Summary: We use avoidance, anger, anxiety, and aloneness to manage family tensions. We even use self-centered prayer. But when we let God wrestle with us, we are changed and we accept vulnerability in family life.

The most critical issue in family life is not anger or argument. It is avoidance.

What plagues most families is not that they are embroiled in fighting or torn by argument. What destroys families is that people drift apart from one another; they avoid one another.

You see, if you fight with somebody, it means that at least you care about him enough to engage him. It means that you take her seriously enough that you want to work it out, even if you think it’s a lost cause.

But when you really want to punish somebody, what do you do? "I’m not speaking to you." "See if I give you the time of day." "I’ll just go to my room and shut the door and forget about you." When you really want to punish somebody you shut them out. Just this week I realized that there is someone who did something with which I disagree and with whom I take serious exception. How have I been handling that problem? I have just quit talking to this person for about two weeks.

That is damaging. That’s what erodes families more than anything,

The most critical issue in family life is not anger or argument. It is avoidance.

The brothers Jacob and Esau had not seen one another now for twenty years. Not since all that mess with deceiving weak, too-little-too-late father Isaac; after which manipulative mother Rebecca had sent away mama’s boy Jacob. She sent him away, she said, for a while, until brother Esau’s anger at having been cheated should subside. But the "while” turned into twenty years, with no communication. Avoidance, withdrawal, and silence.

Who knows all that went on in the minds of either Esau or Jacob during twenty long years? One writer ... and I like his phrasing ... speaks of Jacob as "ashamed, afraid, and alone." Whenever he thought of his brother; Jacob felt "ashamed, afraid, and alone."

I wonder how many of us feel that way in our own families. I wonder how many of us have handled family tensions simply by withdrawing and avoiding.

That’s what it is, you know, when children retreat to the TV set instead of engaging their parents. That’s what it is when parents just pretend not to see what their children are doing. That’s what it is when married couples avoid the intimacies that normally accompany marriage. That’s what it is when two professional people use the pressures of work and the appearance of busyness as a pretext to stay out of each others’ lives. That’s what it is, frankly, when even the pastor claims that he has to work on the next sermon and so shuts his study door behind him. It’s avoidance.

And like Jacob, we end up feeling "ashamed, afraid, and alone,"

There must be something better. There has to be a better way to live in families. And there is. But it domes only with a struggle. Something can happen when there is a struggle with family tensions, and when God is the chief struggler. That’s what Jacob found out.


The first part of that struggle is to recognize that family tensions are based on suspicions that may not be real. We assume that in our families there is a hostile, unfriendly atmosphere. We jump to the conclusion that that child, that parent, that spouse harbors a hatred for us. And we poison the wells of our relationships just by assuming that they do not love us.

The truth is that there is more love to draw on than meets the eve. There is more care embedded deep down within us than we are willing to see. When we feel "ashamed, afraid, and alone" we expect hostility from our families. And merely by expecting hostility we create ourselves the hostile atmosphere.

Jacob sent messengers out to his brother Esau after these twenty long years. The messengers were instructed to tell Esau that Jacob had prospered, that he had plenty of property, and that he wanted a meeting. The messengers delivered that word to Esau, and hurried back to tell Jacob, "Your brother Esau ... is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him."

Now notice, that’s all they said. They did not say, "Now that Esau knows where you live, he’s coming to get revenge." They did not tell Jacob, "Esau says that all those flocks and herds of yours belong to him, and he’s coming to get them." The storyteller of Genesis is very, very careful not to tell you what Esau’s reaction means. There is not the least hint about what Esau had in mind when he responded to Jacob’s message.

But there is plenty about what Jacob thought the message meant! Jacob was greatly distressed, and thought that Esau was coming to destroy him and all his property!

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