shy away from this truth. If you want to feel better about your own upbringing, spend some time in the Old Testament. Adam’s son Cain killed his own brother Abel. Noah got drunk and disgraced his family. Abraham slept with his wife’s servant in order to have a son, defying God’s promise for his life. Isaac played favorites with his sons, turning them against one another in jealousy. Jacob’s sons were so dysfunctional that they sold one into slavery and then told their dad he was murdered. Judah denied his daughter-in-law her rights to have a child, and then turned around and slept with a “prostitute” who actually ended up being that very daughter-in-law. Joseph hid his identity from his brothers and created a complicated ruse to test their faithfulness, deceiving them into believing he would keep his youngest brother as a slave. And that’s just the first book of the Bible! The Bible doesn’t paint a perfect or even okay picture of family—it reveals the truth of our brokenness in vivid, living, reality-show material. But Scripture also provides a way to a new reality in the character of God our Father and the redemptive work of Christ, who invites us into a new family.

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A New Family

A New Family

In Christ, we have been given a new family. Although it’s important that we continue to honor our old family, it is no longer our primary source of relationship and love. Many people react to the dysfunction of their families by pushing them away and becoming an island of independence—thinking this will give them the freedom they crave. Over time, however, estranging ourselves completely, without seeking healing and forgiveness, is as damaging as never leaving our families at all. Throwing off all dependence is merely a reaction to the hurt of our families, not an actual healthy way to live. We were made to be interdependent on one another, and when God redeems us, our primary source of dependence moves to Him. Our deepest needs are met in Him, which allows us to engage fully in the work of forgiveness, reconciliation, and compassion for our family members without allowing the weight of expectation for what they can’t be for us to keep us from accepting them for exactly who they are—flawed, broken children of God who are just as much in need of love as we’ve always been.

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Your New Role

Your New Role

Moving our primary allegiance to God as our first family is not to say that we reject our families or dishonor them. In fact, the Ten Commandments from the Old Testament, Jesus’ teaching in the New Testament, and much of the Scripture on wisdom speak specifically of honoring parents with our words and deeds, as well as taking care of our own families’ physical needs. But focusing on our allegiance to God does give us the helpful reminder that God is greatest, and following his way of life is our first priority.

Philosopher Jean-Paul Sarte said, “Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.” We have been set free from the patterns of sin that have defined our lives, but it’s our responsibility to do something with that freedom—to be changed by it. In Christ, we are given “the right to become children of God . . . born of God” (John 1:12-13, niv). In Christ, the needs that remain unmet in our families become places of growth, where we seek God to meet those needs through communion with Him and community with others.

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The Gracious Gospel

The Gracious Gospel

When we let our family stories be redefined by a new, redeemed story in Christ, we find ourselves coloring in the old lines of hurt and struggle with grace. Grace allows that people are broken and doesn’t place on them the kind of pressure that only Christ can handle. Grace lets us stand up for ourselves with truth and honesty without fearing that our identities will be crushed without our loved ones’ approval. Grace allows us to draw boundary lines that are healthy, to limit the access that unhealthy people have to the vulnerable parts of ourselves. Grace gives us choices.

In Christ, we truly are new—new sons and daughters of our heavenly Father who created us, loves us, and desires communion with us. The grace of our Lord allows us the strength to love the family we’ve been given—flaws and all—while not allowing those sin patterns to repeat in our lives. It means embracing what our family can be—and releasing them from what they cannot be. It’s taking our deepest needs and having them met in the only one who’s truly perfect, who can love us the way we need to be loved and can impart to us the kind of unconditional love that yields the fruit of joy, peace, and contentment in Him.


Adapted from The Struggle Is Real: Getting Better at Life, Stronger in Faith, and Free from the Stuff Keeping You Stuck by Nicole Unice. Copyright © 2018. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved.

Nicole Unice is an author and Bible teacher who has a passion for bringing God’s Word to life in a personal and relevant way. Her training as a counselor informs her work, as she emphasizes the importance of facing our own reality and embracing the transforming power of God’s grace.

Invitations to speak have taken Nicole around the world, and her books come to life through her popular video curriculum series found on RightNow Media. Her heart belongs to Hope Church in Richmond, Virginia, where she serves as ministry director and leads Praxis, a full-time ministry residency program for young leaders.

Nicole holds degrees from the College of William and Mary and from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. She loves creating space for spiritual growth in the everyday rhythms of life with three children, two pups, one husband, and a whole community of twentysomethings who regularly raid her fridge. Find out more at http://nicoleunice.com.

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