In 1901 German author, Thomas Mann, wrote a novel entitled Buddenbrooks. It tells the story of a family that grew very wealthy and then, over three generations, went into decline. So powerful was the story in describing generational decay that some economists talk about the Buddenbrooks effect when they are describing a family or institution that has gone into decline. History is littered with examples of families, businesses and even empires that have succumbed to the Buddenbrooks effect. Somewhere along the line, someone is tempted to cash in the family silver instead of stewarding it for the next generation.
Stewarding the spiritual family silver is just as big a challenge – if not bigger – as stewarding its counterpart in the natural realm.
Isaac was someone who faced that kind of challenge. He was a second generation of faith. He inherited a material fortune from his father Abraham; Abraham had been blessed in every way, the Bible explains (Genesis 24.1). He was a man of faith. A pioneer. He had seen the hand of God at work. And Isaac himself was the result of God fulfilling His promise in a most extraordinary way.
The time came, however, when Abraham died. Isaac was now left to carry on what his father had begun. How did he do that? How would he steward the spiritual family silver? How should we?
To steward faithfully and effectively the spiritual inheritance he had received, Isaac had to make his father’s faith real for himself. A number of incidents show how God gave him the opportunity to work an Abraham like faith into his life – and those opportunities were in the shape of challenges his father had faced.
Firstly, he had to discover God as the God of breakthrough. According to Genesis 25.21, Rebekah was barren, just like Sarah. If the family line was to continue and God’s promises fulfilled, Isaac needed a child. He prayed and Rebekah became pregnant. Isaac had breakthrough. You can inherit examples of breakthrough from another generation, but you cannot inherit the experience of breaking through in believing prayer. You have to learn that by experience. There is no short cut.
In Genesis 26.1-6, we find another area of challenge, again one that his father faced: the challenge to believe God in a time of famine. Abraham failed this test. He went to Egypt instead of believing God. Isaac stayed put. In a time of difficulty, he believed God. What you do in a time of difficulty, you will only know when you have a time of difficulty! Do we believe – like Isaac? Or backslide – like Abraham?
Genesis 26.7-11 reveals a third area of testing. Life’s circumstances sometimes reveal our own brokenness. Sometimes that brokenness is a carbon copy of our parents’ brokenness. That was true of Isaac. On two occasions Abraham had pretended that Sarah was his sister, because he was afraid that a foreign king would kill him and acquire Sarah as his wife (Genesis 12.10-20 & 20.1-8). It was quite a tribute to Sarah that Abraham should consider her so beautiful! In Genesis 26 Isaac does exactly the same thing out of fear.
We are all a highly complex combination of nature, nurture and grace. If Isaac had leaned more on grace than the weakness of his human nature, he would have avoided some trouble. In the end, God preserved him and Rebekah. If you want to be an effective steward of spiritual riches, you have to learn to lean on grace and take your weight of your own fallible nature.
The Buddenbrooks effect is not an inviolable law. It’s not set in stone. And if we are prepared to take a steer from Isaac, we will find it is not an unalterable spiritual effect either. If we will make our spiritual forefathers’ and spiritual parents’ faith a reality in our own lives, the spiritual family silver will be preserved for a future generation.
If our own weakness is what threatens our inheritance, then most assuredly it is God’s grace that protects it: My grace is enough; it’s all you need. My strength comes into its own in your weakness (2 Corinthians 12.9, The Message)