Portrait of a Dysfunctional Family
September 6, 1992
Although it is not a new word, most of us never heard the term “dysfunctional” until a few years ago. In the last decade, however, “dysfunctional” has become one of the buzz-words of this mixed-up generation. The dictionary defines the noun dysfunction as “the disordered or impaired functioning of a bodily system or organ.” In laymen’s terms that means your body doesn’t work the way it is supposed to.
But that’s not exactly how the word is used today. Most often we hear “dysfunctional” applied to human relationships—we hear of dysfunctional families and dysfunctional marriages, for example. In both cases, dysfunctional describes intimate human relationships that don’t work the way they are supposed to work.
Go to your favorite secular or Christian bookstore and you will find dozens of books with the word “dysfunc-tional” in the title:
—”Secrets of a Dysfunctional Family”
—”Healing a Dysfunctional Marriage”
—”Overcoming Your Dysfunctional Childhood”
—”Dysfunctional Relationships—Where They Come From, How to Change Them”
Our particular focus in this study is on dysfunctional families. Here’s a working definition: A dysfunctional family is one in which there has been a major breakdown in the basic relationships within the family so that the family itself no longer functions properly.
Here are five symptoms of a dysfunctional family:
1. Estrangement—Family members who avoid other family members.
2. Anger—It may be expressed or repressed.
3. Lack of Trust—Seen in faulty patterns of communication.
4. Deception—Inability to speak the truth to other family members.
5. Unhealthy Secrecy—Refusal to face the truth.
Note: You may find one or more of these traits in healthy families from time to time, but dysfunctional families adopt these traits as a normal pattern of life.
It may surprise you to know that, although the word is new, the concept of a dysfunctional family is not new at all. The idea itself goes back to the very beginning of time. After all, the real cause of dysfunctionality is the entrance of sin into the human race. Ever since Adam and Eve disobeyed God, every family has been dysfunc-tional to one degree or another. As long as you have sin, even the best relationships will be less than perfect.
There’s no such thing as a perfect family—never has been and never will be as long as sin is part of the human condition. Sin distorts everything we do and say—it colors life so that no marriage, no family, no parent-child relationship is truly perfect.
Dysfunctional Families Aren’t New
Having said that, it’s not surprising that when we turn to the pages of Holy Scripture, we don’t have to look very far to find dysfunctional family relationships:
1. Consider the very first family—Adam and Eve who blamed each other for their own disobedience.
2. Consider their children—Cain murdered his brother Abel.
3. Consider Noah’s three sons—Ham disgraced his father by uncovering his nakedness.
4. Consider Abraham and Sarah—He lied about his wife, calling her his sister. His nephew Lot turned out to be a major disappointment.
5. Consider David—Although he was a great king, a great warrior, and a great poet, as a father and husband he was a failure. His marriage to Michal was largely a failure, his marriage to Bathsheba was based on an adulterous affair, and his son Absalom turned against him. As his kingdom crumbled, so did his family.
Three Generations of Family Dysfunction
If you want another example, consider the family of Jacob and Esau. Let’s start two generations before with Abraham and Sarah. The dysfunction begins when Sarah is unable to conceive so Abraham sleeps with Hagar, Sarah’s maidservant. When Abraham goes in to Hagar, a son is created whose name is Ishmael. The resulting relationship causes so much strain between Sarah and Hagar that Hagar runs away. At length Hagar returns, gives birth to Ishmael, and a tenuous peace is restored until Sarah gives birth to Isaac, at which point Abraham in response to Sarah’s complaints sends Hagar and Ishmael away for good. What’s going on here? Not only do Sarah and Hagar not get along, neither do Ishmael and Isaac get along.
We pass now to the second generation. Isaac marries Rebekah and after 20 years, she gives birth to Jacob and Esau. But the boys are very different, and Isaac prefers Esau while Rebekah loves Jacob. This family favoritism is not hidden to the two boys, who become rivals, not allies. While sibling rivalry is a fact of life—even in the best of families—in dysfunctional families the rivalry becomes the defining fact of family life. That’s what happens with Jacob and Esau. Because of their vastly different personalities, and because of parental favoritism, they are destined to be rivals (and sometimes bitter enemies) as long as they live.
No One Looks Good
When we come to Genesis 27, the three generations of family dysfunction are about to come to a fearful climax. Those patterns of unhealthy relationships ultimately will destroy Jacob’s own family. What you see at the beginning of this chapter is a family that, while not working very well, at least is staying together. By the end of the chapter the family has been blown apart once and for all.
There are four characters in this story—Isaac the father, Rebekah the mother, and the two sons, Jacob and Esau. Note these two facts about these four characters:
1. All four are presented in a negative light in this chapter.
2. These four people never appear together at the same time.
Furthermore, Jacob and Esau are now so far separated in their relationship that they never appear together at all. This is a portrait of a dysfunctional family, hanging by a thread, that self-destructs because of sinful patterns of interpersonal deception that have never been confronted and resolved.
I. Disobedience 27:1-4
The story begins with Isaac believing that he is about to die. His fondest dream is to insure that before he dies his son Esau obtains the cherished blessing. Now old and frail, Isaac’s sight is failing him. Calling for Esau, he sends him out to hunt some wild game for him. Isaac says, “Prepare me the kind of tasty food I like and bring it to me to eat, so that I may give you my blessing before I die.”
His intentions are clear. Isaac still wants Esau to have the rights of the first-born after he (Isaac) is dead. In sending him out to hunt for game, he is asking him to do what a first-born son should do—take his place as the head and provider for the family. Once his son had prepared the meal, Isaac would then be free to give him the blessing.
What’s wrong with that? Ordinarily, nothing would be wrong with it. But God had already spoken and declared before the boys were born that “the older will serve the younger.” That meant that Jacob should be treated as the first-born. Throughout all the years, Isaac had evidently never been willing to accept God’s choice of Jacob over Esau. Now at last he plans to give Esau the blessing—in deliberate defiance of God’s will.
In doing this, Isaac is making four mistakes.
1. He is clearly trying to overturn what God had said.
2. He is ruled completely by his senses.
3. He ignores the fact that Esau is spiritually unqualified for the blessing.
4. He conspires in secret with Esau to hide his plan from Rebekah and Jacob.
None of this matters to Isaac. He wants his favorite son to have the blessing, and if he has to connive to make it happen, that’s exactly what he will do. If he has to deceive his wife and his other son, then so be it.
II. Deception 27:5-29
But the plan didn’t work out because Rebekah was secretly listening to Isaac and Esau (more deception, more secrecy!). She then repeats to Jacob what she overhead and then she cooks up a scheme of her own (still more deception, more secrecy!). Her plan is simple: Jacob is to go kill two choice goats and Rebekah will cook up a tasty meal for Isaac. Jacob will serve it to his father while pretending to be his brother, thus tricking Isaac into giving him the blessing.
When Jacob hears this amazing plan, he has only one reservation: “What if he touches me?” This is essentially a technical objection along the lines of, “What if the Russians catch me and discover I don’t speak Russian?” Jacob evidently has no moral objection to the idea of deceiving his father. He just wants to know what to do if he gets caught. Note his words: “I would appear to be deceiving him.” Wrong! He wouldn’t appear to be deceiving him … He would be deliberately deceiving him. There is a vast difference between appearance and reality when deception is involved. But Jacob doesn’t seem to appreciate that point.
Rebekah in Charge
When he says, “But a curse will come upon me if I am caught,” Rebekah replies in the words of mothers throughout history, “Just do what I say.” Clearly Rebekah is the dominant leader in this family. I would summarize her personality with these four words:
She is the prime mover in this story and, it seems, in the family as well. It appears that Isaac has abdicated his position of spiritual leadership in favor of his wife.
Who thought of the deception? Rebekah.
Who said, “Go get the food”? Rebekah.
Who said, “Put on this goatskin”? Rebekah.
Who said, “Let the blame fall on me”? Rebekah.
Who said, “Leave home till Esau cools off”? Rebekah.
At every point she is in charge. She always has an answer for every question and a solution for every problem.
One question. If this was so brazenly wrong, why did Jacob do it?
1. Because he was under pressure from his mother.
2. Because he wanted the blessing so badly.
3. Because he believed the end justified the means.
4. Because he didn’t respect his father sufficiently.
I think Jacob said to himself, “God wants me to have the blessing, so if I have to cheat a little bit to get it, that’s all right. God will understand.” Jacob is half right. God did want him to have the blessing. And God did understand what he was doing. But that didn’t make it right.
The Dirty Deed
What happens next is so well-known that it hardly needs repeating. Jacob, wearing the goatskins prepared by his mother, carries the tasty food to the father. Isaac, although he is old and decrepit, senses that something is wrong. His mind tells him that Esau couldn’t have gotten the wild game so fast and the voice doesn’t sound like Esau.
Note the many ways that Jacob deceives his father:
1. Deliberate Deception. “I am Esau your firstborn.”
2. Blasphemy. “The Lord your God gave me success.”
3. Repeated Deception. “Are you really my son Esau?” “I am,” he replied.
4. Dishonest Intimacy. “So he went to him and kissed him.”
5. Misleading Detail. “Isaac caught the smell of his clothes.”
But this should not surprise us. This is what happens whenever you set off on the path of deception. This follows whenever you say, “It doesn’t matter how we do it.” Jacob’s lies are bound to happen because he decided that the end justifies the means. Soon one lie leads to another and then another and finally you have to keep on lying to cover up your previous lies.
In any case, Isaac sets his doubts aside and gives Jacob (thinking he is Esau) the blessing. The blessing basically involves three things:
1. Personal Prosperity (v. 28)
2. Pre-eminence (v. 29)
3. Protection by God (v. 29)
In essence Jacob now receives from Isaac the blessing revealed in the Abrahamic covenant.
One other note. In this scenario, who is deceiving whom? On one hand, Jacob is definitely deceiving his father Isaac. However, Isaac—because he thinks Jacob is really Esau—thinks he is deceiving Jacob by giving the blessing to Esau. Both intend to deceive the other; only Jacob succeeds. The most amazing point is that through this act of deception, God’s will was done! Why? Because God’s choice (Jacob) did in fact end up with the blessing. That doesn’t justify the deception, but it does demonstrate how God works through the weakness of sinful men to accomplish his purposes.
This story, seen in that light, is a story of the sovereignty of God. It reminds me of the words Joseph utters many years later: “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” (Genesis 50:20) Both Isaac and Jacob had less than noble motives, but God overruled their bad motives to insure that his will was ultimately done.
III. Disintegration 27:30 – 28:9
Now Jacob has what he wanted all along, but because he obtained it through fraudulent means, he will soon pay a heavy price. After Isaac finished blessing Jacob, the real Esau came in and Jacob said, “Who are you?” “I am Esau.” The Bible says that Isaac trembled violently. It means that the old man shook uncontrollably as the shocking truth hit home. Jacob had deceived him! In a blinding flash of insight, he realized what he had just done. Two facts hit him immediately:
1. Jacob had deceived him.
2. The blessing was gone forever.
Once the blessing was given, it had the force of a legal contract, and could not be revoked. That’s what Isaac means when he says in verse 33, “I blessed him—and indeed he will be blessed.” He couldn’t take it back.
Now the full weight of what has happened hits Esau. “When Esau heard his father’s words, he burst out with a loud and bitter cry and said to his father, ’Bless me—me too, my father.’” “Daddy, don’t you have a blessing for me?” “Jacob came and stole your blessing.”
Jacob = “Cheater”
Then Esau said, “Isn’t he rightfully named Jacob? He has deceived me these two times: He took my birthright and now he’s taken my blessing!” Meaning, “My brother has lived up to his name. He is a true ’Jacob’—He’s a cheater by nature.” Thus the name “Jacob” became a picture of his basic nature—he was willing to justify anything to get whatever he wanted in life.
Before you feel too sorry for Esau, ask yourself who caused this problem. Ultimately it started because Esau despised his own birthright. If he had properly valued the birthright, Jacob could never have tricked him out of it.
We’re almost to the end of the story. At Esau’s request, Isaac gives him a blessing—but it is clearly inferior to Jacob’s. Verse 41 informs us that Esau held a grudge against Jacob. He even said to himself, “After my father dies, I’m going to kill my brother Jacob.” All of that is understandable. Who can blame Esau for being angry? His brother has cheated him twice.
Rebekah in Charge—Part II
At this point Rebekah steps back into the picture. She tells Jacob to run for his life because Esau will surely kill him. She advises him to visit his uncle (her brother) Laban in Haran (about 500 miles away). Eventually Esau’s anger would cool and Rebekah would (according to her plan) send a message for Jacob to come home. Momma knew her boys, didn’t she? She knew that Esau had a mercurial temper, but that his anger would fade as quickly as it came. Esau wasn’t the kind of man to keep grudges. He was quick to be angry and also quick to forgive. Rebekah thought Jacob would return home in a few weeks or months. Little did she know that Jacob would stay with his uncle Laban for 20 long years. But that’s another story.
One final detail and our story is over. She has to find a way to justify sending Jacob to Haran, so she tells Isaac that she wants Jacob to find a wife from among their own people—and not from among the pagan Hittites. In effect, she’s giving Isaac a cover story. Isaac agrees, calling Jacob to his side, repeating the Abrahamic blessing, and sending him off to Haran to find a wife.
What do you have when you stand back and take this story as a whole? What you have is a dysfunctional family that in the beginning is barely holding together. In the end the family collapses under the weight of deception and dishonesty.
Jacob Got What He Wanted, But …
Think of it this way. In the beginning Jacob didn’t have the blessing; in the end he did. Jacob got what he wanted but because he got it through fraudulent means, it cost him his own family.
His family is destroyed.
He is penniless.
He is homeless.
He is fleeing for his life.
He is estranged from his brother.
He has humiliated his father.
As far as we know, he never saw his mother Rebekah again.
One last note. Because Jacob left and Esau stayed home, Jacob forfeited all the material prosperity that would have been his through his inheritance from Isaac.
He got what he wanted … but he lost his own family. Why? Because he wouldn’t wait on God. Chuck Swindoll calls waiting the hardest discipline of the Christian life. Psalm 37:15 says, “Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him.” Most of us don’t want to be still and we don’t want to wait. We want our answers right now.
Two Undeniable Truths
While this story speaks to us on many levels, perhaps the chief lesson has to do with the importance of waiting on God. We can look at this truth both positively and negatively:
1. Those who wait on the Lord, though it is difficult, will in the end not be disappointed.
2. Those who impatiently try to force God’s hand may get what they want but in the process they will lose everything of value in life.
Let’s try a question out for the second time: What are you willing to trade in life in order to get what you want? Your family? Your friends? Your career? Your children? Your purity? Your integrity? To say it another way: What kind of deal are you willing to make in order to force God’s hand?
Remember, there are no shortcuts with God. Every shortcut turns out to be a dead-end street. Those who take short-cuts end up wandering aimlessly through life. Write it down in big letters: God doesn’t need your help to fulfill his will in your life. That’s the number-one lesson of this story. If he wants to give a blessing, he can give it. If he wants to elevate you, he can do it. If he wants to raise you up to a position of great power, he can do it.
If God wants Jacob to have the birthright, there’s no way Esau can keep it.
If God wants Jacob to have the blessing, there’s no way Esau can get it.
If God wants Jacob to have the blessing, there’s no way Isaac can give it to Esau.
No way! Can’t happen. Not in a million years. God doesn’t need Jacob’s help. Or Rebekah’s either. If God wants to, he can work a miracle or he can arrange the circumstances or he can simply change Isaac’s mind or just strike him dead. God is infinitely creative when it comes to finding ways of accomplishing his purposes on earth.
But when we interfere, when we try to “help” God out, we only mess things up. The ironic truth is that whenever we try to “help” God out, we may in fact get whatever it was we wanted, but the price will be too high.
The Hardest Prayer You Will Ever Pray
A year ago I preached through the Lord’s Prayer. When I came to the phrase, “Thy will be done,” I called it “The hardest prayer you will ever pray.” After some reflection, I have changed my mind. I now want to call that “The second hardest prayer you will ever pray.” To pray “Thy will be done” does often seem impossibly difficult. But there is a prayer even more difficult to pray: “My will be done.”
When you pray as Jacob did—”My will be done,” God responds by saying, “All right, then, your will be done, but you’re going to be sorry.” In the end you’ll never regret saying, “Lord, thy will be done—in your way, in your time, and according to your plan.”
A Vow to Wait
Let’s make this very practical. If you are like most people, you probably have a hard time waiting for the things in life you really care about. Take a moment to complete the following statement:
With God’s help I commit myself to wait patiently on the Lord in the following areas:
It might be your education, or a new home, or perhaps you’re praying for a son or a daughter, or perhaps it involves a career change, a new job, or some dream you have in your heart. Who knows? You may be waiting for a wayward husband to come to his senses. Or it may be that you are praying about a loved one who is very sick. Whatever the situation is, you may be tempted to say, “God, you’re not moving fast enough.”
You need to wait.
You need to trust God.
Be still before the Lord.
Listen to his voice.
Let God speak to you.
Thy will be done, O Lord.
If it takes longer than I think, Thy will be done.
If I don’t understand, Thy will be done.
When my heart is filled with fear,
And I am tempted to doubt your plan,
Thy will be done.
Forgive me for presuming to know better than you.
Lord, whatever it costs, whatever it takes,
Thy will be done.