The best of stories contain bigger stories within them. The characters are more than heroes, villains, or victims stuck in an isolated narrative; they embody the ugly and the beautiful in life.
Our children learn the Sunday School song, “Father Abraham had many sons, and many sons had father Abraham.” But we would do well to teach them to sing, “Father Abraham had many sins, and many sins had father Abraham.” For though he was a patriarch and prophet, Abraham also left behind a legacy of deceit.
I know a family in turmoil. The mom and dad are at odds over the children; the younger brother has lied to and stolen from his older brother. He’s so crazy with rage that he’s plotting to murder his kid brother. And this same older brother, mad at his dad, too, finds out what really gets under the old man’s skin and sets out to do that very thing to spite him. And the younger brother—the thief and liar—is so scared for his life that he runs away from home. I know this messed up family. And you probably do, too. Their names are Isaac and Rebecca, Esau and Jacob. Broken homes such as theirs, full of broken hearts, broken promises, anger, spite, guilt, and all kinds of nastiness, are nothing new.
Here is Jacob, the younger brother, the man on the run. Asleep with a rock for a pillow. Alone between a past full of deceit and a future fat with fear. And there, in the midnight of his sleep, he dreams a dream no mortal had ever dreamed before. A ladder stretching to the stars, the stairway of angels. Up to heaven and down to earth the angels go. From Jacob to God they ascend, from God to Jacob they descend. Here is a living bridge from creature to creator. And the Lord speaks, “I am the God of your grandfather, Abraham, the God of your dad, Isaac. And I am your God, too, Jacob.” He is a God with a past full of promises and a future full of their fulfillment. He doesn’t scold this sleeper for having had a deceitful past. He doesn’t give him a tongue-lashing for his theft. He promises him the very land on which Jacob lies; descendants as numerous as the grains of dust that are his bed; and most importantly, the God at the top of the ladder says, “I am with you, and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
Wow, that sounds sweet, doesn’t it? All these grand promises. But maybe you’re thinking: “Where’s God when I need a dream like that? Where’s God when my real life feels more like a nightmare—one that goes on and on and on? Jacob had it bad I suppose; but I tell you what, that runaway and I could compare scars. Let me tell you about my dysfunctional family. Let me tell you what it feels like to crave love from those closest to you and not get it. Let me tell you what’s it like to lie in bed at night and pray you don’t wake up in the morning just so all the pain will be over. Let me tell you not about my dreams but about my fear to dream, my fear to hope. Let me show you my scars.” Maybe that’s what you’re thinking.
If you are, let me tell you something. You may not believe it; you may even scoff at the claim, but here’s the truth: God hears your roar of pain on the other side of your silence. He counts every tear you let escape, or refuse to let go, from the ocean of anguish inside you. He is your God, too, as much as He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and that deceiving, stealing, runaway Jacob. And since He is your God, neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities, neither things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate you from the love He has for you in Christ Jesus our Lord. Nothing and no one.
And here’s the thing about God: He actually keeps His promises. For richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, for better or for worse. When you’ve made more stupid mistakes than even you can remember. When you’ve hurt virtually everyone who’s tried to love you. When you can barely stand to look at your face in the mirror because all you see is shame and failure staring back at you, mocking you. When it feels like you’ve wallowed in the mud of hell itself, you have a God who loves you. You have a God who cares. You have a God who will stand up publicly beside any man or any woman, embrace them, forgive them, and say to the world, “This is my child. I love him. I love her. And I defy you to say otherwise.” You have a God like that. You have a God who cannot and will not stop loving you and keeping you and dying to make you right.
These are grand promises, and they are as real as your pain and doubt and fear. But they are better, and stronger, because they are God’s grand promises, and He stands behind them. You want a dream like Jacob’s? You want a ladder and the pretty angels and God up top all strong and talking to you? You want too little. You need more than that. You need more than a dream. You need something concrete. And you got it.
You need a God who pushes the angels aside and climbs down the ladder. You need a God who doesn’t just make promises, but also keeps them, and who Himself becomes promise and fulfillment. You need a God who not only comes down that ladder from heaven, but also brings heaven with Him, who pulls heaven downward and lifts earth heavenward, and fuses the two together in His very own body. The God of heaven, the Man of earth, in one person, Jesus the Son of Mary, the Son of the Father.
You see greater things than Jacob saw. You see the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man. You see people with broken lives, from broken families, with broken and bleeding hearts, welcomed into the kingdom where they find peace that they dared not even dream existed this side of the grave. You see people whom society has rejected, whom friends have shunned, called friends of God, heirs of the kingdom, sons and daughters of the king. Do you see yourself there? There you are. That is who you are because of Christ Jesus.
Show your scars to Him and He will show you His. His scars endured to heal your own. He will take your scarred heart in his scarred hands and love you, and love you, and love you still more, until all that matters is not the scar upon your heart, but the scar embedded in His hand. All that will matter is not how hellish life can sometimes be, but rather how heaven itself is grasped in this God who came to earth to be Himself that ladder by which we ascend to the Father. He will wipe away your tears, cleanse you of your shame, embrace you as a member of His family, and tell you, “I am with you. I am Emmanuel. I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, and your God, now and unto ages of ages, and even forevermore.”
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Leo Tolstoy
There is a uniqueness to unhappiness, as Tolstoy rightly observed, a sad fingerprint left by each family that is like no other. And it’s rarely as simplistic as outsiders usually assume. “Oh, it’s that alcoholic father who’s ruined that family.” Or, “Yeah, it’s that cheatin’ wife of his.” Or, “it’s them dope-smoking kids.” Maybe the husband turns to alcohol as an escape because his wife nags him, belittles him, and makes him feel worthless. Maybe the wife sleeps with other men because they give her the illusion of attraction, while her husband says she’s fat, never touches her, and makes her feel as undesirable as a wrinkled whore. And this merely scratches the surface. Dig down deep into any unhappy family, and you’re likely to unearth layer upon layer of manipulation, abuse, neglect, grudges, and horrors which have no name.
Joseph came from a family like that. His dad, Jacob, was married to two women, having sex with two more, and fathering children by them all. I don’t need to tell you that, in a household where four women are sleeping with one man, jealousy was thick. Each wife was trying to out-pregnant the other, and even enlisted their maid-servants as sexual pinch hitters to try and make even more babies. To add to the mess, Joseph’s brother, Reuben, slept with one of those maid-servants as well, father and son sowing their seed in the same womb, brother sleeping with his other brothers’ mom. Still more, after one of the daughters was raped in a nearby town, the sons rose to avenge their sister with bloodshed, all the while incensed at their father who didn’t want to ruffle any feathers over the incident. And, finally, the jealousy of the wives filtered down to the sons, especially when Jacob made it abundantly clear that Joseph, the firstborn of his favorite wife, Rachel, was his favorite son and the one who would inherit his blessing. If every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, then Joseph’s family had plenty of ways of breeding more unhappiness.
Some of you reading this come from an unhappy family, or you’re living in that unhappy family right now. Maybe you’re wondering if there’s any possible way God could glue back together the shards of your shattered family unity. Maybe you suspect things are so bad that God has washed His hands of your marriage and children. Or maybe you’ve simply given up hope; you feel defeated; you’re tired of pushing that boulder uphill, only to watch it roll down again. The pains and disappointments in life are teaching you the hard truth that God has a warm place in His heart for happy families, while unhappy ones are left shivering through winter after winter of divine absence.
If so, consider this: Joseph’s family—that polygamous, incestuous, jealous, murderous, motley crew of screw-ups—was in fact the holy family that God chose and dearly loved. This family was the foundation of the church of the Old Testament. Those twelve brothers, reared by one deceitful father and four bickering mothers, who were constantly fighting amongst themselves, were the patriarchs of the twelve tribes of Israel. This microcosm of humanity, in which just about every evil and sin was exemplified, was nevertheless beloved of God and chosen by Him to carry forward the promise of redemption. This was the family whose DNA would eventually find its way into a baby boy born to a virgin in the little town of Bethlehem. The Savior of the world would come from Joseph’s family; indeed, his foster father would bear that patriarch’s name. From this unhappy family would arise the one whose coming would prompt the church to sing, “Joy to the world!”
So is God interested only in happy families? No, if anything, He seems to be the patron God of lost causes. For him, there is no family, no family member, who is beyond hope. He is the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep to look for the one lost lamb. He is the father who dashes from his house and runs like a madman to throw his loving arms around the prodigal son. He is the Christ who suffers with you through every family fight, holds you when you cry yourself to sleep in a lonely bed, sits beside you in divorce court, visits your child with you when she’s in rehab. He has bound Himself to you and your family. That doesn’t mean He approves of the evil that takes place; what it means is that He is not a God who runs away when things get ugly. He might even get ugly Himself sometimes, show tough love to those who need it, but behind that divine scowl of reproof is a heart of love that beats with a ferocious compassion. He will not give up on you or your family. Inked into God’s skin is the name of every person in your family. He bears your family in His own body.
Every unhappy family may be unhappy in its own way, but no family is beyond redemption, beyond the recovery of joy, beyond the love of the heavenly Father. Because every unhappy family is the family for whom Jesus Christ died. For Joseph’s family, for your family, the Son of God came from His Father, was born of a mother, was raised by a foster father, that He might redeem every member of your family, and make them members of an everlasting family known as the church. With Jesus Christ, no family is a lost cause.