Sibling Rivalry – Dr Olivia Mcgrath

We can’t help comparing ourselves to others and vying for approval


From Luke’s Journal 2021 | Children of God | Vol.26 No.3

Photo: Public Domain Pictures

Often our greatest relationships are full of both joy and sorrow. For me, it’s the relationship I share with my sisters. These bonds of birth often lead to strife. If I dig deep enough, I would probably find that it likely originates from sibling rivalry.

Some of the Bible’s most recognised stories stem from the same jealousy, which led to the first murder. Sibling rivalry is evident in moral teachings and Broadway musicals – from Cain and Abel, to the prodigal son, and Joseph and his brothers. So why can’t siblings just get along? 

As with many sins, pride often leads the charge. We can’t help comparing ourselves to others and vying for the approval of authority. When there’s a personal relationship involved, as with God and our parents, there is more at stake. Disappointing them comes with the fear of losing love, security, and provision.

“So, if we sense our siblings are greater in our parents’ eyes, our first reaction can be to turn against them.”

So, if we sense our siblings are greater in our parents’ eyes, our first reaction can be to turn against them. To hate them, harm them, and sin against them – are we not equals who had no choice in the matter of family?

“It is Pride which has been the chief cause of misery in every nation and every family since the world began.” – C. S. Lewis

Cain and Abel

For Cain and Abel, their rivalry stemmed from Cain’s feeling of unworthiness in God’s eyes. They were given a great inheritance as the children of Adam and Eve. In gratitude and atonement, they were to offer a sacrifice to God, an expectation in return for all the good they had received. They did so: Abel the shepherd offering fat portions of his firstborns, and Cain the farmer, fruits of his soil. Yet, God was not pleased with Cain. “But on Cain and his offering he did not look with favour. So, Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast,” (Genesis 4:5).

In the New Testament, we understand why. “By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous,” (Hebrews 11:4). It was not Cain’s offering, but rather, his attitude which displeased God. (Remember, Jesus spoke of the widow who gave her only two coins as an example of generous offering.)

To feel unworthy in our parents’ eyes, only to turn and see our sibling looked upon favourably is hard. Especially so if we did what we thought was required, or didn’t, because we felt the task was too great. When this occurs, there are often two opposing responses. Cain could have looked at the favour given to his brother, realised his wrongdoings and repented. Or instead, kill him in anger, as he did.

“Cain could have looked at the favour given to his brother, realised his wrongdoings and repented. Or instead, kill him in anger, as he did.”

When our parents have different expectations or responses, we often ignore the why. Instead, the focus shifts to the fairness of the task and what became of our siblings. Whilst our parents are flawed, we can hope they want to impart wisdom and set rules out of love. Being parents, they also likely approach expectations with an awareness of what each child is capable.

We can learn from Cain’s terrible reaction of jealousy. For me, there’s a lesson to do what is asked of me well, for “labour in the Lord is not in vain,” (1 Corinthians 15:58); to ask my sisters for help in times of struggle; and in times of discipline, to understand that “no discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace,” (Hebrews 12:11).

The Prodigal Son and his Elder Brother

The story of the prodigal son was transformative to the relationship with my sisters. I always wondered why my parents loved and treated us all fairly despite our differences in conduct. It took the umpteenth sermon on the well-known parable for me to honour and apply one of the interpretations. 

To summarise, the prodigal son uses his father’s wealth for a life which doesn’t glorify God. Upon realising his actions, he repents and in turn, is welcomed home by his father with open arms. The elder son who didn’t squander his father’s wealth is angry. He followed the rules, yet no feast was laid out for him. This bitterness was likely jealousy too, for he never experienced the desirable sinful lifestyle of his brother. The older brother needed to repent too. For he had become a slave to the freedom and good standing he had before his father and was prideful in his behaviour. 

Likewise, for my sisters and I, our parents would constantly welcome us back. In my pride, I felt I deserved praise for having followed the rules and my sisters deserved punishment for breaking them. How great though, was the forgiveness and love my parents had unconditionally demonstrated to me a thousand other times? No, I pushed it aside, for I couldn’t help comparing the outcomes of the present.

Photo RODNAE Productions – Pexels

To wish suffering on another goes against the second greatest commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself,”(Matt 22:39). And none of us is blameless – “For all have sinned and fall short,” (Romans 3:23). The prodigal son and his brother, like my sisters and I, all need to seek forgiveness during our lives. 

The parable reminds us to look at the plank in our own eyes and be thankful for grace. It is faith, not works, which leads to salvation. Like the father in the parable said, we should “celebrate and be glad,” (Luke 15:32) when our siblings repent and rejoice in the good gifts our parents give us.

Joseph, his Brothers, and their Father

Finally, we come to the story of Joseph and his brothers. Whilst it ends well and demonstrates the epitome of biblical love and forgiveness, Joseph suffered along the way. His slavery was at the hands of his brothers as a result of the actions of their father. How Jacob treated his sons is a lesson for parents. 

Whilst God is the perfect father, Jacob was not. For God “does not show favouritism,” (Romans 2:11), but unfortunately Jacob did. “Now [Jacob] loved Joseph more than any of his other sons … and he made an ornate robe for him,” (Genesis 37:3). One would have thought he would have learned from his own strained relationship with his brother Esau about the consequences of parental favouritism.

Art by Adeline Lee 7yo

Yet Jacob did not, and history seemingly repeated itself. “When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him.” (Genesis 37:4). Joseph’s brothers threw him into a well and sold him into slavery. I’ll likely never do this to my sisters, but many times have I thrown them under the bus or sold out their secrets in the hopes my parents will love me more.

Ultimately, God’s providence prevailed and always will. Joseph would become second in command over Egypt, forgive his brothers, and provide for them during a famine. We can all take hope from this and the whole biblical narrative. As Joseph said to his brothers, “you intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives,” (Genesis 50:20). This sovereign plan is echoed later in the death and resurrection of Jesus. 

The Family of God

Sibling rivalry is as old as time. I may never quash it with my sisters. As we grow however, I can only hope our love, support, and trust overwhelm any darkness that takes the rivalry beyond thought and into action. To remind myself that it comes oftentimes at the detriment of more than just my relationship with them. In efforts to please our parents by tearing my siblings down, I’ve found it hurts my parents too.

Extending beyond time, is hope. Whether our parents don’t have our best interests at heart, or we never reconcile with our siblings, God is the ultimate father and the body of Christ the greatest family. We were adopted into sonship, predestined before the beginning of time to one day share in the great inheritance of Christ. How amazing is it to be called a child of God?

“Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves,” (Philippians 2:3)

Dr Olivia McGrath
Dr Olivia McGrath is currently an intern at Eastern Health in Victoria. Whilst she would love to become a Physician, she is keen to go wherever God takes her and wherever she can glorify Him the most.

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