It was April 1987. I was in my mid 20's, married with 3 small children and recovering from a challenging and confusing season of postpartum depression. After several years of struggling to grasp the reality of Jesus' presence in my life, God had finally broken through the darkness and made himself wonderfully real to my heart. I felt like I had been born again....again! With the help of a wonderful Christian counselor, I had recommitted my life to the Lord and was learning, for the first time, what it meant to focus my life on Jesus.
It didn't take long, however, before I learned that something within my internal compass still needed some adjustments. As the Holy Spirit would teach and instruct my heart in the way he wanted me to go, my mind always seemed to process the new information through a "family filter" that had apparently existed since my childhood. This internal "filter" would subconsciously take the new data from the Holy Spirit and would direct my mind to consider how the most influential people in my life might respond to the news:
"What will mom and dad say if they knew I was considering this? How will my siblings respond to these changes? How will my church family feel about the new approach I'm leaning towards?"
The turmoil in my soul was overwhelming. I felt the pull of the Holy Spirit calling me to trust him by putting Jesus first in my life but at the same time the obligation and expectation of family around me pulled me back towards what had always been "safe" and "comfortable" for me.
I was advised by a good friend to seek out the counsel of a very wise and gentle United Church pastor (who I'll call Bernie) known for his sensitivity to the Holy Spirit in how he helped others break free from bondages.
The particular issue that we dealt with, the one that relates to this post, was the need for me to recognize that I had formed "soul ties" to people in my family which were hindering me from freely and whole-heartily following Jesus. The greatest command we are given is to love the Lord our God with ALL our heart, soul, strength and mind and then to love others. The biblical order for our love and allegiance is always to be Jesus first, others second. I was guilty of reversing this order.
Although I would have said that Jesus was my first love, my actions revealed that any decision I made always looked for the approval of family before I looked for the approval that comes from God alone. This was at the heart of my problem and it explained why my soul was so vexed. I was allowing other people to play the role of Holy Spirit in my heart. I now echo the words of Psalm 119: "It was good that I was afflicted that I might know your ways."
I don't remember most of what Bernie prayed but one key point is still crystal clear for me. He took me to Hebrews 4 and explained that soul ties are formed when we allow ourselves to make unhealthy, sometimes subconscious, vows or commitments which links the struggle of our souls to other people's souls. We set ourselves up with sayings like "If my parents or church leaders don't agree with it, then it must be wrong" or "Keeping peace in the family is more important than being honest and obedient to Jesus", or "I want them to love me so I better not do anything they wouldn't approve of". (If both parties are operating with unhealthy soul ties towards each other, this disorder is commonly referred to as Codependency.)
Bernie then explained that, by the power of God's Spirit, we would pray to sever the unhealthy soul tie with the SWORD of God's TRUTH. By the end of this prayer, and by the grace of God, the Truth had set me free!
Ungodly soul ties should not be confused with the godly soul tie that is made between a husband and wife, linking their bodies and souls together as one flesh, "till death do us part". But an ungodly soul tie is harmful in that we make vows and allegiances to people whose opinion of us becomes like an idol to our soul and distracts us from following God alone. Instead of being helpful for our spiritual growth, these vows and soul ties actually choke our spirit and cripple us in our ability to hear and obey the voice of our Shepherd.
The words of Jesus in Matthew 10:34-36 clearly reveal that the SWORD of Truth in our relational interactions does not always reap peaceful and happy relationships, nor should we expect it to:
"Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law--a man's enemies will be the members of his own household."
Matthew 10: 37 also warns us that if we love father or mother, son or daughter, more that we love Jesus then we are not worthy of following Him. These are hard words for us to wrestle through as they challenge the most foundational relationships in our lives. Yet we cannot truly understand discipleship until we have counted the cost of obedience as it relates to the relationships closest to us. We are called to be living sacrifices and slaves of One Master, the One who bought us with His precious blood and loves us with absolute, unselfish LOVE!
There are times that we, as the Family of God, can also exert undue expectation and obligation over one another. It can be in the form of what we call "legalism" or it can be a more subtle version of simply projecting a silent sense of disapproval towards someone in an attempt to make them feel guilty for thinking differently that we do. We still have much to learn in regards to what it looks like to "agree to disagree agreeably" and in a spirit of love and grace.
A dear prof of mine, whose theology of women I don't fully agree with, often closes our discussions with these encouraging and loving words: "Anne, let's keep the conversation going". His words acknowledge that our dialogue together is still not accomplishing what we may have hoped it would but, because we are family, we are choosing to keep a door open for the Lord to merge our paths, perhaps a little further down the road....even if it takes till heaven to agree fully.
In our own family of 4 adult children, two of which are married, Martin and I have similarly tried to let them know that the decisions they make are THEIR decisions, between them and the Lord. We may feel impressed to express our thoughts, views, and concerns to them but we have tried to intentionally release them from feeling bound or obligated to our approval as parents. Of course we want them to take our advice...but, at the end of the day, I don't want them to feel bound to do so. I want them to feel free to disagree with us and to do what THEY think is right. Even if they know we're initially not happy with their decisions, I want them to know "Hey, we'll get over it!!!" Our approval is not as important as God's approval and I don't want their souls to be in bondage to an unhealthy soul tie to us as their parents.
I love that the Bible includes stories of people like Paul and Barnabas who strongly disagreed on how the work of ministry should be done, leading them both to a season of separate, yet effective, ministry. Some time later, though, Paul seemed to have a change of heart. It's not a sin to disagree or even temporarily part ways with family or other believers. Sometimes these boundaries are necessary to allow everyone involved to accomplish the goals that each feels led to accomplish. True Christian love is best recognized by the ability to extend such freedom to those with whom we differ or who simply need "space" to discover God's purpose for their life. It's easy to love those we agree with. The real challenge is loving those who genuinely love God's Word but simply interpret the data differently.
I'm not going to lie, maintaining a healthy tension within the broader context of the Church requires a rich supply of the Fruit of God's Spirit to guard our hearts against bitterness and discouragement. Yet, with all my heart I do believe in the power of Jesus to fulfill the promise of his Word: "I will build my Church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it."
So, as we press on in the sure hope of our Saviour's soon return, I pray that we will each prosper in the liberty of obedience, even as our soul prospers in the liberty of being FREE to become ALL that God has called us to be.