Nestled in the Bible toward the end of Genesis, what to me reads like an epic drama fit for the “big screen,” is an unexpected, heart-wrenching caution from one of scripture’s early heroes, and it came at just the right time for me.
Years after being sold into slavery … by his brothers … kept in prison, tempted and abandoned by people he helped bust out of there, Joseph’s finally hit a new stride. Playing right-hand-man to Pharaoh, he’s powerful and successful. And more than that, he’s experienced God’s favor and blessing. But as a famine ravages the land, people from all around visit Egypt, including his brothers, and in seeing them he’s forced to face memories that have long haunted him. After what to me seems like a very long process of reconciliation, Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers and sends them home to talk to their dad. But just as they set off on their journey Joseph yells out a strange but thought- provoking warning, “Hey, don’t fight!”
“Then he sent his brothers away, and as they departed, he said to them, “Do not quarrel on the way.”
The phrase hit me, cut like a knife, on the morning I read this account. Of all the interesting subplots and details to consider, this one stood out to me. Sapped with emotion fueled by memories of abuse and neglect at the hand of his family, I imagined Joseph remembering what the journey meant for him all those years ago. I hear worry that his brother Benjamin, whom he’d shown favor, would meet the same fate. And in light of his past experience he yells it out as a reminder … I imagine him shouting just before they’re out of ears-reach.
Even our hero, Joseph, has scars. And although all these details aren’t spelled out in scripture, I think (and some scholars agree) we get a peek into Joseph’s heart. He’d forgiven his brothers, shown compassion to his family and is now prepared to bless them abundantly, but he couldn’t forget his story. It still lingered in his thoughts. To me, this passage served as a reminder: forgiveness isn’t always a one-time deal. Often, we have to forgive repeatedly as thoughts of our inner-hurts invade, or as we expose our experiences for the sake of others. I didn’t know why God illuminated this phrase to me that day, but I knew he did.
Not one day later, I was flooded with memories of a time I’d hoped to forget. It was 2007, the year I’ve dubbed, “the year of shame,” and in no longer than it takes to create a reunion Facebook group, thoughts came racing back. The year started with such promise; I was excited and prepared to take on new adventures alongside 70 or so other college grads and zealous believers at a ministry internship out of state. But what I found instead was struggle, a fight for my faith, a fight for my integrity, an inward fight to make sense of the many things happening that just didn’t make sense to me. In the year I spent there after high school, I learned what spiritual abuse was, although I didn’t know until years later what to call it and that others experienced it, too. I learned the importance of examining who I trusted and what I was learning, even within the Church, unfortunately. During that year, I saw things done and enforced in the name of the Lord that I’d never seen in the Bible, and I was looked down on for questioning it. I became a “black sheep.” Me, the girl who at the time clung so closely to my reputation. I was told straight out that I could’ve healed my mom’s terminal illness if only I’d had enough faith. For the first time, I was told I shouldn’t and couldn’t lead others. No, really, someone sat me down, tears in my eyes, and told me what I really needed was to submit to her leadership and that I was not fit to lead others. I was hurt. I was hurt by people I trusted and, truthfully, I hurt others. It was a bad year. And if I had a therapist, she’d probably tell me I’ve been repressing everything about it as much as possible.
But as I sorted through photos posted by friends from the internship to that Facebook group commemorating our time together, I remembered many of the good times and was thankful for what I learned from the experience. And even as I started to feel those negative emotions again, emotions that compelled me into a couple of years of depression upon leaving the program, I was thankful for God’s gentle caution the previous morning, reminding me that although I can’t forget my story, I can continue to forgive. And just like Joseph – although my issues had nothing on his – I can definitely see years later that God was in control the whole time.
“So it was not you who sent me here, but God.”
Even in our darkest places, God is sovereign. I don’t know what “skeletons” are in your closet, or what memories you may have to relive in the near future, but I hope this serves as an encouragement to forgive, even if we have a hard time forgetting.