By Dr. Roger Barrier, Crosswalk.com
I’ve had a very hurtful past. My wife abused me. She was angry and mean to the children. Of course, we’ve all had our share of physical and emotional problems. People usually think that the abuser is always a man. But that’s not true. I found out that there are others like me who’ve been hurt physically, mentally, and emotionally by women. Our marriage is a shambles. Now we are struggling through an acrimonious divorce. Will I ever be able to muddle through the pains of my past and find a peaceful resolution?
One day I met a woman with a tattoo on her arm. She explained to me, "My former boyfriend did it—he was an abusive alcoholic." Happily, she was now married to another man, but every day those marks on her skin reminded of the pain in her past.
We’ve all met people whose past is tattooed onto their souls. They've experienced abuse, immorality, addictions, loss or grief, broken relationships, or tragedy. Fortunately, there are God-given tools to burn away those ugly tattoos. They don’t have to remain with us forever.
How different our past would be if we could relive it! Louisa Tarkington expressed the wish of millions:
I wish there were some wonderful place called the “Land of Beginning Again,” where all our past mistakes and heartaches, and all of our poor selfish grief, could be dropped like a shabby old coat at the door and never be put on again.
I wish it were as simple as tacking an old calendar on the wall, to bring back former years and erase the imprints left by hurts and mistakes of bygone days.
But there is a land of beginning again. Our past need not control our present or future.
Soul Tattoos Start with Your Family
Once, I asked our church counselors to share the 12 most common problems they saw in our counseling center. Their lists were dominated by topics such as depression, grief, bitterness, anger, sexual abuse, demonic problems, and guilt.
However, our counselors emphasized that many of these things were just symptoms. The root cause for many of our problems is that we grew up in dysfunctional families.
In other words, the atmosphere of our home has a significant impact on shaping our identity and behavior.
You are fortunate if you were raised in a healthy home!
The Bible never systematically lists what makes a good parent. Yet scattered here and there are indicators. Functional parents will:
- Delight in their children (Proverbs 3:12)
- Show mercy and grace to their children (Luke 6:36)
- Give good gifts to the children (Matthew 7:11)
- Comfort their children (Isaiah 66:13)
Our counselors also gathered characteristics of a healthy, functional family. They include: Security, Openness, Affection, Encouragement, Approval, Respect, Time Invested, Appreciation, Affirmation, Love, Compassion, Attention, and Understanding.
10 Signs of a Dysfunctional Family
If the characteristics of a healthy, functional family above are the opposite of your family experience as a child, you probably come from a dysfunctional family. In his book, Always Daddy's Girl, H. Norman Wright created an excellent list of the characteristics of a dysfunctional family:
Abuse can include inflicting physical hurt, causing emotional pain, sexual injury, or neglect. Abuse may be blatant, such as one family member striking or screaming at another. It can be subtle, as when one person ignores another.
A perfectionist parent conveys his or her standards and expectations through verbal rebukes, corrections, frowns, penetrating glances, smirks, etc., which continually imply, "You’re not good enough." The parent leads by torture words like “ought” and “should” which elevate guilt and lower self-esteem.
Dysfunctional families are characterized by unbending rules and strict lifestyles.
Dysfunctional families operate by a gag rule: “Don't share family secrets with anyone. Keep it in the family.” After all, what would people think if they knew we didn't have it all together?
You may have grown up in a family where emotions were controlled and repressed instead of identified and expressed. Family members are only allowed to express feelings which were considered appropriate instead of what they really feel. So, you spend life wearing a mask.
In triangulation, one family member uses another family member as a go-between. Father tells his daughter, "Go see if your mother is still angry at me. Tell her I love her." She complies with his request. But Mother retorts, "Tell your father to get lost!" How does Sally feel about getting caught in the middle? Perhaps she feels like a failure. Perhaps she fears that her mother is angry at her, when she is really angry at dad.
7. Double Messages
A wife asks her husband if he loves her. "Of course, I do," he says as he reads the newspaper. Then he spends four hours in front of the TV and goes straight to bed. His words say, "I love you," but his actions say, "I don't care about you at all."
8. Lack of fun
Dysfunctional families are typically unable to loosen up, let go, play, and have fun. Their mottos are: "Be serious"; "Work hard"; "Play is a waste of time." When they do play, it usually ends up with someone getting hurt. Humor is used as much to hurt as to have fun.
Children are challenged: "Tough it out, son; big boys don't cry," or, "You aren't hurt, Jane, so quit that whimpering and grow up!" Pain, suffering, or disappointment aren’t acknowledged. Instead, they are deliberately pushed aside.
The members of a dysfunctional family are emotionally and relationally entangled in each other's lives. Mom makes Dad’s problems her problems, Dad makes the kids' problems his problems. If one family member is unhappy, the whole family is!
Of course, when we add drugs, alcohol, major sickness, overworking, or divorce into the mix, hurtful tattoos increase exponentially.
How Do Soul Tattoos Form?
When you were born, your emotional cup was empty. You had a lot of needs that had to be met. If your family was healthy, most of your needs were met, and when you reached adulthood your cup was full or almost full.
But if your family was mostly dysfunctional, your cup may be rather empty. You entered life with needs which your family should have met but didn't. The lower the level in your cup, the more difficult life will be.
As we study dysfunctional families, we are forced to redefine normalcy. Was it normal to watch your father stumble up the porch steps into a screaming battle with your mother, which ended hours later only when he went to bed?
Was it normal to cringe in your bedroom praying dad wouldn't stop at your room to pick a fight?
Is it normal for a father to divorce his wife and leave behind an eight-year-old whom he rarely visits and who thinks he left because of her?
Is normal for a 10-year-old regularly to get breakfast for his seven-year-old sister and then get her off to school because Mom is sleeping off a hangover?
Is it normal for a 13-year-old girl to be kept up most of the night by an angry tirade from her father who blames her for all the problems in the family?
Is it normal to come home from school not sure which man her mom will have in bed?
To many of us, those things seem abnormal and aberrant. Yet, to some of us, those things were absolutely normal. You never knew that there was any other way to live. Finally, we can fight to redefine ourselves apart from our past.
Fortunately, God still provides healing for those who are suffering.
First, we need to deal with these ugly tattoos one by one, not all at once. Ask the Holy Spirit to bring up only those He wants us to deal with and when He wants us to address them. Here are seven ways to remove tattoos from the past:
1. Pray Earnestly
Pray for the Holy Spirit to bring healing to your hurt; understanding of what’s happening; the grace to live victoriously; and, finally, ask for the Holy Spirit to heal the painful tattoos of your past.
2. Admit You've Been Hurt
Some resort to denial to avoid the pain and the reality.
When we bury something from the past, we don't bury it dead. We bury it alive. The ugly tattoos often surface later in all sorts of unpleasant ways, like depression, disillusionment, anger, bitterness, or physical illness.
3. Settle the Burning Question
When life is confusing, traumatic, and difficult in this way, this question arises:
"Where was God when these tattoos were being burned into my soul?"
If this question is not properly answered, we will struggle to engage with the Holy Spirit as we attempt to remove the tattoos. Unhealed tattoos can produce great anger against God. We wonder:
“If God loved me, why did He let me get into this mess?”
“Why was my father an alcoholic?”
“Why do I have such a strong sex drive?”
“Why did He let my dad abuse me or my mother reject me?”
"God wasn't there for me when I was a child; why should I think He will be there for me as an adult?"
“Why should I look to a God who failed me when I needed Him the most?”
How can such anger against God be dissolved?
First, do what David did in the Psalms. He simply told God how angry he was. It felt good to get off his chest. The emotional relief is refreshing.
When I’m really angry at God, I sometimes sit in the car and close the door where Julie can’t hear me. Then, I yell and holler angrily at God because of what’s going on that I don’t like. Then, I read some of David’s “angry” Psalms to see how he got healed, and I follow his example. The anger fades.
Second, we must examine the tattoo carefully, there may be more involved in its presence than we realize. God may be using it to mature us to look like Jesus.
Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:10-11)
All things work together for those that love God. For those God foreknew, he predestined to look just like Jesus.” (Romans 8:28-29)
4. Get In Touch with Your Past to Understand Yourself
The key word here is, “understand.” You want to understand what happened and why.
Remember, “Children are the world’s best tape recorders. They are the world’s worst interpreters.” Now as an adult, we have much better tools to interpret and unravel our past.
Often, we are the way that we are because our parents were victims, too. Can you imagine that if your mom and/or dad didn’t receive any appreciation, encouragement, compassion, or comfort when they were growing up, that you might not receive any either?
After all, it’s hard to pass on something we never received!
5. Find Someone Who Knows How to Comfort
Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted. (Matthew 5:8)
Only deal with the past when you are in the presence of someone who will understand and comfort. Otherwise, you may well be hurt again, when you bring these things to mind. There are times when we alone can’t put our past behind us. We need the assistance of others.
Bear one another’s burdens. (Galatians 6:2)
6. Forgive Those Who Have Hurt You
First, forgiving does not mean that we let those who hurt us “off the hook.” They need to be held accountable for what they did. We may let them off our “hook,” but they are still on God’s “hook!” Remember, the Lord says, “Vengeance is mine.” So, let Him do His work.
Second, forgiving is not a sign that we’re weak. Forgiveness is a courageous act that integrates the grace, kindness, and compassion of Christ.
Third, forgiving does not mean that we forget what they did to us. Whoever told us that we can “forgive and forget” was quite misguided. The pain of some things is so intense that we will never forget them. Nevertheless, by God’s grace, we can forgive even though we may never forget what they did to us.
Fourth, forgiving doesn’t mean that we restore the relationship with the one, or ones, who hurt us as if nothing ever happened. Something did happen. If the one who hurt us is repentant, we may choose to establish boundaries, giving the offender—over a period of time—the opportunity to regain our trust. We can restore the relationship someday if we want to or not restore it at all.
Fifth, forgive before deep bitterness and resentment become ingrained in your heart. The desire for vengeance is like aiming your pointer finger at your adversary like a gun barrel. Your thumb is the hammer, cocked and ready to fire. However, look at the other three fingers. They are pointed right back at you.
Sixth, it’s not possible to be at peace with all people (Romans 12:7). As Christians, we feel that we are required to fix every broken relationship and live in harmony with all of our brothers and sisters. Unfortunately, some relationships just will not work out. It is okay to leave them behind and go on with others.
Finally, you can know that you’ve forgiven them when you don't want to hurt them anymore.
7. Focus Your Attention through the Windshield Rather than the Rearview Mirror
Forget those things which are behind and press on to what is ahead. (Philippians 3:12-14)
Well Sam, may God bring healing to your heart and grace to your soul.
Photo Credit: ©GettyImages
Dr. Roger Barrier retired as senior teaching pastor from Casas Church in Tucson, Arizona. In addition to being an author and sought-after conference speaker, Roger has mentored or taught thousands of pastors, missionaries, and Christian leaders worldwide. Casas Church, where Roger served throughout his 35-year career, is a megachurch known for a well-integrated, multi-generational ministry. The value of including new generations is deeply ingrained throughout Casas to help the church move strongly right through the twenty-first century and beyond. Dr. Barrier holds degrees from Baylor University, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Golden Gate Seminary in Greek, religion, theology, and pastoral care. His popular book, Listening to the Voice of God, published by Bethany House, is in its second printing and is available in Thai and Portuguese. His latest work is, Got Guts? Get Godly! Pray the Prayer God Guarantees to Answer, from Xulon Press. Roger can be found blogging at Preach It, Teach It, the pastoral teaching site founded with his wife, Dr. Julie Barrier.
Editor's Note: This Ask Roger article features insights from Roger's daughter, Brie Barrier Wetherbee, a sought-after Bible teacher and conference speaker, author, analyst, and Christian theologian.
Pastor Roger Barrier's "Ask Roger" column regularly appears at Preach It, Teach It. Every week at Crosswalk, Dr. Barrier puts nearly 40 years of experience in the pastorate to work answering questions of doctrine or practice for laypeople or giving advice on church leadership issues. Email him your questions at [email protected].