Lessons from a Dysfunctional Family

The curriculum for our children begins with a study of the life of Joseph, so I thought it might be nice to spend a few weeks preaching about Joseph.

            But, before I actually get to the story of Joseph next week, I wanted to spend one lesson talking about Joseph’s family, so that’s what we’re going to do this morning.

            If I were to ask you, “How would you describe the perfect family?”, you might respond with something like this: 

  • A perfect family always enjoys each other’s company and wants to be together.
  • A perfect family respects each other and wants the best for each other.
  • A perfect family will always love each other and tell each other how much they love them.
  • A perfect family will always put Christ and his church first.
  • A perfect family will never lie to each other, or say hurtful things to each other
  • A perfect family is forgiving when mistakes are made, showing grace and mercy.

            But I think you would all agree that there is a big difference between your picture of a perfect family and what many of us actually experience.  Most families that I know of have issues of one sort or another.  And even the very best families have their own imperfections.

            George Burns once said, “happiness is having a large, loving, caring close-knit family in another city.”  Jim Mullen once said, “I have long held the theory that the pilgrims were so happy on Thanksgiving because they didn’t have to go back to England and spend time with their relatives.”


            It has been said that you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family.  And, whether you grew up in a wonderful Christian home with loving parents, or a terrible family that you just couldn’t wait to get out of, it’s obvious that our families have such a tremendous influence in our lives. The role models that our parents provided for us, to some degree, shape who we are and affect how we live for the rest of our lives. 

            But when preachers talk about families, it can sometimes not be very helpful.  Because many Christians describe the biblical pattern of family being a father and a mother and two kids and a cat or a dog and a white picket fence.  The problem, though, is that that doesn’t correspond very well with the actual circumstances of many people today. 

            And the truth is, it doesn’t correspond very well with the actual families that we meet in the Bible either.  We find us all sorts of patterns of family life in the Bible.  And I don’t think that there is any such thing as a “typical family” based on the pictures of families we read about in the Bible.  I think we can talk about some principles that we can apply in our families, but there definitely is not just one neat biblical pattern for families.

            There’s a word that has emerged over the past few decades.  And although it’s not a new word, most of us never heard the term “dysfunctional” used much until a few years ago.  But, over the past decade or so, “dysfunctional” has become one of the buzz-words of this generation.

            We hear people talk about dysfunctional families and dysfunctional marriages.  And while different people may use that term to mean different things, basically the word dysfunctional describes close human relationships that don’t work the way they’re supposed to work. 

            Someone has suggested these symptoms of a dysfunctional family:

  • Addiction
  • Perfectionism – families who always expect their kids or relatives to get everything right.
  • Abuse or neglect
  • Estrangement — Family members who avoid other family members.
  • Anger and conflict
  • Poor communication — Nobody talks about their problems; instead, everyone just sweeps issues under the rug
  • Unfair or unequal treatment of children
  • Deception — the inability to speak the truth to one another

            I don’t think that’s an exhaustive list by any means.  And I would also say that all families have some of these symptoms from time to time, but dysfunctional families adopt these traits as a normal pattern of life.

            It may surprise you to know that, while the word is new, the concept of a dysfunctional family isn’t new at all.  In fact, the idea itself goes all the way back to the very beginning of time.  Because, when you boil it all down, the real cause of dysfunctionality is sin.  And so, ever since Adam and Eve disobeyed God, every family has been dysfunctional to some degree or another.  As long as you have sin, even the very best of relationships will always be something less than perfect.

1.         Every Family is Dysfunctional

            There’s no such thing as a perfect family — there never has been and there never will be as long as sin is a part of our lives.  Sin affects everything we say and everything we do — it affects our lives so that no marriage, no family, no parent-child relationship is truly perfect.

            And so, it’s not surprising that when we turn to the pages of scripture, we don’t have to look very far to find dysfunctional family relationships.  And Joseph’s family may be one of the most twisted, disturbing, and dysfunctional family situations anywhere in the entire Bible. In fact, I would take it one step further, and suggest that Joseph’s family was more messed up than just about any family that we can possibly imagine today.

            We start with Joseph’s great-grandfather, Abraham, who was a great man of faith.  But he wasn’t perfect.  The dysfunction began when Sarah was unable to conceive a child, so Abraham slept with her maidservant, Hagar.  The resulting family dynamics were dysfunctional, to say the least.

            To make matters worse, on two occasions, Abraham lied about his wife.  He said that she was his sister, which would then allow other men to have sex with his wife.  Unfortunately, his son Isaac followed in his father’s footsteps, because years later, Isaac did the same thing to his wife, Rebekah.

            Before that happened, though, Rebekah gave birth to twin sons, Jacob and Esau, two boys who were very different.  Isaac preferred Esau, the firstborn, because he was sort of a man’s man.  He liked to hunt and put food on the table.  On the other hand, Jacob was Rebecca’s favorite.  He was sort of a mama’s boy. He stayed home and did the cooking.

            This family favoritism was obvious to the two boys.  And while sibling rivalry is found in just about every family — in dysfunctional families, that rivalry becomes the defining fact of family life.  And that’s what happened with Jacob and Esau.  Because of their different personalities, and because of parental favoritism, Jacob and Esau were destined to be rivals (and sometimes bitter enemies) as long as they lived.

            The problem actually started the day they were born.  Esau was the older, he came out of the womb first.  But Jacob came out of the womb grabbing hold of Esau’s heel. And that became a metaphor for how they were going to live their lives, with Jacob always trying to grab hold of what belonged to Esau.

            One of the things that belonged to Esau because he was the firstborn was the birthright – twice as much inheritance and the spiritual right to carry on the family blessing.  But I’m sure you remember the story – Esau goes out hunting, he comes back exhausted and hungry, and there’s Jacob who has cooked up a pot of stew that smelled so delicious.

            Esau asks for a bowl of stew and Jacob says, “You can have some, but only under one condition – I want your birthright.”  Esau said, in effect, “I could care less about that spiritual stuff.  And if I die from hunger, I can’t enjoy any of it anyway, so you can have it.”  They shake hands on it, and Jacob gets the birthright.

            But, years later, when their father Isaac was about to die, he still wants Esau to have the rights of the first-born.  He sends Esau out to hunt for game, and when he comes back, Isaac plans to give him the family blessing.

            And it may not seem like there’s anything wrong with that.  But God had already spoken and he said before Jacob and Esau were even born that “the older will serve the younger.”  Which meant that Jacob should be treated as the first-born.  But throughout the years, Isaac had evidently never been willing to accept God’s choice of Jacob over Esau. And so, now, here he is at the end of his life, planning to give Esau the blessing — in deliberate defiance of what God wanted.

            And so, Isaac comes up with a plan and he conspires in secret with Esau.  He wants his favorite son to have the blessing, and if he has to connive to make it happen, that’s exactly what he’s going to do.  If he has to deceive his wife and his other son, then so be it.

            But his plan didn’t work out because Rebekah was secretly eavesdropping on Isaac and Esau.  She tells Jacob what she overhead and then she comes up with a scheme of her own, and so we have more deception and more secrecy.  

            Her plan is this — Jacob is to kill a couple of goats and Rebekah will cook up a tasty meal.  Jacob will serve it to his father while pretending to be his brother, thus tricking Isaac into giving him the blessing.  And it should work, because Isaac is very old, and he can’t see very well.

            Rebekah’s got this thing all planned out.  “You need to put some sheep’s fur on your skin so he thinks you’re hairy like Esau.  Go in and lower your voice a little bit, and we’ll make you smell like you’ve been outside.”  And that’s what Jacob does.  And while his father Isaac is a bit suspicious, in the end, he gives the family blessing to Jacob.

            Do you see how messed up this family was?   Everybody in this family was trying to deceive everybody else to try to get things to turn out the way they wanted them to turn out.

            Then, when Esau found out what his brother had done, he was absolutely furious, which forced Jacob to run away and get out of town for his own safety.  So, Jacob stole the birthright, and then he stole the blessing. 

            This was a dysfunctional family (with a capital “D”).  And these patterns of unhealthy relationships eventually destroyed Jacob’s family.  At the beginning of this story, you’ve got a family that, while not working very well, was at least staying together.  But, by the end of the story, this family has been blown apart once and for all.

            But here’s what I want you to see.  When you look at the Bible as a whole, you see that Jacob is considered to be a biblical hero.  He even makes the list in Hebrews chapter 11 of the Hall of Fame of faithful godly people.  It says, “by faith, Abraham”, “by faith, Moses”, “by faith, Jacob”. His name is right there in the list. So, Jacob is a Bible hero.  But he was someone who came from a highly dysfunctional family.

            When Jacob leaves home, he meets the girl of his dreams. Her name is Rachel. She’s gorgeous, and he falls head over heels in love with her.  Rachel takes Jacob, the deceiver, home to meet her father, named Laban.  But when Jacob met Laban, he met his match.

            Sociologists say that dysfunctional people have a way of attracting other dysfunctional people.  In fact, one author calls them dysfunctional magnets.  So, here’s Jacob, and here’s Laban, and they are like two peas in the dysfunctional pod.

            Laban turned out to be a master deceiver.  He says to Jacob, “You want my daughter as your wife?  No problem. You just got to work for me for seven years, and then you can have her.”  And one of the most romantic passages in all the Bible says, “and those seven years seemed but a day to him because of the love that he had for her.” (Genesis 29:20).  So Jacob worked seven years, counting down the days until he could finally marry Rachel.

            Then comes the wedding day, and then the wedding night. And that bride is all dressed up, and Jacob thinks it’s Rachel.  But it’s not.  Laban has switched his daughters and he gives Jacob, not Rachel — the girl he loved — but her sister Leah, the older sister who wasn’t as pretty.  And so, Jacob wakes up the next morning, turns over in the bed, and he sees that it’s Leah, and he was like, [GASPS]

            You say, well, how is that even possible? In those days, at weddings, brides were heavily veiled, and the husband didn’t really get a good look until the next morning. So father-in-law pulls a switcheroo. He has just out-deceived the deceiver. And Jacob has to agree to work another seven years before Laban will give him Rachel as a second wife.

            But although it was Rachel that Jacob really loved, it was Leah who had the children – 4 sons, in fact. Rachel couldn’t stand it, so she got Jacob to sleep with her maidservant and they had 2 sons. In response, Leah got Jacob to sleep with her maidservant so that she bore him another 2 sons.  And then Leah produced another 2 sons and then a daughter, before Rachel finally has two children of her own.

            By the way, in this family of twelve brothers and one sister, the sister is raped, Jacob does nothing at all about it, he because doesn’t want to offend the attacker’s father.  So, several of the brothers go on a murderous rampage to get revenge.  Whoever said the Bible was boring?  These are the parts they don’t teach you in Sunday School.

            Fast forward to chapter 30, “[Jacob] increased greatly and had large flocks, female servants and male servants, and camels and donkeys.” (Genesis 30:43)

            In the next verse, “Now Jacob heard that the sons of Laban [these are his brothers-in-law] were saying, ‘Jacob has taken all that was our father’s, and from what was our father’s he has gained all this wealth.’  And Jacob saw that Laban did not regard him with favor as before.” (Genesis 31:1-2)

            So now you’ve got these two deceivers who have spent all these years together.  And at this point in time, they don’t trust each other at all.  And all these false accusations are flying around the family about Jacob.

            I would imagine that when Jacob left home, when he ran away after stealing the blessing, he probably thought, “Whew, am I glad to be out of that house.  Now I can have a normal life.”  But then, he married into this family only to discover it was just as dysfunctional as his first family.

            I bring that up because there was an interesting study from Brown University, and the researchers said this– many people hope that once they leave home, they will leave their family and childhood problems behind.  However, many people find that they experience similar problems and similar relationship patterns long after they have left their own family environment.


            And it’s easy to explain why that is, because wherever you go, you take you with you. Everything that made you, everything that formed and shaped you, all of that stuff from your background follows you around until you figure out how to deal with it.  

            But the main point I want to make is this…all families are dysfunctional.  All of them. Every human on this planet has their own issues.  And because every person has their own issues, that will affect the family that they’re a part of, and it will affect the family that they marry into.

            And I bring this up because so many times, I’ve heard people say, “I’m from a dysfunctional family.” And my response is, join the human race. I’m from a dysfunctional family, too. I live in a dysfunctional family.  Because I’m a dysfunctional human being and so are you.  None of us functions the way God originally intended for us to function.  And, as I said earlier, it’s because of sin. We’re all affected.


            So, can we just get rid of this myth of the perfect family? There isn’t one. We’re all broken, flawed individuals, and so are our families.  In fact, let me take it a step further. Even God’s family here on this Earth — the church — is a dysfunctional family, and you’re part of it. You say, oh no, no, no, I’m looking for the perfect church. But I know you’ve heard this before. If you find one, don’t join it. You’ll ruin it because it won’t be perfect any more.  But that perfect church doesn’t exist.

            You say, oh, but the early church, they weren’t dysfunctional. We need to get back to being like the early church.  Oh, really?  Maybe you need to go back and to read your Bible again.  In fact, read, I Corinthians, and you’ll find Paul writing about a long list of problems in that church — not loving each other, abusing their spiritual gifts, disorderly conduct in worship, all the way to incest in that congregation that they were trying to ignore. That’s dysfunctional.

            So, point #1 is this – every family is dysfunctional.  But, now, let’s begin to move things in a more positive direction.

2.         God can function in our dysfunction.

            All of us are dysfunctional to some degree but God can function in our dysfunction. What other choice does he have?  So, I’ve told you the story about Jacob. He comes from this messed up family. And then he marries into a messed-up family.

            But I want you to notice this.  In the midst of all that, verse 3, “Then the Lord said to Jacob, ‘Return to the land of your fathers and to your kindred, and I will be with you.’”  (Genesis 31:3)


            Here’s this family with a long history of dysfunction, but God is speaking. And here’s the point that I want you to take away from this — A dysfunctional family never stopped God from functioning. It never stopped God from working, never stopped God from blessing that family, and never stopped God from working through that family.

            God speaks to dysfunctional Jacob in the midst of his dysfunctional family.  And it’s not like God said, “Jacob, I have something I want to say to you, but I’m not going to tell you what it is until you get your family act together.   And when you get a little more perfect, a little more mature, then I have something I want to say to you.”  No!  Right in the midst of all this mess, God speaks.

            Because the perfect God works through and uses imperfect people. Amen? The Holy God speaks to and works through unholy people. And here’s why– there are no other kind of people for God to use.  Because if everyone is dysfunctional, then God has to function in the midst of our dysfunction.  That’s the beauty of the gospel.  

            Think about the apostle Peter, did he ever fail?  Sure he did.  He denied Jesus three times. Did Jesus use him?  Absolutely.  Moses failed, he lost his temper, killed a man.  God used him. David failed – there was adultery and murder. God used him.  Abraham, the father of the faithful was faithless a few times.  Isaac, same way.  Jacob, same way.

            So don’t let your failures define you. Make your failure serve you.  Use it.  Grow from it.  So every family is dysfunctional, but God can function in the midst of our dysfunction.


            Then, thirdly…

3.         Spiritual Growth is Learning to See God Instead of Dysfunction

            Spiritual growth is experienced when we are able to see God instead of the dysfunction, when we are able to focus on God, rather the dysfunction we had to live with in the past, or that we’re in the midst of right now.  In verse 4, I want you to notice what Jacob does in the midst of all of his dysfunction.


            So Jacob sent and called Rachel and Leah into the field where his flock was and said to them, “I see that your father does not regard me with favor as he did before. But the God of my father has been with me.  You know that I have served your father with all my strength, yet your father has cheated me and changed my wages ten times. But God did not permit him to harm me.

            If he said, ‘The spotted shall be your wages,’ then all the flock bore spotted; and if he said, ‘The striped shall be your wages,’ then all the flock bore striped.  Thus God has taken away the livestock of your father and given them to me.” (Genesis 31:4-9)


            I want you to see what Jacob does here.  First, he brings his wives together to have an open, honest, frank conversation about what’s going on.  And it turns out they agree with Jacob.  If you keep reading the story, they’re going to say, “Yeah, our dad’s been a scoundrel. He even stole money from us, and you just do what God told you to do. We’re with you.”  So, Jacob talks it out.

            But more importantly, we see the lens through which Jacob is processing all of the negative, bad, deceptive things that have happened to him.  You could say that Jacob is wearing a new set of glasses there are fitted with lenses that focus on God, not on the garbage around him.  Three times in this passage, Jacob says, “But God…”  All these bad things happened to me, but God….

            In verse 5, Jacob acknowledges God’s presence, Your father does not regard me with favor as he did before, but the God of my father has been with me.” In verse 7, he acknowledges God’s protection, “your father changed my wages ten times. But God did not allow him to hurt me.”

            What would you do if your employer changed your wages ten times?   My guess is you wouldn’t be working for him anymore. You’re thinking, well, it depends on whether he changes them up or down, right?  But the inference here is that Jacob had his wages changed ten times downward. “But God did not allow him to hurt me.”


            Jacob acknowledges God’s presence and God’s protection. And then in verse 9, he says, “So God has taken away the livestock from your father and given them to me.”  Instead of looking at the dysfunctionality around him, Jacob is focused on God who is functioning in his life.

            Jacob is using the same lenses that Joseph used when he said to his brothers, “you meant this for evil but God meant it for good.”   He’s using the same lenses that the apostle Paul wore when he said, “we know that all things work together for good to those who love God and are the called according to His purpose.”


            Those are the lenses that will allow you see the hand of God’s providence in your own life. James Montgomery Boyce once said, “if you understand those two words, “but God,” they will save your soul. And if you recall them daily and live by them, they will transform your life completely.”

            “These are the terrible things that have happened to me.  But God…”  “I grew up in a family that abused and mistreated me.  But God….”  “I was heavily influenced by my dysfunctional parents.  But God…”

            Folks, we need to learn to view our lives through that same lens.  How long are you going to let your dysfunctional family make you a slave? How long are you going to hide behind the mess that you were born into?  How long are you going to let that dysfunctionality drive the rest of your life?  Because no matter how bad things have been for you, that doesn’t have to define you.

            God is able to function in our dysfunction. The question is, will you choose to see that? What will be the lens that you live your life from — the dysfunction of your past (or present) or the God who can function in the midst of your dysfunction?

            This entire world is dysfunctional because of sin.  All of us are flawed and broken. God’s solution was to send his perfect, sinless, only begotten son into this world to take all that mess, all of that sin on himself, so that God can bless you and take you with him to heaven. That’s God functioning, even at the height of our own dysfunction.


            And that’s the offer God makes to all of us — that he will take you as you are, with all of the baggage that you bring with you.  If you just come as you are, God will forgive you just as you are, but he will make you a new person. He will change you.  Your past doesn’t have to define you.  God is offering a better future.

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