Tag Archives: broken relationships

How one family’s drama was healed – Characters: Joseph, Part 5

1 Nov

In this Characters installment, we have been following the family drama in the life of Joseph, one of the patriarchs of ancient Israel. His is a story of extremes. Joseph lost his mother in childhood, but was his father’s favorite. His father loved him, but his brothers hated him. He had dreams from God about how he would rule over his brothers, but they sold him into slavery. Purchased as a slave by an Egyptian official, Potiphar, God was with Joseph, and he rose in favor with Potiphar, but was treated horribly by Potiphar’s wife. So Potiphar has Joseph jailed, but there rises in favor with the warden. When he interprets the king’s dream, through God’s empowerment, the king releases Joseph from prison and makes him second in command of all Egypt. Finally, it seems Joseph’s fortunes are settling into a good extreme. Then his brothers show up in Egypt, but now they don’t know Joseph is the governor. Shocked, emotional, Joseph throws them in prison, but eventually shows them a courageous act of mercy, giving them the grain they had come to purchase because the land was in a severe famine.

What happens next?

We learn in Genesis 43 that back in Canaan, Joseph’s brothers and father and family have eaten all the grain Joseph sent back with them. The famine has not let up, and they need more food. That means another trip to Egypt. But Joseph has thrown his family into turmoil because he said that if they come back to Egypt they must bring their youngest brother who had remained behind on their first trip.  You know who that other brother was?  His full brother Benjamin.  You can imagine that Joseph would really want to see Benjamin, the only brother with whom he shared both mother and father.  Their father, Jacob, however, loves Benjamin deeply, as he was Jacob’s only remaining connection to their mother, his wife Rachel whom he loved more than his other wives.  Jacob, for this reason, had not allowed Benjamin to go on the first trip to Egypt to get food.  Now Joseph has forced his hand, so Jacob concedes and sends Benjamin.  That brings us to Genesis 43:15. 

There we learn that once his brothers arrive in Egypt Joseph now invites them to his house. When Joseph sees his brother Benjamin, once again he is overwhelmed with emotion and has to leave the room.  When he finally composes himself, they have dinner together, but remember that his brothers still have no idea who Joseph is. They think he is just an eccentric governor of Egypt, who also holds their fate in his hands, because he is the one who can approve their purchase of more food.  Still toying with them, as he did on their first trip, Joseph seats them in order of age, which they think is an astounding coincidence.  He also gives Benjamin five times as much food as the others!  I bet Joseph had a hard time keeping from laughing as he watched them talking about this.

Joseph’s trickery continues through all of chapter 44, where he contrives to make it seem like they were trying to steal from him, and they are more distraught than ever.  Some scholars believe that in playing all these games with them, Joseph is shepherding his brothers to repentance.  Maybe.  It’s hard to know.  He plays quite an extensive ruse on them.  The games reach a high point at the end of chapter 44 when Joseph, having set them up as thieves, declares that their punishment is that Benjamin must stay behind, while the rest return to Canaan.  His brother Judah makes an impassioned plea for himself to stay behind in prison rather than Benjamin.  Perhaps that humility and sacrifice in Judah was the turning point for Joseph.

Turn to Genesis 45:1-8, and read Joseph’s amazing response.

Joseph can’t handle the ruse anymore.  He explodes in emotion and reveals himself as Joseph, the brother they sold into slavery 20 years before.  His brothers are terrified and shocked.

But as Joseph keeps talking, he describes the events of the last 20 years in a surprising way. He could be bitter, angry, and vengeful. Instead he says that God sent him into Egypt ahead of them, to save their family.  Joseph looks at all the years of pain and suffering and sees God’s faithfulness. 

Even in deep family drama, there is hope and redemption and forgiveness possible.  Even through the worst circumstances, even through our bad choices, God can and does use us when we make ourselves available to be used, like Joseph, to see our pain through God’s eyes.

Genesis 45 concludes in a beautiful fashion.  Look at verses 12-15.  The brothers are all reconciled, and what’s more, Joseph and the King Pharaoh invite Joseph’s whole extended family to move to Egypt and survive the famine.  And that is what happens.  Their father Jacob, now called Israel, moves his whole family to Egypt. 

Fast forward with me to Genesis 50:15.  The years have gone by and Joseph’s father Jacob has recently passed away. Joseph and his brothers keep Jacob’s wishes that they return his body to Canaan.  After doing so, they return to their homes in Egypt.  With Jacob dead, though, Joseph’s brothers fear that Joseph will now finally take revenge on them for what they had done to him all those years before.  Look at Joseph’s response in verse 20.

Amazing.  He continues to see God at work.  All these years later, the wounds of the past are healed.  Sometimes it takes time, repeated affirmation, especially when the wounds are deep.  Forgiving 70×7 as Jesus taught in Matthew 18 can mean that we have to forgive an offense multiple times because the hurt just keeps coming back.

There were many ups and downs in Joseph’s life.  Trials, temptations, jail-time. But when he was close to God, though the circumstances didn’t necessarily change, he clearly saw God at work. 

God is at work for redemption of what is broken.  Even when we are wounded and feeling lots of deep emotion about pain that people have caused us, we can pursue healing and reconciliation. That’s what God specializes in.  Maybe it seems like God isn’t there.  It can often feel that way.  Keep pursuing him. 

What is broken in your life that you need to take a step toward healing?

Do you have family drama? Characters – Joseph, Part 1

28 Oct

Family drama.  None of your families have drama, right?  Yeah, mine neither. 

(I hope you don’t believe that.)

Actually, family drama is the stuff of life. We all have it. 

Think about all the words we use to describe it.  Some of you might remember the classic line from the sitcom Friends, “We were on a break!”  Broken. It is a word that points to relationships that used to be close, but something happened.  It isn’t just boyfriends and girlfriends that break up.  It is sadly, also parents, kids, siblings. 

Another word commonly used to describe family drama is calling a person the black sheep.  Do you have black sheep in your family?  Have you ever been the black sheep?  Today we’re going to meet someone whose brothers treated him like a black sheep.   How did he handle it? 

We’ve started a series called Characters, looking at how God uses flawed people. This week we are looking at a guy named Joseph.

Last week we met Joseph’s father, Jacob.  We skimmed very quickly over the section where Joseph was born. Imagine with me for a minute what it would be like for Joseph to be born into his specific family.   He’s got 10 older brothers.  But they’re not all from the same mom. In fact, there are actually four moms in the family.  And all four moms live together in the same family!   That’s right, his father Jacob had four wives.  That’s called polygamy.  As I mentioned last week, polygamy happens in the Old Testament.  Not that God approves of it.  There it was in Joseph’s family.  What you need to know is that Joseph’s mom was Rachel, and of his father Jacob’s four wives, Rachel was Jacob’s first love and favorite.  Joseph was their first son.  Joseph also has a younger brother, Benjamin, but get this: during Benjamin’s birth, sadly, their mother Rachel dies.  That is family Joseph grows up in.  Imagine Joseph, growing up with no mom, a younger baby brother, three step moms (if you can call them that), 10 older half-brothers, and at least one half-sister in there too. And you think your family has issues!  Believe it or not, the drama is about to get even worse for Joseph.

If you want to follow along in your Bible, open it to Genesis 37.  In the beginning of chapter 37, we learn that Joseph is now 17 years old, and he is his father’s favorite son.  Why?  Well, remember that Jacob loved Joseph’s mom, Rachel, more than any of his other three wives, and Joseph was Rachel’s firstborn.  So even though Joseph has a whole bunch of older brothers, Jacob looks to Joseph as the special one.  He even gives Joseph a special cloak to wear. 

We often refer to this as the coat of many colors.  What kind of coat was this?  Rainbow colored?  Richly ornamented?  Likely, Joseph’s coat was long-sleeved and had skirts, which was not conducive for work, and thus a sign that he might have been exempted from work, or didn’t do much work.  His brothers had coats too, but theirs would have been short-sleeved, with no skirts, thus suitable for work. The special coat would normally have been given to the firstborn as sign of honor.  In this case Jacob gave the coat to his 11th born, and that’s a recipe for family drama.

In Genesis 37:2-11 we see numerous story elements that set up a great divide between Joseph and his brothers.  Read this passage and look for the family drama.

Did you see them?  I see four. 

First in verse 2, Joseph brings to his father a negative report about his brothers. He’s tattling!  And when the one who is younger and isn’t working tells on the older ones who are working, what happens?  Good feelings?

Next in verse 3 we read how their father Jacob (also named Israel) loved Joseph.  The brothers saw it.  I suspect most families have conversations where the children say to the parents, “So and so is your favorite,” and the parents disagree, of course.  In this case, it was obvious.  There was no disagreeing.

Third, in verse 4 we read that the brothers are very angry about Joseph being the favorite, even hating him. They were unable to speak to him on friendly terms. There was a lot of intense emotion.

Finally, and here is the kicker, look at verses 5-11 again.  Joseph has multiple dreams and he tells the dreams to his family explaining that they describe his superiority over his brothers and father.   None of them, including his father, are happy about this.

As I read this, I have to ask, was Joseph arrogant?  You know how a favorite child can own their favoritism and get a big head about it?  Is that happening inside Joseph?  Does the fact that he revealed such a confrontational kind of dream, and not once, but multiple times, show that Joseph is prideful?  Possibly.  We don’t know for sure.  Or was he just angry at his brothers’ meanness to him, trying to be vengeful to them?  We don’t know.  At the very least, I don’t believe he handled this right.  He could have kept the dreams quiet.  Or he could have told them only to his father, asking for advice on how to handle it.  We would counsel people in a similar situation to handle their families differently from how Joseph handled his brothers.  But we have to remember that he was 17, and he probably struggled with their anger toward him.  Younger siblings often look up to their older siblings, and here is Joseph getting nothing but bitter anger from them? That would be hard to take, even for someone much older than a 17 year old.

Clearly, there was family drama, and Joseph doesn’t seem to be helping things. As a result the drama is far from over, and actually only gets worse. How do we decrease the drama? If you want to remove drama from your family’s life, check back in to the next post as we follow what happens in Joseph’s family.

How to transform your life from useless to useful – Philemon 8-25, Part 2

27 Aug
Photo by Linh Nguyen on Unsplash

Have you ever felt useless in life? Maybe you watch others around you, friends and family, and it seems they are successful, advancing, making a difference in the world, enjoying life. Then you think about your life, and maybe you see a past littered with failure, broken relationships, and poor choices. Even if that describes you a little bit, know that you are not alone. Today we meet a man with a broken past. In fact, he was described as useless. At the outset, though, let me give you a hint: there is hope!

So far in our study of Paul’s letter to Philemon, in verses 1-7 we’ve seen Paul profusely encourage Philemon to see himself as a lover of Jesus who also loves all of Jesus’ followers. Then in verses 8-9, Paul begins to make an appeal to Philemon, because there is a specific situation in which Paul wants Philemon to practice that love for Jesus and all his followers. Paul knows that Philemon has a broken relationship in his life, and in verses 10-21, Paul makes his appeal to Philemon to fix that relationship.

What relationship? Paul is writing Philemon on behalf of Onesimus who used to be Philemon’s slave.  But something happened.  We don’t know all the details, but in verse 18 Paul gives some clues.  It seems that Onesimus not only ran away from Philemon, but may have even stolen from him.  Onesimus then made his way to Rome where he met up with Paul.  My guess is that one of three things led Onesimus to Paul. 

First option: Paul had previously become friends with Philemon.  It is possible that Paul would have also met his slave at the same time.  As time goes by, Paul ends up in Rome on house arrest, and Onesimus runs away from Philemon, hoping upon hope that Paul will help him.  If you’ve just committed a crime, and you don’t know where to go, you often seek a person you think will be understanding.  In Onesimus’ mind, Paul fits the bill.

Second option: It could be that Onesimus and Paul hadn’t previously met, but Onesimus still seeks out Paul for help, simply because of Paul’s reputation.

Third option: Onesimus just so happens to end up in Rome and comes across Paul.  Seems unlikely, but as we all know, unlikely things happen all time. 

The rest of the story, Paul tells us.  There in Rome, as he says in verse 10, Onesimus becomes his son.  That is strong family language, right?  Paul writes like this often, calling people his “son” in the faith.  What he means is that he shared Christ with Onesimus, and Onesimus chose to place his faith in Christ, giving Jesus both his assent and allegiance.  In other words, through Paul’s ministry on house arrest, Onesimus becomes a Christian. 

In verse 11 you see Paul’s literary flourish as he uses a wordplay, and most of your Bibles will point to this in a text note.  Almost certainly Onesimus was a difficult case for Philemon, and Paul knew this. If he hadn’t previously heard the story of Onesimus’ running away, he now heard it from Onesimus. Maybe Onesimus was a bad worker, maybe he was insubordinate, a back-talker, a slacker, we don’t know. As a result, maybe Philemon was hard on Onesimus, and that led to his running away. Or maybe Onesimus just wanted to be free. When Paul describes Onesimus as “formerly useless,” it could be all of the above. But here’s wordplay: Onesimus’ name means “useful,” and what does Paul say in verse 11?  Onesimus has gone through a transformation from uselessness to usefulness.  Through the work of Jesus in Onesimus’ life, a great change has happened. Onesimus is now as his name suggests, useful!  And not just to Philemon, Onesimus, Paul says, is useful to Paul too.  Apparently Onesimus was on fire for Jesus, serving, helping Paul. 

So Paul has a tough decision to make.  Do you send a runaway slave back to their master, knowing that it might not go well for that slave?  Or do you keep him with you, especially considering the amazing change that has taken place in his life?  There’s a lot riding on this.  If Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon, how will Philemon handle it?  Philemon really seems to be a good man, but Onesimus had betrayed Philemon, and Philemon could have a bad reaction. Also consider this from Onesimus’ point of view.  How much convincing did Paul have to do to get Onesimus to agree to this, after having wronged Philemon and run away?  How scared was he to go back there?  We can imagine Paul having a talk with Onesimus: “Now that you are follower of Jesus, there’s something we need to discuss. Philemon. Your master. How you treated him. Your broken relationship. Jesus is in the business of making things right. We’re going to need to deal with this.”

Now are you seeing why Paul gushes so much over Philemon in verses 1-7?  All that talk about loving all Christians?  Yeah.  It’s because Paul is dropping a bomb right in Philemon’s lap.  And that bomb is Onesimus.  Paul chooses to send Onesimus back, as we read in verse 12, which is the right thing to do. In fact, under Roman law, it was the legal thing to do. Philemon owns Onesimus, and Paul chooses to submit Onesimus to that relationship, as he says in verse 14.

At this juncture we need to pause and talk about slavery in the Roman Empire.  Even just saying “Philemon owns Onesimus” feels wrong.  But that is what was going on.  He was legally seen as property. 

Doesn’t it seem really odd that Philemon, a Christian, owns slaves, and that Paul would send a runaway slave back to his master!  Shouldn’t Philemon set his slaves free?  And shouldn’t Paul say, “Onesimus, you are not going back there into slavery”?  Yes, it seems like that should be happening, but none of it did.  As we’ll see, Paul has a whole lot more to say, but for now I want to point out that slavery in the Roman Empire, while it was awful, as slavery always is, was not like slavery in our American past.  Frankly, American slavery was worse.  A horrible, racial, terrible evil.  It was evil in the Roman Empire too, but it was not racial, and slaves actually had some measure of opportunity for freedom and advancement.  What I do not want you to hear me saying, though, is that slavery was okay in the Roman Empire.  It was different than American slavery, but it still was not okay.  It was evil and wrong back then and went against God’s desires.  I, too, wish Paul would have said more to denounce it.

So what did he say?  Next if Part 3 we continue observing his flow of thought, which will have significant implications for not only Philemon and Onesimus, but so much more, including the practice of slavery.

How to rehab a relationship

1 Aug

Do you have relationships that need rehab?  There is help!  Fellowship!

In the very first account of how the earliest Christians interacted with one another, Acts 2:42-47, we read that they devoted themselves to the fellowship?  What is fellowship?

That word “fellowship” in verse 42 is defined by Louw & Nida as “an association involving close mutual relations and involvement.”

This passage describes how these first Christians practiced fellowship.  They clearly had close mutual relations and involvement.  Their relationships went far beyond just seeing people for an hour or so on a Sunday morning at church.  They didn’t have Sunday morning church.  They had no church building. Instead we read that they were together often, meeting in the temple in Jerusalem (presumably for larger group gatherings), and then sharing meals in homes.  Everyday.

When you read the whole description, they were sharing not just meals, but their whole lives.

Jump ahead a few chapters to Acts 4:32-37, and here we see more information about how the first Christians shared life together.  People would sell off property in order to raise cash to help those in need!  They saw none of their possessions as exclusively theirs, but as capital they liquidate if needed to help the suffering.

From Acts 2 to Acts 4 our best estimates are that only a few months have gone by from the very first day of the church.  That means Jesus was still very, very close in their hearts and minds.  And what are these first Christians doing? They are following his teaching.  We’ve seen how they are interacting with one another.  Why did they do this?  Jesus taught them to! What did he teach them?

In the final hours before he was arrested, put on trial and killed, John 13:34-35 tells us about the last teaching that Jesus gave his disciples: “A new command I give you: love one another as I have loved you.  By this all men will know that you are my disciples, that you love one another.”

Relationships in the church, Jesus taught, should be clearly known by love.  Can it be said of you that you are loving the people in your church?  How do we practice this love?

In Romans 12:9-21 Paul says “weep with those who weep, mourn with those who mourn.”  We need to walk with people through the difficult aspects life.  We need to be there for them to talk, we need to listen, we need to allow them to face sorrow knowing that people who love them are right by their side.

In that same passage Paul also says “rejoice with those who rejoice.”  Loving relationships include celebration. Lots of celebrations happen for married people (bridal and baby showers, etc). But what about celebrating people and events that would be considered unconventional in our culture?  The church needs to celebrate singles as well, when you get jobs, new houses, or achieve accomplishments.  We also need to spectate at your hobbies, your sports, your extracirriculars.  We churches should throw more parties!

We can also look to deepen relationships.  Like the early church, one excellent way to deepen relationships is to have people over to your homes.  Get to know them.   Start with the people in your Sunday School class.  Invite them to your home!  Maybe then move on to the people in your small group.  Who are you doing life with?  Who are you caring for in ways that push your comfort zone a little bit?  Call them, text them, email them, go out for coffee.  Take the initiative to care for them.  Fellowship has to go beyond the structured programs.

Certainly not all people and all personalities aren’t going to be best of friends.  Some personalities connect more easily with others.  For example, Jesus, though he had hundreds of followers, focused on twelve.  Within that 12, he focused on his inner circle of three: Peter, James and John.  And even within that three, there was one who was called his Beloved, his best friend, John.  But Jesus was certainly focusing on others, doing life with them, sharing meals, talking through real life issues, and he did that for more than 1 or 2 hours a week.

Are you doing life together with people like the early church did, like Jesus did?

In this Growth Process sermon series, I said in the last sermon that Jesus doesn’t just want Sunday morning worshipers, he wants people to worship with their entire lives.  That means moving on to Fellowship.

But Fellowship isn’t just hanging out with people on a Sunday morning for 15 minutes, or even going to the church picnic or Family Night.  The kind of Fellowship that Jesus desires for his followers must be marked by “love one another”.

I’m not saying that you have to be best friends with everyone in your church family.  That’s not possible, even for a congregation that is less than 50 people.  But it is possible to get really close to a smaller group.

So have you moved beyond being a Sunday morning worshiper to becoming a fellowshipper?

How does a disciple of Jesus move beyond just Sunday morning fellowship into “love one another” and “life together”?

Examine your life and your relationships.  Pour your life into one other.  Love and reach out to those who are more difficult for your personality to love.  And to those who you are already in relationship with, seek to go deeper, interact more. Pray for and encourage one another on a new level.