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Lesson 3: Breaking Generational Cycles

At some point, all of us wrestle with the question: “Who am I?” We think there is some absolute answer to this question, something that will validate our existence and make us feel whole. We want our life to have meaning, but we cannot shake the fact that our past, in every way, contributes to who we are today.

Whether we were raised in the church or not, many of us have heard the idea of “the sins of the father” being passed down to his children. We could spend time in a theological debate between the Old Testament doctrine of the “generational curse” and the New Testament teaching of individual salvation.130 We could discuss whether the “sins of the father” refers to our own father or our first father, Adam.

A simple definition of generational curse is the way we have been taught to react through our family of origin—how we emotionally, limbically respond to what is happening to us and around us.

For example, if we come from a family where a parent is controlling or angry, and there is no input from us as a child, we learn what to do. We may try to hide our feelings of anger but eventually end up yelling when angry, just like we were taught. We might shut down or freeze in response to anger and try to keep the peace or appease others. It’s possible that when faced with anger, we run away, attempting to physically avoid our feelings of fear.

Generational curses are learned behaviors. If we want to pursue lifelong healing, we have to recognize how we have been limbically programed through our experiences. We have to reprogram our limbic system, based on who God says we are, otherwise we will pass on the same unhealthy limbic responses to future generations.

Our family of origin doesn’t have to dictate our future. There is a way to change our story.

The story of Ruth provides an excellent example of generational change. She was a Moabite woman, who was widowed and living with her mother-in-law, Naomi. Since Naomi’s husband and sons had died, she planned to return to the land of Judah. Naomi encouraged Ruth to return to her mother’s home, but after experiencing a relationship with Naomi, Ruth replied,

“Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.”
RUTH 1:16

In going to Bethlehem, Ruth experienced a new culture and a new relationship. This was a huge generational change. Ruth let go of her old way of thinking and embraced a new way of thinking—and a new way of living.

When Ruth said to Naomi, “Your people will be my people and your God will be my God,” this was her personal promise from God. Even though it required great change, she faced her fear, acted on this promise, and moved to a foreign land. She experienced a life-change that she never could have imagined.

You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 6but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.

EXODUS 20:5-6

In choosing to follow God’s leading in her life, Ruth literally experienced the blessings to the thousandth generation. She became part of the lineage of David and Jesus.

As we continue to change and grow, our children will reap the benefits. It’s never too late to start breaking down negative generational behaviors and replacing them with new generational blessings. As we learn what it looks like to live in health, we teach what we are learning to our kids. This happens practically, through relationship with God and others.

These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. 7Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. DEUTERONOMY 6:6-7

I was in the kitchen when my 14-year-old son, Chet, came in to show me his “broken toe.” I checked his toe and could see that it was a bit swollen but probably not broken. I told Chet to ice and elevate it for the night. Chet turned red, became very angry, and started yelling at me about how I didn’t care about him.

I was surprised by Chet’s reaction. I tried to assure him that I did care, but that his toe was not broken and I wouldn’t take him to the doctor until a few days had passed. Chet stormed to his room, slamming the door. This was a common reaction when Chet was hurt.

I took a few breaths and asked God, “What just happened? Please help me.” I headed to Chet’s room to talk. Chet was sitting on his bed, steaming. I sat next to him, looked him in his eyes, and told him, “I think you’re reacting to old trauma. There was a point in my life—after I divorced your dad, was going to school, and working three jobs—where I couldn’t take care of you because I couldn’t even take care of myself.

“I was so heartbroken and overwhelmed during those years that I developed an eating disorder and OCD, was over-serving in church, and had a few failed relationships. Although I have experienced years of healing, in those early years of your life, I was so absent minded that I lacked the ability to nurture and care for you the way you needed.”

Chet’s eyes flooded with tears as I told him how sorry I was for the pain that his dad and I caused him. I told him, “Even though you don’t remember me being this way, your brain remembers. Your brain remembers all of the pain I caused you through my anger and neglect: when you feel like ‘Mom doesn’t care about me,’ you can’t help but react.”

I asked Chet to forgive me for hurting him when I was reeling with pain and living in my addiction. I reminded him that Jesus can heal anything. Chet’s breathing slowed. With tear-soaked cheeks he looked at me and forgave me. Chet had no memory of the life I described and only knows me as “the Christian mom who read her Bible all the time and didn’t curse or party.” I gave him a hug and left his room. I felt very sad in realizing how my unhealthy choices hurt my son so deeply, even though he was just a toddler. At the time, he didn’t need to know what was going on with me, but even as a baby, he could feel it. I cried and prayed that God would cover the gaps and protect the son I loved so much.

A week later, Chet told me about a writing assignment that was a big chunk of his grade. He was supposed to choose someone he admired to write about. He told me that he was going to write about me—all I had been through and my struggle to care for him the best I could. My heart melted into a puddle as I hugged Chet.

Chet never again displayed an overreaction the way he did that night. Sadly, our sinful behavior harms more people than we know. It is never too late to enter into those wounded areas to offer an apology and allow the Holy Spirit to heal.

Lang

“You can’t go back and change the beginning but you can start where you are and change the ending.131
C. S. LEWIS

When we choose to pursue lifelong healing, it not only changes us, but it also changes those around us. It’s true: we cannot change our past, but we can change our future. As we follow God’s leading in our lives, we can make tomorrow better than today.

Today I have given you the choice between life and death, between blessings and curses. Now I call on heaven and earth to witness the choice you make. Oh, that you would choose life, so that you and your descendants might live! DEUTERONOMY 30:19 NLT

FIGHT WITH ME!

Most people don’t like conflict. In fact, most people will avoid conflict at any cost. Too often, because we don’t know how to handle conflict, we walk away from relationship. This is not our intent. In the moment, we are trying to avoid the negative feelings that accompany conflict. We also don’t want to hurt the other person involved. We think that avoiding conflict—not saying what needs to be said—is the best way to maintain the relationship. This thinking is distorted and ultimately creates bigger problems in the relationship.

We need to change our perspective regarding conflict. When we experience friction in a relationship—especially with a spouse, family member, or close friend—we initially feel anxious, fearful, stressed, and more. This array of negative emotions can feel so overwhelming that we will do almost anything to make them stop. We will apologize without reason. We will appease with words of affirmation and praise. We will even give gifts, hoping to restore the relationship to its previous status.

We think that by avoiding conflict the relationship will continue on the same path, but that is not the truth. When we neglect our feelings, when we keep our pain hidden, when we fail to say the hard things or have the difficult conversation, we are hurting the relationship. Our feelings—the feelings that initiated the conflict—will remain with us, festering into an ugly wound, infecting our soul. Like every other type of infection, without the proper treatment, it will spread and infect every area of our life.

For our own health and for the health of the relationship, we have to engage in healthy conflict. We have to create a safe place where disagreements can happen in a healthy way. We have to be willing to wade through the uncomfortable feelings to get to the other side, where we experience appreciation and growth in the relationship. Conflict is the price of growing in intimacy: being uncomfortably close.

Think of it this way: in a relationship, when we walk away from an argument or disagreement, we are telling the other person, “You’re not worth it.” It may sound strange, but think about it. Essentially, we are telling them that our feelings are more important than the relationship. We so badly want to avoid the negative feelings of conflict that we will abandon the relationship to save ourselves. We may not completely walk away from the relationship, but this action alone changes the relationship. The things that need to be said out loud in an agreeable way, are left unspoken. It won’t be long before the infection seeps into the relationship in ways we could never imagine.

If we want healthy relationships, we have to develop a healthy approach to conflict. We have to stay in—have the difficult conversations—so that we can experience the irreplaceable benefit of true relationship. We will never know true relationship without conflict. We have to “feel” the process and effects of restoration. We have to experience the positive feelings that come from resolved conflict, moving past the discomfort into a place of vulnerability, contentment, and peace.

Healthy conflict resolution starts with communication, using your words to proactively contribute to a resolution. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you develop a mindset for healthy conflict.

  • Resolution is the goal: When we experience conflict, in the heat of the moment, we may feel overwhelmed by our emotions: anger, disappointment, fear, and more. It is easy to lose sight of the goal. Keep in mind that resolution does not mean both people completely agree; instead, it means they are purposeful in achieving a healthy outcome where both have been heard and understood. Remember to stay calm and breathe. We can’t allow our emotions to get the best of us.
  • Stick to the current issue: It’s important to identify the problem and stay on topic. Deal with issues involved in the current conflict and don’t get derailed by unresolved past issues.
  • Listen: Relationship is a two-way street. It is important that we express our feelings, but we need to consider the other person’s feelings too. We need to listen to their perspective.
  • Protect the relationship: The language we use during conflict can either tear down or build up the relationship. We need to make sure the other person knows how much we value the relationship. Avoid using language that contributes to blame, shame, and criticism. We can say, “I’m so thankful for our relationship and want to protect it. Last night, when you were dismissive of my opinion, it made me feel unappreciated and unloved.”

The intent of healthy conflict is to bring about a new understanding and a solution that benefits both individuals—a solution that promotes growth and continuity in the relationship.

Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; 4do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. PHILIPPIANS 2:3-4 NASB

Recognizing the benefit of healthy conflict can be useful in all our relationships. It’s not easy. There will be times when we want to walk away, when we want to avoid the uncomfortable feelings of conflict. But, we have to remember what healthy conflict brings to our relationships. Healthy conflict requires humility, trust, and vulnerability. Developing and practicing healthy conflict is essential to managing our relationships.

God wants to do amazing things through our healing—not just for us, but for future generations. As we learn to be in relationship with God and others, find hope in the One who can do immeasurably more than we ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20).

Looking Ahead

Complete the FASTER Scale, Group Check-in, Self-Care lesson, Thoughts/Feelings
Awareness Log, and Change & Growth Analysis in your Unraveled: Weekly Tools before
the next group meeting.

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