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My Past, My Present, My Story: Philip Yancey

Family Life Today / Dave & Ann Wilson, Bob Lepine
The Truth Network Radio
February 17, 2023 5:15 am

My Past, My Present, My Story: Philip Yancey

Family Life Today / Dave & Ann Wilson, Bob Lepine

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February 17, 2023 5:15 am

Bestselling author Philip Yancey describes how religious pressure sent him toward healing his toxic faith, but his brother into a self-destructive spiral.

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Think of Jesus' parables. The story of the prodigal son. Who's the protagonist? Is it the obedient older brother who does everything he's supposed to?

No. It's the prodigal who does the opposite, breaks every rule in the book. And the message is God can work with whatever you are.

You have to let him, and some changes must be made. Welcome to Family Life Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I'm Ann Wilson.

And I'm Dave Wilson, and you can find us at or on the Family Life app. This is Family Life Today. I think if there's something that we underestimate when we get married, it's the baggage we bring in from our family of origin. For sure.

I mean, you just don't have any idea. Even if it's a great family, you still bring baggage. Totally. And I think that we underestimate how much that will affect our future, especially if we know Jesus now. Yeah. We think that has canceled my past. Well, here's the question.

How much baggage do we bring from our family of origin into our faith? Think it's a lot? Yeah, I do. Oh, I think it's ton.

For sure. We've got Philip Yancy back in the studio today, and you've written about that in your latest book, Where the Light Fell. Philip, welcome back.

Thank you very much. I mean, when you hear us talking about that, when I read your book and, you know, we talked about it yesterday, your family of origin, your dad was passed before you were even two years old, but your mom had such an impact on your life and your church impacting your life. As you think back about those wounds, because we all have wounds, how did they shape you and especially how they shape your faith?

Yeah, you're absolutely right. As I look back now, I have a lot of sympathy for my mother. She had a much worse upbringing than I did. I think she did her best, but she was unprepared for life on her own.

And then Prince Charming came along, my father, and he was an adventurous, risky guy, so different than my mother. He was very timid, and the situation came where he had polio, and she was part of pulling him out of that iron lung against medical advice, and then he died. She had never written a check. She had never driven a car. She was unprepared.

She's got these two little boys at home and no source of income whatsoever. She grew up in Philadelphia. Now she's in Atlanta, had moved with her husband, and that was pretty tough. In teenage years, as I tell the story, we later found out that when my father died, the only way she could kind of come to terms with that was decide that God wanted to live his life through us, my brother and me. And so there's a scene that she told us when we were, I was maybe 10 or 11. There was a scene after he died when she went back to the cemetery, and it was still mounded with fresh dirt, as graves are when they bury a coffin, threw herself down with her arms stretched out, prostrate on the grave, and said, God, go ahead and take these boys now, meaning my brother and me, unless they're to replace their father as a missionary in Africa.

Pretty serious, and the way that played out was not healthy. So when we became teenage boys just doing what teenage boys do, this is terrifying to her, and she reacted in very unhealthy ways. I watched my brother. My brother would fight back, and when you're a teenage boy and you're living with an adult, you usually lose, and he lost. I took a different approach.

I call it turtling down. A lot of kids do this. You know, I want to just say to people who are still bearing those wounds from childhood, have sympathy for yourself. I was very unhealthy in my response by creating this hard shell and being impermeable, but it was a survival mechanism, and sometimes we kids do that, and sometimes they're very unhealthy. I've known kids, and I did a little bit myself, who participate in self-harm. You think, what a terrible thing, and it is terrible, but it makes sense when you're in an abusive environment like that, and cut yourself some slack. You know, don't carry that around forever.

That's what grace and forgiveness are all about. So I married a woman who became a social worker, and I like to say I was her first social work project. I talk about, it's a romance story, the book.

I mean, everything starts changing when I meet Janet on the pages of the book and in the pages of my life as well. How old were you when you guys met? I was 17 when we first met, and then I got married at 20, so we were pretty young, and she was very good at not letting me pull into my turtle shell. She would crack it wide open. She's very demonstrative, and she's not going to have any of this hiding or not expressing emotions that I was so good for. I'm looking at Anne because I think I married the same woman. She will not let me hide, which is awesome. Well, and he has a really rough past as well.

Alcoholic parents, abusive, things going on in the home, and so if anything out of the ordinary that would be any sort of conflict would arise, he would want out and just leave. Turtle down, yeah. Yeah, turtle down. Yeah. I didn't have that term, but now I know what it is.

I'd pull my head in, and I'd put the shell out. Not letting anyone too close. You know, as you think about the wounds that we all carry in different degrees, your life and your brother's life turned out completely different because we process them different. Yes, he was two years older, and he was superior to me in every way. He was smarter.

He was more talented musically for sure, better athletically. And it's funny, we grew up with these little tapes, and I don't know where they come from, but we had very different tapes. His tape was, you're going to mess it up. You're going to mess it up.

Everything you do screws up. And my tape was, I'll show them. I'll show them. Because I'm still trying to show my brother, you know. I'm okay too.

I've got a place in this world. And nature, nurture, who knows where those things come from, but they were defining motifs in both of our lives. And we grew up in the same strict church, in the same strict family. He had a different response than I did. His response was, I'm going to be the opposite of everything I was taught. So, this Bible college we both attended had a 66-page rule book. We joked about, there's the Old Testament and the New Testament, you know, because there are 66 books in the Bible. And my brother made a decision, I'd like to break every rule in the rule book.

Well, that's kind of a full-time job when you've got a 66-page book. And he went after it, every rule. And I didn't express rebellion that way. It was more inner. I'm not going to buy what you're trying to cram down my throat here. I'm going to make fun of the teachers. I'm going to destroy other people's faith.

You know, it was more a passive-aggressive kind of response, I guess. One of the things that helped me at the Bible college, you do study the Bible, and I found that God almost prefers the ornery child, you know. Jacob, have I loved?

Esau, I haven't. And Esau was kind of the obedient one, and Jacob was the scoundrel and the cheater. You know, he always would find a way to get his way. Think of Jesus' parables. The story of the prodigal son. Who's the hero there? Who's the protagonist? Is it the obedient older brother who does everything he's supposed to?

No. It's the prodigal who does the opposite, breaks every rule in the book. And the message is God can work with whatever you are.

You have to let him, and some changes must be made. But I mentioned earlier that the giants of the Bible are some of the worst people. So none of us can say, well, God can never fix me. God can never use me. I think if you read the Bible, you'd have to say, that's wrong. Look at these people that God did use.

It's just amazing. Philip, did you and your brother, you had mentioned your mom had pretty much taken this call that she and your dad had felt to be missionaries, and your mom had placed it really on the back of you and your brother. They will fulfill that call. Did she tell you that, and did she push you toward that? She did.

Not right away. Again, it was about when I was 10 or 11, my brother would have been a young teenager. And she took it very seriously. Just to show you the kind of view of the world that this church had. When my brother made a decision to go to Wheaton College, most parents would be thrilled. And, boy, I just tell this scene in the book because it just stands out in my mind when he got accepted to Wheaton, got a full scholarship. Her response was, that I will pray every day the rest of your life that you'll be in a terrible accident and either die, or better yet, lie there paralyzed so that you have to look at the ceiling and realize what a rebellious thing you just did.

By going to Wheaton College. And it just shows you how faith can become toxic faith. Abusive.

Abusive. And it's easy. You know, the Pharisees ran into this, and it's very easy. Religion starts to control, and we've seen cult leaders, you know, Jim Jones and people like that. And it's not because they're evil people, it's because they don't act like God. God doesn't force us. God reaches out with grace and mercy to the most unlikely people.

But when we're in a group, there's strong group pressure, and people want to force goodness, their view of goodness into you. So my mother, it's not an evil thing to want your children to be missionaries in Africa, that's a good thing. But it is an evil thing to essentially curse one of the sons because he strayed a little bit from this path. My brother never recovered. I tell the rest of his story, which is a sad story, includes a lot of addiction, a lot of bad choices, several attempts at suicide, and he's doing relatively well now, but he's paid a great toll. When I read that part of the book, I just wept because those words, it is a curse on you to imagine saying to a child that you bore, like that's just a heavy thing for your brother to carry. No wonder he heard the tape in his head, you're just going to mess up.

When he had a full ride to Wheaton, it was amazing. This kid was gifted. I mean, do you feel like in some ways God protected you from some of that? I mean, you're raised in the same household, your mom's saying similar things. Ann has said to me many times, you know, because I had an abusive dad and an alcoholic parents and divorce and, you know, you've said to me many times, it's like almost God put a shell around. How are you even saying today? Like, am I?

Am I saying today? But, you know, it's almost like in some, of course, there was all kinds of repercussions and I had to work through process through all kinds of wounds that I didn't even know I had and didn't know I brought into our marriage, but I brought them all in there. But in some ways, it's almost like I was shielded in a bit. Do you sense any of that in your life or how are you sitting here today? The man you are coming from that background, because so many of us would say I'm a victim, I'll never be able to be what God wanted me to be because of where I came from, and yet you've overcome that.

Yeah. Well, that's why the second thing I write about is grace. I do think that at one point God said, okay, Philip, you've seen the worst of the church, I'll show you the best. The first job I had was with Campus Life magazine, a Christian magazine, and I wasn't sure what my faith was, but I had wonderful mentors who gave me the latitude, the freedom I needed. And then I started writing books and I could write about anything I wanted. I was self-employed. I was a freelancer, a free lancer. And then ran into Dr.

Brand and in the process. I started out, I thought, ah, boy, I'm going to be a writer, I'm going to be a journalist. So I'll write about, it was the days of Woodard and Carl Bernstein, these exposés of Richard Nixon and people like that. So I'll do that in the Christian world. I'll find these charlatans and I'll write these exposés of them. And I did a couple early on and I thought, this is not fun because you've got to be around these jerks all day.

And then they threaten to sue you when you write the articles anyway. So I thought, maybe I should find healthy people, people I would like to be like. And so I have. I've spent most of my writing career finding people who are unheralded, who are simply out there visiting prisoners or just doing the work of the kingdom. And they've emboldened my faith.

And even though I probably wouldn't be very good at the kind of things that they do, I can write about it and draw attention to it and challenge other people. So we've had some therapy over the years. You don't heal overnight. Did you carry it into your marriage? Were there things that your wife could see that were a result of your upbringing?

Sure, exactly what Dave mentioned about avoiding conflict and let's not deal with that now. But Janet didn't let me get away with that. She just kept hammering. She broke the shell.

She broke the shell, yeah. I think that's one of the great gifts of marriage. There was a book a few years ago, it's probably still out there, called Sacred Romance. And the author says that if you go into marriage thinking it will meet all of your needs and make you happy, I guarantee you, you'll be disappointed.

But if you go into marriage thinking this is a place for spiritual formation to refine qualities in you that need refining, it's actually a very good place. Because you're stuck in the same house, you have these different upbringings, and it's a power struggle going on. And it doesn't always work out well. Janet is very strong in an assertive kind of confrontational way, and I'm very strong in a resistant kind of way.

So the sparks fly. But we've been married 52 years, and you learn to deal with that. And that carries over to the rest of life, not just marriage. Well, a lot of our listeners are parents. And I'm guessing some of them are listening to our conversation yesterday and today going, my son is going through a crisis of faith, or my daughter. You know, I've raised them in the church, I've raised them with the Bible. For years it seemed like they were believing, and now they're 17, 18, 16, they're like, I don't know what I believe anymore. What would you say to those parents?

How can they walk beside their kids in that moment? I would say be patient and pray, and don't try to force something. My mother had valid concerns about her son's spiritual health, but she acted on them in a very unhealthy way. She wanted to force us to be different. And as you know, as a parent, that doesn't usually work very well when you're dealing with independent human beings. We have a model with God. God doesn't force us.

God gives us little hints along the way, but it's up to us, really. And again and again, I was just reading the other day that the one demographic category that is actually returning to church at an increased rate, most of them are going down, but millennials particularly, because they're young, they're at the age where they're having children, and they're suddenly realizing, ooh, I don't think I can do this on my own, I need some help. And the church helped me, just learning what life was like and what God was like, and maybe I should bring my kids into a church environment like that. So I would say to those parents, by the time they've left the home, there's not a lot you can do to persuade them to be different, just by talking. Live as an example to them, pray, and then when they do have children, that's your chance.

Jump in and be the greatest grandparents you can, and tell them about Jesus and give them the children's books and all that, and be that force, and often it'll bleed over to those parents, your children. Well, we've talked about grace. I'm curious, as a writer, and you said when you were younger, you were fascinated with words.

So I look at that and think, oh, God put that into you. You know, just your fascination with reading and words and how they come together. What was it like for you, I feel like, after you gave your life to Jesus and you had this incredible visionary moment with Him, did you see and understand grace different after you came to faith and surrendered? Because, I mean, the Word is amazing, the Bible's amazing, you've talked about the heroes of the Bible. But you grew up reading the Word, hearing the Word, maybe even having some teaching that wasn't necessarily great about the Word.

What was it like for you after? Well, the beautiful thing about the Bible is that it can reach you at a whole bunch of different levels. And I was raised on the King James Version of the Bible. I don't read the King James Version now, but I'm glad I was raised on it, actually.

It's beautiful. They had some of the best writers in the world working on it back in King James' day. There's some belief that John Donne and people like that were on the committee that translated it. So that rhythm, the beauty. And the other good thing about the Bible is that it covers every circumstance, every emotion. You read the Psalms and there's joy and despair and anger and lament and praise and, you know, it's all in there. And then there's a book like Ecclesiastes. I remember when I read that in college thinking, whoa, who let that sneak into the Bible?

It sounds like the existentialist I've been reading. And I love the fact, and this supports my point about God, that God is so humble and so open that He not only allows us to rail against Him, He gives us the words we can use. And Psalms and Job and Lamentations, Habakkuk, Jeremiah, these books, they're full of things that I would be afraid to say.

And God says, don't be afraid. You know, I've got big shoulders. I can handle it. You're just a puny little human being.

Rail all you want, but don't stop there. You know, keep going because I'm on the other side waiting for you. Years later, I took a quiz, online quiz on I was a teenage fundamentalist. And it had all these questions about, you know, what do you most resent, et cetera. And when I tallied the score at the end, because it actually had a numerical score, I realized that I had more positives in the fundamentalist category than negatives, because I learned discipline, I learned the Bible, I learned that things matter, that choices you make have an eternal consequence. These are huge lessons.

I'm grateful for them. The difficulty is not everybody survives. Not everybody makes it through there. And my brother was my sterling example of that, because he had the same lessons, but he never was able to get past the damage that was done.

Yeah, I think one of the things that has helped me from your writing, specifically Phillip, is I grew up in a church where you weren't allowed to doubt, weren't allowed to question, actually with sin, if you did. And yet— And even laughter. Oh, you couldn't laugh. You know, there wasn't joy there.

If it was, it was sort of fake. But then I go to the Bible, especially in college when I really first started reading it, and I'm like, there's all kinds of questions here. There's all kinds of doubts here. There's all kinds of struggles. These people are very, very flawed people.

They are nothing like my church people. They were sort of perfect, you know, and everybody here is sort of flawed. I'm like, I think I can fit in this club. I think I'm okay here if I can understand that I'm actually loved. I mean, you're the master of writing about grace, what's so amazing about grace. It's a club you are invited to, and you helped me to see that. It brought freedom to my soul.

So I want to say thanks. And I'm sure I'm among millions that say, Phillip Yancey helped me to understand God loves me just as I am and yet has an incredible plan for my life, and it includes grace. That's what I was going to say, Dave, too, because when I gave my life to Christ, I didn't grow up in a Christian home.

But I remember reading it and thinking like, yes, I understand. I understand, and for the first time, see grace and receive grace, and it blew my mind. Like, this is unbelievable that this great, great God would love me when I didn't love myself, and I thought I was so unworthy. And so to have a God that died for all of that was absolutely mind-blowing. It's the gospel, and it changes your life.

It does. And it's so counterintuitive, we almost can't believe it, that a God that has the right to be angry instead forgives us, and a God who has the right to punish us chooses not to. Punishes binds another way. And you just can't diminish the power of grace. I remember when I was writing The Jesus I Never Knew, Jesus said some very strong things against real spiritual people, the Pharisees. If you study the Pharisees, they're the kind of people you would expect to be put on a pedestal. They studied the Bible all the time. They were very scrupulous about keeping all the rules, and yet Jesus called them a brood of snakes and whitewashed tombs and things like that. And I would scratch my head over, what did Jesus have against the Pharisees? And I could talk about that a long time, but I think one of the things was nobody wanted to be around the Pharisees.

They were always judging you, making you feel guilty. They weren't pointing to a merciful God. They were pointing to an accountant God keeping records. And Jesus said, here you tithe your kitchen spices, salt and pepper and Mrs.

Dash and oregano. Ten percent goes to God, and yet you don't care about the poor. You don't care about justice. You care about the tiniest little things and you miss the whole point. And then the biggest point they missed is that God is a God of grace, that His love extends to the prodigal son, not just the obedient elder brother. And you think the tax collectors and sinners loved, wanted to be with Jesus.

They were repelled by the Pharisees and the religious. They wanted to be with Jesus. And I think even as a mom and dad listening, I'm like, we want our kids to long to be with us. Because not that we don't have rules and not that we don't demand obedience, but they feel loved and received by grace. And if they have questions, they feel like mom and dad are going to walk beside me, not judge me. They're going to be a safe place to go to with my questions rather than you can't think like that.

You have to believe this. My advice for the parents, walk beside your son and daughter when they struggle. Because they will. And let your kids see your own struggle as well. To let them know that you're not perfect, that you don't always do it right. And that you struggle and have questions as well.

And walk beside them and love them fully. I'll tell you, one of the joys of doing what we do is we get to bring programs like this into kitchens and family rooms of people's houses that literally will change their life and their legacy. Wasn't he so good? Oh, he's amazing. And he just gives hope. And let me just say thank you to the Family Life donor who's been giving and partnering with us to give hope to other families. Yeah, because you just brought hope into somebody's home. Somebody like you or me that thought, my family of origin is going to determine my whole life.

No, you can break free. Phillip reminded us of that and you have helped that get into somebody else's home. And let me just say this, if you've never donated to Family Life, today's your day.

Today's your day. You can become a partner with us and you can bring that hope not only into your home but into your neighbor's home. It will literally change lives.

Yeah, it genuinely will. I'm Shelby Abbott and we here at Family Life want to say thank you for your support. When you give at, we want to send you a copy of Phillip Yancey's book called Where the Light Fell. When you partner with us, you'll help more families to hear conversations just like the one you heard today. Conversations that point to the hope found in Jesus Christ.

You can give at or by calling 800-358-6329. That's 800 F as in family, L as in life, and then the word today. You know, often in an effort to not get let down, it's easy to try to control situations or even people, but at what cost? Well next week, Dave and Ann are joined by Tim Kimmel to talk about how his controlling behaviors made a significant impact on his marriage and with his kids. We hope you'll join us next week. On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I'm Shelby Abbott. We'll see you back next time for another edition of Family Life Today. Family Life Today is a production of Family Life, a crew ministry, helping you pursue the relationships that matter most.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-02-20 23:32:30 / 2023-02-20 23:43:37 / 11

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