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What the Bible can show us about family conflict

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Father Olivier Bonnewinn reminds us that God is always there working for our good.

Does it get you down when the family is overwhelmed by disagreements? What if a few personalities from the Bible could help? Father Olivier Bonnewinn shows that in the Bible there are cases of families who break apart and then reconcile, but he reminds us that God never abandons them. This is a great source of encouragement for today’s modern family! 

Is there a role model for the family in the Bible?

The Holy Scripture does not present a doctrine of the ideal family. But through its stories, it reveals universal truths about family relationships and how they mature. In my book La famille dans la Bible : quand Abraham, Joseph et Moïse éclairent nos propres histoires (“Families in the Bible: when Abraham, Joseph and Moses clarify our own stories”), I follow the development of three families, of Abraham, Joseph, and Moses. In the book I look to different disciplines within an overarching theological perspective: criticism, anthropology, ethics, and a bit of psychology. By reading these inspired adventures, the reader will find that family turbulence can be smoothed over by the word of God. 

What do you focus on in the story of Abraham?

I look at paternity. How does Abraham abandon his “dysfunctional” family and then start his own? Over thousands of miles, he ventures through an impressive interior journey, suffering deprivations and temptations. He deals, for example, with what today we call “surrogate motherhood”: Sarah, who is sterile, relies on the fertility of her servant Hagar, who gives her a child by Sarah’s husband: they objectivize the womb of the slave and Ishmael is born. 

But God does not remain out of the scene. He enters the drama and undoes the tangles that arise from it. After several years have gone by, He helps Abraham and Sarah develop authentic alliances, between the two of them, and with others, and with Himself. With infinite tact, He brings them to paternity. After 25 years, Sarah gives birth to Isaac, whose name means “He who laughs.” But the adventure isn’t over yet. To be a parent it takes more than just bringing a son into the world. Abraham’s parenthood is constructed through events such as weaning Isaac and sending Hagar and Ishmael away, “sacrificing” Isaac, Isaac’s arranged marriage, etc. 

The story of Joseph and his brothers is about envy …

The relationships between brothers and sisters are sometimes complicated. Of course, they are a source of joy and happiness. But they are also marked by a rivalry that can turn into envy, hate, and even a desire to kill. Look, for example, at family arguments that can come about around inheritances. The story of Joseph and his brothers shows this reality.

A 17-year-old adolescent awakens the envy of his brothers. They conspire against him and lock him up in a well and plan to sell him as a slave. Their father is not indifferent to this mortal rivalry. He makes Joseph his favorite. Confusion, half-truths, lies and secrets destroy this family. And it takes decades for the seed of forgiveness to take root. 

And God? He intervenes very little in getting the brothers back together. He is not there to make up for the brothers’ commitment—or lack of commitment—to family peace and the (re)construction of family ties. He lets each one have his freedom and his responsibility. Yet, at the same time He supports them, working in the secret ways of His Providence.

The story of Moses, and the debate between three families—how can it help young people find their identity?

Not just young people! It is also helpful for adults of any age. We all ask ourselves the same crucial question: “How can I discover who I really am and construct who I want to be?” We find this in Moses, a stuttering young man, weak, passed back and forth among three families, three cultures, three religions. How does he construct his identity? Everything around him is constantly changing! Who are his parents? How can he define those multiple parental figures, how is he supposed to get to his true self?

Moses is not able to unlock the enigma. Then suddenly, “beyond the desert,” Someone calls his name from within a burning bush. Moses finds his identity in turning to Him, “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14), and committing himself to justice. At the end of his life, his nomadic identity experiences a surprising achievement. It becomes an identity of welcome for all his people and, ultimately, for millions of people. 

How does God accompany all these family sagas?

During his journey, Abraham receives encouraging words and signs from God. He receives support to get through his difficult moments, his inner contradictions and his sins. God remains at everyone’s side, even at the darkest moments of waywardness and rejection. On several occasions, He renews his promise and confidence yet without being overbearing. The same thing happens with Joseph and Moses, although in those cases the divine intervention is more discreet. God takes the road of forgiveness that saves each one of us from the most intricate situations, with gentleness, patience, and intelligence. 

Does each family have a vocation?

Every family is formed by unique people in a unique context. Each one is unique and possesses its own vocation that can be discovered over the years. God does not call us in the abstract. He doesn’t write the “family destinies” like some gigantic architect. He has so much respect for human liberty that his aim is to awaken, educate, free from lethal obstacles. His plan: make an alliance. He proposes to establish a personal and communal dialogue, form an individual and community alliance to advance in His enterprise. 

Interview by Bénédicte Drouin

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