Perhaps the most haunting conversation I’ve had as a pastor was with a troubled 19-year-old. She was enduring a difficult season of life filled with addiction, poor choices, and loss. She poured out a tear-soaked testimony to my wife and me, but the only words that I heard that day were these: “How I wish someone had told me how to live. I wish I knew the rules.”
As a father, there have been few days that I have not recalled that moment, as I strive to raise my children with love, structure, and grace. To parent, to be present, to daily give our kids the gospel message is the highest form of love. And I weep for those who must endure life in dysfunctional homes —or no home at all.
To me, this makes my father’s experience all the more remarkable. Born into a messy home, my father didn’t know, until he was 14, that the man who brought home the check every night wasn’t his biological father. His real dad, an alcoholic, was wasting away in a downtown Chicago project. My father never really saw, even in his stepfather, what biblical manhood looks like. He had few models in his life. And yet, Dad became the father to me and my siblings that he never had. It’s a remarkable story of God’s grace in reversing generations of dysfunction and chaos.
A gospel view of family speaks two ideas at the same time: that God’s design for marriage and family is best for the flourishing of humanity, and that God’s re-creative acts in Christ can restore, in one generation, what sin has so often corrupted. My dad discovered the hope that though generational sins are often predictive, they are not binding. In Scripture, we see this most clearly in the story of Joseph.
Joseph was born into a family torn apart by sin, riven by dysfunction, scarred by passivity and unfaithfulness. The House of Jacob, even by ancient near eastern norms, was messed up. Rape. Deceit. Greed. Jealousy. Some critics of the Bible like to point to Old Testament patterns of polygamy as evidence that marriage forms are fluid. But this is the exact opposite of what Genesis’ narrative tells us. Sin blows through families like a giant tornado, destroying everything in its wake.
Jesus’ reconciling grace can empower new generations to live out their true calling as sons and daughters of the King.
Joseph had every opportunity to repeat the sins of his father Jacob. He was coddled by his dad. He was abused by his brothers. He was trafficked into a foreign country. He was deceived by those closest to him. He was forgotten by those who promised deliverance.
Everyone in Joseph’s early life who was supposed to look out for him disappointed him—deeply. And yet, we read often in Moses’ retelling of the story that “God was with Joseph.” And at the end of the Joseph story, we read of his faithfulness to his family and specifically his sons, blessing them and preparing them for a life of service to Jehovah.
Here’s the truth: men like my father, boys like Joseph, face an impossible road to manhood. They should fail but for those four words of grace: “God was with Joseph.” Generational sins shackle young men and women until they don’t because of God’s intervening grace. There is a way of escape from the patterns that keep people trapped. That way is through the One who, like Joseph, was betrayed, sold, and abandoned. Jesus defeated the very curse that turns fathers against their sons. His reconciling grace can empower new generations to live out their true calling as sons and daughters of the King.
Our relationships with our early fathers are important for our formation, but our relationship with our heavenly Father matters most. As author Donald Miller says in his book, Father Fiction, even while earthly fathers fail, God is fathering us still. And this Father is a good Father. A father to the fatherless.
We should lean in on Jesus for grace to parent well and be quick to repent when we fail.
Joseph’s story should also serve as a sobering reminder to those of us who have the privilege of parenting our own children. We don’t sin in a vacuum. Our patterns can leave a scar on our children. We should lean in on Jesus for grace to parent well and be quick to repent when we fail.
Most of all we should cling to the hope that God is at work, recreating something new in our generation. Whether we enjoyed the rare providence of a good dad or suffered in a dysfunctional home, we can take comfort in the gospel truth that with Jesus, sin is not the final chapter in our story. What has been destroyed can be made new again.