Themes and Roles

All of us learn to play a role or roles in our family of origin. We also develop life themes, both positive and negative in childhood. These themes and roles affect us all our lives. If we are aware of them, it helps us grow spiritually, and understand how God has worked with us all our lives.

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We’re currently working on a series about Spiritual Renewal. So far we’ve seen, from the Bible, a template for spiritual renewal that goes beyond prayer and fasting to include a remembering of our past life with God – our personal story of God’s interventions in our life. If you’re just coming in with us, I hope you’ll go back to the beginning to catch up on the first three of this series so you won’t miss the foundational material. If you catch up, you can look for earlier elements of this series on our YouTube channel, LifeResource Videos, or on our Website, If you don’t do that, it’s going to be like coming in in the middle of a movie. You might not understand what you’re watching, hearing or reading. Context is always important.

Today’s presentation is about the themes that develop in our lives and the roles that we unconsciously play as a child in our family and how that affects us the rest of our lives.

What is a role? I remember, many years ago, listening to one of the older ministers, who was my supervisor in the church I was in. He was talking about how he was having trouble relating to one of his sons. He and his wife had five children and this child was the fourth. He could sense that his son was lost “in the middle,” like Malcolm, if you remember that old television show – Malcolm In the Middle – that’s the way his son was. One day he was working on the lawnmower and his son came to his side and wanted to help. So he became his father’s helper. In finding that role, they had a way to connect that was unique in the family. It set him apart. It was his son’s place. By the way, that’s how males get close. Did you know that? Women want to go face-to-face and talk to feel close, solve problems and feel closer. Men want to do stuff together – you know, watch the game, shoot their guns, drive their cars, whatever. So that was the way to get close for them – to do things together. And it set in his son’s mind, as he got older, as it turned out, that he could get close to people by helping them. So that role followed him into his adult life. Helping people is a good thing. God places a huge value on helping others. So that was good for him.

Okay, that’s an example of a role. What’s a theme? I had a young woman come to my office once. She also was a middle child of four. She was the, I believe, second in the birth order. Her sisters tended to be girly girls. They liked to talk about dolls, dresses, their hair, and as they got older, shoes, makeup, jewelry, etc. And so did her mother. She, on the other hand, wasn’t interested in those things. She liked baseball and other sports. She liked science. So did her father. Her fondest memory was when her father bought her a baseball glove and they could play catch together in the front yard. When she was about to start middle school, her mother and father divorced, because her father had an affair. And her mother made no effort to hide any of this from her daughters and tended to trash him behind his back to her children – which is its own form of child abuse. Her mother and sisters were deeply wounded, as was she, but she was wounded in a different way. Her sisters were completely on her mother’s side. And she was angry with her father for what he did, but also because she lost him. He left her. There was a sense of abandonment about his departure with her, whereas was not so with the other girls. There was a period of five years where he never even called any of his daughters. Her mother was bright – perhaps gifted, even – but in the artistic realm. Her father had an engineering degree and had made a lot of money with it. He was very technically minded. This girl turned out that way as well. When she found her acceptance letter to a major university in their mailbox, she was so happy she literally jumped up and down. And when she told her mother, her mother said, “That’s nice. It’s time to eat dinner now.” When she showed her father, he was more excited than she was and very proud of her. They talked for hours about what that might turn into for her in her adult life.

So, to summarize all of this, she felt completely out of step with her mother and her sisters all her life. The one whom she felt close to wounded her, and her mother, and her sisters. So there were strong feelings in two directions there with her. The reason she came to therapy, however, was to deal with feelings of disconnect with her mother and the feeling of being out of step, out of harmony wherever she was. That’s a theme – “I’m the one who’s always out of step. I’m the science geek while everyone else is the girly girl. I love my dad. They hate him. I have a hard time getting along with my mother. They love her. I went to college. They don’t care.” She told me, “I realized one day that feeling of not belonging – of being out of step – follows me around everywhere I go. I’m not going to be happy until I get rid of it.” So there’s an example of a negative life theme that was going to hold her back.

Let’s go back and look at some roles now – some examples, some common roles that people take on in families: the helper – we already saw that one – the rebel, the peacemaker, the sacrificial lamb – you know the one, the blame-taker – the rescuer – or sometimes called the enabler – the smart one, the dumb one, the pretty one, the nice one, the big brother or the big sister, the bully, the problem child. Those are just a few.

It’s interesting to watch families. Parents bring a child, whom they have identified as the one having trouble. This happens so often that even insurance companies – as inept and numb to human need as they are – have a name for these children. They call them the identified patient. And, in all fairness, I think they pick that up from the field of psychology. But they do use it. And that’s better than calling them the problem child, because it implies that just because the child is identified as the problem by the parents, it does not necessarily mean that it’s true – the identified patient.

Do you know what I see so often in these situations? The child is often the designated one to exemplify the family’s pathology. Think about the girl I just mentioned. Was she the one who was out of step? Or were her parents the ones? Were they out of step with each other and with the children? Where’s the problem in the family? Well, it’s not with the kids. Kids only react to what’s going on in the family. They don’t create the environment there. It was not with her at all. Her parents had caused her problem. Part of her therapy was to disconnect from the responsibility of being out of step and understand where that came from. Just because we learned in our childhood that we’re the scapegoat, or the bully, or the problem child, or any other negative role, it doesn’t mean that it’s true. But it is part of our story and we need to remember it, put words to it, understand it, if we’re to grow away from limiting the negative roles from the past.

Now let’s look at some themes. As examples, here are some of the negative themes I see in my work: “I don’t deserve good things,” “I’m defective,” “I’m not loveable,” “I’m not good enough,” “I must be perfect,” “I’m in trouble,” “Something is wrong with me,” “Relationships are dangerous,” “Life is dangerous,” “It doesn’t do any good to ask for things that I need,” “I can only trust myself.” We could say these are beliefs, but they’re beliefs that keep coming back to us over and over again in all of our endeavors in life. So they become themes.

We did another presentation some time ago. It’s called Your Life Theme. We did it before we started YouTube, but if you want the audio or the transcript, you can go to our Website, click the “Search” button, and type in “Life Theme.” You’ll find it there. It might help you understand more about life themes, if you do that.

Of the themes I mentioned, which one might best fit the girl that I was telling you about? “I’m always out of step” is a theme in itself, isn’t it? But it’s a variant on theme, “I’m defective.” When we look at the list, it’s good to know we have our own versions of these generic themes that I’ve presented to you. It’s quite possible none of them will fit you exactly, so you need to tailor it to fit your situation.

Let’s look now at some of the scriptures to connect what we’ve learned about themes and roles with the Bible.

Jesus and His disciples were walking on the Sabbath to do God’s work one day. They got hungry, so they gathered a few handfuls of grain from a field along the way and ate it – no McDonald’s back then, right? The Pharisees – the most judgmental of all the Jewish sects – criticized them for not ceremonially washing their hands as they did. And here is Jesus’ response. It’s in Matthew 15: 17 through 20.

Matthew 15:17-20 – Do you not see that whatever into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled, but what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart and this defiles a person? For out of the heart come evil thoughts: murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.

So our problems do not start with our behavior. They come out of our heart. And what is it about the human heart that’s so bad? Well, Jeremiah 17:9 tells us:

Jeremiah 17:9 – The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick. Who can understand it?

So we are, first and foremost, self-deceiving creatures. Maybe I shouldn’t say “first and foremost,” but it is one of the hallmarks of human beings – to be self-deceiving. And of all the creatures God made, we’re the only ones. Dogs and cats have no pretense. They have no psychological defenses. They are what they are. You know, I’ve never seen a giraffe try to be an elephant. Think about the young woman I mentioned. She believes she’s always out of step. She feels less than her sisters because of it. Is she? I just wish you could all meet her. In spite of all the rejection and wounding she’s suffered, there’s not a cruel bone in her. She’s a kind and gentle soul. She’s completely in sync with me when we do our work. She’s witty and insightful. She’s a pleasure to talk to. She’s just a charming person. Her out of step theme is a distortion that causes her to think about herself as defective when she is not.

So how does that go towards slander and all the other bad things Jesus mentioned? Well, usually, when we feel insecure, we do a lot of things that we wish we hadn’t done. You know, Cain…and I’m not saying this young woman would ever do what Cain did…but he was insecure about his relationship with God, so he killed his brother, who he saw as his competition. So all the things that wound us tend to make us defensive, insecure and that’s where a lot of the problem comes from. What is she likely to do because of feeling the way she feels? Will she shrink back from opportunity and not fulfill her full potential in Jesus Christ? Will this theme hinder her mission, should God give her one? Will she shrink back from loving relationships and be unsuccessful in marriage and parenting and employment? Will she wonder if she’s out of step with God and pull back from Him and doubt?

Do you remember the servants, in the parable, who buried the money their master gave them? They said the reason they did it was because they were afraid of him. Where did that come from? There were lots of other people there that used the money wisely. So they didn’t think he was too scary. So where did it come from? Well, we can only surmise, but it’s most likely not about the master at all, but about their past and the negative life themes they had. Life was scary. Life was unsafe. They weren’t good enough to do what he wanted.

So what’s the solution to a distorted life theme? Well, in Psalm 51:5 & 6, it says:

Psalms 51:5-6 – Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me. That doesn’t mean that he was born rotten. It means that, by the time he was born, his mother was infected with human nature – at least, what we call, or more realistically call, the devil’s nature. But here’s the verse I want you to look at. Behold, You – talking to God – delight in truth in the inward being and You teach wisdom in the secret heart.

So God wants us to be truthful to ourselves about ourselves and to learn the truth about ourselves, especially in the area of these negative life themes and roles. The apostle Paul said something I’ve found helpful. It’s in 1 Corinthians 13:11. He said:

1 Corinthians 13:11 – When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. Now you might think I’ve taken this scripture out of context, but let’s read the next verse – verse 12, 12 and 13 actually:

V-12-13 – For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then, face to face. Now I know in part, then, I shall know fully even as I have been fully known. So he’s talking about his relationship with God and how, in some point in the future, he’s going to know God the way God knows him. He’s looking forward to that resurrection from the dead, when he’ll be perfected. Then he says: For now, faith, hope and love abide – these three, but the greatest of these is love. So he’s talking about spiritual growth, specifically about growing in love.

To move toward God’s character, we have to understand our childhood, so that we can accurately put away childish things. I mean, this young woman is in her twenties and she’s still thinking about herself the way she thought when she was three years old. So we have to learn our way out of those things. I can see this so clearly when I work with people using EMDR. This young woman, as she began her treatment, would experience thoughts of rejection from her mother and sisters. She would recall how hurtful that rejection was. As the childhood traumatic memories were re-encoded, she could think of them with her adult mind. She began to realize her mother did love her, just not the way she wanted. She said, “My mother was not good at baseball, but I was not good at art. I should not have to be forgiven for that and neither should she.” And she began to enrich her story. Her remembering was changing from something painful to something insightful. And she began to let go of the hurts and the resentments, as she began to understand why they were caused. And she began to see that there was nothing wrong with her. When she accomplished that, she was, at last, free of that burden. She had rewritten her story. She was not defective. She had misunderstood. She was not defective. She was a perfect child of God when she was born. So the distortion was evaporating right before my eyes as I watched her come to these realizations. She could see more clearly herself as she was – at last, truth in the inward parts. She said she felt like a burden was lifted from her shoulders.

What about you? What are the roles you have played in your life? What are the positive and the negative life themes you have found in yourself?

One of my very first memories was my father taking me to the hospital where my mother had just delivered my new baby brother. I wasn’t yet three. And I missed my mother, but I was too young to go inside. Back in those days – I believe it was 1949 – they didn’t let kids in hospitals like they do today. So my father would sit with me in the car outside the hospital and he pointed up to a window. He counted over and down, you know, and showed me exactly where the window was and told me that she was in that room and so was my baby brother. And we talked about what it would be like when my brother came home. I was now a big brother. It was amazing how my father pulled that off. All my childhood I felt like the big brother – not that we didn’t have our differences, but when push came to shove, I always looked out for him.

I remember once, when he was in junior high school and I was in high school – we were three years apart and I believe I was a senior at this time and he was a ninth grader – and he came home from the ninth grade dance one night and told me that one of the high school football players had been in the parking lot at the junior high school and had threatened him with a knife after the dance. And I recall wondering how I, at 5’ 7 ½,” was going to handle a guy who was 6’3” and had me by fifty pounds. But I had to take care of my brother. That was my job – my role! May a really good sucker punch or baseball bat?? I ran through the options. The next day, the guy called and apologized to my brother. I think that that was Saturday – the dance was Friday night. And I can remember being hugely relieved that I wasn’t going to have to do battle with this monster of a guy. But I wasn’t as relieved as on Monday, when I saw him at school. He had a huge splint on his nose, which was about the size of a grapefruit, and two black eyes so big he looked like a raccoon. That was the beginning of a realization for me that my little brother wasn’t going to need me forever. Of course, we laugh about those days and they are past. I have put away childish things. Or have I?

Every job I’ve ever had has been in a caring profession, where I was looking out for somebody or taking care of them. In some way, that big brother thing shadows me always. Am I still the big brother? As I look back, all the experiences – good and bad – have brought me right to where I am today. Did God put that in me or did He just use it? I don’t know. I’ve felt frustrated at times, but as I look back, I can clearly see that God was right there every second of the way, even though, sometimes, I wasn’t aware of it. But that’s what is good about remembering and looking back. We learn things about what was going on in reality in our lives in times past.

How have your childhood roles affected your mission? And think about this. Does God send us on missions based on early experience? It’s a question – the answer to which would be immeasurably helpful if we could learn it. So that’s something to ponder – something to struggle with. And as we struggle to remember, as we work the jigsaw of our lives, as we enrich our story of our life with God from our earliest recollections, we find ourselves, somehow, closer to God, spiritually renewed, and ready to continue on doing the work that God has given. And that’s what this series is all about. If we do the work that God has given us, that’s the only way a human being can reach their full potential.

Okay, that’s it for today. Check back in two weeks to continue with Spiritual Renewal through remembering. Next time, we’re going to look closely at our family experience and how it impacts our relationship with God. We will also produce the list of themes and roles that we presented here, but in expanded form. We’ll put them on to help you find your own roles and your own themes, so that you can also draw closer to God.