Happy New Year everyone! Today is a day we often think about new beginnings as we plan for the future. However, those of us who have been impacted by sexual abuse often feel so weighed down by the wounds inflicted upon us yesterday that it’s hard to imagine a better tomorrow. The holidays often bring hurtful memories to the surface, or sometimes it’s a present-day reality that challenges us as we interact with our families of origin. Christmas was like that for me this year. There was a death in our family that brought me in close contact with family members who had contributed to my pain either through their outright denial or complicit behavior that implied it was “no big deal.” Although the abuser had passed away earlier, the dysfunctional family dynamics continued to confuse and confound me. How does a follower of Jesus respond at such times?
I wish I could tell you I responded like Jesus would, but actually my reaction was a mixed bag. Part of me felt deep compassion for my grieving family members and moved toward them, while another part of me continued to feel victimized by things they said and did in relation to me and the abuser. There were moments when I walked in “the peace that passes understanding” and reached out in love, and there were other times I desperately wanted to withdraw to avoid the pain of their perceived rejection. In the final analysis, I grieved that their actions, or lack thereof, could still impact me so deeply a decade after disclosure.
I subsequently took my painful feelings of rejection and exclusion to God in listening prayer and asked for His perspective. God is so good to me. Rather than condemn my confusion, He led me to the story of Joseph who suffered in Genesis 37-50 much like I had. A long time ago, the Holy Spirit taught me if I imagine myself in Biblical stories, allowing myself to experience the emotions of the main character and to prayerfully consider his or her choices, I can gain God’s perspective and be set free by that truth. Joseph’s story did not disappoint!
Joseph was rejected by his brothers in varying degrees. They were jealous of his relationship with their dad and decided to remove him from their lives. They did this by temporarily throwing him into a pit until a caravan came by on its way to Egypt, then they sold him into slavery! They subsequently told their dad he was dead! Prior to this, Joseph had trusted his brothers with his dreams. Apparently, he was unaware of the depth of their jealously or hatred. Can you imagine the degree of rejection, abandonment, fear, and betrayal Joseph must have felt? In the face of much suffering and subsequent favor from God, he learned to walk by faith in Egypt (the land of his captivity). After numerous setbacks, he rose to a position of prominence and power, second only to Pharaoh, which was the fulfillment of the prophetic dreams he shared with his brothers many years before. As God would have it, the day came when he was face to face with his brothers again 20 years later!
How did Joseph react when confronted with the very ones who had caused him such deep pain? The same way you and I would react—with suspicion, anger, and many tears! The boy who once trusted his brothers freely with his dreams was now a man who tested their intentions severely! He wanted to see if there was any evidence of remorse. Nevertheless, because he feared God, he responded to their immediate need for food with generosity. When he saw that there was indeed evidence of a change of heart, Joseph also extended forgiveness and was reconciled with them, providing not only for their immediate needs but also for the life and welfare of their children for years to come. This powerful man who could have exacted revenge on them immediately from this new position, chose rather to impact their lives for good. You see, many years later, although he was still impacted by their sinful actions experiencing many painful emotions as a result, he realized God had given him a greater power to impact their destinies and his family’s legacy! His actions, by God’s grace, would be more impactful than their sins against him had been. Joseph summed it up by saying, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” (Genesis 50:20). Joseph reached this understanding after many years of relying upon God alone for comfort and allowing Him to heal his heart, infusing new hope and meaning into his life.
As I pondered the possibility of being “impactful” like Joseph, God revealed an immediate need in my family of origin and challenged me to respond! Someone could use some practical help. My immediate thought was, “If I do that, they will think their complicity was okay,” and my daughter added, “Mom, you can’t always save the world!” Yet, the Holy Spirit continued to nudge me as I struggled with fears related to possibly being in denial myself or having a savior complex as my daughter suggested. I asked God to remove this idea promptly if it wasn’t from Him or else to confirm it by his Word. Immediately, Romans 12:17-21 entered my mind. Was this family member “my enemy”? At times, it certainly had seemed so in the past.
These particular verses had always puzzled me. How could “good,” which in this case felt more like acquiescence, overcome evil? The Holy Spirit then drew my attention to the phrase, “in doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head!” That sounded painful! I did a search in my concordance and discovered that coals of fire in the Old Testament were associated with guilt and atonement (Isaiah 6:7, Ezekiel 10:2). Then I was reminded of another verse, Romans 2:4, that says, “God’s kindness is intended to lead us to repentance.” Is it possible that kind deeds, offered to someone in Jesus’ name, can lead to a change of heart? Is that the implication of burning coals on the head (or mind)? I may never fully know the outcome of my obedience, but I responded sacrificially nonetheless. At the very least, my actions refuted the lies my brother spoke about me years before (Isaiah 54:17).
The story of Joseph, as the Holy Spirit revealed it to me this Christmas, helped me move from perceiving myself as someone impacted by evil time and time again, to experiencing myself as someone impactful enough in Christ to overcome evil with good. Here’s to a powerful, impactful New Year ahead! What are your thoughts about this?