Toxic parents who bring us pain
God calls us to honour our parents. What if they are also the source of our greatest pain? Some parents rule their families through poisonous manipulation, intimidation and fear. This leaves many with conflicted emotions; frustration, anger, resentment, desperation, guilt, respect and affection towards their parents. How can we reconcile our love-hate emotions with toxic parents?
The impact of toxic parents
Our parents are meant to be our safest guardians, providers and teachers. Unfortunately, adults with unresolved emotional issues or broken self-images are unsafe. They subconsciously afflict their own children with their poisonous issues without even knowing it. Toxic parents come in all forms; from over-anxious “helicopter” or narcissistic parents, to emotionally bankrupt or abusive parents.
From the age of two, we begin to distinguish when our parents are behaving in a way that doesn’t feel “right”, except that we can’t articulate exactly why. As a result, we can blame ourselves or form distorted views of our place in the world. Subsequently, we grow up for years feeling:
- Shut down
Broken models of perfect Love
Parenthood is a high calling. Written on every person’s heart is a desire for our Heavenly Father’s perfect love. Our parents are meant to be the closest models of God’s love.
- Loves, stays faithful and is understanding to the mother of his children (Ephesians 5:25, 1 Peter 3:7)
- Makes time to counsel and guide his children (Deuteronomy 6:6-7)
- Lovingly disciplines his children (Proverbs 13:24)
- Welcomes his children after they admit to a mistake (Luke 15:20)
- Helps (carries) his children during difficult times (Deuteronomy 1:30-31)
- Has compassion for his children (Psalm 103:13)
- Prays for and declares blessings over his children (Job 1:4-5)
- Teaches his children God’s Word (Deuteronomy 6:6-7)
- Passes on wisdom to his children (Deuteronomy 4:9)
- Manages his own household well (1 Timothy 3:4)
- Gives only good gifts to his children (Matthew 7:9-11)
- Does not frustrate his children or cause them to become angry (Ephesians 6:4)
- Does not give his children reason to become bitter (Colossians 3:21)
- Is not a drunkard, not violent, not quarrelsome or not a lover of money (1 Timothy 3:3)
- Loves, submits to, helps and is faithful to the father of her children (1 Peter 3:1, Genesis 2:18, Exodus 20:14, Titus 2:4)
- Tenderly cares for her children (1 Thessalonians 2:7)
- Comforts her children (Isaiah 66:13)
- Provides wisdom and loving instruction to her children (Proverbs 31:26-27)
- Has compassion for and nurtures her children (Isaiah 49:15)
- Disciplines her children (Proverbs 29:15)
Some facts about parenthood
1. There are no families in heaven
Family structures exist on earth but not in heaven. There are no family hierarchies with God. Our parents are our equals in heaven.
Matthew 22:30 ESV For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.
2. No earthly parent is prepared or perfect
No amount of professional training will make any father or mother perfect. Few are prepared for the demands of dealing with infants, children, in-laws, schools, finances and schedules all at once. When we fail to submit all our ways to God, we will invariably sin against Him. A person’s parenting methods may seem right to him or her, but it is God who will ultimately assess how they bring up their children.
Proverbs 16:2-3 ESV All the ways of a man are pure in his own eyes, but the LORD weighs the spirit. Commit your work to the LORD, and your plans will be established.
3. Parents pass on generational sins
Most times, parents subconsciously pass on toxic behaviour they learnt from their own parents. Our parents may be toxic simply because they too grew up in toxic environments.
4. God becomes our one True Parent
When we turn to Jesus as our Saviour, God the Father becomes our one True Parent. How wonderful it is that we can go to the perfect Role Model of all aspects of parental love. He even welcomes us to call Him, “Papa” (“Abba” in Arabic).
Romans 8:15 ESV For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!”
His love and protection for each one of us mean that He will judge and discipline both our parents and us. Jesus had a stern warning for those who cause their own children to fall into sin. He promises them a punishment that is worse than drowning.
Matthew 18:6 ESV but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.
5. We are not meant to be “slaves” to our parents’ desires and demands
Jesus came to set us free from enslavement to the people and systems of this world. This includes ungodly attachments to our parents. Yet many adults still live in bondage to their parents’ “commandments”. We are not to submit ourselves to human “laws” or be enslaved to our parents’ sinful emotional, verbal or behavioural patterns. We need to stand firm in God’s will for us.
Galatians 5:1 ESV For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
6. Jesus owns us
It is helpful to note that our parents do not and have never “owned” us. We cannot continue to live as slaves to their vision for us. God prepared good things for us long ago that we need to follow.
Jesus paid with His own body to free us from enslavement to this world’s patterns. No parents’ sacrifice and pain will never compare with that of Jesus’. He left His place in heaven to come into a corrupted world, live as a mere human being, and died as a criminal so that we can share in His rich spiritual inheritance. We must be careful not to place anyone higher than God.
Ephesians 2:10 NLT For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.
1 Corinthians 6:19-20 ESV … You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.
7. We are to turn away from earthly ways
In order to honour and follow God, we will need to turn away from our earthly parents’ ways. In a worldly sense, this may seem as if we are turning our backs on our fathers or mothers. On the contrary, it is only with God’s love that we can love our parents with His perfect love, in spite of the pain they may have caused – or continue to cause.
Luke 14:26 ESV “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.
Some confusions about parent-child relationships
As we move into adulthood, we need to give up our childish ways of thinking about our earthly fathers and mothers. Many Asian adults struggle to re-calibrate their perspectives, due to a cultural stronghold and philosophy of filial piety. As believers, we need to put away our human traditions and follow God’s will for our relationships with our parents. God calls us to love and honour our parents, but there is often much confusion about what this means.
1 Corinthians 13:11 ESV When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.
Romans 12:2 ESV Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
1. Honour vs. obey
We are called to honour, not obey our parents.
The Bible instructs us to obey our parents when we were little children. But when we become adults, we are to obey our Heavenly Father and King. Blind obedience to our parents is a form of enslavement. We do not belong to our parents, we belong to God. Parents who try to control and manipulate their adult children into obeying them do not realise they are enslaving them into childish behaviour, and turning themselves into their children’s idols.
Ephesians 6:1 ESV Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.
The fifth commandment in God’s Ten Commandments is to honour our parents. This means we are to respect, edify and provide for our parents. This does not involve subjecting ourselves to their sinful or disrespectful desires. We cannot fear our parents, we are to fear God. Otherwise, we fall into a dangerous trap.
Exodus 20:12 ESV “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.
Proverbs 29:25 ESV Fearing people is a dangerous trap, but trusting the LORD means safety.
2. Love vs. like
We are called to love, not like our parents.
We are all sinners who need God’s grace. To like someone involves judgement based on our sin-based preferences. To love someone is to empathise with their struggles and pain from that perspective, and have the wisdom and courage to encourage and lift them up. This allows us to love our parents, but not their behaviour. God hates sin and so can we.
Romans 3:22-23 ESV … For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,
Proverbs 6:16-19 ESV There are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers.
3. Discern vs. judge
We are called to discern our parents’ behaviour, not judge them.
Discernment leads us to identify the likely consequences of someone’s demands, and how we are to act in order to bring about peace and harmony. Discernment addresses a person’s actions but does not judge the person. Judgement brings only curses and condemnation onto people.
Discernment requires wisdom and patience. Judgment is merely a sinful pattern.
4. Help vs. save
We can only help our parents, not save them.
1 Timothy 5:8 ESV But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.
We are called to provide for our parents in practical and caring ways. Their salvation however, may be out of our hands. Rarely are we in a position to correct or change our parents. They may be oblivious to the pain they cause or like being the way they are.
We can ask our Heavenly Father to protect our parents and bring people that will shine the Light of God into their hearts. It would be unwise to rely on our own human intelligence to influence or control the circumstances. God has been bringing salvation to people for thousands of years, and He knows our parents much better than we do. Hence, we need to surrender them to God because only our Heavenly Father can save them. We cannot.
Proverbs 3:5-6 ESV Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.
It is often impossible to stop the suffering in our families by our own strength. Sometimes, God allows suffering for a reason. Things may even get even more toxic before they get better. Let us be reassured that God is good and He is in control. Never be tempted to interfere with God’s higher plan. The best way to honour our parents is to trust and praise God for what He will do in their lives for their own sakes.
Psalm 106:1-2 ESV Praise the Lord! Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever! Who can utter the mighty deeds of the Lord, or declare all his praise?
How to surrender our family situations to God
1. Thank God for our parents
God chose our parents for us. Thank God that even toxic people can teach us important lessons. Those who are the source of our greatest pain can be our greatest teachers, when we choose to submit to God first.
2. Repent of our judgments and curses
Our parents were not born toxic, they have merely been infected by the toxins of this world. God does not want us to hate or curse our parents. In fact, the Bible warns us that this brings punishment upon ourselves. Therefore, let us repent of all hatred, judgements, complaints and curses towards our parents.
Leviticus 20:9 ESV For anyone who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death; he has cursed his father or his mother; his blood is upon him.
Where we have questioned God and doubted His goodness, we should also repent. How can a righteous and wise God reward such condescending behaviour towards Him? Let us not block His blessings because of unbelief and judgement towards God Almighty.
3. Forgive our parents
No parent would choose to be toxic if he or she knew how much suffering it brings their families. Often, they do not know better. Let us be ready to forgive them like Jesus did, by acknowledging that “they know not what they do” – even if they are convinced that they are always right. Only God knows best, not mum or dad.
Luke 23:34 ESV And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”…
4. Remember we belong to God
From here on, we will need to learn to be guided by the Holy Spirit in all our responses towards our family and to wait for His timing and plans to unfold. We are to become obedient to God in all our ways.
Romans 6:22 ESV But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.
How to honour our parents on an ongoing basis
1. Practise discernment and empathy
We can never really know what our parents have been through or their motives for their behaviour. They may not even know themselves. Hence, we need to discern what our parents really need (beneath the surface) rather than what they may be demanding of us (on the surface).
John 7:24 NLT Look beneath the surface so you can judge correctly.”
Do they need reassurance that we will not abandon them? Do they need to know when their demands are actually dividing the family? Do they need help but are too proud to ask? Thankfully God knows the hearts of all people. We can ask the Holy Spirit for the wisdom we need to engage with our parents, because He knows what they need.
James 1:5 ESV If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.
2. Do not be enslaved to their sins
In Asian families, respect for elders is paramount and sometimes, even unquestionable. This means that anyone higher in the family hierarchy gets to lord over the younger generations, in loving or unloving ways. Filial piety neglects the fact that God is the beginning of everything and above all family hierarchies.
Let us remember to un-yoke ourselves from our families and be yoked only to Jesus. We are to be so tightly attuned to the Holy Spirit that we cannot go anywhere He will not go.
Matthew 11:29 ESV Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
This means that we may have to:
- Pray to reject our parents’ piercing words and curses in Jesus’ name, whenever these come up.
- Regularly cut ungodly spiritual ties and influences from them in Jesus’ name.
- Continue to forgive them for their sinful behaviour towards us.
- Respectfully refuse to participate in ancestor or idol worship at our parents’ request.
- Release them into God’s hands and bless them in Jesus’ name.
Deuteronomy 13:6,8 ESV “If your brother, the son of your mother, or your son or your daughter or the wife you embrace or your friend who is as your own soul entices you secretly, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods,’… you shall not yield to him or listen to him, nor shall your eye pity him, nor shall you spare him, nor shall you conceal him.
3. Vent our frustrations to God
It is very important for us to acknowledge and release the pain and frustrations we feel when we are around toxic parents.
We may find we need to control our emotions in front of our parents, but afterward, we should certainly release all toxic emotions to God who will hear us and heal us. We are welcome to bring our cries for help and our complaints to the Judge of the world. God is the One who chose our parents for us, and He will also have great compassion for us when we tell Him how we feel about the hardships we undergo. We can grieve all our pain and sacrifices before God.
In the psalms, we see how David, described as a “man after God’s heart”, cried out and complained to God about King Saul whom God had chosen to rule the Israelites. King Saul was persecuting David very severely and wanted to kill him. Saul had initially treated David like a son but soon grew jealous and bitter towards him. David had many emotional outbursts before God. Telling God how we feel is not disrespectful. God knows exactly how we feel before we say anything. Releasing our emotions to God is an opportunity to grow in intimacy with our Father in heaven by being authentic and honest before Him.
Psalm 57:1-3 ESV Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me, for in you my soul takes refuge; in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge, till the storms of destruction pass by. I cry out to God Most High, to God who fulfills his purpose for me. He will send from heaven and save me; he will put to shame him who tramples on me. Selah God will send out his steadfast love and his faithfulness!
4. Seek God’s wisdom in drawing boundaries
Only when we learn to draw clear boundaries with toxic parents will they learn to respect our limits. This requires us to be lovingly firm. If we coddle our parents every time they scream or sin against us, we are only reinforcing their abusive behaviour and encouraging them because it gets them what they want. Toxic parents know our weak spots and at times, will resort to emotional blackmail.
Let us seek the Holy Spirit’s guidance and wisdom so we do not fall for such selfish manipulation. God sees our hearts as well as our parents’. He knows their pains, needs, fears, and intentions. Only God knows how to bring about peaceful resolutions. We do not possess such wisdom, especially when we are hurting emotionally and are prone to reacting impulsively.
Drawing boundaries means that we may need to:
- Pray and ask the Holy Spirit to speak through us.
- Wait a few seconds for His counsel and inspiration before we speak up.
- Communicate what we will accept and what we will not.
- Find things we can agree on with our parents and celebrate those.
- Minimise circumstances where they feel they can “corner” and abuse or manipulate us.
- Reinforce the right type of behaviour and not respond to nasty behaviours or emotions.
- Choose the battles that are worth fighting and ignore those that are not.
- Know when to hold our tongue and stay quiet.
- Praise God before our parents when our relationships begin to improve so that they can seek the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
Proverbs 17:27-28 NIV The one who has knowledge uses words with restraint, and whoever has understanding is even-tempered. Even fools are thought wise if they keep silent, and discerning if they hold their tongues.
5. Never give in to fear
Emotional maturity does not give in to fear. Whenever we succumb to our parents’ unrealistic demands, we give in to fear. There is the fear of more nagging or screaming, fear of being shamed by relatives, fear that they will harm someone, fear that they will guilt-trip us, fear that they will blame us or disown us and so forth.
We need to beware that we respond out of wisdom and love, rather than out of fear. Otherwise, we will simply look fully grown on the outside, but remain emotionally trapped as children inside. Our goal should be to rely on God and discern how His Holy Spirit leads us in terms of how He wants us to respond to our parents. Let us always be ready to check our hearts. What is it that we are really submitting ourselves to; fear or love?
6. Rejoice and be a testimony
How we survive toxic parents is a choice between honouring God or being enslaved to Satan. The enemy will tempt us to hate, grudge, resent, condemn or complain about our parents.
God, on the other hand, will teach us many important qualities through toxic parents, ranging from compassion and patience to self-control and wisdom.
Let us choose to rejoice that we have a perfect Father who is full of grace and wisdom that we can be a living testimony of. We may be the good gift from the Lord that our parents badly need in their lives.
Psalm 127:3-5 ESV Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward.
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