I spent nearly every Sunday afternoon of my childhood at my grandparent’s house. I usually sat and read a book while my parents and grandparents debated politics, issues in the church, or argued about ongoing family conflicts. In the background, I heard the quiet sounds of clapping from the golf game playing on the television. Every so often, I’d stop reading and listen to the discussion for a few minutes and then realize my grandfather was telling a story from his childhood or the war that I’d already heard before and then return to my book. Sometimes my grandfather would pause, look at me, and then comment on how he never learned to love reading because he had to quit school in eight grade to work and help his single mother support the family.
With the anniversary of my grandfather’s death having recently passed, it makes me think about the legacy he was born into and the one he passed on. Deserted by an alcoholic father, his family carried deep wounds that always seemed raw and painful. He fought in the army during WWII and arriving one day into the Normandy invasion, he lived to recount his stories to me for years to come. Married to a tired and worn woman, my grandmother carried her own stories from a painful childhood. During the Korean War, when he learned of my grandmother’s emotional breakdown, he left the military to be at her side.
It was the stories from my grandparent’s life along with the stories from my own painful childhood that I brought with me when I went away to college. Insecure and broken, I arrived on the campus full of questions about my past, my purpose, my meaning, and my future. I wanted to understand the chaos I had left behind. Why was my family so controlled by fear, anger, and bitterness? What effect would my past have on my future? How did God fit into all of it?
I still remember the day in my undergraduate marriage counseling class when my professor introduced us to the “genogram.” The genogram is a tool used by marriage counselors to help them gain a better understanding about a couple’s familial background. It is similar to a family tree, yet it includes information about the interpersonal relationships in the family, including dysfunction and discord. Like DNA helps us see the genetic markings for inheritable diseases, the genogram reflects generational dysfunctional patterns within a family.
As soon as my professor began describing the genogram, I felt an ominous shadow fall over me. I knew immediately what my genogram would look like. A sense of foreboding enveloped me. Overwhelmed and filled with despair; I was certain my future was etched in stone. When I looked at my family history that day in college, I believed my life was doomed to remain bound by the chains of my family’s past. The mental illness with which my grandmother struggled all her life, I had seen passed on to others in my family. The dysfunctional styles of communication among family members never abated. The secrets, anger, cutting remarks, and bitterness all continued from one generation to the next.
After all, I had fled to college to escape the pains of childhood. Leaving my painful memories behind, I had hoped to start fresh with a new life. I believed that out on my own, hours away from home, my family’s legacy couldn’t find me. Yet, the further I got in my education, I feared I would never be able to leave the past behind.
But even in the midst of darkness, there’s always a glimmer of light. In fact, as John 12:46 puts it, Jesus is that light who entered the darkness of this world. His own family tree was filled with sinners, dysfunction, and discord. When I look at his genealogy, I see Jacob the conniver, Rahab the prostitute, and Manasseh an evil king. And then I realize, everyone’s genogram is marred because of sin. That is why Jesus came, to redeem us from the cycle of discord, hatred, selfishness, and abuse. He came to live a perfect life, one free of sin and shame. And because of his perfect life and sufficient death in our place, he has broken the chains of the past. Through faith in his completed work for us, we are freed to live in righteousness for him.
When I look at Jesus’ family tree, I also see how God uses even the most broken, neglected, forgotten, and rejected to accomplish his great plan. Rahab protected the spies in Jericho and was King David’s great-great grandmother. Ruth was a Midianite widow, not a Jew, and David’s great-grandmother. His mother Mary was young, poor, and from a town with a poor reputation.
And in my own family, I see how he used our brokenness in his redemptive plan. After my grandfather’s father left the family, they went to live with his grandmother. While his mother worked multiple jobs, his grandmother helped raise him and his siblings. It was she who shared her faith in God and planted seeds of hope in his heart. It was she who passed on her legacy of faith which he in turn passed on to my father.
From a grandmother to a grandson to a son to a daughter to my own children, redemption’s story has been shared throughout the generations. While my family’s past is rich with pain and filled with hurt, broken, and imperfect people, the truth is, God has always been at work. As he was in Jesus’ family tree, God has always been at work in my own family, weaving a story of grace and redemption.
Since my college days, I’ve learned that while the past has great influence on the future, it is never written in stone. While a genogram is helpful to lay out the past and see the impact it has had on a family, it is not a map for the future. It is only a history lesson and not a prophecy. God is not bound by family cycles or patterns of dysfunction.
I have also learned that God is in the business of redeeming and making all things new. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross frees us from our past and gives us hope for the future. Because of Jesus, we have been adopted into a new family, one with a perfect Father who never fails, never leaves, and always loves. We are children and heirs of the Living God. We are new creations with a holy legacy and a bright hope for the future.
Is your genogram riddled with brokenness and discord? Are you burdened with a painful family legacy? Know that Christ died to redeem your past and make a place for you in the family of God. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” 2 Corinthians 5:17