On faith: Messed up family dynamics can change
August 11, 2023
My congregations have been reading from the book of Genesis this summer and focusing on the story of Jacob. Some might know Jacob from songs about "climbing Jacob's ladder." Others might recognize Jacob from his fraught relationship with his twin brother, Esau. Still others may know Jacob as the father of the "coat of many colors," Joseph, who is sold into slavery by his brothers. Regardless of how familiar you are with the story of Jacob, it is a story of a dysfunctional family, full of poor choices and domestic violence: emotional, psychological, and physical.
Yet this is rarely the way we talk about Jacob. The Hebrew scriptures tell us that God changes Jacob's name to Israel - does that sound familiar? - and that out of this family, God will keep God's promises to Abraham and make them a mighty nation.
So how do we get to a mighty nation from such a dysfunctional family?
Well, it didn't happen overnight and it took a lot of learning and growing and forgiveness and reconciliation. Jacob's life began as a struggle between two brothers for resources and parental attention. Yet later, the two brothers meet again as adults and put old disagreements and frustrations behind them, allowing them to be fully reconciled.
Later, when Jacob's own children were growing up, the older children proposed killing their youngest brother due to the jealousy they felt in their hearts towards him. The situation de-escalated to throwing their brother into a pit and selling him into a life of slavery, yet all aspects of family support and nourishment were broken.
However, the little brother Joseph who was sold into slavery is given a chance to both reconcile with his brothers and to find a way to preserve the lives of his larger family and all of their people. This story is often one of the most powerful stories in the Bible about the way that forgiveness and reconciliation can work to change our hearts, our circumstances, and even a nation.
What are our takeaways from this conflicted story written at the beginning of the Torah and the Christian Bible?
One takeaway is that as long as there have been humans, we have stories of family violence. As people of faith, it is ungodly to hide these crimes or act like they aren't happening. If you or someone you know is in a relationship where violence is occurring, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233.
Secondly, we know that through learning, spiritual interactions, repentance, forgiveness and healing, relationships can be reworked to give us new behaviors and new paths for going forward. This results in our having better experiences with those around us.
Finally, I offer you that the story of Jacob is also a deep dive into a family with problems and suggests that even behaviors in families can be changed, but it is the work of a lifetime. Maybe you are in a family where there are hurt feelings, misunderstandings, or even major missteps interacting with each other. We have a hope that given time, the right work with counselors, participating in spiritual practices like prayer and self-reflection, and learning new behaviors and choices, we too can interact in new and healthy ways instead of repeating the "sins" of the past.
The story of Jacob and his family is not a story we wish to repeat in our own families, yet it offers a powerful reminder that humanity has been challenged by interpersonal relationships - especially in our own families - for a long time. With new learnings and God's help, it is our hope maybe we too can touch healing through the reconciliation and forgiveness Jacob and his family sought so long ago.
May God's powerful desire for healing be yours in the days ahead.
Contact Reverend Brian Cornell of Northwood United Methodist Church at [email protected].