Author: David Wilber
Many of us carry around a deep sense of rejection, insecurity, and longing. We struggle to feel accepted, which sometimes drives us to unhealthy behavior. What does the Bible teach us about overcoming these feelings?
Jacob lived a life of constant struggle. Even while he was still in his mother’s womb, he struggled with his brother Esau (Genesis 25:22). When he was born, he came out holding Esau’s heel, foreshadowing his desire to be the firstborn. Jacob’s name (Yaakov) literally means “to grab the heel.” His name and reputation later came to be associated with deception (Genesis 27:36).
Jacob’s particular struggle with constantly striving to get ahead, even to the point of deceiving and manipulating people to get what he wanted, got him in all kinds of trouble. His antics even led to his brother Esau vowing to kill him (Genesis 27:36). How did this character deficiency develop and take over?
You might say Jacob’s treatment by his parents influenced his behavior:
Isaac loved Esau because he ate of his game, but Rebekah loved Jacob. (Genesis 25:28)
It seems that there was parental favoritism in the family. The father preferred Esau while the mother preferred Jacob. Perhaps Jacob wanted to be the firstborn because, like all young boys, he longed for the love and affection of his father. He might have thought, “If I could just be like Esau, my father will love me.” Perhaps this played a small part in his decision to disguise himself as Esau in order to receive a blessing from his father (Genesis 27).
A study released in 2010 said siblings who sensed that their parents consistently favored or rejected one child over another were more likely to be depressed in middle age. According to the study, unfavored children grow up with the constant need to feel special. They always want to be the center of attention. They’re always fishing for compliments. This deep-seated sense of rejection drives them.
Dr. Ellen Weber Libby, Ph.D., is a therapist who has studied and written on parental favoritism. She has observed that some people suffer from the damaging effects of parental favoritism all the way into their fifties and sixties:
I see patients who, even well into their 50s, carry feelings about being the favored or unfavored child. I have a patient in his 60s whose mom is still alive. He still feels slighted when his elderly mom needs something and turns to his sister. He still wants to be seen as special to his mother.
Many of us have come from families in which our father wasn’t around. Or even if he was around, we didn’t really receive the love and affection we needed from him. Many of us have grown up with a deep sense of rejection, and those feelings drive us to unhealthy behavior. Is there anything we can do to get healing? Yes.
The first thing to understand is that we often look in the wrong place for our sense of identity and purpose. While Jacob got the birthright and the blessing, he reaped the rotten fruit of his deception his entire life. In addition, while he continued to accomplish many things, he was never satisfied.
Likewise, we often think that achieving some level of earthly status in life will bring us fulfillment. We find our identity in climbing the corporate ladder, getting our “slice of the pie,” accomplishing the “American dream,” getting that relationship, job, or house that we want. Sometimes we even use less-than-honest means to accomplish our goals. Like Jacob, we hurt others in our drive for success.
In order to change, we must first identify the root cause of our behavior. For many of us, it is a sense of rejection from our fathers. Thus, we think achieving success will somehow prove to our earthly fathers—and therefore prove to ourselves—that we are worthy. However, according to Solomon, who has been there and done that, we ultimately find that such pursuits are “vanity and a striving after wind,” and there is “nothing to be gained under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 2:11). Indeed, even when we get everything we think we want out of this life, we still feel empty.
And those of us who are blessed to have had good fathers still aren’t off the hook. In life we inevitably discover that people—parents, spouses, mentors, friends—aren’t perfect and will fail us. We’ve all experienced deep hurts and disappointment in relationships. In either case, much of our striving is often an attempt to find some sort of relief from our pain. But our inner emptiness and longing cannot be satisfied by any earthly person or thing.
The turning point in Jacob’s life was not when he got the birthright and the blessing. It wasn’t when he got married. It wasn’t when he attained tremendous wealth and success. It was when he had a transformative encounter with God. Jacob found the true source of blessing when He allowed God to define his identity. He wrestled with God, and it was declared, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel” (Genesis 32:28). He was no longer to be defined by his former reputation of deception or his longing to be the firstborn of his father, Isaac. He is now defined as an accepted and loved “firstborn son” (Exodus 4:22) of his heavenly Father.
Likewise, our inner emptiness can be satisfied only by looking to God. Our earthly fathers might have failed to give us what we needed, but we can find healing in the presence of our heavenly Father. People might have betrayed or abandoned us, but God promises to never leave us:
Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5)
Our heavenly Father is the one who blesses us and gives us purpose and identity. And it is from that basis—a transformative relationship with God—that we can move forward in faith, no longer needing to strive for earthly success in a desperate attempt to feel valuable. When we allow God to define our identity as His child, He gives us new desires—a hunger and thirst for righteousness—which He promises to satisfy (Matthew 5:6).
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