A PSYCHOLOGY OF HOPE

GENESIS 25:19-28

SEPTEMBER 21, 2008

 

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            Have you ever listened to the curmudgeon, Andrew Rooney, at the end of the television program 60 Minutes?  A number of years ago I received his book Word for Word as a birthday gift.  He writes about all sorts of things in the book, including a section titled, “Things that are hard to do.”  I want to read a few of them.

 

            Getting in your car when someone has parked too close to you on the driver’s side.

            Tearing something along the dotted line when the instructions say, “Tear along the dotted line.”

            Reaching for the towel when you get out of the shower without getting water all over the bathroom floor.

            Carrying a couch upstairs if you are the one walking backwards.

            Getting up and going to bed if you fall asleep on the couch while watching television.

            Getting anything out of your pants pockets when you have your seat belt fastened.

            Quitting a job you hate if the money is good.

 

            That’s only a sample from his list of things that are hard to do, yet I am surprised, given the extent of his list, that he left something off his list that I hear all the time is hard to do, if not impossible to do, and that is “changing or modifying our behavior.”  After all, we hear statements like, “A leopard can’t change his spots,” and “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” and we wonder, “Is that true?  Are we stuck with who we are?  Will we always be volatile, or depressed or spacey, or emotional, or stubborn or whatever it is we are?

            This morning we are going to take a look at that.  This morning we are going to look at what contributes most to making us who we are.  Through the lens of Scripture we are going to see how two things, our genetic makeup and our environment impact us, mold us, and how these two things set us on a certain course in life.

            But we are also going to see that we are not stuck and held captive by these two great forces, our genes and our family of origin, that we can change our spots, we can learn new tricks because there is a power that makes that happen.  So let’s look at our passage for today, at how heredity and environment impact our lives through the story of twin brothers born to Isaac and Rebekah.

            The story begins with a problem.  After twenty years of marriage Rebekah has still not gotten pregnant, and since their were no fertility specialists in the neighborhood, Isaac prays for a child, and shortly thereafter his prayer is answered, and with a bonus to boot.  Rebekah is not only pregnant, but she is pregnant with twins.

            Soon, however, another problem arose.  A difficult pregnancy, or more accurately a very uncomfortable pregnancy.  These two little beings inside of her seemed to be future candidates for the WWF, the World Wrestling Federation.  They wrestle regularly, tossing each other to and fro in the womb, so Rebekah, like her husband, turned to prayer.  There must be something wrong, it shouldn’t be this tough, and would God please fix the problem, and make her more comfortable? 

            In response to her prayer, God assures her that everything is fine, and God also gives her a glimpse of the future, saying that the customs of the day would be turned upside down with these two, in that the older would serve the younger.  Back in those days the first born male got all the goodies, the overwhelming share of the inheritance, but in this case it would go to the younger son, not the first born son.

            Then, after what must have seemed like eighteen rather than nine months, Rebekah gives birth and her two boys enter the world.  The first one comes out of the womb with gobs of red hair, and they name him “Harry.”  Actually, they named his “Esau” which means “hairy” in Aramaic.  Then, the second child appears and we can tell these are fraternal rather than identical twins because the second child is smooth-skinned and far different in appearance from the first.  The author then tells us something else about the second child.  The author tells us he came out of the womb grasping his brother’s heal.

            Now isn’t that interesting?  It’s almost as if the second child knew the first one out of the womb would get the goodies, so he grasps the heel of his brother, trying to pull him back into the womb, and thus beat him out.  For this act of grasping the second child was given the name “Jacob” which has two meanings.  Literally it means “one who grabs the heal,” and figuratively it means “supplanter” or “deceiver.” 

            The figurative meaning captures the second child’s future character.  If we were to describe the second child in one word it would be “cheat, liar, deceiver, con artist.”  Well, I guess that is more than one word, but that is what he would become, sort of the used car salesman of the Bible.  He also will become the next major character in the Book of Genesis, and ultimately one of the patriarchs of our faith.  This grandson of Abraham’s will take center stage for the next ten chapters of Genesis, far outshining his father Isaac.  And as we begin our study of Jacob, which will continue for the next few Sundays,  note how his genes, his chemical and chromosonal make-up determined, in large part, right from the beginning, the kind of person he would be.  From the moment of conception he seemed to be hard-wired to get ahead, to look out for number one no matter the cost. 

            So for those of us who believe that heredity influences our make-up and behavior more than environment, then this story is for us.   A lot of modern day research bears this out.  The idea that a baby is born a blank tablet, a malleable blob of clay, has in recent years given way to the recognition that babies are born with specific temperaments and coping capacities.  The growing field of infant research has established that every baby, right from birth, is like a snowflake different from every other snowflake, or in this case, baby.  And most of us have witnessed that first hand.  We have encountered full of life babies who are ready for maximum engagement with the world.  There are passive babies who tend to tune out regularly.  There are hypersensitive babies.  In other words, current research confirms that babies are born with certain qualities that we as parents can neither confer or withhold.  And this is somewhat comforting.  Why some kids from the same family turn out great and others not so great just may have to do more with genetic makeup than parenting skills.

            But let’s look at the rest of the story.  The text says something else, as well, about what contributes to making us who we are.  Listen to verse 28 once again,

 

            Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob.

 

            One can only guess what it was like for Jacob and Esau growing up knowing their parents had favorites, but it must have had a significant influence on them or the author of Genesis would not have included this formative information.  This is the other major factor in making us who we are ... the environment in which we are raised, our family of origin.  It may be true that each of us was imprinted at conception, however we cannot ignore the roles our families had in making us who we are.

            Bruce Larson, in his book on Genesis My Creator, My Friend, comments on the 28th verse, about Isaac loving Esau and Rebekah loving Jacob, and says,

 

            There is no doubt, that next to God’s own messages, the most influential messages we receive are messages from home.  Families can be God’s best instrument in finding our identity, or they can be the biggest stumbling block to understanding who we really are.  Every psychological school agrees that the family is perhaps the most important single influence in most of our lives.[1]

           

            I have a psychologist friend who wholeheartedly agrees with Larson.  Go to see him and during the first session he does not hand you a battery of psychological tests.  In fact, he never gives you a psychological test of any kind.  Instead, during the first session he asks you about family of origin.  He asks such questions as, “What did your dad tell you about how to get ahead in life?” and “What was your mother’s motto?” and “What is your earliest childhood memory?”  He asks about a dozen questions like that, and why the questions and no battery of psychological tests?  Because he believes our family of origin has an enormous impact on who we become as adults.

            In this regard I think of a comment made by Mother Theresa.  When she received the Nobel Peace Prize, she was asked, “What can we do to promote world peace?”  She did not miss a beat.  She didn’t pause to think of an answer.  She immediately said, “Go home and love your family.” 

            In addition to our innate endowments formed in the womb, there is no question that our families play a major role in making us who we are, and if we were fortunate enough to have had positive and healthy messages from home, all the better, but it we were not fortunate enough to have had those kind of messages, it can hamstring us, but  let me tell you, there is hope.

            Let me fast-forward a bit.  Yes, genetic make-up, and family had a major influence in Jacob’s life, contributing greatly to the person he would become, just as those two influences have greatly contributed to who we are.  Jacob was imprinted at conception.  He was further molded by his family, his emotionally absent father and his doting mother, yet that is not the end of Jacob’s story. Despite these two great influences in his life, he found a greater influence later in his life that healed his wounds and changed his character for the better.  In the weeks ahead we will see God take this scoundrel of a man and mold Jacob into a person of faith.  That’s the beauty of Jacob’s story.  Jacob’s story provides us with a psychology of hope that no matter what has brought us to this point in life, we can be fine tuned and changed by God.

            Let me close with an episode from the Peanuts comic strip.  Charlie Brown says to Lucy, “Next year I’m going to be a changed person!”

            Lucy responds, “That’s a laugh, Charlie Brown!”  She obviously belongs to the school of thought that a leopard cannot change his or her spots.

            Charlie Brown, however, is insistent.  He says, “I mean it!  I’m going to be strong and firm.”

            Now remember what I said before when quoting the Peanuts comic strip, how the name “Lucy” could be short for “Lucifer,” and listen to the lie she tell him.  She says, “Forget it, you’ll always be wishy-washy.”

            That’s one of Old Reds Legs tools, to make us think there is no hope, no way out, and the comment gets to Charlie Brown for a moment and he begins to doubt, and he thinks to himself, “Why can’t I change just a little bit?”

            But then comes a glimmer of hope, and he shouts to Lucy as he walks away, “Oh yeah!  I can too change, and one day I’ll be wishy and the other day I’ll be washy.”

            One day we will be more than that.  One day we will be conformed into the image of Christ, and let’s not believe any modern day Lucy’s who tell us differently.



[1] Bruce Larson, My Creator, My Friend (Word Books: Waco, TX), 1986, p. 129.

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