Family is the context in which every person comes to understand human relationships and by extension human identity. If something is wrong in your family, something is wrong in you. And vice versa — if something is wrong in you, almost certainly, you can find its roots in your family.
Before I launch too deeply into this topic, I want to make clear that what I believe is distinct from Freudian psychology — which finds all pathologies in childhoood, and it’s also distinct from popular Charismatic psychology, which building off of Freud, looks to your parents and family almost to blame them for their shortcomings. Let’s be clear: sin is the ultimate root of all your shortcomings. If you had a perfect family who never did anything wrong, you would still struggle with sin. Therefore, what we’re talking about here is not about how mom and dad caused all your problems — sin is the root of your problems — what we’re really talking about here is how the specific patterns of relationship, and also patterns of sin, were formed in your upbringing.
The first and most important thing to observe is that when God created the world, he made a man and a woman. He drew the woman from the man, and he set them together in the garden as a couple perpetually. From the union of this couple would come children. These children inherited their identity from their parents. In other words, God made the stable, two biological parent family where the parents love each other, and the man is the head, is the normal, healthy way to grow up. This was the norm in our culture, and in most of Western culture for more than 1000 years, but now that is coming to an end, and all around you will find all kind of other alternative arrangements. And while those in these situations do the best that they can, it should be recognized that everything less than God’s original pattern leaves a child with gaps, some of them severe.
When you are pastoring someone, you need to be aware of this. In order for someone to have a different future, deep things about their identity which began in childhood have to be rewritten. If you’ve never known love, or you were abandoned, or you never had a father figure, these things have a profound impact on your view of yourself and of the world. The very definition of love, the filters through which you experience every interaction are significantly altered. Let’s review some of the alternative situations and how they impact the person that is formed:
The upside-down family. After feminism, this is an extremely common family unit. The woman is in some way the head or co-head of the family. The man is more passive, or feels like he has to negotiate with the mother. The woman is tough and shows less emotion, the man is soft and more emotional. This family is upside-down. God created woman to be softer and to be dependent. This is plainly obvious from a woman’s physical make up, and from the way little girls respond to correction in comparison with boys, just to point out a couple of obvious signals. Furthermore, he made the woman from the man. He is first, and she was created as a companion. I will explore this more in a separate section on gender identity and formation, but the point here is that when a family is upside-down, the person formed from that family is also upside down. The girls become tough and dominant, and the boys become soft and dependent. These positions are unnatural to the way you are created, and therefore cause collateral problems. Men from this situation will need to learn to be tough and brave, and women will need to learn to be submissive and vulnerable.
Single parent family. A single parent can provide many things for a child, but can really only manifest one aspect of God’s identity. It’s hard for mom to be dad too or dad to be mom too. More importantly, the child cannot see modeled for them that they are the product of a relationship where love flows back and forth. They are not the center of the world, but a part of a bigger world. I think of how my little girl instinctively always comes to get in the middle of the hug when mommy and daddy are together. She knows she is a part of something. She gets certain things from her mom and certain complementary things from her dad, and she get a sense of warmth and safety growing up in the middle of the two. Not having this creates gaps. But a good single parent home is actually overall not as deficient as some other situations. Especially when it is supplemented by a grandparent or extended family to help fill these missing gaps.
The unloving family. There are many ways that a family may not love each other, and from these many ways, a child may manifest many different characteristics. Most of all what is missing in this situation is the sense that it’s OK to be emotionally vulnerable. They don’t experience a flow of love between their parents that they can be a part of, and often they might be in the middle of a play between the two parents. This is an unstable kind of situation, which again, has seemingly endless varieties of dysfunction.
The divorced (and usually remarried) family. Divorce as everyone knows is like pulling a child in two. It is literally impossible for a divorce not to fundamentally damage a child. You feel safe and secure, knowing you have a mom and a dad and they love each other, and then suddenly one of them is gone, and they don’t love each other. It’s like ripping you into two pieces. It leaves a void in your soul. Then usually one or more of the parents gets remarried and you’re part of what is now called a ‘blended” family. Now you are living with someone who is not your mom or not your dad, but is playing that kind of role. You might reject their auhority in your life, and they might in turn treat you like a “step child” — not quite as loved and as good as their on children. Sometimes it’s malicious, but usually it’s really just the natural way things work. It’s hard to be the mom or dad of kids that aren’t your own and aren’t bonded to you in that from-birth kind of way. Furthermore, the step-parent always feels second to the biological parent, whose love the child naturally craves even if the bio parent was a wastrel. Some families are able to make this work better than others. Usually, however, it’s not really that great of a situation. Isolation, brokenness, emotional shutdown are all fruits of these situations. Sometimes these kinds of families can make it work reasonably well, but usually it leaves a significant scar.
Serial partners. If someone divorces and remarries once or twice, that’s one thing, but if they go through a series of partners, that leads to a much more damaging situation. These short-term partners are even less committed and caring that the step-parent. They might abuse the child, or the parent. They parent might neglect the child for the attention of the boy or girlfriend. It’s an overall very neglected way to grow up and leads people to the bottom in life.
Abandonment and double-rejection. All of the above,however, are fortunate compared to the child who is abandoned by one or in some cases both of their parents. When a child is abandoned, or rejected to the point that they might as well be abandoned, it leaves deep scars. The sense of worthlessness, anger, of being unlovable, pervade your identity. This person experiences the world very differently than everyone else — almost like being on the outside looking in. Everyone else seems to be ‘normal’ while this person craves what to everyone else is taken for granted — people that love them unconditionally and won’t throw them in the garbage. And even when you give this person love, they can’t really receive it because they believe deep inside that they are worthless.
These are just a few patterns under which a seemingly infinite number of situations can arise. The point of highlighting this is, is to help you understand that when you minister to someone, you are ministering to their family life. Exploring the dynamics which caused them to think and relate the way that they do is a very important part of walking to freedom. The situations lurking in their past are also often sources o present pain. This is why one of the first items for conversation with someone, once you move beyond the initial issues should be about their family. You want to understand what models of love or gap of love they experienced. The greater the gaps, the more significant that the work will be to help them live a new kind of life.
Realistically, it’s not usually possible to completely reverse a bad upbringing. It takes many years of hard work on the part of the person as well as the counselor to change these kinds of things, and the change is rarely total. That does not mean that it can’t be — with God all things are possible — but the level of effort required is rarely sustained. It is a multi-year project. If you can help the person, however, to deal with, or identify a few key dynamics, you can start a process with them, which over time, even if it is not total transformation, still make their future much brighter.