My parents married when I was already on the way. This was supposed to be information we never figured out, I guess. Both had come out of unsuccessful first marriages. Dad had four kids; mom had two, and both had full custody. You could have called us the Brady Bunch, but that would not have been an appropriate term for how we made it work, which, apparently, wasn’t that well.
I thought we did. I was the youngest of seven—what did I know except that our happy world centered on me, the baby? I had no idea until later it wasn’t so happy for the others.
I was the product of the marriage that should have been, I think. The only child of the one that worked. Neither ever spoke of their first marriages. I suspect my parents wanted to forget, to forge ahead into the family that “should have been” had their “mistakes” never happened. But that’s impossible when the evidence of those relationships surrounded us daily in the form of six siblings whom I considered absolute sisters and brothers, but time has proved not so much.
That focus on what should or could have been cost us all dearly.
This is where we are in the Bible story.
Last time I wrote it was about Jacob’s parents, Rebekah and Isaac. They married and had two children who struggled, Jacob and Esau. Their issues were nothing compared to the drama of Jacob’s not-so-blended family hot mess.
He wanted to marry Rachel. Through some extreme (fairly deserved) trickery, he got Leah instead. He eventually got both, and after ten sons he finally had a son by Rachel—Joseph. Instead of making everything all better, though, this turn of events made it all worse.
Joseph represented to Jacob all that should have been. He was the son who should have been first. The son from the marriage that should have been the only marriage. Joseph should have had the firstborn fatherly blessing, if life had played fair with Jacob (a pot calling the kettle black scenario if ever there was one).
So foolishly, Jacob makes happen what his dreams and regrets believe should have happened. Even though the evidence of his other relationships in the form of ten children surrounded him. Joseph, as the youngest before Ben came along, probably looked at his ten big brothers and thought they hung the moon and stars. He probably considered them his best friends, adored and wanted to be just like them.
I know how this story goes.
His sibs were not on board with all that. Jacob so absorbed himself in his alternate universe where all the should’ve, would’ve, could’ves in his head had finally come true, that he neglected to consider how it might affect the other ten real people. He played them like extras in the chorus and expected somehow that they would love the star of the show as much as he did.
The fact that they sold Joseph into slavery instead must have come as something of a shock to dad much later when that little tidbit came to light.
It’s a big mistake to live in dreams rather than reality.
It’s the breeding place for resentment, blame, and shame. Three solid curses that come straight out of the Fall.
You know those brothers first convinced themselves that had they been better sons, Dad would have loved them more. They didn’t understand the dynamics of his life before them any more than I did my parents. Assuming they were to blame for his lack of attention makes sense. Most kids do that. The deep shame they must have felt for being “inadequate” sons fueled the smoldering fire of anger at little brother more than anything else, I’m sure.
We see it as a story of jealousy. I believe shame came first.
I know that feeling. For a long time, I’ve condemned myself for not being further along in my career. Why aren’t I where I want to be/should be? Why didn’t I work harder? Why didn’t I put in more time/effort/networking etc to be living a different professional life?
I’ve finally looked those lies straight on and realized the terrible attacks they are. God does not deal in shame.
There are a number of reasons for where my career is, and lack of a will to work is not one of them. It’s easy to look at all the “should have beens” and blame yourself for them. Rarely do we look at all the other factors we had no choice in. Focusing on the fantasy world of where I should be shames me into not being what I could be now.
The brothers focus on what they should have been to be loved, but the lie was in the one who didn’t love, not in the ones waiting for it. They were never deficient. They had no choice. The fantasy world lie shamed them and kept both brothers and father from being the parent and siblings they could have been in the now.
If I had chosen a different career . . .
If I had gotten better grades . . .
If the pandemic hadn’t hit when it did . . .
All of these are birthed in the same lie.
I should be at a place in life that I’m not. Shame on me.
Blame and Resentment.
So the brothers shift their anger at themselves to another target. Little Bro. Little Joe. It’s all his fault. He’s daddy’s favorite. He’s full of himself. The truth they’re not admitting that makes them so resentful though is this—he’s got what they want. All of daddy’s love.
It’s not Joseph’s fault, and they know it. He makes a good scapegoat though, and blame and resentment don’t care about collateral damage. They only want someone to hurt the way they’re hurting.
As a teen and young adult, I was very good at resentment. I disliked everyone who had what I wanted, and I wanted a whole list of things, primarily acceptance. Acceptance looks like so many things that we don’t think we have, from good hair to a good job.
I’m still good at it if I let it happen. Don’t we all live those “what ifs” as well?
If I had married someone else . . .
If my parents had done a better job . . .
If my boss saw how valuable I am . . .
All of these are birthed in the same lie.
I should be at a place in life that I’m not. Shame on them.
This isn’t to say we shouldn’t fight for good, valuable things that should be. Never stop making God’s good kingdom a reality on earth as it is in heaven! It also isn’t to say, “Hey, if you had lousy circumstances just accept it and move on.” God’s people are called to right wrongs and bring justice forward. Especially in this time, do not confuse unhelpful blame and shame with helpful calling out of societal shame and brokenness. Living in a communal world of “what ought to be” is a very good thing.
What I am saying is this. Living in a personal world of should’ve, would’ve, could’ves destroys the life we have right now. It ruins relationships. It paralyzes us in the present. It blinds us to opportunities in our abundant present life.
It does no favors for the future, either.
Lies of a fantasy world we could be in, but aren’t, help no one in living the life we are in. If “only’s” could only convince us a better option would be easier than working to hold on to the one we have. Let Jacob be a warning echo. Fighting for and appreciating the good in what is brings far more joy than imagining, pretending, or resenting what isn’t.
Jill Richardson is the pastor of Real Hope Community Church near Chicago. She is the author of six books and a national speaker, as well as a contributor to books from Dayspring, Lillenas, and Christianity Today. Jill’s doctorate in "Church Leadership in a Changing Context" is helping her with her passion—passing on a healthy, creative church and doing it with the next generation. She is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Bethel Seminary (St. Paul), and Washington University. Her focus is on church leadership, creative preaching, immigration and refugees, women’s issues, and intergenerational leadership. She has an unnatural love for Middle-earth, chocolate marzipan, old musicals, fish tacos, oceans, cats, and Earl Grey. She believes in Jesus, grace, restoration, kindness, justice, and the Cubs. You can find her work at jillmrichardson.com.