Though we recognize that our family background has a major influence on the kind of person we all become, we don't often extend that to our spiritual formation and development. Talbot spiritual formation professor Dr. Judy TenElshof outlines how our family upbringing affects our journey toward spiritual maturity. Join us as Scott and Sean interview Dr. TenElshof on this important topic that affects everyone's spiritual journey.

More About Our Guest

Dr. Judy TenElshof is Professor of Spirituality and Marriage and Family at Talbot. She directs the Spiritual Formation Focus at Talbot. She holds a Ph.D. in Marriage and Family Therapy From Fuller School of Psychology.

Episode Transcript

Scott Rae: Welcome to the podcast, Think Biblically conversations on Faith and Culture. I'm your host Scott Rae, Professor of Christian Ethics and Dean of Faculty at Talbot School of Theology, here at Biola University.

Sean McDowell: I'm your co-host Sean Mcdowell, Professor of Apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.

Scott Rae: We're here today with Dr. Judy TenElshof, who's a Professor in Talbot Institute for Spiritual Formation. She's a specialist not only in the overall area of Spiritual Formation spirituality, but she's an expert specifically in one area that we want to explore today. That's the connection between your family background, your upbringing, and how you view your spiritual life and spiritual growth.

Judy teaches, specifically on this area in Talbot Spiritual Formation Focus, which is a three tracks Spiritual Formation set of course that all Talbot students go through. We consider it really essential to a person's spiritual development. Judy, thanks for coming on with us and exploring this super interesting area today.

Judy TenElshof: Well, I'm excited to it Scott.

Scott Rae: Now, before we get into it, let's talk just more broadly, what exactly do you mean by the term Spiritual Formation, and how does that differ from what we've traditionally called discipleship or spiritual growth?

Judy TenElshof: Well, why don't I begin by just giving you an elevated definition, if someone came up to me and say, what is Spiritual Formation? What I would say to them, it is the spirit of God transforms our life into Christ's likeness. It's something that happened after we come to know the Lord, and then he takes us through this process of making us more Christ like.

Now, students at Talbot, one of my students at school here, they come having memorized scripture, having a deep love for the Lord, and they love through his word, and they love his work, and they have a desire to be equipped to do ministry. But, when it comes to their own lives, they get confused as to why do we have to look at the content of soul care? What is the intentional need for prayer? Why are we telling our stories? What is the impact of our family history?

I love the fact that, we're going to uncover this because this is where spiritual nation is a compliment to discipleship. It is part of what I believe discipleship needs to be. Discipleship in the past or in traditionally, is usually a program that we take Youth Christians through. To teach them the basics of the Bible and of Christian doctrine, and so they know what they believe.

Spiritual Formation, is how we take what we believe, and we know we believe. Take a look at how much are we able to really experience that, live it? How much does it really change our character? If it doesn't, why doesn't it? Spiritual Formation is combining the knowledge of yourself, with the knowledge of scripture and the Bible and what God says to us.

When we bring these two together, they're in a beautiful compliment because our greatest testimony to the world is our life. How we live it, how we love, how we are kind, what our character is like, what our relationships are like, what our marriage is like. I'm excited that Spiritual Formation has become more and more or something that all seminaries and churches are beginning to look at in the deeper way.

Scott Rae: That's helpful, I like your elevator definition of that, that's really helpful and distinct. A lot of what you specialize in though, has to do with unearthing a person's family background and how that impacts their spirituality. I thought that the bible taught that in Christ we are new creations, the old passed away, the new has come. It sounds to me like you're saying that a persons past actually has a lot to do with their spirituality today. How do you make sense out of both of those claims?

Judy TenElshof: Well, I think that, when we come to know our Lord, I'm made new. God sees us as a new creature in Christ, and he gives us what we need through the gift of the Holy Spirit and the process of sanctification. He gives us the opportunity, that while we're still here to incorporate what it means to be a citizen of heaven. I think that it's both and we are made new, but there's also a process of sanctification in which we need to cooperate with the spirit's work in us, who actually does the transforming of our old self into our new self.

The bible in Ephesians talks about putting off the old self, and often times we don't know what it is that we have to put off until we intentionalized prayer, and learn how to listen to what the Holy Spirit is doing a particular moment in our life, or no particular time or through a particular circumstance.

Our job is to cooperate with what we hear, and be obedient, and to continue to question in prayer what those things are, so that we can actually become more Christ like as we grow in the Christian life.

Sean McDowell: Judy, when I was an Undergrad, I was reading a book by Brennan Manning, and I read a line that now looking back, it seems so obvious, but it was transformative to me. He said something to the effect of, spirituality looks different for each person. When I read that, I realized that I had assumed that spiritual maturity for me would look the same as it did for my father.

When I started to realize, no, it looks different. I have a different personality, different experience, different calling. It was just such a freeing moment for me. Is this a lot, what you do is try to unearth these assumptions people have that just might not be uploaded in scripture to help them be more framed in terms of who God designed them to be?

Judy TenElshof: Absolutely. He made us individual unique, and we were put in different families, we experience different relationships. There is no way that, there are sins that you have to look at, and that I have to look at to grow in our spiritual life are going to be the same. Everything ... that's why we can't just do one thing, and we can't just teach the knowledge of the bible and expect that to change everyone. Because some people, the knowledge doesn't do a thing for them. They have to have the knowledge applied, and all of us do to some degree.

Sometimes, some people learn through actually reading and listening to something, and they will grow that way, another person has to experience it, another person, we'll get it through prayer. I really think that the Holy Spirit users, three primary ways to change us, and that is pretty consistent, but what happened in those three ways will be very, very different for each person.

One thing that Holy ... I'll just give you those three things. One thing is that he uses spiritual disciplines, he uses solitude, and silence and prayer and retreat and Sabbath. He speaks to us through these experiences, and it helps us to shut down our life a little bit to be able to hear his voice more clearly.

Another way the Holy Spirit really works with us is through our narrative. Our story has to be connected to God's story, and we have to be able to see how God works with us. For instance, I was in bed for a year at five years old, and during that time all the relationships, most of my family were formed around my sickness. I became the center of how people interacted with me.

Well, I had to go back to that time many, many times with a board, and say, "What were the good things about that?" There were some things I picked up, you can't always be the center. You have to also be the ones who serves, but when you're sick, and you're flat in your bed, you can't serve. There may be other people who have experienced that like me, but ultimately that is my process with the Lord, my story, and I had to be again to see what is God doing? What was he doing during that time? How can that time be used for his glory now? He uses spiritual disciplines, uses our narrative, our story.

The third thing that he primarily uses to move us spiritually is through community. God made us relational beings, and he is a relational being, he's three in one, and he wants us to be like himself. We need to have secure relationships around us, that encourage us, that help us accomplish God's purposes in our lives, that convicts us when we're going in the wrong direction. We just need people in our life.

Dennis Guernsey, before he died from the Seattle Pacific, did a study, and he looked at Christians, and the world we live in today. To look at how many people do we actually need around us to keep us on track. He came up with a number of 25, that really know us, and we know that we connect with on a regular basis. I find that most people don't even have one.

Our Talbot students, come into the school and they're lonely, they don't have people who really know them, they're hiding a lot of their story, they're ashamed of it, they feel guilty about it. Instead, in order for the Holy Spirit to transform that guilt into being able to experience his love right in the middle of that brokenness, they need to open up that story, with two others who can encourage them, help them to see what God might be doing.

These are the experiences that were taking Talbot students through, and people in churches now through, so that they can begin to see that God was at work in them from the very beginning. He continued that work and that's where we find joy in the Christian life. The Christian life is cooperating with the Holy Spirit that brings incredible joy.

Sean McDowell: Judy in your experience, people who come to Talbot, many will become pastors or youth pastors, some teachers, some will go into the business world. Those who don't come to grips with how their family background has shaped them spiritually. Do you see certain common threads as those people go out and be ministers and pastors in their lives?

Judy TenElshof: Well, if God isn't helping us to see who we are, that there was distortion that happened early on, in all the capacities that God gave us in his image. We have capacities for many, many things, but we entered this world we've never seen. All these capacities have been distorted, and to the degree that we don't look at them, we live out of the distortion, instead of out of God's design.

What does that look like? It looks like, being more concerned about me than about others, it sometimes looks like, wanting freedom but not wanting to take the responsibility, sometimes it means tolerating things that we should be convicted about. It's like we don't want to be vulnerable with the places that God really to want to change us and change our distortions.

That's why we see so much in narcissism today, we are taking on the characteristics of the world, that it's all about me, that if I'm happy then things are good. We're taking those on to the degree that we don't look at how these distortions happened.

Scott Rae: Judy this are some really helpful specifics, about how a person's family upbringing makes a difference in their spiritual life information. Thank you for sharing specifically the instant from your own life, your own upbringing. Let's take someone who maybe has a little different history, take someone who was sexually abused growing up. How might that takes effect their spiritual life? Maybe what issues would they had to deal with, that someone who's not had that history would not have to?

Judy TenElshof: I don't think that they have to deal with ... I think there are some specifics, they're probably dealing is with any distortion, but the biggest thing was sexual abuse, is that, it breaks trust. Sexual abuse, particularly if it happened in your family, if you had a family who didn't really awaken love or they awakened it, and then they abused it, it breaks trust. We need trust to love God, to experience God, we need to have faith. Our whole Christianity is built around having faith in the unseen, faith in someone who we can't touch.

Stepping out in the dark, you think about Hebrews and how it talks about Noah and Moses and all these people of faith for stepped out into the unseen. That's what faith is, when used and abused, and the very trust in someone, of the person, the family that you were interested too. Even if it happened outside the family, and you come back and tell the story and parents don't believe, oh my goodness, that breaks our ability to have any faith.

What do we do? We try to do it at our own, we try to protect ourselves, and we try to control everything around us, so that we won't be abused again. If we don't take control, we call into a corner, and so it could go either. It can be where you feel like you have to control everything around you to protect yourself or you become a person who's lost, unseen, unheard, not known.

Scott Rae: Judy that's really insightful about how stuff in your background might have this huge impact on just how you process a relationship to God, and how you would process spiritual growth. I suspect that, you have a lot of students who are pretty resistant to looking at their family background because it might have some of these really painful things in it. What are some of the main obstacles that you have to get people to overcome to really look seriously at their family background? I say this with my son in the room-

Sean McDowell: In the room with us engineering this podcast.

Judy TenElshof: Well, first of all, one of the things that help our students get it, and it almost scares them that we do this so quickly in the program but the very first class. We are trying to get them to tell their story with honesty and truth, and we'll do something to make that happen.

One of the things that changes that resistance is to realize the truth, that there is nobody who doesn't have distortions and things that they want to hide in their story, nobody has the perfect story. When students be ... they're in a classroom, and they start sharing a family sculpture where they see their family and the class can see it as it was. Later on we have them tell their story over and over in the program because it's so important that they begin to, their story is their testimony. If we aren't telling the truth of our testimony, then a person isn't really seeing the grace of God in action.

What it takes to be vulnerable, and then to have somebody come alongside and love them in the center of that brokenness. When they are accepted and loved at that pivotal place of brokenness, the grief and the pain can be released and go away, and God can fill those holes with his love, until we really let go of them.

That's why Spiritual Formation is all about humility, it's all about being submissive to the will of God. It's all about being vulnerable and being authentic, and being truly you, and finding those who can hear that and lost you in those places, this is the community aspect. When people finally realize that they can't present the perfect family, the resistance goes down just like that.

Sean McDowell: Judy I think it's so powerful that you said everybody has some dysfunction that they need to process. That may seem so obvious, but it's powerful because we may be pick out certain sins or dysfunctions and say, "Those are the big ones." But, all of us do. Now, the flip side of that, let me ask you, I'm curious, are there some common, either family dysfunctions or hurts that you see showing up today with students? That may be different a decade or two decades ago. Is there any change or commonality the issue of students seem to wrestle with today?

Judy TenElshof: It's some of the things that I mentioned a few minutes ago of how we stick and hope culture of the world, where we tolerate things we shouldn't. We think life is all about meaning, we have that all the time in our classrooms with our students. They want to take freedoms without taking responsibility for that, they hide, sin, I think about pornography, and how it is just rampant everywhere, but who's talking about? Who's absolutely entering into the process of sin. If you're involved in this, this is hurting your spiritual life, it's hurting your relational life.

We need to talk about it and figure out, how did this go wrong? How do we begin to apply scripture and God's love to those places so we can let go of that. We are dealing with the lack of relationship, and that's being multiplied many, many times by the technology of today. That we aren't in each other's presence looking eye to eye.

Scott Rae: You mean you can't be spiritual formed through text message and Facebook Messenger?

Judy TenElshof: No, because you can dismiss anything you don't want to see. You can just erase it.

Scott Rae: Judy, maybe tell us about a student or two. Who have seen their spiritual lives turned upside down by what they've learned about their family background.

Judy TenElshof: That's a hard question because I can't tell anybody's real story, in that. I just want to say where I see the most change overall, when they start telling their story, even how they are in relationship. We see incredible change from the time they enter a cohort group, and think, "I didn't choose these people, I don't want to be with these people, I don't like meeting every week, I don't like being vulnerable with them. How can you expect me to tell my story, when I don't know these people?" By the end they love each other, and they want to be together the next semester and some of them stay together. In whatever way they can throughout Talbot and beyond. We see this change, the change in relationships are the biggest changes.

The other one is, in how they parent. When you're confronted, if you're a parent, and our population at Talbot is a little bit older. Many of them are married and have children, and they're pastors already. When they're confronted with the effects of their own family history and their life. They begin looking at how their parenting, and the things that are missing in their parenting.

I get more per projects, we have them pray and spend time reflecting with the Lord, and then they do a writeup or reflective writeup up that I read, and then I get back to them with comments and questions and different things. But, I see so many of them questioning, "I feel so guilty about my kids, I am recognizing, I'm being too hard on them. I expect things that I don't know, I can't even do myself. I'm not loving them the way I have to."

Part of this class is also, I'm wiling to teach them how to parent well, how to awaken the capacities that they need, that their children will need, and growing to be citizens of heaven. How to connect their story, to their children's story, and their children's story to God's story. These are wonderful tools, that our students are finding as they go through this program.

Sean McDowell: Judy, let me ask you one final question for our listeners. I know some people are listening right now, maybe having a sense that there's some unresolved family dynamics in their life today. Whether they're young or old, going back to maybe when they're five, like your story or maybe a year, five or 10 years ago.

What's one simple baby step that you would recommend people would take to get the ball rolling? Is it simply, they go to pastor and ask if I can just start to share my narrative or sign up for your class? What would be the baby step for somebody to take or a book that you would recommend, to get the ball rolling in someone's life?

Judy TenElshof: Well, there's a lot of books out there, I'm Spiritual Formation right now, but I would not, I will probably not tell them to go to a book. The reason is, it's because books give you head knowledge, but they don't give you the experience that, I would love that changes those things that hurt inside.

I would say, I would send them to the Lord first, and I would say pray, that God brings you someone that you can share with, who will be able to hear this and take it in. I would ask him to ask the Lord, and then I would say, keep your eyes wide open. I love that passage in 1st Corinthians, no it's 2nd Corinthians 6:11, where Paul says to the Corinthians, "We have opened our hearts wide to you, but your affections have kept us from entering in, we beg you, open your hearts wide as we have to you." These people, I need to find someone that they can open their heart to, and who oversees them, and will love them as Paul did the Corinthians.

Scott Rae: Judy, thanks so much for being with us today. I found this incredibly insightful, I suspect this will be really good stuff for many of our listeners, they'll start thinking about, how, what's going on in their family background has an impact on their spiritual life and I would, Sean, I so appreciate that last question. I would encourage our listeners to start taking some of those baby steps that Judy described, because this is the way to really significantly deepen your spiritual life. Judy, thank you very much.

Sean McDowell: Thanks Judy.

Judy TenElshof: You're welcome.

Scott Rae: We appreciate it. This has been an episode of the podcast. Think biblically, conversations on Faith and Culture. To learn more about us and today's guest Dr. Judy TenElshof, and to find more episodes, go to, that's If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening, and remember: think biblically about everything.

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