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Picking up the pieces

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Genesis 42-45

Joseph’s family was in many ways the most dysfunctional in Scripture. Today we will see their pain and hurt up close, and learn how God healed their broken home. Along the way, we’ll find ways God can do the same for us, and for those we love. So, let’s return to ancient Egypt, and find help for north Dallas today.

The seven years of feasting are gone in Egypt, and the years of famine and depression Joseph predicted have gripped the ancient world. His family back home in Canaan has no food, so his father Jacob sends his brothers to Egypt to buy grain. And so one of the greatest dramas in biblical history unfolds. For the sake of time we’ll fast-forward through most of the script, stopping only where we must.

Picture the irony of the situation: these brothers who had condemned Joseph to slavery now stand before him as servile beggars, asking for food. They don’t recognize him, but he knows them immediately. Now he must learn if they are still the lying, hating, corrupted men they were twenty years earlier. So he devises two tests.

First he tests their honesty. He gives them the grain they have purchased, but instructs his servants to return their silver to their bags as well. When they later return for more grain, they return his silver to him, passing his test for integrity.

Now comes the greater test: one for family compassion. He sends them on their way, including his full brother Benjamin, but has his servants put his own very valuable silver chalice in Benjamin’s pack. They leave; he sends his soldiers after them; they discover the chalice, apparently stolen. They return to Joseph. He offers to make Benjamin his slave and free the rest. If this had been Joseph himself, twenty years earlier, they would gladly have accepted his offer.

But things have changed. They won’t allow it. Judah pleads with Joseph to choose him as a slave and free his younger brother. The other brothers plead as well. Finally, they have come to mutual love, sacrifice, and healing.

So now Joseph can reveal himself to them: “I am your brother, Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you…God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance” (45:5). What a reunion, after twenty years of separation, dysfunction, and pain.

Now, what does Joseph’s family teach us about ours? Let’s ask and answer some important questions together.

How to prevent family dysfunction

The first question: how can we prevent the kind of dysfunction and pain Joseph’s family experienced across twenty years? Here’s Joseph’s first answer: put your family ahead of yourself. His brothers put their egos and jealousy ahead of their brother, and this led to twenty years of separation and suffering. Have pride and egotism created separation and suffering in your home and family? Are there siblings, parents, or children you’re estranged from because of hurt, pain, misunderstanding?

Only when Joseph was willing to risk his place in Egypt for the sake of his family was he able to save them. He would tell us to do the same thing.

I will never forget the day Dr. Doug Dickens, pastoral care professor at Southwestern Seminary, preached in seminary chapel on the text, “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8). He said to us bluntly, if you’re putting your church or your career ahead of your marriage and family, you’re wrong. You’re in sin. Get God’s priorities in order in your life.

Joseph would say the same to us. Swallow your pride, your hurt, your ambitions, your place. Put your family first.

Second, expect your family to be attacked. Satan is a “roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). All across Scripture, he attacks first at the home and the family. He did it with Cain and Abel, and again with David, and still again with Jesus’ own unbelieving brothers. He did it with Joseph. He knows that hurting our family hurts us at the deepest places of pain.

And he hates whatever God loves. Satan knows that God loves the family. He invented marriage. Jesus chose to bless a wedding as his first public act of ministry and miracle. Satan hates what God loves.

Expect the enemy to attack. Joseph would testify that he will.

Third, Joseph would tell us to develop a strategy for family health.Joseph had to see if his brothers had changed, if their character was different. And so he embarked on a brilliant strategy to restore his family to health.

What’s your strategy for family health? When will you pray together, and share God’s word together? What memories are you creating? What proactive steps are you taking to make your family well and strong?

Fourth, Joseph would advise us to deal with problems the moment they arise. God’s word is clear: “Do not let the sun go down on your anger” (Ephesians 4:26). Deal with problems when you see them, as soon as you can.

Jacob ignored the sibling rivalries in his family, and they all paid an enormous price. Joseph would not make the same mistake. The moment his brothers arrived in Egypt he began doing all he could to make things right. What problems do you need to address?

How to deal with family pain

Now, what do you do if your family is already in pain, in hurt, in dysfunction? Here are some basic, simple, essential principles.

The first step is usually the toughest: admit the problem. Admit that your marriage needs help, or that your children are in trouble, or that your parent has a problem. This was easy for Joseph to see from a clay pit and an Egyptian prison. It’s seldom so easy for us, but we must do it. Admit the problem.

Second, talk to someone you trust. Proverbs 27:17 says, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” We need each other.

Don’t try to do this on your own. Call a friend—that’s what friends are for. Call your Sunday school teacher or fellow believer—this is our ministry from God.

And consider professional help as well. Most family problems, especially if they extend over years, are best treated with the help of those God has called and gifted for this reason. You wouldn’t try to heal a broken bone yourself; don’t try to heal a broken heart without help, either.

Third, initiate forgiveness. Joseph said to his brothers, “do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you” (Genesis 45:5). He took the initiative to forgive and seek healing.

Where are you wrong? What do you need to own up to and confess? With whom do you need to initiate reconciliation? They may not respond, but you have to start the healing process.

Fourth, stay close to God. I love this scriptural invitation: “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). Stay close to the only one who can change the hearts which need to be mended and helped. When we hurt it’s easy to turn from God, to blame him, to refuse his help. But this is like refusing to see the oncologist because he tells you that you have cancer. Turn to the only one who can solve your problem and heal your home.

Last, don’t give up. Joseph had to trust God across twenty years of separation, slavery, imprisonment, and pain, before he saw his family restored and well. Don’t give up.

Conclusion

Now, what can you do for hurting families you know? Take the initiative to help—don’t wait to be asked. Promise them your prayer support, and stay their friend through their pain. Encourage them to get help.

And don’t quit on them. Some of you have been praying for hurting friends for years. Don’t quit. I’ve heard wonderful stories just in recent days about Sunday school classes which wouldn’t stop calling absent friends, checking on hurting people, finally to see them come to healing and hope. It’s always too soon to quit.

All this said, here’s the best single advice I can give any hurting heart or home: go to Jesus. Scripture is clear: “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).

He knows what it’s like to have your closest friends abandon you—so did his disciples. He knows what it is to be rejected by your immediate family. John 7:5 says, “even his own brothers did not believe in him,” and none of them joined his movement until after his resurrection. He was even separated from his heavenly Father for a brief moment, as he took our sins upon himself and the holy God had to turn his face (Matthew 27:46). Ultimately he died of a broken heart—broken for you and for me. And he died for broken hearts, including yours and mine.

Ask for what he wants to give. Open your hands and your heart. Receive in faith. Be fed and changed. Know the help and hope of the God who loves you so much he died just for you.