Joseph and Pain (Part 1)

18-LOne reason we know that Joseph carried deep emotional pain within him is the number of times he wept. Throughout this dramatic narrative at the end of Genesis we learn that Joseph wept profusely on seven occasions. Two of those times involved him going into a side room to have a cathartic cry in order to conceal his identity. One significant aspect to this is that his weeping is always tied to his encounters with family members. It is as if the physical, relational contact with them was necessary for the full release of his inner pain. Time alone was not a healer.

This is now the start of a third series that explores the topic of relational conflict through the lens of biblical narratives. We first studied how Isaac became a peacemaker with Abimelech as they worked out their disputes over wells in the desert. Next we looked at how Paul facilitated the reconciliation between Philemon and Onesimus, modeling a heart-based and invitational style of mediation. In this new Joseph series we will see how relational pain can truly be healed, but how this is never automatic or easy. Such a process involves a re-living of past harms in constructive ways in order to fully diffuse the negative charge of those harms. Such a process involves a give-and-take exchange between those who caused harm and received harm.

I am struck by the way Joseph continued to carry inner pain even after he intellectually found purpose in the course of events. When he revealed who he was to his brothers (weeping so loud that the Egyptians could hear him through the walls), he also provided a re-narration of his harm story. “It was not you who sent me here, but God” (45:8). He told his brothers not to be angry with themselves for selling him off, “because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead you of.” (Most of the famine years were yet to come.) In short, Joseph could find meaning in his situation.

But here is the point I want to make. Even though he could make new sense out of things, he still carried deep pain within. We know this because 17 years later, well after Jacob came to live in Goshen, well after the famine was over, Joseph was still vulnerable with his emotions. In Genesis 50, following the death of Jacob, we are a bit startled to learn what his brothers are thinking. “What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?” Note how the word ‘holds’ is in the present tense. Apparently there is still some negative charge in the air that has not been grounded out. Or is it just a perceived threat? Whatever the case, they go to Joseph and implicate Jacob’s death-bed instruction for them to ask Joseph to “forgive” them of their sins toward him.

It appears to be another tense moment in a long journey to heal family pain. (And in forthcoming postings we will also learn about Jacob’s pain and how Reuben and Judah engaged the family pain by taking greater responsibility.) Fortunately, when the brothers’ message came to him, “Joseph wept.” His emotions still needed an outlet that seemingly could only open up through interaction with his brothers. The brothers then bowed before him like slaves, but Joseph “reassured them and spoke kindly to them.” Again he re-narrated a story of intentional harm by emphasizing God’s divine intention to bring greater good out of a bad situation. At last, we sense that there is some completion to a long process of reconciliation.

Surprisingly, this text is the only spot in Genesis with the word ‘forgive’ (50:17). The Hebrew word here is ‘naso’ which more commonly means ‘to bear’. And so we have a sense of how forgiveness in this context is a long process of Joseph bearing or carrying the sins his brothers had set in motion. But how can this be? Was not Joseph the victim who unfairly bore the pain for many years? Would not justice demand that the offending brothers should be the ones to bear the pain and consequences of their own actions? How can forgiveness be understood as something that takes on the negatives caused by others?

There is a mystery here. The taking on of pain, especially through constructive dialogue, is paradoxically the means for letting go of pain. As Elaine Enns said, “To move past trauma you have to move through it.” Instructively, the Hebrew word ‘naso’ also means ‘to lift’. A burden can be intentionally lifted up. Certainly a big part of this mystery is that when all is said and done, people feel lighter and freer. The inner pain is simply not a heavy weight any more. Grudges are gone. Negatively charged energy is no longer loose in the air. Forgiveness brings about a completion for both victimized and offending parties.

To move past trauma you have to move through it.

As I suggested earlier, this is not an automatic or easy process. The Joseph story, especially the four chapters involving his encounter with his brothers in Egypt (Genesis 42-45), presents a complex, detailed map for how a transactional process can reverse the negative build-up that divides people from each other. Please read these four chapters with an eye toward how the dialogue between Joseph and his brothers reveals insights about how pain can only be healed when both sides enter a risk-taking journey of humility and responsibility.

Foster_Bible_Pictures_0054-1_Joseph_Kissing_His_Brother_BenjaminUltimately we will unpack one of the most perennial questions surrounding the topic of forgiveness: Can one experience forgiveness toward another as an individual on their own terms, or is real encounter and dialogue with the other person necessary for true forgiveness and peacemaking to happen? This will be a guiding question throughout our quest to understand the Joseph story. And while the traditional interpretation revolving around divine purpose will take a back seat to a new interpretation that revolves around relational healing, I think you will discover how both perspectives are joined by the theme of transformation, of how a bad situation can be restored into a good situation.


Contacting Ted Lewis

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