Hope for Children from Dysfunctional Families

Audio Transcript

Many factors in our lives condition us and influence how we approach God. That is the case today in an email from an international listener to the podcast, a teenager. “Hello, Pastor John! I’m a 14-year-old and a rather new listener to the podcast. I live in Southeast Asia. I have a question about fear — specifically, my fear of becoming close with God in the Bible and through prayer. I find myself longing to be connected with God but constantly feeling repelled away from him too. I don’t get the familial feelings that I should have. I suspect it could be because my relationship with my parents is bad. My mother has been abusive in the past. And I never knew my father until recently. He is unstable. My family is a real mess. How do you think family dysfunctions affect our relationship to God?”

Our young friend says, “I have a fear of becoming close to God. I find myself longing to be connected with God but am constantly feeling repelled. I don’t get the familial feelings I should have.” And I take him to mean that he knows from the Bible that God is his Father and that he is God’s son, and yet as he attempts to draw near to God, this fatherly family relation doesn’t feel like it should. It probably doesn’t feel warm or welcoming or hopeful or safe, and he wonders whether such a paradox of being drawn to God and repelled by God might be owing to his earthly family situation.

He asks, “How do you think family dysfunctions affect our relationship to God?” So, I’m going to make five brief observations from the Bible that I hope he will dig into for his own hope and stability.

1. Parental guilt does not transfer to children.

Get really clear in your mind and heart that the guilt of ungodly parents does not attach to godly children. Ezekiel 18:20: “The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father.”

“In God’s world, many failed fathers have had righteous and useful sons.”

Now, don’t be confused when God says in Deuteronomy 5:9, “I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.” What that means is that wherever the guilty sins of the fathers persist in the guilty sins of the sons, there will be a divine judgment. The key phrase is “those who hate me.” Where the evil of the fathers finds an echo in the hatred of the sons, judgment will come.

So, the wonderful truth for our young friend is that his mother’s and father’s guilt for sin does not cling to him or condemn him. In Christ, he stands before God by his own faith. He is accepted, loved, forgiven because of Christ, and his guilt is taken away. That is crucial. Now he has a place, a solid place, to stand as he faces these challenges.

2. Failed parents can still have righteous children.

Consider the amazing biblical record of 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles about wicked kings and failing kings of Judah who had sons who turned out to be good kings.

  • Asa did what was right, but his father, Abijah, was evil.
  • Uzziah did what was right, but his father, Amaziah, failed in his old age.
  • Hezekiah did what was right in God’s eyes, but his father, Ahaz, was evil.
  • Josiah did what was right, but his father, Amon, did evil.

In other words, the Bible witnesses to the fact that in God’s world, many failed fathers have had righteous and useful sons. In fact, Jesus said, “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. . . . [Families] will be divided, father against son and son against father” (Luke 12:51, 53). That’s what believing will sometimes do in families. Therefore, don’t be fatalistic. Don’t think, “Well, failed parenting always produces failed offspring, so there’s no hope for me.” No, that’s not what the Bible teaches.

3. Christ breaks any genealogical curse.

Now, here’s why that is: genealogical curses are broken in Christ. Sin and dysfunction may have ruined families for generations, so much so that people can feel hopeless. “We’re just cursed” — I’ve had people tell me this. Somebody lost a child on New Year’s Eve one time, and I went to visit them immediately while everybody was celebrating at the church, and the father stopped me in the hall and he just said, “Does God curse families? So many problems come into our family. We’re just cursed. There’s no hope for us. That’s why everything goes wrong in our family.” They would say something like this: “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” (Jeremiah 31:29). And Jeremiah says, “Don’t talk like that. That’s not the way Israel talks.”

“Everybody comes to Christ with a distorted, dysfunctional, demeaning view of God.”

Christ is the great curse breaker because of what Paul said in Galatians 3:13: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” Now, if Christ has set us free from the curse rendered by God in his law, how much more will he break every curse and every spell and every enchantment and every hex that may loom over your family for generations.

So, here’s the mindset I think our young friend should have:

God has called me — 14-year-old me — to himself in the midst of a cursed and broken and dysfunctional family. This is my time. This is my calling. He has raised me up to break this curse. He has raised me up to free this family from generations of dysfunction. From now on, I belong to Jesus. I have a perfect Father in heaven. I will, by his power, build a new generation.

That’s what I think his mindset should be.

4. Sin taints everyone’s view of God and self.

Keep in mind that God assumes that all of us come to Christ with a defaced image of God and who he is and who Christ is. In other words, don’t think it’s unusual that, because of your distorted fathering or mothering or sonship, your view of God is distorted. That’s not unusual; it’s universal. Sin has ruined everybody’s view of God and self. Everybody comes to Christ with a distorted, dysfunctional, demeaning view of God. That’s what sin has done. We spend a lifetime trying to fix it.

Which means that all of us must experience in our mind and in our heart a massive revolution in the way we think about God in all of his roles — all of us. Some people have one distortion of God; some people have another. And yes, our parents had something to do with that, and so did a lot of other things. The process of sanctification for every Christian is this: “Beholding the glory of the Lord, [we all] are being transformed into [his likeness]” (2 Corinthians 3:18). In other words, every Christian needs to have a Bible bath for every thought in our head. Every thought needs cleansing; every thought needs adjusting. Paul says it happens by looking, looking, looking to Christ and to God in Christ.

So, I say to our young friend: Join all of us. Join all of us, and fix your eyes on the way the Bible describes God as your Father, God as your Shepherd, God as your King, God as your Friend. And don’t think you are unusual because you must undergo such a revolution in your thinking. You’re not unusual; you’re normal.

5. Though we are healed, scars remain.

And then the last thing I would say is that most of us have been lamed (I think I could say all of us, but I’ll just leave it at most, lest anybody stumble over absolute statements) by past experiences — deep experiences of shame or rejection or abuse or trauma of all kinds. I remember a few horrific experiences when I was a child of being shamed — not by my parents, but by others.

We should have a realistic view that some of these wounds are like Jacob’s hip being put out of joint (Genesis 32:25). We will walk the rest of our lives with an emotional limp. This doesn’t mean we can’t have a deep, satisfying, loving walk with our heavenly Father through Jesus Christ. It just means we should be realistic. The healing of wounds can still leave scars, and even those, though they make us limp, can be turned to the glory of Christ.

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