On March 6, 1943, an illustration appeared in The Saturday Evening Post as part of a series painted by Norman Rockwell depicting the freedoms Americans often take for granted. This particular scene, titled “Freedom from Want,” portrays a family gathered around a bountiful table enjoying conversation and waiting with anticipation as their matriarch places the turkey on the table. The image has become iconic. It floods our imaginations as we plan holiday gatherings. It serves as the standard by which we judge special celebrations with our own families. Yet, despite our best efforts, it often proves elusive.
At the holidays we rearrange schedules and cancel appointments, cook meals and travel distances to spend time with the people we should be closest to in the world—our families. We try to overcome past failures, work around existing tension, and accept the crazy uncles among us for who they are. Even still, the best hopes for warm memories often freeze on the ground of cold hearts. Too often those we work so hard to engage with at the holidays are unwilling to respond in kind, leaving us painfully aware that we do not live in a Norman Rockwell world.
When the relationship chasms in our families are the result of the sinful attitudes and actions of those we love, we may find ourselves wanting out. The sacrifice of time, the investment of money, and the tangible expressions of love seem unworthy of the cost in light of the trouble and trial we must endure at the hands of our families. We would rather just be done. It’s easier, after all, to wash our hands of those who hurt us and walk away.
Painful family relationships are nothing new. Consider the story of Jacob, the father of the nation of Israel. If ever a person lived up to his name, Jacob certainly did. His life was characterized by deception. Jacob’s deception created a major rift in his family. After conning Esau out of his birthright, Jacob became the object of his brother’s loathing. That sentiment was compounded when Jacob lied to his father, Isaac, about his identity and stole the blessing that should have been Esau’s. Bitterness and hatred soon overcame Esau, compelling Jacob to live on the run for a season in order to escape his brother’s wrath.
The easy response to Jacob and those like him is to mark their sins against them, to label them by their failures, and to walk away. Yet, when we reconsider Jacob’s story, we find the foundation for his failures. From the beginning, his parents demonstrated that their children were not equals in their eyes. Their mother Rebekah loved Jacob. Their father Isaac loved Esau. This division of affection seemed to be a response to the difference in the perceived masculinity of the two boys. Isaac loved Esau because he was a skillful hunter, a man of the field. Today he would be called a man’s man. Jacob was the exact opposite of Esau. He was “a quiet man, dwelling in tents” (Genesis 25:27). Clearly, Jacob was a momma’s boy, not being man enough for his father to love. This open show of partiality was clearly on display as Rebekah encouraged Jacob to deceive his father and deprive Esau of Isaac’s blessing.
Demonstrations of partiality, views of gender, and manipulation of personality are just a few of the ways Jacob’s story relates to our modern world. While there is no way to excuse Jacob’s ongoing deception, his family story does help to explain it and therein is a lesson for us. Though life experiences do not excuse hurtful, sinful actions and attitudes, they often provide at least partial explanations. The more we understand the why behind the what of our loved one’s choices, the more likely we are to demonstrate grace, develop workarounds, and display our own commitment to Christ by running to those who need Him most.
The gospel compels us to follow in the steps of Jesus, who did not run away from a world that consistently spurned the Father’s love, but instead ran to the world in order to demonstrate God’s love in the most significant of ways, namely, by His substitutionary death on the cross. If you have come to the end of your rope, licking the wounds inflicted by your family in years past, convinced that it’s time to leave your family to themselves, I urge you to reconsider the rescue mission of our Savior and resolve to follow in his steps by running to your family with the hope of the gospel this Christmas.
Father, as I prepare to gather with my family this Christmas, cover my grief with your grace so that I might love my family in spite of our differences and may bring them the redemptive hope of the gospel.