Something that has always amazed me over the years is the way that so many people repeat as adults the foolish things they saw parents and other adults do when they were children. Having lived around dysfunction and horrible life choices, experiencing the pain and suffering that extended to an entire family system, surely a child who grew up in such a setting would be highly energized to not repeat those same mistakes as they grow older! Yet sadly the most common story is that they grow up to so often repeat the very same painful actions.
As I’ve thought about this phenomenon, I’ve concluded that the repeated behavior is because the person has no experience with something that is different or better. It is easier and more comfortable to repeat the known environment than it is to figure out how to live in a way that is categorically different and experientially unknown.
A 2015 article in Psychology Today entitled “8 Reasons It’s So Hard to Overcome a Tough Childhood” essentially affirms this observation immediately in point #1.
The traumatized person may be slow to realize the source of their pain. Children have no frame of reference when traumatic experiences occur, so they come to see their reality as normal, especially if their caregivers are the source of their distress. Often, it is only much later—when exposed to healthier families or when raising children of their own—that they see how damaging their childhood was. Unfortunately, the longer a person waits to get help, the tougher it becomes to heal.
Beyond this, recent studies have shown that there are biological factors that affect children who grow up in dysfunctional settings. Trauma in childhood can alter brain structure and change certain genes, with events such as abuse or the loss of a parent being found to alter the programming of genes that regulate stress, boosting the risk of developing issues such as anxiety and depression. Trauma-induced brain changes have been linked to a diminished ability to moderate negative impulses. Childhood trauma can also affect the brain’s neurotransmitters, boosting the reward felt when drugs or alcohol are used—and making dependence more likely.
The reason we are so blessed by stories of those who have overcome difficult childhoods—like a Ben Carson, for example—is because they are comparatively rare. To break free into a new and different sphere of living requires a unique new empowerment or opportunity.
The Apostle Paul in Romans 7 described the downward draw and power of “the natural man” or the sinful nature. He speaks of the war within, having at once a desire to live for God, yet also a long-term gravitational pull to an older self.
Turning to chapter 8, Paul begins with the firm assertion that there has been a radical change.
8:1 – Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, 2 because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. 3 For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
The believer is free from the condemnation of sin due to the liberating payment of the work of Christ. This is a new life category completely! As it says elsewhere in Scripture, the believer in Christ is a new creature … part of a new family … empowered within by a new understanding that can govern the mind and life of the one who will yield to this. It is a matter of choice as to how to live – in an old way that gives in to the flesh, or a new way that yields to the Spirit…
8:5 – Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. 6 The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. 7 The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. 8 Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.
9 You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ. 10 But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. 11 And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.
12 Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. 13 For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.
Perhaps we could illustrate it this way: Imagine you grew up in deep poverty, not having sufficient resources for your basic needs and even foraging and stealing to meet the hunger cravings of your life. You had absentee parents who really did nothing to help you but only ultimately accused you of being a failure. Along came a wealthy man who in love and mercy stepped into your life and situation and adopted you out of it and into his family. You now had a new place and way of living that guaranteed your basic needs and presented an entirely new realm of possibilities for living a completely different and successful life. You would be pretty crazy to not take advantage of that new opportunity, choosing rather to just live too frequently as the older way you used to know.
But this is our experience in Christ. We were before our adoption by him living as the children of the evil one who accused us and provided only for our demise. But now being a part of a new family, we have the opportunity to live as an heir of God and co-heir with Christ. And this is exactly how Paul finishes this section of thought …
8:14 – For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. 15 The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” 16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. 17 Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.
It is all a matter of living out who you truly are. Yes, there is a gravitational pull toward a foolish, older way of life that has a natural bent. But wisdom informs us that this is personally destructive, that we don’t need to live this way, that we are positionally different than that, and we have a new power within to help us live in a new way that is life indeed. Eternal life, with eternal values. It would be pretty crazy to not strive to live in this way!