Helping a Hurting Friend: Challenges of Family Relationships
Pastor Matt Sturtevant with Nancy Bonner, Licensed Specialist in Clinical Social Work
If you are planning to argue that we should bring “Biblical family values” to our culture today, you might want to avoid today’s passage. For that matter, you might want to avoid most of the book of Genesis.
Today’s passage is one that makes us think twice about suggesting that our families should look like the families of the Bible. A father-in-law and mother-in-law resenting their daughters-in-law. Parents playing favorites (“my son” vs. “your father” and “his son.”) One brother cheating another. A mother encouraging her son to lie to his father to steal from his brother. Subterfuge. Lying. Conspiracy. Hiding. Some great family values, right?
In fact, Peter Scazzero has this great picture of the matriarchs and patriarchs. He is a pastor who writes on emotional health, and has developed a genogram of the families of Genesis. A genogram is kind of a family map, but more than just a family tree, it includes healthy and unhealthy relationships within that family. Look at the genogram from the patriarchs and matriarchs: “Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Generational Sin.” Emotional cut offs, favorite children, family members lying to people inside and outside of the family, unhealthy relationships left and right. It found it fascinating to look at the family in this way, and see the challenges that that family faced, generation after generation.
Today we continue our series with a reality as old as humanity itself: families. When we talk about emotional challenges or mental health challenges, at the heart of a lot of it, what we are really talking about is challenges within families. Our families might look pretty good next to Isaac and Rebecca and Jacob and Esau, but I would wager a guess that a lot of our families face some of the same challenges. Resentment. Division. Grudges and unresolved anger. Even violence.
So, I wanted to bring in an expert on families and family health: Nancy Bonner. As we have in the other weeks in the series, today we want to tap into some of the wisdom from our pews in order to learn more about how we can be helpful to challenging families systems, of our own or of those who are important to us.
[Pastor Matt’s interview with Nancy Bonner is in editing and will be published here when available.]
Which brings us back to the story at the center of the sermon today. At the moment of the passage, Jacob is nowhere near that description. He and his mother steal his brother’s blessing. Then he goes onto steal his birthright. Then runs away from his brother’s murderous rage, enters into a mutually deceitful relationship with his father in law, escapes him by stealing away in the middle of the night, and ends up back in Esau’s neck of the woods with nowhere else to go. Through it all, he begins to become the emotional adult that Scazzero and Nancy describe. And finally, on the banks of the Jabbok River, Jacob looks inside himself, wrestles with his Creator to determine exactly who he is, and comes out the other side with a new identity. A new limp. A new humility. And a new name. No longer Jacob, the new man Israel returns home to the land of his childhood, ready to face his brother whom he cheated so long ago.
God—in this story and in our lives—is a God of restoration. Of forgiveness. Of grace. Of new beginnings. Of transformation. So, it is no surprise that the new man Israel, transformed by his experience with his Creator on the banks of the Jabbok, walked into his brother’s life to find the embrace of forgiveness. Jacob tells his brother, “to see your face is to see the face of God.” The story of the brothers divided becomes the story of the brothers reunited. The story of brokenness becomes the story of healing. Not perfection…no family can say that. But the story of subterfuge, lying, conspiracy, hiding, and upside-down family values becomes the story of grace. Of love. Of restoration. May we today find ourselves in that same story today.