Quick. Raise your hand if you have family issues or even a family estrangement. You're not alone. My husband and I have experienced some of the same problems. In fact, we walked away from my family of origin about ten years ago, and it was heartbreaking.
What is even more shocking is that we were all professing Christians when it happened. In fact, my father was a well-known Italian restaurateur famous for his dramatic conversion to Christianity in the 1970s. (His conversion made the local and national news.) As a young man, he owned an Italian restaurant and the first nightclub in Texas. After ten years of living in the fast lane, he closed the restaurant, nightclub, and bar because of an unforgettable salvation experience. Subsequently, he went into the ministry.
During my father’s thirty-year tenure, he was the associate pastor of two megachurches in Dallas, Texas. And my mother was the senior pastor's secretary for many of those years. We were the poster child for Christian families. Yet, tragically, the family estrangement still happened, despite our faith.
You may wonder why my husband and I would walk away from my Christian family and become estranged. Believe me, it was not an easy decision, yet it was the right thing to do. I needed healing. Not just emotionally but physically.
Earlier that year I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. There were ulcerations throughout much of my digestive tract causing significant health issues. Right after the diagnosis, I realized I was incredibly angry, even filled with bitterness toward my parents. Sadly, my anger had encroached into all parts of my life. It took the threat of an ileostomy, an external pouch in place of a colon, to realize I needed to get away.
I was angry because we had unresolved issues that went far back into childhood (this did not include sexual abuse), we suffered from lack of communication and angry outbursts, and there were expectations on both sides that could not be reconciled.
It didn’t help that we were probably stuck in unhealthy family patterns that dated back perhaps for generations. We tried family counseling; it was a disaster. There was no going back.
Within the first year of leaving, I started to digest my food. I was no longer in jeopardy of losing my colon. My husband and I concluded that stepping away from my family was the right thing to do, although we hated having a broken relationship. In fact, it was embarrassing.
I felt an enormous amount of shame because of my family estrangement, especially as a believer in Jesus. Not only that, I harbored bitterness and unforgiveness toward my parents, God, and myself. In fact, I was stuck in self-pity. After much prayer, I decided to go to counseling.
While in counseling, I realized I never understood God’s love for me. I knew He loved everyone else, but I could not embrace the idea that He loved me too, especially since I was estranged. I thought God was disappointed in me. Yet nothing could ever separate me from God’s unfailing love.
For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39).
I could never be estranged from God’s love. Three years later, a significant breakthrough came when I put scriptures down on note cards and said them over and over every day out loud. It took a while, but I finally started to believe the Truth. This is when I really forgave everyone, including myself, and God. I fully embraced God's love for me as His child.
After seven years away, my husband and I felt called back to my family. The problem was there was no way back. Bridges had been burned. Too many things had been said, trust was permanently broken, and no one was willing to budge. That's when I decided to pray and fast for two days. In desperation, I asked God to talk to my father’s heart. I trusted that the God who holds the power to raise the dead could breathe new life into our defunct relationships. I just didn’t know on which side of heaven our relationship would experience healing, as God doesn’t promise that we will see relational healing in this life.
In January of 2017, I fasted and prayed. I did not know how God would respond to my prayers. Would God say “no” or “not yet”? Miraculously, two days later, my father called and extended an olive branch. That one phone call changed the dynamics of our relationship and made a bridge where none existed. Slowly, my husband and I started a conversation with my parents. We moved forward extending grace and moving towards healing.
Now, two and a half years into the renewed relationship, we have forgiven each other and reconciled significantly. The process of coming back to the family has not been easy, but God has been faithful to restore what the locust has eaten.
“I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten...You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame” (Joel 2:25a-26).
God has blessed our family with the gift of healing and reconciliation. With my family's blessing, I wrote a book about our family estrangement called Estranged: Finding Hope When Your Family Falls Apart. My mother even wrote the afterword. If you are struggling with family problems all the way to an estrangement, I encourage you to find encouragement in our family’s imperfect story. The book offers actionable steps toward healing and forgiveness, even if you never reconcile. If God can work in my family, he can work in yours too.