Scripture Reference: Genesis 37:1-50:26
Family Feuds: Seeing God In InjusticeDr. Erwin W. Lutzer | January 30, 2005
Selected highlights from this sermon
Joseph’s brothers were jealous of him. They sold him to the Ishmaelites. Later he was unjustly accused of rape and thrown in prison. While in prison, he helps a cupbearer who then forgets about Joseph’s plight.
Injustice followed Joseph wherever he went, but he didn’t give up hope. And he didn’t give in to bitterness. When he was reunited with his brothers, he set them free and blessed them. He chose not to retaliate.
Joseph chose to believe that God had a purpose in everything, and he was willing to trust Him and His timing.
I begin today with a verse of Scripture from God’s word. It says this: “See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God, that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled.” A root of bitterness.
Back in the days on the farm when I was a boy, I had to weed the garden. I absolutely hated it. I had to put a stake in the ground to distinguish between what was done from what was yet to be done, because I did it so poorly. But I learned something. There are two ways to take care of weeds. One is to cut them off at ground level. And the other of course is to dig deep and get at the root.
Often when we forgive it’s at ground level. “Yeah, I forgive you,” but we don’t get at the root. Well, we are going to today. Today we are going to go for the root.
Second truth in God’s word here: it says that the root of bitterness springing up defiles many. There’s no such thing as a bitter person who is bitter only for himself. He’s bitter with all of the people that he talks to, especially the ones whom he tries to get to agree with him, and thereby many, many, are defiled.
Today we are going to look at the story of a man who was able to forgive against all odds. He got to the root. The purpose of this message very clearly is first of all to teach us lessons regarding total forgiveness. And in the process, we are going to have the opportunity of actually testing ourselves to see whether we have forgiven others.
And of course it is my hope and prayer that some of you who today are going to walk out of the walls, and I hope that some of you are actually going to hear the clanging of the chains that fall to the concrete floor. You’ll be able to say “My chains fell off!” It’s a big agenda. That’s why I have been praying so much, because it’s an agenda that only God can accomplish.
The man’s name is Joseph. And I need to tell you the story of Joseph so that we understand why it is that he had every right to be bitter first of all because of the rejection of his family. I’ll tell you the story before we turn to some critical texts.
There he is, he’s seventeen years old and his father loves him very much. In fact, he was the favorite of his father. He was eleventh of the twelve children, and the last two were Jacob’s favorites. And he let it be known that they were his favorites. He gave Joseph a richly ornamented robe which in effect said, “I want you to have the blessing of the firstborn.” Bad idea, with ten other sons who were very angry and opinionated.
And then Joseph had two dreams. And in the first dream he says, “I was out in the field and my sheaf stood up and all the other sheaf’s, you know, the ten of you. You all bowed down before me.” Boy, that went over you know like a porcupine in a balloon factory. It was not highly regarded. It says that, “The brothers hated him because of his dream.”
Then as if that wasn’t enough he said, “You know there was the sun and the moon and ten or twelve stars, and they bowed before me.” And of course the brothers said, “Isn’t it wonderful to know that our kid brother has such wonderful dreams! I wonder how we can help him fulfill those dreams and see the potential that is really within him.” Don’t you wish! They hated him all the more.
One day he’s out in the field. He’s coming toward them because his father sent him to find out the welfare of his brothers. And they say, “Let’s kill him and then see what becomes of his dreams!” Do you know anyone who would like to kill you to end your dream? There are some people maybe that you know about whose dream is to put an end to your dream. They hate you and they hate your dreams.
So he comes, and they take him and they want to kill him. But Reuben talks them out of it. He says, “Let’s put him in the pit.” The Bible says Reuben’s intention was to actually get him later and to restore him to his father. And so Reuben has a kind heart. And he goes off to eat, that’s what the Bible says. We don’t know what the others ate but we do know of course what Reuben had, right? I’ll go a little more slowly next time.
And so Reuben discovers after he’s finished eating that the pit is empty because Judah had suggested that they sell him to the Ishmaelites that were coming along the path who were on their way to Egypt. And they sell him for twenty pieces of silver, and they condemn him to a fate that they knew would be worse than death. SO that’s the end of Joseph. His brothers rejected him.
And Reuben, despite his goodness, is going to participate in the lie. Because the brothers take the coat of Joseph, dip it in the blood of an animal, and take it to the father. And Jacob says, “That is the blood of my son.” And Jacob begins to mourn for his son for twenty two years. And all the brothers keep the lie. And Reuben who wanted to do well, he has to be part of the lie, too. And their consciences no longer troubled them after awhile, because it is like a dying battery.
I once had a clock that beeped every hour. I could not get the thing to stop beeping, that was its problem. I didn’t want to just toss it away, which is what I should have done. So I left it in my study, and every hour it would beep, beep, beep. Every hour it did that for weeks, and finally that battery died. Finally it died! Same way a conscience keeps beeping but finally it dies. We live the lie, and we are going to take it to our grave.
So there was every reason for Joseph to be bitter, having been so cruely sold. And then he goes to Egypt and he is suddenly exalted, and he gets to work with Potiphar who was the head of Pharaoh’s secret service detail. It says that Potiphar was responsible for protecting the Pharaoh.
And Potiphar’s wife and Joseph spent an awful lot of time together, and the Bible says that “Joseph was handsome in appearance.” And day after day she would persuade him, “Come to bed with me.” And day after day Joseph said, “No.”
One day in a fit of passion she ran and she caught him. And he struggled with her and he ran out the door, and she caught his coat and had it. And then hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. She takes it to her husband Potiphar, and she said, “You know that servant that you had, you know what he did? He tried to rape me!” Her husband believes her and Joseph is in jail. Not in jail, he’s in a dungeon, terrible, terrible, terrible conditions.
So that’s what you get when you obey God. You know there’s this theory today, “You know just do what is right and God will work it all out in the end.” Oh, really? The Scripture says that “If you do evil and suffer for it, you have nothing coming to you in the rewards in heaven. But if you do good and suffer for it, this is well pleasing to God.” Joseph knew that he was training for another world and that the rewards of obedience are often postponed.
So there he is. He’s thrown in prison and God is with him. It says, “God was with Joseph when he was exalted.” The very same expression is in the next chapter where it says, “And God was with him in his prison.” God is with us in our successes. He’s also with us in our failures.
In prison there are two other people, a cupbearer and a baker. They have dreams; Joseph interprets the dreams and says to the baker, “You’re going to die.” And he says to the cupbearer, “You’re going to live and you are going to be giving the cup to Pharaoh very soon.” And he says, “Please when you do that, would you remember me? Would you remember me and would you tell Pharaoh that I shouldn’t be here? And furthermore, please tell him that I’m innocent and that I should be released.” And the chapter ends with this amazing statement: “But the cupbearer did not remember Joseph but forgot him.”
You’re in the dungeon now, Joseph there has to die three deaths. Three deaths he dies there in the dungeon. The first one is death to his family. He has no emails; he has no way to telephone to see whether his dad is still alive, no telegrams, and no communication. He doesn’t know what is happening at home. He has to die to his family and his brothers who so cruelly and unjustly treated him.
He has to die to his reputation because everyone in the palace believes he’s a rapist. So he has to die to that. He knows the whispers that are going on about him and how evil he is. He knows the truth, but he has to die to his reputation.
He also has to die to his friends. You know, what are friends for if they can’t help you when you are in trouble? Here you help the cupbearer and he gets out and you ask him to do you a favor, and he doesn’t. He forgets you. He also has to die to all of his dreams and his plans. And there he dies the death.
There is a very interesting commentary in the book of Psalms about that. It says regarding Joseph, “They put his feet in fetters, and there the Word of God tested him.” Joseph knew that he was in prison by the divine will and the purpose of God. So, he had every reason to be bitter. And yet he is today a model on forgiveness.
And, what we are going to do is to give you five tests, five ways to describe Joseph’s reaction and why it was that his conscience was totally clear and he could release his brothers. And those five tests are for you and they’re for me, and for anyone who is listening to this, whether by radio, or by internet, or cassette tape, or CD. I’m speaking to you today, not to the person whom you think needs it, but to you, amen.
First of all, he chose to live in the future and not in the past. Now we are going to ask you to turn first of all to chapter forty one of the book of Genesis, Genesis chapter forty one. Joseph is released from prison. He is given a position of responsibility, we cannot go into the details of what all that means, but this is what the text says after Joseph was married. After he gets out of prison, he marries and he has two sons.
And it says in chapter forty one, verse fifty one, “Joseph called the firstborn of his sons Manasseh, for he said, ‘God has made me to forget all my hardship and all my father’s house. God caused me to forget.’”
And then the second son he calls “Ephraim,” because that means “God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.” Joseph is saying that terrible though it was, all the nights of crying and weeping in loneliness, all those days in the dungeon, (which remember he did not know when or if those days would ever end,) all of that affliction he says, “God has caused me to forget it.”
He says, “I refuse to live in the past. I refuse to allow my past to be the prism through which I view all events that continue to color and destroy any hope of being fruitful, in the present or in the future. God has caused me to forget the past and not be bound by it.” What Joseph is saying is, “I refuse to be a victim. I will be a victor with the help of God.”
You know this is of course an example of how Jesus also endured His injustice. It says, “Who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame.” Jesus said this, He said, “I will go to the cross and look beyond the cross. And in looking beyond that cross to glory, I’ll endure the cross. I’ll see that affliction is taking place, but fruitfulness lies ahead. I will refuse, absolutely refuse to be the kind of person who says that ‘My past has to color, and control, and dictate, and ruin anything that I can do in the future because of what happened to me. God will cause me to forget.’”
Now here’s my question to you, test number one. Do you live with more memories than you do dreams? Is it possible that because of what happened to you everything is colored? That root of bitterness springs up and many people are defiled because you refuse to forget and you refuse to trust for your future?
Second, notice this: he chose to set his brothers free. Now, this is in chapter forty five. And please turn to that, because we have to leave out all of these intriguing details. Joseph puts his brothers through a series of tests. And he does this to know that he doesn’t tell them immediately that he forgives them. He wants to see whether or not he can trust them first, because reconciliation itself also needs trust. Remember reconciliation needs trust, it needs respect, and it needs forgiveness. It needs all three. And in this series of messages there is going to be a message just on the topic of reconciliation.
So Joseph now is going to reveal himself to his brothers. Chapter forty five, verse four, Joseph says to his brothers, “Come near to me, please.” And they came. And now he is going to reveal who he is after all of these events. And now he says, “I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life.” He’s saying, “Don’t be mad at yourself for what you did.” He set his brothers free.
Most of us in that situation would have said, “Okay you guys, I forgive you. But I want to tell you a thing or two. I just want you to get clear what it was like for me. Have you ever put yourself in my sandals? Have you ever thought about what it was like at the age of seventeen to be sold like that, to go from pillar to post, to be thrown in jail for two years? Do you realize what you guys did to me? Sure, I’ll forgive you, but I just want you to know how deeply you wounded me.”
In fact, what he does is he asks that everybody else be put out of the room, because he didn’t even want the Egyptians to know what his brothers had done so that the Egyptians would not think ill of them. So he shuts everybody out and he says, “I need to just be with my brothers,” and that’s the best way that reconciliation takes place. Just with the ones that wounded you.
And so he says, “Let’s do it here, but I want you to know, don’t be angry with yourselves. I’m not going to go into a laundry list of all the ugly things that happened because of what you did.” Isn’t that like Jesus? He can speak to us and He can say, “Be thou forgiven.” Now sometimes the Spirit of God does convict us of sins, absolutely.
But, after the sins are confessed and forsaken does He say, “Okay, I’ll forgive you. But I want you to know today, have you ever thought about what you did? Do you realize what you’ve done? You think to yourself that you can hold this bitterness because you are really more righteous than the people who hurt you. Do you want me to show you all of your sins? How about using the equipment of Moody Church with our lovely screens, and let’s go on for half an hour and list some of the things that you have done. And let’s get this straight: I’ll forgive you, but I want you to understand a thing or two.”
“As far as the East is from the West, so fareth He removed our transgressions from us. Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth those who fear Him. For He knows our frame, and He remembers that we are dust. And your sins and your iniquities I will remember no more.” Joseph says, “I’m setting you free. Don’t be angry with what you’ve done.” Test number two: are you willing to set your victimizer free?
Test number three, as we hurry along here, is this: he saw God in his injustice. “And now do not be distressed,” I’m still in verse five, “Do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, but God sent me here.” Let’s camp on that phrase for just a moment. Joseph isn’t just saying,” You know, you guys really messed up by hurting me, but God turned it into something good anyway.” He’s not saying that.
He’s saying something much more theologically profound. What he’s saying is that, “Your evil was part of the divine plan. God had a purpose in all of this.” This was long before Romans 8:28 was written, and yet Joseph understood it with incredible clarity, “That all things work together for good to them that love God,” including the false accusations. But, “All things work together for good to them that love God, to those that are the called according to His purpose,” because he was able to see God in the midst of evil.
Doesn’t it remind you of Jesus? It says in the book of Acts, “Jesus was offered by the predetermined plan and counsel of God, and you wicked men carried out that plan and you killed the just One.” Was God there when Jesus died? Was there a plan? And the answer is, “Yes.” And Jesus could see God right next to the devil, and He saw God as bigger than the devil. If you are holding on to bitterness all that you can possibly see is the devil. “That person did that to me, and he is evil.” And if you do not see God, you will retain your bitterness.
This past week I read that old illustration that you’ve heard a thousand times. But I give it because it fits here and I happened to have read it. Remember the man giving a speech took a piece of white paper and in the middle of the paper he put a dot. And then he went from table to table where he was giving his speech and asked people what do you see? And they said, “We see a dot, we see a dot, we see a dot.” And then he got to the microphone and he said, “All that you saw was the dot. Not one of you said, ‘We see a piece of white paper.’ All that you could see is the dot.”
So I have to ask you today, do you see God in your circumstance? Oh, maybe it was done by the devil. Jesus was crucified by wicked men, the devil is there. But do you also see God and His providence in the evil that was done to you? Or is all that you can see in your narrow mind the devil? Joseph said, “Look, you sold me. But God sent me. This was part of the plan, and I bow humbly and I accept that plan.” Jesus bowed humbly and accepted the plan of the Father. Well, that’s the third test, then. How are you doing with these tests?
Number four: he blessed rather than cursed his brothers. He said in verse six and following and I won’t read all the text, “The famine has come. God sent me before you to preserve you for a remnant on earth.” He says, “Go back and tell my father that I am living, bring my dad here.”
And then he says, “Bring all of my father’s children.” I had to smile when I read that because he was standing in the presence of his father’s children. And he says, “I want you to come and I want you to settle here, and I want you to enjoy the prosperity that God has given me.” Wow! He wasn’t just saying, “Okay, I’ll forgive, but you can go back there and starve as far as I am concerned. Go back to the land. And you know what? You deserve to starve, as a matter of fact. I’ll forgive you.” No, he blessed. He said, “Not only do I forgive you, I’m going to prosper you. You’re going to get in on the blessing.” DO you know something? You will never get at the root of your bitterness, listen to this with such care, you will never get to the root of your bitterness unless you can bless those who have cursed you. It will set you free.
I have a friend who works with Muslim’s in Europe, seeking to give them the Gospel of Christ. And he said that a Muslim wrote to him and said to him, “Cursed be you, cursed be your wife, and cursed be your children. Cursed is the home in which you live, cursed is the car that you drive.” So he said that he wrote back and he said these words in the letter. He said, “This is my prayer for you, blessed be your wife, blessed be your children, blessed be your home, and blessed is the car that you drive.”
You will never forgive unless you bless those who wronged you and you bless those who curse you. Joseph said, “Oh, to forgive is easy. Yeah, just send them back. No, to forgive means I enfold them in my own blessing and let them participate in the goodness of God in my life.” That is real forgiveness. I have to ask you, have you ever blessed your enemy, or have you only cursed them? You get at the root when you bless and not curse.
Five, he refused to retaliate. For this we have to go to chapter fifty. Joseph has lived now in the land with his family for seventeen years. Jacob has lived an additional seventeen years. So if it was twenty two years between the time that Jacob was sold to the time that the brothers come, and then you add another seventeen years, what are we getting? I don’t know, somewhere in the thirties I suppose, in terms of time.
But notice that when the father dies, the brothers say something. Maybe they concoct a story because they are scared. They say, “You know, when your father was living he told us that you are supposed to forgive us.” Are you serious? Did Jacob have to say that? I don’t know. But they say in verse eighteen, “And now please forgive the transgression of your servants of God your father,” because they said to themselves, “Now that our father is dead, Joseph is going to retaliate.” It says in verse fifteen, “When Joseph’s brothers saw their father was dead they said, ‘It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil we did to him.’” SO they come and they say to him, “Please, please don’t pay us back.”
What does Joseph do when this happens? It says, “Joseph wept when they spoke to him.” Joseph was saying, “Do you mean to tell me, knowing me now for seventeen years, do you mean to tell me that you think that I would retaliate against you?” He cries just thinking of the fact that his brothers think that he would do such a thing.
So his brothers also came and fell down before him and said, “Behold, we are your servants.” But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? You meant it for evil,” he said, “but God meant it for good to bring about that many people. And now I am going to provide for you, and your livestock, and your families.” What Joseph is saying is, “Do you expect me to retaliate?”
You know what he’s saying, don’t you? When you and I retaliate, and some of us don’t retaliate maybe because we can’t retaliate, it’s unrealistic. Or we might end up in a place that is reminiscent of where Joseph was for two years. But in our minds we do. “Oh, if I could just get him, I would love to just see him…ugh!” You’d retaliate if you could, but you are restrained by certain outer restraints.
But Joseph says, “Am I in the place of God?” Do you know what he’s saying? He’s saying, “If I were to retaliate, I’d be elbowing God out of the way and saying, ‘God, get out of here! Let me do this!’” The Bible says, “‘Vengeance is mine, I will recompense,’ says the Lord.” So, you want to be in the place of God? You actually want to take over and do His business for Him, huh? Joseph said, “I’m not in the place of God.” My dear friend, today there are situations that you and I don’t need to sort out. We don’t need to retaliate because we are not in the place of God.
I have three lessons that I want to leave you with today. The first is that time does not heal family feuds. Thirty some years went by since they sold him, and the brothers are still thinking that Joseph might retaliate. What if the brothers would have said to themselves, “Well, you know it’s so long, maybe he’s forgotten what we did to him back then.” Are you kidding? So you promise somebody some money. It’s been seven years now and you haven’t paid. You could have, “But maybe he has forgotten that I promised him that I would give him the money.” Are you kidding me? Family feuds are never resolved through time.
Do you know how most family feuds are resolved? “I won’t talk to you, and you won’t talk to me. If we send Christmas cards, it will be those printed ones that just say, “John and Sally,” and that’s it. And you go your way, and I go mine, and we just don’t talk.” That’s the way most family feuds are settled, or unsettled. Always there has to be confrontation and resolution.
Now you say, “But I know a family member and I can’t settle with them because of A, B, C, D. That’s possible. Then from your heart you have to forgive. Do you know that about 9 out of 10 people who have hurt you don’t even know that they’ve done it? If you were to go to them and say, “You know I don’t forgive you for the hurt that you caused me.” “Hurt? What do you mean? Ugh, because of that? No big deal! You know, I can’t believe that you are even mentioning it!” So what we have to do is from our hearts forgive, even when reconciliation is beyond reach. And as I said, we will talk about reconciliation in another message.
Second, bitterness is the enemy of faith. Bitterness and faith can’t coexist. Let me tell you why. You know what bitterness is saying, don’t you? It’s saying two things about God. Number one, “There is no possibility that God could have a purpose in this, none whatever. This is just of the devil, and the day it happened clearly God was on vacation. He wasn’t watching over His world. He was just simply letting it happen and there can be no good that comes out of this. Not even God can use this.” That’s the first thing that bitterness is saying.
The second thing that it is saying is, “There’s no way that God is going to even the score. There is no way that there is going to be a final judgment when all of the truth is going to come out at the judgment seat of Jesus Christ, no way. If the score is to be evened, justice demands it, and I want to do it.” That’s why lawsuits, and there is a message coming in this series on lawsuits too, is so despicable among Christians. Because what lawsuits are saying is, “I have been done an injustice and I cannot wait for God to settle this. So I am going to go in and I am going to try and settle this on my own.” And I could tell you horrendous stories of the results of those kinds of responses. So, bitterness is the enemy of faith. It steals all your faith and it steals all your joy. It is an awful enemy.
Third, listen carefully. Forgiveness is an act of self-healing. It’s an act of self healing and reclaiming your life. You see, what happens when we don’t forgive is God stands back and says, “Oh, you are going to do My work for me, aren’t you? You are going to take care of this situation in your own way to the extent that you can, and you are going to allow it to dominate you and control you? Fine, do with it as you may.” So every kind of heartache comes to us and we find ourselves in that prison.
God says, “Look, if you want Me to take care of this, you genuinely want Me to take care of this, I will. And in the process you’ll be freed and you’ll be healed.” In his excellent book on forgiveness, R.T. Kendall says this, I wrote it down last night,) “The greater the hurt the greater the blessing when forgiveness comes.” You are bitter, you are the loser.
So what this means is to just lay it all down. You know there have been times in my own life when I’ve had to apply this message. In fact, I’ll tell you something interesting. Preparing this message God worked me over. I thought I had forgiven everybody. After all, I am the pastor of Moody Church. That’s part of the territory, right? And I began to look at this and I began to say, “You know, that’s not true here and it’s not true here,” and God worked me over. And the way I have to do this is it takes time in the presence of God to just go through every root, every thought that I’ve had against others, every desire to retaliate, and pull those things out root by root and give them to God.
Some of you are going to find this very, very difficult. But when you’ve come through the other side, the chains will fall off. They’ll fall onto the floor and you’ll say, “Ah, I’m free - free to be blessed, free to be fruitful.”
You know there’s a connection between your body and bitterness. R.T. Kendall in his book at the end tells an interesting story of a woman who was in a traffic accident. And because of that, her neck was so severely damaged that she had to be in a neck brace. And because she could not turn her head she was denied a driver’s license for twenty two years.
Somebody said to her, “Well, did you forgive the driver who went through the red light?” “Oh yeah, I’ve forgiven him.” Isn’t that the way most Christians would answer, cutting the weeds off at ground level? “Yeah, I’ve forgiven him.” This person said, “Have you ever blessed them? Have you ever prayed that God would bless them?” She said, “No, I’ve never done that.” “Well, that’s what you’re to do.”
So she began to pray prayers of blessing. Now this is what the book says, okay? This comes from a Baptist church in England. The moment the woman began to bless the person responsible for the accident she discovered that her neck was healed. And the book was written a year after and the healing was still there.
What do you want to do today? Do you want to get out of your prison? Do you want to lay it all down? Do you want to be free? I’ve said what I intended to say and now it is all between you and God. I can do nothing more.
Let’s pray. “Father, would you set your people free? Bitterness’s with deep roots that have been so well watered, that have been so rationalized, that have been so explained, and that have been so jealously held. Bitterness that has been an excuse for all kinds of other sins, would you set Father your people free? Now, who can do that? I can’t. Who can reach into a human heart that has been bitter for years, and years, and years, and set them free? God, this is your work. And if you don’t do it Lord, it won’t be done.” How many are there today who would say, “Pastor Lutzer, today I want to walk out of my prison.” Would you raise your hands please? There are many on the downstairs floor and I’m not sure if I see the balcony. I’m looking at the balcony now. You say, “I want to come out of my prison.” “Father, we ask in the name of Jesus, come and set your people free. Meet us Lord, because we are needy. And we ask that you shall forgive even as we have been forgiven. We pray in Jesus name, amen.”