Every other year at this time our daily lectionary readings take us through the Joseph saga. He is the 11th and favorite son of Jacob. His brothers are jealous of him, sell him into slavery, and let their father believe Joseph is dead. Joseph is taken to Egypt and sold again but experiences some good fortune even as a slave. He shuns the affection of his master’s wife, whose scorn leads to imprisonment for Joseph, but there he proves himself a wise interpreter of dreams. When Pharoah begins to have troubling dreams he calls on Joseph and his interpretations lead to good fortune for Pharoah and for Joseph himself. Eventually Joseph is reconciled to his brothers who come to Egypt during a famine and are forgiven by Joseph for all they did to him.
How was it that Joseph was able to come to a place of forgiveness? How did he find the grace to set aside all the wrongs that had been done to him by his brothers? His life turned out pretty good in Egypt but how much better might it have been had he not been sold into slavery? Joseph is famous for his generous statement to his brothers, when they ashamedly discover he is still alive and now has power over them: As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good…. (Genesis 5:20). He could have had them all killed but he forgave them and moved on.
Moving on is pretty hard to do. We all have things which hold us back, things we continue to hold onto which hinder our progress in life. Old wounds, abuse and negligence, grievances, are hard to get past. Every time we see the person who has offended us, all the old pain rushes back and holds us captive. Moving on sounds like such a good idea but how do we do it? How did Joseph get to that place? Was he just a better person than you and me, or can we learn from his story and find ways to move on in our journey?
It seems that a great advantage Joseph had was that he was sent far away, to Egypt, instead of having to remain in the same town with his brothers who hated him and mistreated him. Had Joseph been rescued from the pit he was thrown into by his brothers and gone back to living amongst them, I wonder how long it would have been before they actually did kill him. His being sent to Egypt saved his life, allowed him to get some distance from the situation and develop some perspective. From that more detached perspective, Joseph came to see God’s grace above his brothers’ cruelty. But had he not developed that detached perspective, I bet the story would have turned out much different.
Modern therapeutic wisdom speaks of detachment as necessary for a healthy life. If we are hooked or enmeshed in a problem we get caught in a series of harmful reactions to pain. If I can step back from a problem and look at it from all sides, if I can protect myself well enough so that I don’t take the actions of others so personally, then I can find some understanding and the ability to take care of myself. If I can’t do that, I get stuck hating the people who have hurt me and blaming them for everything that is wrong in my life. If only they had not done that to me, or if only they had provided for me, then I wouldn’t be in this horrible place.
Sometimes in our relationships we just have to go Egypt. We have to find a way to get a little detachment. We have to separate ourselves from the hurt and the pain so that we can see things more clearly and begin to take responsibility for the things that are within our control. One of the problems with being enmeshed in the pain of a relationship is that we don’t really know where the other person stops and we begin. We give all the power to the offending person or the painful situation. We feel like there is nothing we can do to stop the pain and we lose all sense of hope. We sink into victim mode and act like a victim even around the people who are not hurting us.
Many times we can’t physically go to Egypt. We must stay in close proximity to those who have hurt us. But there are other ways of going to Egypt, other ways of gaining detachment. It can start with the simple realization that, while we cannot change the pain of the past, we can choose today to deal with the pain on our own terms. We can separate ourselves from the pain we feel and realize we are more than a victim of abuse or neglect. I can defend myself against those who have hurt me and I don’t have to assume that everyone else is out to get me. We can acknowledge that we have been hurt and we can make a choice to move on. We are more than the pain we have experienced.
When we do make that choice to move on, a brand new perspective arrives. We can begin to see that certain people are nothing but mean and cruel but that God can heal any wound we have. Then even our wounds become part of our wholeness.
If you’re stuck, go to Egypt. The abundant grace of God awaits.
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.