We are relational beings, often hurt and healed within the context of relationships. This is clearly revealed in the Christian theological tradition, which understands relationality as the cornerstone of God’s creation and as a primary way that our being reflects God’s image: “God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness. . . . In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:26–27 NET, emphasis added). This Trinitarian sense of relationship also extends to families.
A healthy family is a secure, safe haven where all family members are able to be fully known, loved, and accepted as they are. It is the loving embrace of both similarities and differences. The beauty of a healthy family can be seen in its welcoming of children or its engagement with the community and surrounding world. Parents may find that their children expand their capacity for intimacy. And children are equipped to find security in themselves and in their world when they are afforded the space to explore their world by their parents’ unconditional love and acceptance. This process of familial support and exploration is what family therapists and sociologists refer to as differentiation, and it mimics the way that God’s love for creation is meant to offer us a sense of security and freedom in our daily lives.1
The dominant family form—a married, two-parent household with some number of kids and a dog—has been passed down from generation to generation and then reinforced by evangelical churches and conservative media outlets.2 Yet this idealized family structure doesn’t necessarily lead to healthy families and successful differentiation. Instead, we are imprinted with the pain of prior generations, and we carry those impressions with us as we enter into relationship with others. This is especially true of the imprints from our immediate family, and it is why attachment theorists link “the quality of the care received as a child” to “the capacity to love and to be in relationship,” as well as to future anxiety, depression, or in more severe instances, personality disorders.3 In other words, the quality of care within the context of the family has the potential to both prevent and contribute to mental illness.
For better or worse, other relational bodies also leave their imprint on our lives, including our church families. They may show us love and belonging, or they may teach us that we are fundamentally flawed, naming the very reason we suffer within our circumstances. As a therapist, I am continually disheartened by my clients’ beliefs that their mental distress signals sin in their life or by their insistence that if they truly believed or prayed harder or more often their distress would be relieved. This is especially troubling when I learn that these beliefs have been endorsed by my clients’ pastors. Our inability to trust those who are meant to care for us not only perpetuates our own insecurity in relationship to others but also our relationship to God.
And of course one of the great mysteries of faith is that we believe God has invited us to be part of yet another family. As it says in Ephesians 1:5, God decided in advance to “adopt us into his own family by bringing us to himself through Jesus Christ” (NLT). This is an extraordinary metaphor for belonging, as the historical “Cosmic Christ” draws us into divine relationship and, as the Franciscan theologian Richard Rohr writes, Christ thereby serves as “the personalization of the whole universe story.”4
The use of metaphor and symbol is important here. It brings that which is unconscious or unseen into consciousness, where it then becomes more easily accessible.5 The acknowledgement of Jesus as a historical being allows us to understand some of his qualities and to form some ideas of who God is. This is our conscious awareness, finite and intangible. Yet through metaphor, we awaken to meaning. We begin to see the resurrection as a universal pattern where death is a part of the story and not the end of the story. The symbolism activates elements of unconscious awareness such that we find new meaning in the process of life, death, and resurrection.
Carl Jung, sometimes referred to as the “psychiatrist of Christianity,” states that “what happens in the life of Christ happens always and everywhere.”6 All around us are the markings of resurrection, all around us God is teaching about restoration. Through the raising up of Jesus, Rohr says we are provided a clear and potent picture of “what God is still and forever doing with the universe and with humanity.”7 And as Rohr points out, science appears to increasingly confirm this sentiment:
With different metaphors and symbols, like condensation, evaporation, hibernation, sublimation, the four seasons, the life cycles of everything from salmon to galaxies, and even the constant death and birth of stars from the exact same stardust. God appears to be resurrecting everything all the time.8
This ongoing sense of resurrection is not something to simply affirm and believe in. Rather, it is a deeply resonant metaphor to observe and to learn from, and it is happening all around us.
But if resurrection is everywhere, if Christ’s resurrection is the one moment revealing the meaning of all moments, how are we to wrestle with this surreal moment of global pandemic? How are we to process our fear and anxiety and the ugliness that we see all around us—the greed, the selfishness, the tragic, preventable loss of human life? How am I to see the pain that has been imprinted in my life and the lives of clients from familial disunity while also proclaiming that resurrection?
When I recently began trying to pay attention to the resurrection around me, I was struck by the fact that resurrection—including Christ’s resurrection, of course—is always preceded by pain, grief, or loss. Over 400,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, and many more feel socially isolated or afraid. These sad facts should not be distorted or dismissed, and yet I also see the flicker of renewal. Families are spending extra quality time together; selfless donations of time and supplies are freely offered; the earth is taking a deep breath; and there is a growing sense of solidarity as we all begin to realize just how human we really are. Our preoccupations with stability, efficiency, and control are being toppled as we reckon with our finite ability to control our circumstances.
The embodied resurrection of Jesus Christ becomes the unequivocal symbol of what God will do with our own crucifixions.9 Every painful experience that we encounter can also be the source where we may find hope and, from that hope, transformation. This does not mean that we will not have scarring. Just as Christ returns, bearing his wounds, we also will carry the wounds from our experience. There is bound to be both joy and pain in every family. Happiness and heartache. Hurt and healing. That is the way of resurrection.
It is no wonder, then, that we carry the imprint, or the wounds, of the generations before us. Those scars are a part of our resurrection story. They are the pain and loss that may precede abundance and renewal. It is only with fresh insight, prompted by symbol and metaphor, that we might look at what family is—and what it is not—with a new lens.
For me, this has meant paying attention to how the pandemic is reshaping my sense of family, to the way that it has shown me that we are all a part of a global human family. In varying degrees, we are all sharing in the stresses, costs, and precautions related to the virus. And I see now more than ever how engagement in our local community helps us feel rooted to a village family, or how we miss that family when life is turned upside-down. I see our friendships, those relationships that pull us in and lift us up through a variety of life experiences, as our chosen family, and I see our intimate relationships with one another, as well as the potential offspring produced within that context, as the family we create for ourselves. Then, finally, I see the relational context in which we were brought up as our given family. And the thing that makes each of these kinds of families function and thrive, even in pain and sorrow, is reflected within our ability to use metaphor as we consider the mystery of the Trinity—in each of these families, we must have space to be both united and distinct.
Family is the imperfect imprint—the scar—of those who have created us or who have created something within us. If this is true, the implications are in harmony with the universal mystery that God is unfolding all around us. We live in a world filled with symbolism. There is always greater meaning if only we are willing to lean in, to look more closely, to hold things more loosely, and to approach everything with curiosity. May our new lens allow us to do just that as we contemplate the role of imperfect family experience. In this way, may we experience a renewed capacity to identify what is in need of resuscitation, to make space for restoration, and to allow new energy to be directed toward revitalization. When we choose to view life in this way, we might find that everything is rising.
- Jack Balswick and Judith Balswick, The Family: A Christian Perspective on the Contemporary Home (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014), 3–4.
- “The American Family Today,” Pew Research Center, December 17, 2015, https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2015/12/17/1-the-american-family-today/.
- Clara Mucci, Beyond Individual and Collective Trauma: Intergenerational Transmission, Psychoanalytic Treatment, and the Dynamics of Forgiveness (London, UK: Routledge, 2013), 17.
- Rohr, Immortal Diamond: The Search for Our True Self (San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass, 2013), 78; also see Rev. 21:6 and 22:13.
- Charlme Sieg, “Symbols and the Evolution of Consciousness,” Psychological Perspectives 24, no. 1 (1991): 112–13.
- Don Murray, “Dr. Carl Gustav Jung, the Psychiatrist of Christianity,” Progressive Christianity, February 22, 2009, https://progressivechristianity.org/resources/dr-carl-gustav-jung-the-psychiatrist-of-christianity/; Jung, Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self, quoted in Rohr, Immortal Diamond, 172.
- Rohr, Immortal Diamond, 86; emphasis omitted.
- Rohr, Immortal Diamond, 87; emphasis in original.
- Rohr, Immortal Diamond, 84.