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When Family Goes Wrong

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I have been witness to a family storm in the last few years that I never wanted to see. Brewing and churning for decades, a specific difficult situation blew it into a category-five fury in the last three years. Though it involved the in-law side of a close loved one (and not me directly) – as is often the case with storms of this magnitude, its path has been wide and its effects far-reaching. You could definitely say much of the family was side-swiped and felt the damage.

Clean-up efforts are underway, but things will never be the same. Good people were hurt, relationships were irrevocably damaged, and family ties were severed.

Abuse and betrayal – big or small – are difficult pills to swallow no matter how well you crush them, disguise them with excuses, and try to ignore their bitter aftertaste. So many types of behaviors and actions fall under the umbrellas of abuse and betrayal that it’s difficult to imagine any of us not having experienced one or the other at some point.

Abuse and betrayal within a family is particularly damaging simply by virtue of the fact that “family” is supposed to be those who are there when everything else falls away, the ones who are supposed to protect you from harm, not cause the harm. Family is who is supposed to love you no matter what.

Life on this side of heaven, however, is full of human error and brokenness; and – for whatever reasons – not all families adhere to this code.

We are hearing more and more about familial abuse and betrayal these days, but the issues are certainly not new. In fact, one of the first instances of this within a family in the Bible appears right away in Genesis – the account of Joseph and his brothers.

You know the story – Joseph’s brothers hated him because he was very obviously their father’s favorite (giving Joseph a special “robe of many colors” as a gift to show his deep love), and sold him into slavery. While the story of Joseph’s brothers being filled with so much hate and jealousy that they sold him is inconceivable enough; even more incredible is how Joseph handled his evolving fate time and time again throughout his young life.

Joseph certainly could have taken on the belief and attitude that God had abandoned him. Why else would life be treating him so cruelly unfair over and over?

He was betrayed by his own brothers and sold into slavery. He was sent to prison after being wrongfully accused of trying to assault his master’s wife. He was forgotten in prison for years after accurately interpreting the Pharaoh’s cup-bearer’s dream and asking to be mentioned to the Pharaoh.

Joseph faced each of these storms and his difficult life circumstances with integrity and continuing faithfulness to God. But how? WHY?

Genesis 39:2 tells us that after he was purchased as a slave, “The Lord was with Joseph, so he succeeded in everything he did …” Then after he was thrown into prison by Potiphar, Genesis 39:21 states, “But the Lord was with Joseph in the prison and showed him his faithful love.”

Eventually it was his ability to accurately interpret dreams that led him out of prison to his new life as Egypt’s second in command. In both Genesis 40:8 and 41:16, Joseph declares that it is not he who has the power to interpret dreams, but God – who is working through him.

Two separate ideas within Joseph’s story point to why and how his faithfulness remained strong and he was able to get through so many dark areas along the path God laid out for him.

  • God remained with Joseph as he navigated the struggles of the plan God had for him (and Joseph never stopped believing that).
  • Joseph gave God the glory for his abilities and successes.

Joseph even honored God’s faithfulness in remaining with him and healing his betrayed heart by naming his two sons after Hebrew terms that conveyed God had made him forget his troubles and his betrayers, and God had made him fruitful in the land of his grief (Genesis 41:51-52).

The life journey God sent Joseph on was far from easy and was filled with betrayal after betrayal – beginning with his own family members, but everything he went through served to prepare him for the ultimate role God had in store for him. God used Joseph’s suffering to develop his wisdom and shape his character, and he went on to lead all of Egypt. When faced with the opportunity to exact revenge upon his brothers, Joseph chose instead to forgive and care for them.

In Genesis 41:37-38, while Joseph was still a prisoner, the Pharaoh referred to him as being “obviously filled with the spirit of God.”

Overcoming and moving beyond the mess left in the wake of abuse and deep betrayal by those closest to you must be one of the most painful, challenging journeys of life. But God does not desert us, and can heal even the most broken, damaged hearts and souls.

Joseph is a beautiful example of how even the most hurtful of journeys can lead to exactly where God intends for you to be, armed with exactly the right experiences and wisdom to be the light in the middle of someone else’s dark path.

 

The Shaping Power of Family

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For better or worse, our families have tremendous shaping power on our lives. Most of us would agree that our families are this strange combination of messy and sacred with a large dose of God’s grace mixed in.   But regardless of the mess, God has given families a special place and mission. We don’t have to read too far into the Bible to get to the first recording of a family lineage.  This repeated practice of recording and tracing family lineages in the Bible reminds me that family matters deeply to God.  Even our wounded victor, the one who comes to redeem our brokenness, Jesus, was part of a family. It’s no wonder that the rebellious serpent slithered His lies deep into the heart of Eve and started the downward spiral of the first biblical family.  

We are talking about Joseph this weekend but in order to fully understand the end of Joseph's story, we are going to look at the beginnings of his messy family.     We need to read and understand the biblical narrative because the Bible blows all preconceived notions, cultural influences, and edited Instagram pictures of having the perfect family out of the water.

 Gen: 1-11 tells the story of creation, both its rise and fall.  God creates life, beauty and order out of a dark and formless nothing.  His final creation is humanity.  God carefully designs humans to be a reflection of His character, representatives of His rule and commissions humans to create more life, more beauty and more order.  Don’t miss this next part.  The very first set of humans God entrusted His work to were a family, a husband and wife, not a church, not a business, not a school...but a family.  Together, they had a mission from God.  However, God gave them the dignity of choice in how they would choose to go about this work of creating, building and living in the world He created.  Sadly, Adam and Eve chose to define good and evil for themselves and set about on their own mission.  And this is where the mess begins. 

 After the disobedience of Adam and Eve, Genesis goes on to tell stories of the murder of their son Abel by his brother Cain, of Cain’s offspring building cities filled with violence and evil, like the story of Lamech in Genesis 4 and the “Sons of God” in Genesis 6.  Finally, we get to the story of Noah, a man who was given special favor because Noah’s heart was turned towards God.  But even Noah finds himself in a in a messy family situation after passing out drunk in his tent. (chapter 9) 

 Finally, Abraham enters the scene in Genesis 15.  God enters into a covenant relationship with Abraham and promises to save all of humanity through this very imperfect, messy family.  But it was not just sunshine and roses for Abraham’s family.  Abraham had one illegitimate son with the servant girl Hagar.  After Hagar gave birth to Ishmael, some nasty competition ensued between the two women but finally Sarah gave birth to the long-awaited son of promise, Isaac.  Isaac goes on to have the twins Jacob and Esau, Jacob is quite the schemer and manipulates himself right out of town as he flees from Esau’s rage after stealing his blessing by tricking his old, blind father.  Jacob ends up connecting with some extended family and works for good ole uncle Laban (Sarah’s brother).  Jacob works for 7 years in order to marry the beautiful Rachel but Uncle Laban tricks Jacob and gives him the undesirable Leah instead.  Apparently, the apple doesn’t fall very far from the tree.  The deceiver is now the deceived.  So, Jacob has to work another 7 years for Rachel.  (How about we just don’t marry our cousins?  That might help the dysfunction a bit.)  Leah starts having all of these kids for Jacob while Rachel is struggling with infertility.  The sisters begin this twisted mommy war by competing with each other to bear the most children for their husband Jacob by giving him their servant women (this family is so messed up!)  Finally, Rachel has a son, Joseph.  Jacob has 12 sons (and some daughters), 10 sons with Leah and 2 with Rachel but Joseph is his favorite son.

 All of Jacob’s sons were painfully aware that Joseph was the favorite.  As a result of Joseph’s brothers growing jealousy and hatred, they sold Joseph into slavery.  Joseph spent years in slavery and prison but he eventually became second in command in all of Egypt, saving many lives during the famine, including his own family.  In the end, Joseph receives his brothers with love and forgiveness.  How can this be? How could Joseph receive his brothers with such love and forgiveness?  Because Joseph chose to give the abuse and betrayal to God in faith that He would use it for something good.  In the darkest moments of his life, Joseph allowed God to shape his character, filling him with love and grace until he was to the point of overflowing, even flowing out to his family of abusers and betrayers.

 After writing out this R-rated sequence of events, I question how anything good can come from a family this messy (and partly feel like I just watched a Jerry Springer episode)?  But I know this answer.  Grace.  Time and time again, we see the pattern of people defining how to live in this world apart from God, the consequences of the mess they make, followed by God’s grace as he turns it into something good and useful. 

 While we may be thousands of years removed from these stories, they are still our stories.  The biblical stories of family convince us that if we are to follow Christ it must translate into our family life, we must continually do the difficult work of forming our character or the messes of our families will only continue to grow.  Families are a gift from God and are intended to be places of support, strength, encouragement, unconditional love and acceptance.  However, we take this very good, God given gift and taint it with sin.  At times selfish motives reign, tongues lash out leaving deep wounds, covenants are broken, bitter jealousy leads to division and the list goes on.  But the mess is not the end of the story.  Last week, a wise woman reminded me that we often put an exclamation point in the spaces of our stories where God intends to put a comma.  In the mess of our families, we know that God can take our self-imposed exclamation points and replace them with a comma as he continues to write our family story by taking what was meant for evil and turning it into something very good.  If you are in the middle of a hard family situation remember Joseph’s words to his brothers.  “…you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive as they are today.” (Gen 50:19)  Learn from Joseph’s story, dear friends, read it, meditate on it, chew on the feast that is hidden in those words and continue to pray for that messy situation, believing that the same God who was with Joseph, is with you.  He will take whatever is broken and turn it into something good. 

Blessings,

Tracy

 

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