God's Providence in Dysfunctional Families
Updated: May 17, 2022
As a minister, I have sat across from many people as they’ve processed dysfunction within their family. I wish I could say that stories of absent fathers, overbearing mothers, and wayward children were uncommon, but experience has taught me otherwise. For most people, learning how to process and deal with dysfunction in their family is key to personal and spiritual growth.
Any professional counselor or family therapist reading the beginning of the story of Joseph in Genesis 37:1-11 would immediately be able to spot a great deal of dysfunction within Joseph’s family too. One clear example of dysfunction in the Joseph story comes from the unhealthy bond that Jacob (Joseph’s father) has for Joseph.
The chapters leading up to Genesis 37 show us that Jacob adored Joseph because he was born to him late in life and because Joseph’s mother was Rachel (whom Jacob loved and adored more than Leah, the mother of Joseph’s brothers).
Jacob was so blatant in his preference for Joseph that he provided Joseph with a special “coat” as a demonstration of his love (Genesis 37:3). But this over-attachment and affection towards his one son had an effect on the whole family, causing Joseph’s brothers to become jealous of him and to despise him (Genesis 37:11). In other words, Joseph was an idol in Jacob’s life, and that idolatry wreaked havoc on the entire family.
Jacob’s idolatry of Joseph also had consequences for Joseph personally. As you read the opening section of his story in Genesis 37:1-11, it is quite clear that the privilege that Joseph received from his father had made him insensitive and arrogant. We see this most clearly in the way Joseph shares his dreams with his family in verses 5-9.
In Joseph’s vision, he saw his brothers bowing down to him, which would have been greatly offensive in the ancient world. In that society, the young always bowed to their elders. In Joseph’s dreams, his elder brothers were bowing down to him. The fact that Joseph so openly tells his brothers the details of his dream shows that he is very unaware of his own privilege and the jealousy that his brothers felt against him. Rather than being sensitive to this, Joseph instead rubbed salt in his brothers’ wounds.
These dynamics at work within Joseph’s family are not uncommon today. Parents often make an idol out of their children. Many people often feel envious or jealous of their siblings (even well into adulthood). Children who grow up feeling neglected by a parent may often despise a sibling who seemingly received all of the love and attention that they never received. A child who grew up privileged may be insensitive to the struggles of others, especially members of their own family. These are all very common experiences.
The good news, however, is that God works through (and despite of) family dysfunction. This is something we also see clearly in the Joseph story: despite all of the hardships that came into Joseph’s life as a result of his dysfunctional family, God—through His providence—had a purpose and a plan which He accomplished through the pain caused by familial wounds.
In the end, Joseph was able to say that God used all of it for good (Genesis 50:20) and was even able to forgive his brothers for selling him into slavery because of their jealousy (Genesis 50:21).
Friend, as you wrestle with relational hardships or dysfunction within your own family, you can know that God is also providentially at work in your life too. He has promised that He will work all things together for good for those whom He has called (Romans 8:28), which means that no struggle you are facing has gone unnoticed by Him nor is it meaningless. You can trust that God is sovereignly at work in your life, continually upholding you, guiding you, and caring for you.
This is the privilege you enjoy because Jesus himself gave up his own privilege in order for you to be clothed in the Father’s own robe (Luke 15:22) and so that you might experience God’s fatherly love as His adopted child (Romans 8:15). Therefore, whenever you face the difficulties of family dysfunction, you can always run to your Heavenly Father and trust that He will help you in any moment of hardship you may face.
Adam Smith is a Ministry Associate in Washington, D.C.