I grew up with a father who was more likable drunk than he was sober. When he was six years old, his mother abandoned him on the doorstep of an aunt. His own dad (my grandfather) had died of black lung in the coal mines of West Virginia, and I can only assume that his mom was too poor to raise him. Unfortunately, so was his aunt.
My dad was passed from home to home, and wound up living with a Baptist preacher who beat him. Eventually, he escaped by way of the Marine Corps, and became a helicopter gunner in Vietnam. After being wounded, he returned to the US, where he met and married my mom.
In some ways, I’m very grateful for my father because he pulled us out of poverty. He was a successful businessman, and because of his provision, I didn’t have to grow up in a shack in West Virginia like he did. But he was also a man haunted by the trauma of his past, and he brought a lot of that wickedness with him.
I grew up in a violent, scary environment, where running and hiding were instinctive from childhood. I never knew which dad I would encounter – the angry, abusive dad who smacked me around; or the drunken, mellow dad who left me alone.
People sometimes ask me how I turned my story around. It’s a great question: How do you overcome the sins of the parent? How do you build a new legacy?
I believe the first step out of dysfunction is to become aware of generational patterns in your life. Christians sometimes get weirded out by the language of “generational sin” because they view it like a curse, but really the “sins of the parents” are all about modeling.
Modeling is a type of learning, where you pick up by extension the behaviors of someone around you. So, people carry anger from one generation to the next, not because they’re cursed, but because it’s the only coping pattern they’ve ever seen. In essence, they’ve learned a single stress strategy, which says, “This is how you’re supposed to adapt to the world.”
But here’s the beautiful truth: If all your behavior is the result of previous learning, then you can learn something new, and that will change you, too. Romans 12:2 urges us to be transformed by the renewal of our minds. In other words, we don’t have to be enslaved to generational patterns; we can be transformed through learning something new, literally “renewing” our minds. This is why I love to tell people, “You are not who you are. You are who you are becoming.”
How do you become someone with a renewed mind? At some point, you have to choose to trust God as Father. It can be challenging to get onboard with a father figure when all you’ve had is a negative one. But for me, there was a sense in which it was actually easier. As I learned about “our Father in heaven,” He was such a contrast to my father on earth. Instead of being destructive and hurtful, He was beautiful and good. He was everything I’d ever longed for, and He became the first Person I truly trusted in my life.
If all your behavior is the result of previous learning, then you can learn something new, and that will change you, too.
Trusting God paves the way for trusting others, and it will enable you to find clarity on who you want to be down the road. Around the time I was 18, God gave me new role models. I would watch these men at church, who were so kind and gentle with their wives, and think, “How can I be like that?”
A word of wisdom here – as you think about who you want to be down the road, curate cautiously the people who are in your inner circle. It’s no secret that wounded people are drawn to wounded people, which perpetuates unhealthy generational patterns. To forge a new legacy, we must recognize that the people around us will eventually become the voices inside us.
Choose those people wisely, and then begin modeling new behavior. That’s exactly what I did. I figured that if these godly men had what I wanted, I would mimic them. Now I’ll be honest, imitating someone else feels foreign at first – fake even. There’s a psychological concept called “imposter syndrome,” which is the sensation that deep down you’re a fraud. I think it’s normal to have a sense of imposter syndrome when you first start modeling the lifestyle of a mature believer. You’ll catch yourself thinking things like, “This isn’t really me.”
But that’s the whole point – we don’t want to be “us” because “us” is broken, and we want to blaze a new trail for generations to come. This is what the apostle Paul means when he says, “Follow me as I follow Christ” (I Corinthians 11:1). He’s literally saying, “Imitate me. Do what I do.”
In tandem with modeling new behavior, learn to be suspicious about your strongly held beliefs. When you grow up in an unhealthy environment, dysfunctions become normal. You can find yourself weirdly happy in conflict or stress because it’s all that you know. For that reason, it’s healthy to say, “I’m going to be at least a little suspicious of the things I hold to be of absolute importance, unless they are central to the gospel itself.” This is the attitude of any person whose posture is to learn, to change, and to grow.
Finally, lead your family to understand the sins of the parent. I’ve sat down with each of my children and told them my story. We’ve talked about “Adkins anger.” I’ve said, “Hey, you might have unusually angry responses to things in your life, and you’ll have to watch out for that because that’s been passed down through our family for generations.” I have these conversations because I want to equip my children. I want to write a more beautiful story for them.
Recently, my son Connor was talking about his grandfather and “Adkins anger,” and he said, “I’m so glad that one day my kids will have you for a grandfather.”
Let me tell you – if God could take an angry, rebellious kid like me, with a broken, messed up past, and turn my whole story around, He can turn yours around, too.
You are not who you are. You are who you are becoming.