The Word Among Us

July/August 2011 Issue

Healing Our Relationships

Insights from the Story of Joseph and His Brothers

Healing Our Relationships: Insights from the Story of Joseph and His Brothers

Everyone longs to have close relationships, especially within their families. We want to get along. We want to exercise the give-and-take of relationships in a way that is just, loving, and generous.

But as much as we may want this, the truth is that we are not perfect. Sooner or later, we end up hurting the very ones we love. And sooner or later, we will also end up hurt by loved ones. It’s bound to happen. After all, we are tainted with a fallen human nature, and we live in a world full of temptation. So we shouldn’t be surprised when we say or do something hurtful, or when it happens to us.

When it comes to stories about wounded relationships, Scripture has no lack. The Bible is filled with tales of unfaithful husbands, murderous wives, rebellious children, and irresponsible parents. It even tells us how the apostles fought among themselves! All these stories show us just how prevalent divisions are. But they also tell us that God can heal our wounds, help us repair our relationships, and strengthen us against further divisions.

Strained Relationships. If we were to single out one Bible story that talks about broken relationships, surely the story of Joseph and his brothers would be a strong contender. It’s filled with jealousy, attempted murder, lust, and deception—and it all happens within a godly family! The main characters—the sons of Jacob—are the great grand-children of Abraham and Sarah. They are part of a family that has been blessed by the Lord in a special way. So how could these brothers act so cruelly toward one of their own? And what can their story teach us about guarding our minds against division and protecting our families?

The story begins by telling us that Jacob loved Joseph more than his other sons (Genesis 37:3). He favored Joseph so much, in fact, that he gave him a beautiful new cloak as a gift. As you might expect, Joseph’s brothers became jealous and began to speak against him. Now it’s possible that Jacob knew he was being partial, but it’s even more likely that he wasn’t aware of his favoritism. As the story unfolds, we can see the price Jacob paid for not paying enough attention to his thoughts and the way he treated his sons. We see, also, the price he paid for not being alert to the way his other sons grew more and more resentful of Joseph.

But it wasn’t only Jacob who was at fault here. Joseph brought some of this on himself. He had a number of dreams that led him to believe that he was destined for greatness and that everyone else in his family would bow down before him. Joseph began boasting about the dreams to his brothers and father. Jacob rebuked Joseph over his attitude, but it was too little too late. The damage had already been done, and the brothers joined forces against Joseph. They captured him and sold him into slavery, telling Jacob that he had been killed by a wild beast.

Catch Your Thoughts. This story shows us how powerful envy can be. It is a warning to parents about real or perceived partiality to one child over another. It also warns parents and spouses to be alert to the signs of division within their marriages and families. Unless these divisions are dealt with early, they will fester and turn into troubling mindsets of mistrust, envy, bitterness or the like. Joseph’s brothers allowed their jealousy and resentment to form these mindsets, and that led them to take unreasonable and abusive measures against Joseph.

These mindsets come in all forms—moodiness, deception, pride, jealousy, selfishness, anger, and the like. They begin as little disturbances, small attitudes and assumptions against people or about life in general. But if left unattended, they can grow strong enough to bind us and control us. They can lead us to make shortsighted, irrational decisions that only serve to isolate us. Joseph’s brothers show how this can happen. From a logical standpoint, it’s hard to see how a father’s partiality and a brother’s dreams can justify attempted murder and human trafficking. But their attitudes and assumptions about Joseph led them to act irrationally.

The brothers’ story shows us how important it is to pay attention to what is going on in our minds. Is the memory of some past wound festering in my heart? Am I dwelling on that memory, giving it more attention than it deserves? Do I catch myself thinking or acting in irrational ways? If so, we need to ask the Lord to bring healing to our memories. We need to try to forgive the best we can and ask Jesus to help us put the past behind us.

The Last Straw? Sold as a slave to an Egyptian ruler named Potiphar, Joseph’s hard work and gracious manner helped him work his way up the ranks until he became overseer of Potiphar’s entire estate. But Joseph’s good fortune came to an end when Potiphar’s wife falsely accused him of molesting her. Enraged, Potiphar had Joseph thrown into jail.

This latest mishap could have been the last straw for Joseph. First he had to deal with his brothers’ betrayal. Then he was faced with the trauma of being separated from his family. Added to that was his loss of freedom as a slave. And now he faced false accusations and saw his master— who he thought had come to love him—assume the worst and send him off to jail. Joseph was a good and upright man, but all of these injustices must have left their mark. Could he ever trust anyone again? Maybe he should just give up trying to be upright. Maybe God didn’t care about him after all.

But that’s not what happened. Instead of letting these injustices turn him into a resentful, cynical man, Joseph stayed close to God, and God stayed close to him. Joseph held on to his faith, and that protected him and helped heal his memories. God was always on his mind—when he refused to give in to Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39:9), when he offered prophecy as an interpretation of people’s dreams (40:8; 41:16), and even when he tested his brothers (42:18). Through it all, Joseph continued to show great humility and godliness— and God continued to look after him.

Under a Cloud of Guilt. Through a series of miraculous events, Joseph was released from prison and was named Pharaoh’s second-in-command. Joseph the prisoner became Joseph the ruler. Then, when a famine spread across the land, Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt hoping to buy some food for their families. And that led them right before their younger brother—whom they didn’t even recognize. But Joseph knew them.

Now that Joseph had the upper hand, and given all he had been through, you might think that he would try to get even. Maybe he would humiliate them or even refuse to give them any food. But Joseph didn’t let bitterness get a foothold in his thinking. So instead of revenge, Joseph sought reconciliation. He was able to see the whole situation as part of God’s provision for him and his brothers. He even told them later on: “It was not really you but God who had me come here” (Genesis 45:8).

Joseph’s brothers, on the other hand, were still laboring under the weight of a guilty conscience. When Joseph had them arrested—all part of his plan to reconcile them to himself— the brothers assumed that God was punishing them for the way they had treated Joseph some twenty years ago (Genesis 42:21). They knew they had done wrong, and the memory of their sin kept them in bondage to fear and guilt. It seems that they were always worrying that retribution would find them. If only they had decided to right their wrongs! If only they had confessed their sins, told Jacob the truth, and tried to rescue Joseph! But they didn’t, and so they remained at the mercy of a guilty conscience for many years.

We Can Be Set Free. The story of Joseph and his brothers highlights so many of the sins that end up wounding our relationships: pride, envy, resentment, and deception, to name a few. His story also tells us that no matter how deeply we have been hurt, our heavenly Father wants to help us. He wants to heal our broken hearts and free us from attitudes of resentment, cynicism, or mistrust.

No matter who we are, we have all been wounded through relationships. We have all been hurt or treated unjustly. Some of these wounds may be quite deep, while others may be more superficial. But whatever our situations, we can learn from Joseph. He kept his eyes fixed on God, and God helped him forgive his brothers and bring reconciliation to his family.

At the start of his ministry, Jesus told the people that God had sent him “to bring glad tidings to the poor . . . to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18). Surely we can apply these promises to our relationships. Surely we can take some steps toward healing our memories, to seek reconciliation, and to find freedom. It may take time. In some instances, it may take a lifetime. But God will be with us through it all, helping us to forgive and not lose hope. As God blessed Joseph, he will surely bless us.