Messed Up Families: Will We Never Learn?

By Mark D. Roberts

January 11, 2016

Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves. But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.”

Genesis 37:3-4

Statue face split down the center and offsetWe see it all the time. Children imitate their parents — not only in sweet ways, but also in bitter ones. The dysfunctions of one generation are so often passed on to the next. The pain we experienced growing up in our families gets replicated in the families we lead as grown-ups.

The family that began with Abraham and Sarah provides a sad, striking illustration of this kind of generational brokenness in families. Take Genesis 37:3-4, for example. Here we learn that Israel (once called Jacob) loved his son Joseph “more than any other of his children” (37:4). He demonstrated this love by making Joseph “a long robe with sleeves” (traditionally known in the KJV as “the coat of many colors”).

How did Jacob’s other children react to his favoritism? Not well. “But when [Joseph’s] brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him” (37:4). Their hatred is underscored twice more in Genesis 37 (vv. 5, 8). Later in this chapter, we’ll see that Joseph’s brothers also resented their father so much that they were willing to cause him unspeakable emotional pain.

Now, taken out of context, this passage from Genesis would be terribly sad. But what makes it even worse is that Jacob had experienced something quite similar in his own family of origin. His father loved his brother Esau more than he loved Jacob. But his mother loved Jacob more than Esau. This led to a dreadful rift in the family, which included Esau’s hatred of Jacob. For years, the brothers lived far apart, with Jacob fearing that Esau would one day kill him. So, Jacob, of all people, was familiar with the pain that comes from favoritism in a family. Yet he replicated the unfortunate attitudes and behaviors of his parents, which gave birth to hatred among his own children.

As a pastor, I have seen this pattern in dozens of families. And, to be honest, I have seen it in my own family life. Certain behaviors of my father that infected my childhood mysteriously turned up in me and risked hurting my wife and children. Perhaps you can relate from your own experience or from the experiences of people close to you.

Is there hope for families? Can families break out of the cycle of dysfunctionality and learn to relate in healthy, holy ways? I believe that answer to these questions is “yes.” In tomorrow’s devotion I’ll explain why. For now, let me encourage you to consider with the Lord the following questions.


As you think about your family life, can you see patterns that are in some way like those in the family of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?

Do you sometimes behave in ways that remind you of things that your parents did that you once disliked?

What has helped you leave behind behavior patterns that are unhealthy?

What, if anything, gives you hope for a healthy, fruitful family life?


Gracious God, thank you, once again, for the honesty of Scripture. Your Word portrays the people and families in Genesis — not as unrealistic heroes but as broken people in need of your grace. What we see in Scripture helps us to acknowledge our own brokenness and need for you.

Help us, dear Lord, to discover how your love and grace can transform our relationships, including our families. Create in us new hearts and teach us your ways, so that we might be set free from the bonds of the past and begin to discover the true joys of family life.

May this also be true, Heavenly Father, for our family life as your people. Help us to relate to our sisters and brothers in Christ in ways that embody your goodness and love. Amen.

Mark D. Roberts

Senior Strategist

Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders,...

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