Are You Willing to Face Your Past?
November 2, 2013
Twenty years is a long time.
A lot happens in the course of two decades.
A lot of water flows under the bridge.
A lot is forgotten and never mentioned again.
Some things are never mentioned but they are never forgotten either.
You can’t erase a guilty conscience </h6 class=”pullquote”>
In 20 years you can get married and start a family.
In 20 years you can move on with your life.
In 20 years you can start a career.
In 20 years you can build an empire.
In 20 years you can become wealthy.
In 20 years you can make yourself famous.
In 20 years you can be on top of the world.
Here’s one thing you can’t do in 20 years:
You can’t erase a guilty conscience.
The conscience is an odd thing.
It’s the moral barometer of the heart that senses when we’ve done wrong.
Everyone has one.
It’s not a matter of religion or education or geography or ethnic origin.
If you’re a member of the human family, you were born with a conscience.
It’s part of God’s original design.
You get a conscience by virtue of being born on planet earth.
“Sure Sign of a Bad Memory”
In most cases conscience is a good gift because your conscience can keep you out of trouble. But it is not infallible. It’s not the same as the Holy Spirit. And it does not have the power to compel your behavior. Conscience is like a street light that flashes green, yellow and red. You can still run the red light if you wish, but you know you’ve done something wrong.
Mark Twain once remarked that “a clear conscience is the sure sign of a bad memory.”
He’s right about that.
Your conscience is not the same as the Holy Spirit</h6 class=”pullquote”>But it’s possible to have a seared conscience. If you go long enough and try hard enough, you can quell the voice of your own conscience so that you no longer feel the pang of guilt.
What once seemed wrong doesn’t seem so bad.
What once kept you awake at night doesn’t bother you anymore.
What once made your cheeks blush with shame hardly enters your mind.
Perhaps the brothers of Joseph thought that the passage of time would remove their guilt. After all, they hadn’t seen their brother or heard from him since that fateful day when they tossed him in the pit, dragged him out again, sold him to the Midianites, and then watched as the caravan took him away in chains as a slave on his way to Egypt.
They certainly assumed he was dead.
And why not?
That’s what usually happened.
Slaves didn’t have a long lifespan.
The brothers thought Joseph was dead</h6 class=”pullquote”>So their assumption was probably right. Whatever moral judgments might be made, they couldn’t bring Joseph back and would certainly never see him again.
If their conscience pricked them from time to time, if the unending sorrow on Jacob’s weather-beaten face reminded them of what they had done, they had long since learned to deal with it, to hide it, to cover it, to quickly change the subject.
To their father, they spoke of Joseph only in the past tense. That was part of the cover-up.
To each other, they hardly spoke of it at all.
Dead is dead, and that’s all there was to it.
But Joseph wasn’t dead.
Far from it.
What Goes Around Comes Around
Way down in Egypt, hundreds of miles away, through a sequence of events so fantastic that no one could have dreamed it up, Joseph has risen to become the prime minister of Egypt. He’s the second most powerful man in the world.
The brothers have no clue.
But they are about to find out.
And through it all, God will awaken their guilty conscience to what they had done 20 years ago.
They are about to learn the law of retribution.
The chickens always come home to roost</h6 class=”pullquote”>What goes around comes around.
Sooner or later the chickens come home to roost.
Eventually the skeletons come out of the closet.
It’s time to face the music.
The hammer is about to fall.
In this series on the life of Joseph, we’ve been considering nine crucial questions. These are questions we all have to answer sooner or later. So far we’ve considered four questions:
Do you know why you were born?
Do you know who you are?
Are you willing to wait for God?
How big is your God?
Now we’re going to shift gears a bit and take a look in the mirror. Here’s question # 5:
Are you willing to face your past?
In my last sermon I said that you can’t go back to the past. That’s entirely true. You can’t go back to live in the past, and you can’t go back to change the past.
But sooner or later you do have to face your past.
The Mills of God Grind Slowly
Some of our greatest quotations deal with the idea of retribution. On more than one occasion, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. declared that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Thomas Jefferson, speaking of the evils of the slave trade, said, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.” Longfellow translated a couplet that stands as one of the most famous quotations on this theme:
Though the mills of God grind slowly
Yet they grind exceeding small.
Be sure your sin will find you out</h6 class=”pullquote”>
The Bible has much to say about retribution. I’m sure you’ve heard of “a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot” (Exodus 21:23-24 NLT). Two of the most famous Bible verses speak about retribution:
“Be sure your sin will find you out” (Numbers 32:23).
“Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap” (Galatians 6:7).
The brothers have been sowing for a long, long time. Reaping day has come.
Back to the Story
Nine years have passed since Joseph became prime minister of Egypt.
Everything has happened exactly as he said.
The seven good years were very good indeed.
We are now two years into the seven lean years, and they are very bad indeed.
Joseph is now 39 years old.
A vast famine grips the Middle East.
In Canaan Jacob hears there is food in Egypt.
Everything happened exactly as Joseph predicted </h6 class=”pullquote”>The story lies before us in Genesis 42-43. We can summarize what happens in five short phrases:
A journey to Egypt.
A meeting with Joseph.
A journey back home.
A journey back to Egypt.
A grand banquet.
Everything in these chapters rests on one reality.
The brothers have no idea Joseph is still alive.
They think he’s been dead for years.
So when they stand before him, with Joseph in Egyptian dress and speaking through an interpreter, they have no idea who he really is. It apparently never crosses their mind that this might be their long-lost brother because to them he was not “long-lost,” he was dead.
Now they are going to have to face up to what they have done.
Why the Trickery?
One question hangs in the air. Some people are bothered that Joseph does not immediately identify himself to his brothers. They feel that this trickery was needlessly painful. Why didn’t he just give them the food they sought and send them on their way? Why not say, “I’m your brother. Good to see you guys again. By the way, I’m not a slave anymore. I’m the prime minister of Egypt.”
Joseph was no Egyptian</h6 class=”pullquote”>The answer comes in two parts:
1. Joseph wasn’t interested merely in their physical needs.
He wanted true reconciliation. Through all the years in Egypt and during the years of his rise to power, he never forgot his aged father, he never stopped thinking of his brothers, and he never disowned the family of his birth. Down deep in his heart, Joseph was no Egyptian. He was still a Hebrew, still the son of Jacob, still part of a family he longed to see again. If he just gave them food and sent them on their way, there could be no reconciliation.
2. Joseph wanted to see the family put back together again.
But that required a change of heart by his brothers. He had to get some questions answered:
Do they still hate me?
Will they own up to their treachery?
Have they truly repented?
Do they even want me in the family again?
Do they even want me in the family again?</h6 class=”pullquote”>Those are hard questions. So Joseph takes the hard road of concealing his true identity so that his brothers could reveal their own hearts to him.
He wanted them back in his life.
Did they want him back in theirs?
A Series of Tests
So what we have in Genesis 42-43 is a series of tests God uses to awaken the guilty conscience of the brothers. Here’s a list that will help us see them clearly:
First, there is the loss of prosperity in the famine (Genesis 42:1-5).
Second, there is the harsh treatment by Joseph (Genesis 42:6-14).
Third, there is the three days the brothers spent in prison (Genesis 42:15-17).
Fourth, there is the breaking up of the family as Simeon is left behind in Egypt (Genesis 42:18-24).
Fifth, there is the demand to bring Benjamin to Egypt (Genesis 42:20).
Sixth, there is the strange case of the returned money (Genesis 42:25-38).
Some of this we can easily understand. Many a man who felt invincible in the sunshine has prayed in desperation when facing the midnight of suffering. Trouble has a way of stripping us of our self-confidence. The famine forced the brothers to go back to the one place they never wanted to visit. When Jacob told his sons to go to Egypt to buy food, you can imagine the stricken looks and the furtive glances.
Egypt was the last place they wanted to go</h6 class=”pullquote”>
Egypt! That’s where they sent Joseph many years ago.
Egypt! That’s the last place they wanted to go.
I’m sure they said to each other, “We will never go to Egypt!”
But to get the food they need to stay alive, they have to go to Egypt.
And to be healed from their guilty past, they must go to Egypt!
At some point, you’ve got to face the past.
The loss of prosperity strips them of their self-sufficiency.
The harsh treatment reminds them of how they treated Joseph.
The three days in jail mirrors the pit into which they threw Joseph.
Keeping Simeon in Egypt reminds them of how the family was divided by their treachery.
The demand to bring Benjamin tests their honesty after years of lying about their sin.
The returned money forces them to admit their guilt to each other.
There are two key turning points in these two chapters:
1. Confession of Sin
The first turning point comes after they spend three days in an Egyptian prison.
Then they said to one another, “In truth we are guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the distress of his soul, when he begged us and we did not listen. That is why this distress has come upon us” (Genesis 42:21).
They are on the road to repentance. During the three days they spent in prison, the Holy Spirit jostled their memory so they would connect what happened in the past (casting their brother into a pit) with their current situation (in prison in Egypt). It’s interesting what they remembered:
Not just that they hated him.
Not just that they plotted against him.
Not just that they betrayed him.
Not just that they threw him into a pit.
First step: admit you did wrong </h6 class=”pullquote”>
They remembered his screams from the pit. While they ate their meal, no doubt laughing and joking, they could hear their brother crying out for help. His screams were engraved in their memory so that two decades later, it all comes back to them.
Though painful, this was absolutely necessary. The Holy Spirit has connected their past sin with their present suffering.
If you want to get better, the first step is always to stop blaming others and start saying, “I was wrong.”
2. Recognition of God’s Hand
This happens on the way back home when they discover the silver in their sacks. This was the silver they had taken to Egypt to buy grain. Joseph gave them the grain they wanted and secretly put the silver back in their sacks (Genesis 42:25-28), giving the appearance that they had somehow stolen the grain. No wonder the brothers were terrified.
At this their hearts failed them, and they turned trembling to one another, saying, “What is this that God has done to us?” (Genesis 42:28)
This is huge because it is the first time the brothers ever mention God’s name. In all the evil they did in the past, God was pushed to the edge so they wouldn’t have to think about him. Now at last they have to admit the truth.
First, they admit their sin.
Second, they see God’s hand at work.
God’s Spirit never left them alone, even during the long years in Canaan when they thought Joseph was dead.
They remembered Joseph’s screams from the pit </h6 class=”pullquote”>
They remembered what they did to their little brother.
How they hated him.
How they envied him.
How they plotted against him.
How they cast him into a pit.
How they callously ignored his cries for help.
How they sold him as a slave.
How they lied to their own father.
It is an ugly, sordid tangle of evil.
The passage of time has not erased their guilt.
For all these years, it lay like a knife edge in their hearts.
Now as things turn against them in Egypt, the Holy Spirit taps them on the shoulder and says, “Remember what you did to Joseph? This is connected to that.”
They know they did wrong.
They know that God is bringing it to light.
The wound must be cleaned before healing can begin.
“You Can’t Help a Liar”
I had a lunch with a man who for many years has worked with college students. Occasionally he is faced with difficult disciplinary decisions when the young people break the rules of the group. “I’ve dealt with everything you can imagine,” he said. “Every sort of sexual sin. Cheating. Breaking the law. You name it, I’ve seen it.” There is an established set of procedures in place to deal with those who get in trouble. Very often they are able to help the young people make amends and set their lives on a new path.
During our discussion the man made two comments that stayed with me.
Lying is a non-issue nowadays </h6 class=”pullquote”>
First, he has learned that lying has almost become a non-issue today. Everyone lies, and they lie all the time. It’s almost as if it’s not a sin to lie anymore. Perhaps it is a sign of postmodern relativism that we have come to accept that lying isn’t wrong. Or perhaps it is just a fulfillment of Romans 3:13, “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” After discussing how people routinely lie to cover up their sin, he offered this conclusion:
You can’t help a liar. You can help anyone struggling with any sort of sin as long as they tell the truth. But you can’t help a liar because you can’t trust anything he says.
The situation is compounded by the fact that when most of us get caught, we confess as little as possible. That’s not a student problem; that’s a human problem. And that leads to the second key point.
One sign of true repentance is when “they tell you something you didn’t already know.” If you knew A + B + C, but the person then adds D + E + F, you know their repentance is deeper than just, “I’m sorry I got caught.” True repentance always involves coming clean, and coming clean means owning up to the whole pattern of wrongdoing, not just to the thing you happened to get caught doing. God desires “truth in the inward parts” (Psalm 51:6) or as Eugene Peterson puts it, “truth from the inside out.” It is very hard for us to come to this place of total honesty with God and with others. For most of us, it is a continual battle to be transparent in all our dealings, especially when we have sinned because it’s so easy to cover up.
Three Hard Words
It’s very hard for any of us to say, “I am guilty” or “I was wrong.” For 20 years the brothers had covered up their sin and stifled their guilty conscience. But now God is using Joseph to awaken them to what they did.
They have passed the first test: “Will we admit what we have done?” So far the Holy Spirit has opened their eyes to the point where they see clearly that what happened 20 years ago is somehow connected to what is happening to them today.
The Holy Spirit is the Divine Connector </h6 class=”pullquote”>
So now they go back to Jacob and tell him that they must bring Benjamin with them back to Egypt. Naturally he doesn’t want his youngest son out of his sight.
“Joseph is gone. Simeon is gone. Now you want to take Benjamin from me too” (Genesis 42:36 NIV).
One can hardly blame the old man for feeling that way. Remember, he thinks Joseph is dead too. The ruse is working. No one has any idea that the man in Egypt is Joseph.
So off they go back to Egypt with Benjamin in tow, fearful of what they will face.
When they get there, nothing makes sense. The tables have been set for a grand banquet. Simeon is released from prison.
Then Joseph enters the banquet hall. Seeing his baby brother Benjamin for the first time in over 20 years, he is so overwhelmed with emotion that he had to leave the room to compose himself (Genesis 43:30-31):
Then Joseph hurried out, for his compassion grew warm for his brother, and he sought a place to weep. And he entered his chamber and wept there. Then he washed his face and came out.
As the banquet begins, the brothers notice something strange. They were seated around the table in their precise birth order. How could that be? No Egyptian could know a thing like that. Surely something big is about to happen.
Will they all God to bless others more than them? </h6 class=”pullquote”>
Then one final detail. When the food is brought out, Benjamin receives five times as much as his brothers because he was Joseph’s only full brother. But that too was a test. Will they allow God to bless others more than them? This goes back to the problem of envy that started the whole deadly cycle.
Back then envy caused them to turn against Joseph.
But now they rejoice because they are reunited with each other.
It doesn’t matter if Benjamin receives more because everyone has enough.
“He Came to His Senses”
If we stand back and look at the story thus far, we can ask “How does God begin to awaken a guilty conscience?” He does it exactly as Joseph does here, by forcing us little by little to face the consequences of the past.
That is rarely easy.
It is almost always painful.
Jesus told a story about a young man who demanded that his father give him his inheritance. Off he went to the far country, to spend his fortune on wine, women and song. As so many since have discovered, he had friends as long as he had money, but when the money ran out, so did the friends.
God uses the famines of life to bring us to our senses </h6 class=”pullquote”>
It is noteworthy that in the story Jesus told, a famine came and he was in need. God often uses the famines of life to bring us to our senses.
At length he found himself friendless, homeless, penniless.
He got a job slopping the hogs and eating their food.
It was a terrible come-down for a lad who thought he would live it up.
In Luke 15:17 we are told that “he came to his senses.” We aren’t told exactly how long it took, only that his suffering slowly brought him around. The famine turned out to be a “severe mercy” because it showed him the folly of his ways.
Anything that brings us to our senses must be for our own good.
Why So Long?
As we ponder Joseph’s story, we may wonder why it took so long for the brothers to come to their senses. We can answer that question two ways.
First, God orchestrated the events so that Joseph was in the right place at the right time.
If the brothers had come to their senses while Joseph was in prison, it would have made no difference. Joseph had to be prime minister at the moment when the famine came and the brothers arrived for these events to play out.
Joseph had to be in the right place at the right time </h6 class=”pullquote”>
For 20 years they had buried their memories.
For 20 years they had fought against a guilty conscience.
For 20 years they had gone on as if the past didn’t matter.
But when the right moment came, they heard again the sound of their brother crying out to them from the pit, and they could not escape what they had done.
Second, the brothers weren’t ready until now to face the consequences of their own sin.
In our attempts to help people, we can intervene too soon. If we had seen the prodigal son the day before he came to his senses, we would have said, “He’s ready to come home.”
But it would not be true.
What if the father in the story had gone after his son and tried to bring him back one day early? The son would have said, “If only you had left me alone for one more day, I would have made all my money back because I was investing in pork bellies.”
You can help a prodigal too soon </h6 class=”pullquote”>
So it goes. We may think that someone has hit rock bottom when they are still scheming a way out of their problems. It was not until the son “came to his senses” that he decided to return home. That has to happen to every prodigal son and daughter, and it cannot be predicted or forced.
Repentance is a work of God in the human heart. If you come a day too soon, the prodigal will always think, “With one more day, I would have figured out a way to solve my own problems.” As long as the scheming and lying and deceiving continues, the best thing we can do is to pray for God’s Spirit to bring them to their senses and then to wait patiently until that day comes.
Nor of Fitness Fondly Dream
That leaves me with two things to say.
1. What if, like Joseph, you have been the victim of mistreatment at the hands of others?
What if you too have been betrayed?
What if you have been abused?
What if you have been falsely accused?
What if you have spent years in the twilight while others passed you by?
How can you awaken the guilty conscience of your tormentors?
Only God can do that.
Repentance is a gift from God </h6 class=”pullquote”>
No one can force another person to repent.
To attempt it is folly of the highest degree.
Only God can bring another person around.
If you are like Joseph, do what he did.
Serve the Lord where you are.
Bloom where you are planted.
Wait on the Lord.
Give God time to deal with those who have hurt you.
Let go of the past and move forward with God.
2. What if you, like Joseph’s brothers, are burdened with a guilty conscience?
Though your sin be as scarlet, you shall be white as snow</h6 class=”pullquote”>
Hear the Good News of the Gospel!
Christ came to save sinners.
Though your sin be as scarlet, you shall be white as snow.
Come to Christ.
Run to the cross.
Lay hold of the Son of God who died for you.
The door is open in the Father’s house and the lights are on.
You will not be turned away.
As the old song says,
Let not conscience bid you linger,
Nor of fitness fondly dream,
All the fitness he requireth
Is to feel your need of him.
Meanwhile back at the banquet hall, the curtain is about to rise on the final act.
They still don’t know that Joseph is alive.
They have no idea he’s standing in front of them.
But they are about to find out.
Talk about a happy family reunion.
If they don’t die of a heart attack first.
Stay tuned. More surprises are on the way.