Ransomed from the Futile Ways: Dealing with My Mother’s Ghosts

Night after night she secluded herself in her bedroom, numbly staring at a screen long after Johnny Carson bade her goodnight. A bottle of prescription pain medication was never far from reach. My dad dutifully cooked dinner and took it to her. He worked a full-time job, but also tried to keep up with dishes, laundry, yard work. The house was often a wreck.

He walked on eggshells—deferring, absorbing criticism—a delicate dance to avoid a landmine.

Occasionally, she’d go on a cleaning binge and spend two days scouring everything. But the burst of energy always gave way to lethargy. She did, however, get up and work five days a week at a daycare. 

I didn’t have a term for it then, but I think the phrase is “high functioning depression.” 

On Saturdays she might go to the grocery store but not come home for hours and hours. I always wondered why shopping took so long. 

I have no memory of her tucking me in at night or reading books together. But I do have sweet memories of making pumpkin pie. 

When my parents dropped me off at college, my mother sobbed, big, ugly, unable-to-get-words-out tears. She cried the entire time while taking my things into the dorm room, unpacking, and as she clung to me when it was time to leave. 

“What if I never see you again?”

My roommates later confided, “We thought she had a terminal illness and was dying.” 

Trauma’s Far-Reaching Effects

She wasn’t dying, but she was shackled by her own mind. Ghosts of the past haunted her constantly—horrific physical and sexual abuse including rape, an affair with a married man, miscarriages, and, I’m sure, other phantoms I never learned about. 

If you're familiar with Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), you'll recognize it’s significant that she went through at least seven categories out of the ten. The trauma and abuse she never left behind had far-reaching effects on our family. Only as an adult do I now understand how profoundly they affected us.

In part, my childhood is why I diligently and intentionally seek out how best to shepherd our children. It’s partially why I read so many books and so often pray, “Keep transforming my heart, Lord, that I would show them Jesus. Let the cycle end with me.”

I wish my mom had had a better life. I wish the church had known more about mental illness. 

“What if I don’t believe enough? What if I don’t have enough faith to be saved?” 

We talked through these questions with her countless times, but she always struggled. I believe she was a Christian, but she never understood the true freedom given her. 

Awake in the Presence of Christ

Her death in 2017 was, in many ways, a relief. That's not something you're supposed to write, but there it is. I love her, but to understate it, ours was a difficult relationship and our home not an easy one in which to grow.

How utterly amazing it must have been for her to wake up in the presence of Jesus! 

For the first time, her mind was no longer her enemy. Now, she is full of perfect joy and peace, all chains gone. She knows God loves her and understands His love in a way I cannot fathom in this life. She’s more alive than ever.

It’s not because of her merit or great faith; she didn’t have or need them. My mom was accepted by God, called beloved and precious, on the basis of the finished work of Jesus Christ. 

Jesus came to seek and to save the lost. He opens blind eyes, breaks chains, and releases captives (Isa. 61:1, Luke 4:18). He died on the cross to purchase salvation, so that any who receive Him would be called beloved, accepted, redeemed, and spotless. My mother’s life reflects His delight in calling even the weakest of us to Himself.

Because she was covered by the blood of Christ, God looked at my mom and saw righteousness without shame. And now she knows it too. Isn’t that hopeful? Of course it is; it’s the most beautiful, rock solid, sure hope in the world.

If we’re honest, we all struggle, and sometimes greatly. Many of us have minds and emotions that hurt us. We think, Wouldn’t it be amazing to be accepted and cherished? Isn’t that what we all long for?

If I’m honest, I strain against my own shackles. I forget they’ve already been broken: That angry outburst I just had—I’m just like my mom. I’m going to perpetuate the same sins.

But it’s a lie straight from the pit. 1 Peter 1:18–19 crushes it with astonishing truth.

For you know that you were redeemed from your empty way of life inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of an unblemished and spotless lamb.

I’m sure I’ve read this verse many times, but recently I skidded to a stop, reversed, and gazed at it again. Ransomed from futile ways? 

Do I believe I’m bound by generational sin? Theologically, I would answer with an emphatic “no,” but perhaps a subtle undercurrent suggests that functionally, I believe I am.

The ESV Study Bible commentary says that “Christ’s sacrifice breaks the inevitability and power of ‘generational sin,’ the idea that sins of parents and grandparents are often repeated in future generations.”1 For believers, it’s not ultimately up to us to break the cycle! Let me say that again for the folks in the back: it’s not up to us.

The Cycle Has Already Been Broken

I’ve put so much responsibility on myself to be the cycle breaker. And so often I have agonized about creating trauma in my children.

But I have been redeemed. My life is not destined to follow the path of my parents. My parenting looks different, not because of my own efforts or “pulling myself up by my bootstraps,” but because of the finished work of Christ. My children, then, are not destined to follow my sin habits—the blood of Jesus can redeem them too. 

Instead of being bound to the futile ways inherited by our forefathers, we have a new inheritance. A living hope. And we can rest in the hope that this inheritance will be passed on to our children.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t unpack, process, and deal with trauma you’ve faced. I’m not saying you shouldn’t get help. But know that Christ’s sacrifice washes away sin, even the sinful habits and propensities we inherit from our parents. The cycle has already been broken.

That's life changing news right there.

Because the cycle has been broken I am free to live my true identity before my children. Redeemed. Transformed. Justified. And I am free from pride that thinks that if I am perfect enough then they will be okay.

Pouring into my children, cultivating the soil of their hearts, and saturating our home with the gospel are good and beautiful things. But if I hang my hope on living my best mom-life, it falls to the floor with the vapor of legalism. 

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by the yoke of slavery. (Gal. 5:1 NIV)

This former captive has already been set free. The yoke of slavery holds no sway over me, and I need not be burdened by it. I need not be crushed by my legalistic efforts to produce redemption in my children.

If we use the right children’s Bible . . .
If we fill our home with Christian picture books . . .
If we memorize Scripture together . . .
If we pray before bedtime . . .
If we limit screens and are careful about what they watch . . .

Rather, Jesus says “Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take up my yoke and learn from me, because I am lowly and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28–30).

The yoke of slavery, legalism, and its heavy burden to perform will only crush me. But Jesus says his yoke is light. His yoke is rest, through simple faith in Him. The gospel empowers me to get off the hamster wheel of endless striving.

Instead, I get to love and lead with grace.2 I can trust that God is transforming me day-by-day as He said He would (2 Cor. 3:18). I get to pray with my children, read Bible stories with them, teach them Scripture, and repent when I have sinned against them—not as a checklist, but out of the overflow of my own love for Christ.

All the “right” things won’t save my children. But Jesus can. I get to proclaim Christ to them and then rest in His sovereignty. May they be drawn by His grace and know they are ransomed from my futile ways! 

My mother stumbled through life, dragging her chains with her. They were so heavy. But what if she had known she didn’t have to carry them? What if she had discovered her true identity in Christ and the riches of her inheritance? What a comprehensively different life she would have had.

But my life is different. By grace, I gaze at the cross and the shackles fall to the ground.

November is here, and with it comes many opportunities to be thankful. Gratitude has a big job to do in us—and in our hearts. It’s one of the chief ways God infuses peace, and resilience into the daily struggle of life. What if gratitude didn’t come and go with the seasons but stuck around all year long. It’s possible! Find out how by requesting your Gratitude That Sticks Set when you give a gift of any amount to the ministry during the month of November!

1ESV Study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016), 2406.

2 I have gleaned the idea for the phrase “love and lead with grace” from the ministry Connected Families, having heard it in their podcasts and in the book Discipline That Connects with Your Child’s Heart.

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