FamilyLife Today® Podcast

My Past, My Present, My Story: Philip Yancey

with Philip Yancey | February 17, 2023
Play Pause

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

  • Show Notes

  • About the Host

  • About the Guest

  • Dave and Ann Wilson

    Dave and Ann Wilson are hosts of FamilyLife Today®, FamilyLife’s nationally-syndicated radio program. Dave and Ann have been married for more than 38 years and have spent the last 33 teaching and mentoring couples and parents across the country. They have been featured speakers at FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway since 1993 and have also hosted their own marriage conferences across the country. Cofounders of Kensington Church—a national, multicampus church that hosts more than 14,000 visitors every weekend—the Wilsons are the creative force behind DVD teaching series Rock Your Marriage and The Survival Guide To Parenting, as well as authors of the recently released book Vertical Marriage (Zondervan, 2019). Dave is a graduate of the International School of Theology, where he received a Master of Divinity degree. A Ball State University Hall of Fame quarterback, Dave served the Detroit Lions as chaplain for 33 years. Ann attended the University of Kentucky. She has been active alongside Dave in ministry as a speaker, writer, small-group leader, and mentor to countless wives of professional athletes. The Wilsons live in the Detroit area. They have three grown sons, CJ, Austin, and Cody, three daughters-in-law, and a growing number of grandchildren.

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

MP3 Download Transcript

My Past, My Present, My Story: Philip Yancey

With Philip Yancey
February 17, 2023
| Download Transcript PDF

Philip: 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.

Ann: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.

Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at or on the FamilyLife® app.

Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!

Dave: 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.

Ann: For sure.

Dave: You just don’t have any idea. Even if it’s a great family, you still bring baggage.

Ann: Totally. And I think that we underestimate how much that will affect our future, especially if we know Jesus now.

Dave: Yes.

Ann: We think that has cancelled my past.

Dave: Well here’s the question. How much baggage do we bring from our family of origin into our faith? Think it’s a lot?

Ann: Yes, I do.

Dave: Oh, I think it’s tons.

Ann: For sure.

Dave: We have Philip Yancey back in the studio today, and you’ve written about that in your latest book, Where the Light Fell. Philip, welcome back.

Philip: Thank you very much.

Dave: When you hear us talking about that, and when I read your book—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—

Philip: Yes.

Dave: —how did they shape you, and especially how did they shape your faith?

Philip: Yes, 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, who was very timid.

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 has 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. So there’s a scene that she told us when we were—I was maybe ten or eleven—there was a scene after he died when she went back to the cemetery.

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 are 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—


Philip: —this was terrifying to her, and she reacted in very unhealthy ways.

Dave: But 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.

Philip: 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. 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 it up.”

And my tape was “I’ll show them. I’ll show them,” because I was still trying to show my brother, “I’m okay, too. I have a place in this world.” Nature, nurture, who knows where those things come from, but they were defining motifs in both of our lives. 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.”

This Bible College we both attended had a 66-page rule book, and my brother made a decision, “I’d like to break every rule in the rule book.” That’s kind of a full-time job when you have a 66-page book, and he went after it, every rule. 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.” 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. “Jacob have I loved; Esau I haven’t.” And Esau was kind of the obedient one, and Jacob was a scoundrel and a cheater. He always would find a way to get his way.

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, but 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.

Ann: 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.

Philip: Right.

Ann: Did she tell you that, and did she push you toward that?

Philip: She did, not right away. Again, it was about when I was ten or eleven. My brother would have been a young teenager. 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.

Ann: Sure.

Philip: And boy, I just tell the 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.”

Ann: Aaaahhh.

Dave: Wow.

Philip: It just shows you how faith can become toxic faith.

Ann: Abusive.

Philip: Abusive. 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 your 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—it includes a lot of addiction and a lot of bad choices, several attempts at suicide. He’s doing relatively well now, but he’s paid a great toll.

Ann: Aaahhh. 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, 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.”

Philip: Yes.

Ann: When he had a full ride to Wheaton! It’s amazing. This kid was gifted.

Dave: Do you feel like in some ways God protected you from some of that? You’re raised in the same household, your mom saying similar things. 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.

Philip: Yes. Well, that’s why the second theme 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 free-lancer. I started out; I thought “Boy, I’m going to be a writer. I’m going to be a journalist. I’ll write about”—it was the days of Woodward and 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 exposes of them.”

I did a couple early on, and I thought “This is not fun, because you have to be around these jerks all day.”


And then 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. They’ve emboldened my faith, and even though I probably wouldn’t be very good at the things they do, I can write about it, draw attention to it, and challenge other people.

So we’ve had some therapy over the years.


You don’t heal overnight.

Ann: Did you carry it into your marriage? Were there things that your wife could see that were a result of your upbringing?

Philip: Sure, exactly what Dave mentioned about avoiding conflict. “Let’s not deal with that now.” Janet didn’t let me get away with that. She just kept hammering.

Ann: She broke the shell.

Philip: She broke the shell, yes. 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.

You’re stuck in the same house, you have these different upbringings, there’s a power struggle going on, and it doesn’t always work out well. Janet is very strong and assertive in a confrontational way, and I’m very strong in a resistant kind of way, so the sparks fly.


Philip: 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, too.

Dave: 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. 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 16, 17, 18 and 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?

Philip: I would say be patient and pray, and don’t try to force something. My mother had valid concerns about her sons’ 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.

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 and 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. 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 it 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 children’s books and all that. And be there, and often it will bleed over to those parents, your children.

Ann: You talked about grace. I’m curious as a writer—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 the Word is amazing. The Bible is 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?

Philip: The beautiful thing about the Bible is that it can reach you at a whole bunch of different levels.

Ann: Yes.

Philip: 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 that, actually. It’s beautiful. They had some of the best writers in the world working on it back in King James’ day. There is 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; it’s all in there. 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 existentialists I’ve been reading.” I love the fact—and this is, of course, 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.

In Psalms and in 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. 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. Keep going, because I’m on the other side waiting for you.”

Years later I took an online quiz on “I Was a Teenage Fundamentalist.”


It had all these questions about “What do you most resent?” etc. 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.

Dave: Yes. I think one of the things that has helped me from your writings specifically, Philip, 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—

Ann: And even laughter.

Dave: Oh, you couldn’t laugh.

Ann: Yes.

Dave: There wasn’t joy there. If it was, it was sort of fake. But then I go to the Bible, and especially in college when I really first started reading it, I’m like, “There’s all kinds of questions here. There’s all kinds of doubts here.”

Philip: Yes.

Dave: “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—”


“—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.” You’re the master, 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, “Philip Yancey helped me to understand God loves me just as I am, and yet has an incredible plan for my life that includes grace.”

Ann: 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, “Yes, yes. I understand. I understand, and for the first time see grace and receive grace.” 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.” So to have a God that died for all of that was absolutely mind-blowing. It’s the Gospel, and it changes your life.

Philip: 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 punish us, finds another way. 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 white-washed tombs and things like that. I would scratch my head over what did Jesus have against the Pharisees?

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 the biggest point you missed is that God is a God of grace, that His love extends to the prodigal son, not just the obedient elder brother.”

Dave: 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. 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.

Ann: And let your kids see your own struggle as well. 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.

Dave: 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.

Ann: Wasn’t he so good?

Dave: Oh, he was amazing.

Ann: And honest, and he just gives hope. Let me just say thank you to the FamilyLife donor who has been giving and partnering with us to give hope to other families.

Dave: Yes, 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. Philip reminded us of that, and you have helped that get into somebody else’s home.

Let me just say this, if you’ve never donated to FamilyLife, today is 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.

Shelby: Yes. It genuinely will. I’m Shelby Abbott, and we here at FamilyLife want to say thank you for your support. When you give at, we want to send you a copy of Philip Yancey’s book called Where the Light Fell. When you partner with us, you’ll help more families 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.”

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 will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.

FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife®, a Cru®Ministry. Helping you pursue the relationships that matter most.


We are so happy to provide these transcripts to you. However, there is a cost to produce them for our website. If you’ve benefited from the broadcast transcripts, would you consider donating today to help defray the costs? 

Copyright © 2023 FamilyLife®. All rights reserved.