Anyone who spends any time in neighborhoods populated by Bible-believing, religiously inclined people, knows that, for the most part, such people are kinder, gentler, more empathetic and more compassionate than the general population. Sometimes, however, unselfish behavior can morph into unwarranted meekness and timidity.
Here are five questions that might help determine if you have allowed your own goodness to be exploited by others less restrained than you.
- Do you always deflect adversarial encounters?
- Is being liked more important than standing your ground?
- Do you often tell yourself, “I’m just too tired to argue”?
- Do you frequently resent how “pushy people” seem to get their way and pride yourself on not being pushy?
- Do you sometimes feel embarrassed after standing firm and ‘winning’?
If you answered ‘yes’ to three or more of those questions, what’s to be done? As usual, ancient Jewish wisdom points to the Bible for help. Remember that we learn as much from the flaws of Biblical personalities as we do from their greatness.
My wife, Susan, attends a weekly Bible class she greatly values. In one class, the rabbi described the patriarch Jacob using the phrase ‘conflict-averse.’ Seeking peace, the rabbi explained, is be a wonderful thing to do most of the time but taken to an extreme, it can lead us down the wrong path. This was a failing of Jacob’s. I would like to impart some of what Susan learned along with some additional truths from ancient Jewish wisdom.
Looking at Jacob in Genesis 32 as he prepares to meet Esau, Jacob has sent messengers and gifts to the brother whom he worries is coming towards him with animosity. Then he settles down for the night.
On that night he arose, and taking his two wives, his two maidservants, and his eleven children, he crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After taking them across the stream, he sent across all his possessions. And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.
Mystery #1: After the camp settles down for the night, why does he wake everyone up?
Mystery #2: Why did God send an adversarial angel to detain Jacob in struggle all the night? (Genesis 32:25-30)
Mystery #3: When he does meet with Esau, why is there only one camp when earlier Jacob thought of dividing his camp in two so that, if attacked, at least one camp might survive? (Genesis 32:8)
It seems that, at the last minute, Jacob changed his plans. Rather than facing Esau, he contemplated avoiding him. To that end, he has everyone retreat across the river. In the last minute disorganization, he is temporarily alone and God sends an angel to struggle with him.
By the time dawn comes and Jacob disengages from the angel, Esau unexpectedly materializes right in Jacob’s path. (Genesis 33:1) God defeated Jacob’s plan to evade the confrontation by keeping him busy through the night and speeding up Esau’s travel.
This was only one example of Jacob’s tendency to avoid conflict.
Earlier, Jacob who had legitimately purchased the birthright from his older brother Esau, doesn’t question his mother’s decision to trick his father, Isaac, into believing that he was Esau. While Rebecca acted with prophecy, Jacob was quick to acquiesce in order to avoid confrontation and conflict.
He did the same thing when instead of confronting his deceitful father-in-law, Lavan, and telling him he was leaving, Jacob snuck away. (Genesis 31:8)
We see the pattern again when Jacob’s daughter Dina is raped. Rather than plan the necessary retribution, Jacob doesn’t even castigate the perpetrator but merely waits for his sons to return home. (Genesis 34:5)
Later on, we will see this tendency again. When Joseph recounts his disturbing dreams provoking jealous fury among his brothers, instead of settling things with his sons then and there, Jacob avoided conflict and merely put the thought away in his memory. (Genesis 37:11)
Similarly, although he knows something is wrong when the brothers show him Joseph’s bloody coat, as we see by the fact that he stays in an active state of bereavement for years, he doesn’t push his sons to tell him the truth. (Genesis 37:34)
From examining each of Jacob’s experiences we see that it is the emotion of fear that underlies his all-too-human tendency to avoid conflict. In fact, Genesis 32:8 states that Jacob was afraid. He wasn’t a coward; his fear was for his family and also fear of harming his brother should a fight ensue. Both concerns were praiseworthy, but giving in to them was not. Throughout his life, had Jacob faced his fears, we could see each event turn out more satisfactorily than it did.
Sometimes, rather than face the fact that we are unworthily yielding to fear, we deliberately mislead ourselves into believing that we are avoiding conflict on account of our virtue. While there are certainly occasions on which to yield in the name of peace, we must be on guard not to yield on account of our own fears of conflict. Most times, avoiding today’s conflict almost guarantees worse and unavoidable strife tomorrow. In fact, ancient Jewish wisdom tells us that Jacob was unnecessarily subservient to Esau when they did meet again, causing his descendants problems.
The best antidote to becoming a pious pushover is to remember that it nearly always results in bigger problems. Nowhere is this clearer than contemporary news headlines concerning Israel and Islam. Each time Israel yields in the hope of generating goodwill the problems mount. Whenever Israel displays firm resolve, the situation improves or at least does not deteriorate.