One of the greatest evangelists of our time, Billy Graham, said “The greatest legacy one can pass on to one’s children and grandchildren is not money or other material things accumulated in one’s life, but rather a legacy of character and faith.” This beautiful quote makes me think of my grandmother and her prayer warrior faith, my mother and her desire to please God in all areas of her life, and my dad in how he spread kindness everywhere he went.
To many, however, it is a quote which stings.
Not everyone looks at their family history with joy; and, some believe they are only as valuable as the legacy their parents and grandparents left for them. My parents were alcoholics, and my grandfather was an abusive gambler. What hope do I have of being anything better? Who wants to be married to someone from bad stock?
If you have ever thought anything like this, let me tell you…
You are not destined for the life your parents and grandparents lived. If you are in Christ, you have been adopted by the King (cf. Ephesians 1:3-6; Romans 8:1; Galatians 3:23-29). Repeat it until you believe it.
A Legacy Despised
Though I am so thankful for a praying grandmother and Christian parents, my entire ancestral legacy is not rosy. There is a branch of my family I have never known and probably never will. I only have the sketchiest details about my maternal grandfather. Outside of his picture, a few details shared by my grandmother years ago, and knowing his plane went down in the Bermuda triangle when he was thirty years old, I do not know him at all, nor any relatives on his side.
As a child, it seemed normal enough that I did not know my grandfather. But, as I got older, the impact of my grandfather’s decisions became clearer. I saw what his absence did to our family. I read journal entries from my late uncle which oozed the pain of a lost and lonely child. There were times I felt bitterness towards this stranger. How could he just leave? How could he move from woman to woman (and children to children) without giving it a second thought? In my estimation, he was nothing but a selfish player who left a dozen wounded hearts in his wake.
Then, I grew up.
As an adult, I began to better understand the magnitude and overwhelming nature of life’s decisions. It is hard to think of him as anything other than a grandfather (and grandfathers are naturally viewed as old men). But, when he left Grandma, he was still a kid himself – twenty years old and a father of three children (one of whom we just recently discovered). Does his age negate his responsibilities? Absolutely not. However, I feel more compassion than I used to feel.
I do not know the demons he battled. I do not know the temptations he faced without the Holy Spirit to guide him. And I do not know what he experienced in the Navy.
My heart still cries, “Why did you have to go?! Could you not see what your rejection would do to your wife? Your children? Even your future grandchildren?” And, then my heart softens again as I consider all the unknowns… including his family of origin and turmoil he might have experienced in his childhood.
Sadly, the legacy he left my mom and uncle Ricky was poor. He left an inheritance of dishonesty, unfaithfulness, and untrustworthiness. He lived for himself and showed my mother and uncle, by his absence and abdication, that it was okay to walk away when life gets tough or when a “better” offer comes along. With a legacy like that, how would the world expect his children to behave and become?
My uncle Ricky became a drifter. He left home when he was a young teen, wandered the county, and came home when he was ready. As soon as the mood struck him again, he would leave… never letting anyone know where he was going – and he may not have even known himself.
But God is rich in mercy…
A Legacy Redeemed
My mother, however, is a story of redemption. As God’s sovereignty would have it, Mom went to live with her grandmother when she was still very young. Granny Smith took Mom to church, and though my mother did not come to Christ until she was sixteen, she received a heritage of faith which stayed with her through some extremely difficult formative years. When I think of all the possibilities and all the places Grandpa’s negative legacy could have taken her, I cannot help but feel deep gratitude.
By the grace of God, Mom did not repeat her father’s history. By the grace of God, she married a kind, Christian man who loved her and stayed by her side. By the grace of God, she chose a career path and was a wonderful teacher for thirty-four years. By the grace of God, she had me and never left me. Even today, I know she will spring to my side if I need her.
The legacy left to you by your earthly, fallible ancestry is not the final word. Your Heavenly Father is perfect, and through his Son, He left the perfect legacy.
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 2:4-7, ESV)
If you are struggling with hurt from older generations or wondering “Can I make something better of myself than they did?” work through the below questions. If there are lies you still believe, replace those lies with the truth until you believe them.
- Who is your Father? “And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.” (Galatians 3:29) It is easy to think of our earthly fathers as Dad and God as a being far away who is not involved in the details of our lives. In reality, our Heavenly Father knows us far better, and loves us far more, than our earthly fathers ever could. “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” (Romans 8:16-17, ESV)
- Which habits and traditions do you want to bring into your marriage and new family? Which memories are fond? Which habits do you believe will be a blessing to your future marriage and family? Which outcomes do you hope to replicate?
- Which habits and traditions do you want to leave behind, and why? Was there a lot of yelling in your home growing up? Too much drinking? Did your parents make little time for each other? Was there physical, verbal, or psychological abuse? Which behaviors do you need to guard against extra carefully? Which behaviors trigger you easily? If you are dating someone seriously, have you discussed these questions with him or her?
- What has your family history taught you that will help you make a difference in the world? “Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” – Cary Elwes (as Westley in The Princess Bride movie). – Our lives are filled with pain. Job 14:1 says, “Man who is born of a woman is few of days and full of trouble.” (ESV) But, with all pain comes a lesson. Maybe we did not make the mistake, but what can we learn from the mistake? What decisions can we make, or safeguards can we set up, to shield others from falling into the same traps?
- Do you know their stories? Understanding your relatives’ backgrounds is an effective first step towards turning your anger or resentment into compassion. Years ago, I was hurt by a relative of mine. There was not one large wound, but several small stabs which added up over time. In my youth, I just felt anger. However, as I grew, I learned more about her story and the ice around my heart began to melt. She was a wounded person who was looking for healing, just like the rest of us.
- Have you forgiven those who hurt you? Anger and unforgiveness have a way of making history repeat itself. How many hurt and resentful children grow up and repeat their parents’ mistakes with their own children? We are commanded to forgive, and not because the person deserves it (cf. Colossians 3:13; Ephesians 4:32; Matthew 6:15). Forgiveness is something we all desperately need from both God (and do not deserve) and from those around us. Forgiveness allows us to shed emotional weight and revives our ability to love again.
- How can you redeem your parents’ or grandparents’ poor legacy? We serve a God who redeems. A God who gives beauty for ashes (cf. Isaiah 61:1-3). We all come into this world sinners at heart and dead in our sins (cf. Ephesians 2:1; Colossians 2:13). Only God can redeem us. He has the power to breathe life into dust and create a person. He can turn what was meant for evil into something good. One of my favorite verses in the Bible is found at Genesis 50:20, after Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (ESV). Ask Him, “Lord, how can the legacy left for me be redeemed and used for your glory?”
- Think about the legacy you want to leave rather than the legacy left for you. “The great use of life is to spend it for something that will outlast it.” – William James. Rearview mirrors are for glancing, not for gazing. If we spend too much time looking behind us, we will crash. What is ahead? Who is ahead? Who is looking at you and up to you? Whether or not you have children, you will leave a legacy. Are you working towards leaving a godly inheritance to those generations who come after you? “If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.” – Benjamin Franklin
Your future is not determined by your family’s past. Your future is not determined by your past. We serve a God who rebirths, renews, rebuilds, and redeems.
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to grant to those who mourn in Zion— to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified. (Isaiah 61:1-3, ESV)
Keep breaking free!
Do you feel enslaved to your family’s legacy?