We should pursue every opportunity to cultivate healthy families because what goes on in our families shapes our consciences and personalities and souls. Family is more than food and shelter. It ripples out through generations, transforming how countless people see God, the gospel, and themselves. We must work, if we are parents, to discipline our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, that they might see a reflection of something of what God is like.
But you don’t have to come from a good family, or even know who your parents were, to experience the Fatherhood of God. In reality, every family is, to some degree or other, a broken family. If you’ve come from a terrible situation, God is not surprised by this. After all, Jesus loves you; the Good Shepherd came out searching for you. You are not just that collection of cells, or that bundle of DNA. You are also your memory, your experiences, your story. An essential part of who you are is the story of where you came from. The fact that you know that something was wrong is itself grace. The fact that the gospel has come to you means that God, fully knowing your background, offers you, right along with the rest of us, a new identity and a new inheritance. As the prophet Daniel said of God, “he knows what is in the darkness, and the light dwells with him” (Dan. 2:22).
You don’t have to come from a good family, or even know who your parents were, to experience the Fatherhood of God.
We see this throughout the Scriptures, even through horrible family patterns of which God does not approve. It’s hard to imagine a family more dysfunctional than a band of brothers beating their little sibling to near-death, and then selling him into a human trafficking racket. Early in Israel’s story, though, that’s precisely what happened to Joseph. God condemned this for what it was: wickedness. At the same time, though, God was at work, turning this awfulness around, to save Israel by Joseph’s providing grain in a time of nation-threatening famine. Joseph said to the brothers, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Gen. 50:20).
Unlike Joseph, we don’t have direct revelation, to see exactly why God permitted you to go through the awful things back in the background that some of you have experienced. In some ways, you might be able to look back and see how God was with you, even in the valley of the shadow of death. You might be able to see how the scars you bear made you into who you are or prepared you to minister later to others. Or you might not be able to make sense of any of it at all. Our family stories demonstrate, from the very beginning of our existences that we are part of a plotline, but that plotline can often seem confused and mysterious and unseen to us. We know this, though. We know that God is just and will call every evil to account. We know that you cannot go back in time and undo those things. You can fantasize about an alternative reality where you had better parents or where you were a better parent, where you had better children or where you were a better child. But those fantasies cannot force those alternative universes into existence.
Your inheritance is not just your future reward in the world to come. Your inheritance is also a new Spirit and a new community, able to overcome through you all of the snares of the Evil One.
You are not your genealogy. You are not your family tree. You are not your family. After all, if you are in Christ, you are a new creation. You are not doomed to carry on the dark family traditions that would harm you or drive you away from God or other people. That will entail the sort of ongoing prayer and effort the Bible refers to in spiritual warfare terms. That’s not just a task for those who come from “dysfunctional families” but for all of us, just in differing ways. The religious leaders around Jesus were quite proud of their family tree—a family tree we call “the Old Testament.” And yet, Jesus reminded them that, like their ancestors, they were not above killing the prophets among them (Matt. 23:29–36; Luke 11:47–51). Stephen the martyr told his fellow Israelites much the same, that they were repeating the errors of their ancestors by stifling the prophetic word (Acts 7:51). The apostle Paul warned a Gentile congregation that they should not “walk as the Gentiles do” (Eph. 4:17). And the apostle Peter reminded another Gentile band of new Christians not to go back to the “futile ways inherited from your forefathers” (1 Pet. 1:18). That means that they should overcome their natural backgrounds by following Christ. This is not done by sheer willpower. It is done by clinging to the gospel, remembering your new identity and your new inheritance in Christ. You are ransomed from your old inheritance “not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Pet. 1:18–19).
Do many of you have good, stable family backgrounds for which you should give thanks? Yes. You should not therefore boast as though this makes you better than another; “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Cor. 4:7). Do many of you have wounds that you carry throughout life? Yes. Must you unlearn old patterns and models? Yes. Are you then hopeless? Are you predestined to repeat the disappointments or traumas enacted upon you? By no means. Your inheritance is not just your future reward in the world to come. Your inheritance is also a new Spirit and a new community, able to overcome through you all of the snares of the Evil One.
This post was adapted from my latest book, The Storm-Tossed Family.