“The very heart of spirituality and discipleship in the family of God is breaking free from the destructive, sinful patterns of our past in order to live the unique lives God intends for us. Yet few of us have reflected honestly on the impact of our family of origin and our culture. The result is that we carry baggage and excess weight that hinders us from loving God, ourselves and others. This is difficult work and requires courage, but the power to go forward originates not with us but in communion with Jesus… He is the one who enables us to surrender the broken parts of our histories to God so he can transform them into gifts for those around us.”
Pete Scazzero, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality – Day by Day
My chaplaincy work in a mental health facility exposes me to much trauma and emotional pain. Many of my patients have attempted suicide. Others live with suicidal ideations of varying intensities. A majority of the patients requesting a chaplain visit identify as Protestant or Catholic with differing levels of spirituality. My visits to this facility have increased noticeably during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Recently I met with a young Christian businessman who grew up in a conservative Bible-centered denomination. Congregational life is important to him and his wife. Yet he was facing strong inner impulses to end his life. Knowing he had been emotionally and sexually abused as a young boy, I asked if he would be interested in watching a brief video on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). After watching it together, he thanked me for talking with him about ACEs.
The term ACE comes from the landmark study completed in the 1990s to examine the relationship between past childhood trauma in the first 18 years of life and lifelong health and social problems in adulthood. The 10 ACEs considered are: emotional, physical and sexual abuse; emotional and physical neglect; the presence of mental illness, incarceration and chemical dependency in a family member and domestic violence and divorce in the family.
According to Robert Black, “Adverse childhood experiences are the single greatest unaddressed public health threat facing our nation today.” In my estimation, they also threaten the emotional and relational health of marriages, families and congregations if not addressed in a biblical fashion.
I have shared the 10 ACE questions with ex-felons, hospital patients and Christians participating in recovery groups I have led. The proverbial lights go on, oftentimes accompanied by great sadness, as they slowly discover how many of their present emotional challenges are related to the traumas of their childhood.
No ACEs, but miserable
My story shares many similarities with those mentioned above, but there is one exception: I cannot point to one ACE in my life. About 36 percent of those answering the ACE questions on average have never suffered an ACE. But like them, I made many reckless choices that lead to drug and alcohol use, DUI’s (with no accidents and no arrests), lust and sensual escape and worldly pursuits for the singular goal of being recognized by those around me. In my early 20’s, I was miserable.
I grew up in a respectable Mennonite Brethren home with responsible parents who wanted the best for their two sons. I got saved, was baptized and became a church member at age 12. I was in church twice on Sunday and most Wednesday nights. Praying before meals and having family devotions after breakfast was a daily practice. With such a spiritual pedigree, how could my life “go south”?
I believe I have an answer, and this conclusion has calmed my inquiring mind and helped me experience more of the abundant life today. I have also been able to encourage others like me who have never experienced an ACE or become “a really bad person” but have lived much of their Christian life with feelings of inferiority, troubling sins, broken relationships and at times generally feeling stuck in their walk with God.
The answer? The absence of words of affection, admiration and affirmation that can impact a child’s life in many negative ways. Robert Lewis, the founder of the Men’s Fraternity movement, says sons—and I add, daughters—need to hear three things from their fathers in order to mature properly. They are:
- Words of affection: “I love you” and “I delight in you as my son/daughter.”
- Words of admiration: “I’m proud of you” and “I am so pleased with you.”
- Words of affirmation: “You are going to become a great teacher or mechanic or businessman, etc., one day.”
I cannot recall hearing those words from my father and mother until later in my adult life. In the absence of them, increased feelings of inferiority, inadequacy and incompleteness began to show their ugly face in my high school and university years. I know my experience is not isolated.
In my late teens, I found temporary refuge in drugs and worldly formulas for a fulfilled life. I gave my all to many carnal pursuits. Since God was not in the picture, I forsook him completely, “the spring of living water, and dug my own cisterns, broken cisterns that could not hold water” (Jeremiah 2:13 adapted).
Following an emotional crisis when I was 22, my heart slowly warmed to God’s presence again. I began to attend Sunday services and Bible studies more frequently. On the outside, this looked good. However, deeply imbedded emotional insecurities continued to follow me like a pestering cold. I had yet to realize God’s profound love for me. I was still trying, perhaps unconsciously, to garner God’s and others’ acceptance. While slowly leaving behind certain worldly values and behaviors, I began to adopt a series of unhealthy religious behaviors, learned subconsciously at home and church in earlier years that didn’t do me well in the long run.
In my case, woven into many of my pursuits were spiritual pride, performance living, religious obligation and judging another’s spirituality. As a missionary and pastor, I found myself more angry and bitter than in the first three decades of my life, especially when facing a ministerial crisis or having “my ministry” challenged by others. I was not easy to be with sometimes.
I have also lived most of my life with an uncanny urge to let people know what I am doing, or as Jesus says, do my “good deeds publicly, to be admired by others” (Matt. 6:1).
With deep gratitude to the Father, I have changed a lot in recent years. Joy and peace and personal fulfillment have been on the increase in what I would call the best years of my life. My relationship with others, especially with my wife, Mary, are healthier and more enjoyable. Today, I am much more intentional about communicating “you are special” messages to her, my children, grandchildren and those before me.
Allow me to share some steps that have been instrumental in making this happen.
Be honest about your past and any lingering emotional pain. Saint Teresa of Avila, a Spanish 16th century contemplative and active reformer of her Carmelite order writes: “Almost all problems in the spiritual life stem from a lack of self-knowledge.” This includes an awareness of our emotions when contemplating our past. Many Christians feel great sadness, hurt, rejection, personal unworthiness, anger and resentment when reflecting on their adverse childhood experiences. Instead of leaning into their emotions, they many times run from them. To recognize these difficult emotions is a vital step toward emotional healing.
Spend time with the Truth. Jesus is not only delighted when hearing his broken ones say, “I feel hurt, angry, depressed or bitter,” but he is also delighted when we turn to him for direction. Eugene Peterson says it well when describing Jesus’ counsel for the brokenhearted: “Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly” (Matthew 11:29-30). Just trust and obey. He will do the rest.
Even Jesus, the son of great but imperfect parents, learned to deal with their flaws by obeying the Father, and thus becoming the foremost example of how to live the abundant life.
Don’t blame your family or God for the past. Blaming those who knowingly or unknowingly have contributed to the hurt and confusion of our past is not healthy. Truth be told, we will remain stuck if we choose the path of blaming others. Neither can we blame God for past injustices. The simple reason being: God doesn’t author hurt. Actually, he is the only one able to bring emotional healing to our broken souls.
Forgive as Jesus forgives us, and practice mercy. We revisit our past traumas for two reasons. One, to forgive those who have hurt us and failed to exemplify healthy parental and family values and behaviors before us. I know of no attitude that allows Satan to magnify his destructive ways more in the life of a wounded believer than unforgiveness (Matthew 6:14-15).
It is helpful when forgiving a person to state out loud their name and the offense committed against us. And we do it from the heart. For me, this has meant forgiving my father for not speaking words of affection or for manifesting inappropriate hurtful behaviors when I was under his tutelage. Forgiving him has also enabled me to be more merciful toward him. When I first learned that my father’s mother died two weeks after his birth and that his father died two years later, thus making him an orphan, my heart slowly softened. I saw my dear daddy in a totally different way when I also learned he had grown up in a strict toe-the-line religious setting.
Transform the lies of the past into truths for the future. We also revisit the past to bring truth to the lies we learned in our growing up years, lies that are incarnated with devastating consequences in our adulthood. Embedded in the minds of many broken believers are the words: “I wish you had been born a girl.” “You are a disgrace to our family.” “You deserved to have been raped.” “You will never be anything in life.” Simply said, these are lies from the pit.
But our Father thinks more glorious thoughts toward those who, like his Son, have suffered exclusion and discrimination. I often say to my suicidal patients, “Even though you have been rejected by humans, you are chosen by God and are precious to him” (1 Peter 2:4). Quite often I witness tears in their eyes.
Celebration and thanksgiving. If your parents and immediate family members communicated “God deeply loves you” messages and then lived before you as being-loved-by-him examples, I encourage you to celebrate and give thanks. They lived out God’s design for parenting before you, howbeit imperfectly at times.
If you have lived a very contrasting reality and are emotionally broken, “may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is” for you today (Ephesians 3:18), and then live in the Father’s affection. In time, you too will have much reason to celebrate and give thanks!