In the early 1970s, the Carpenters dominated on the pop music charts. With top ten songs like We’ve Only Just Begun, Rainy Days and Mondays, Top of the World, and their mega-hit Close to You, Karen and her brother Richard produced an amazing fourteen Gold records. In the process they also won an Oscar and three Grammy awards. Blessed with a voice as pretty as sunshine, Karen Carpenter could have dominated the music scene for years to come.
Yet behind the bright lights of popularity, a dark enemy loomed. Karen Carpenter was starving herself to death because of the eating disorder anorexia nervosa. Later she claimed her anorexia began after a music reviewer called her “Richard’s chubby little sister.” Little did the reviewer know that from the time she was a young girl, Karen battled self-esteem and weight problems. Though she became a music superstar, Karen could not shake her adolescent and childhood insecurities. The coroner’s report stated that Karen died of a heart attack brought on by anorexia, but Karen Carpenter died, in part, because she was unable to make peace with her past.1
In the 1980s, Rosanne Barr became a household name. The star of a hit television sitcom, she also regularly appeared on the covers of the tabloids because of her outrageous antics. A television movie chronicled her life and rise to stardom. The movie portrayed a different side of Rosanne. Rather than the uncouth, rough comedian we are so familiar with, America came to know a woman trying to come to grips with her childhood memories of sexual abuse. Could it be that Rosanne’s crude public outbursts are in part the result of great pain she carries from her past?
Like Karen and Rosanne, we all have a past — a past which we can neither escape nor change. A past filled with memories so powerful that their recall often brings pain to the present. Our stomach knots up. Feelings of inferiority arise. Long forgotten fears once again grab a choke hold on our life. The entire field of psychology is based on the premise that the past affects our present life. If true, it is essential that we learn how to make peace with our past.
Joseph, son of Jacob, overcame a painful past. He was raised in what we would call a “dysfunctional family.” Sibling rivalry filled Jacob’s household. Favoritism abounded. Hatred was a regular dish served on the family menu. One day, Joseph’s brothers caught him, threw him into a pit, and discussed killing him. One brother intervened and convinced the rest instead to sell Joseph as a slave to traders headed toward Egypt.
In Egypt, Joseph became the property of a man named Potiphar. Potiphar’s wife had eyes for Joseph, though, and made continual sexual advances toward him. Frustrated by Joseph’s refusal, she falsely charged him with attempted rape and he was imprisoned.
While imprisoned, Joseph made friends with a baker and a cupbearer. Each promised to pull their political strings and secure Joseph’s release, if and when they were freed. In time, the baker was hanged. The cupbearer was freed, but suffered a case of amnesia when it came to Joseph. For two more years, Joseph’s mailing address was an Egyptian prison.
One day the Pharaoh had a dream that no one but Joseph could interpret. The dream entailed that Egypt would experience seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. To reward Joseph for interpreting the dream, the Pharaoh gave Joseph charge over all of the agricultural activity in Egypt. The years of plenty came and Joseph stored up the bounty of grain for the future survival of Egypt. Seven years later the famine hit.
This famine was so severe that even people outside of Egypt came to Egypt to buy food from Joseph. One day Joseph’s own brothers arrived. Joseph recognized them, but they no longer knew their own brother. Joseph sold them grain and he tricked them into coming back before revealing his true identity. Let’s pick up the story in Genesis 45:1
Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, ‘Have everyone leave my presence!’ So there was no one with Joseph when he made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard him, and the Pharaoh’s household heard about it. Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am Joseph! Is my father still living?’ But his brothers were not able to answer him, because they were terrified at his presence.
Of course they were terrified. They did not know anything about Potiphar’s wife and the undeserved prison sentence. Or the abandonment by the cupbearer. But they remembered the pit and their bartering and selling their own brother. They have every reason to be terrified, when Joseph says to them in Genesis 45:4,
“Come close to me . . . I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt.”
Perhaps they expected a call for the royal guards, and the punishment they deserved for the cruelty they had shown their own brother. But no retaliation comes. These brothers did not know that Joseph had made peace with his painful past. His own words indicate he had let go of any vindictive feelings he held against them. Look at Genesis 45:5,
“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.”
How was Joseph able to put all his painful past behind him? What was Joseph’s secret?
I. Joseph Practiced Forgiveness.
Joseph had been wronged — not only by his brothers but by Potiphar’s wife and the cupbearer, too. In the words of my grandmother, he had been “done dirty.” Most of us can sympathize with that, because somewhere in our past others have done us dirty, too. When that happens, like Joseph, we are faced with how to respond. Joseph could have struck back and felt the exhilaration that comes from getting even. Instead, Joseph chose to forgive.
Forgiveness, while not the easiest, is always the wisest of our options. Until you forgive, the pain of your past will continue to be felt in your present. I have a good friend who went through a bitter divorce a few years back. On the weekends he has his children, he is a difficult person to be around. Those weekends are the only times he sees his ex-wife. The pain of her infidelity still runs deep in his unforgiving heart.
Until you forgive, the pain of your past will sour your present. Forgiveness is the key that unlocks the door of resentment and the handcuffs of hatred. It is a power that breaks the chains of bitterness and shatters the shackles of selfish retaliation. Forgiveness frees the heart.
I like the story about the first Christian missionaries to Alaska. When these Moravian missionaries began to minister among the Eskimo people, they quickly discovered that the Eskimos had no word in their language for forgiveness. So they composed a long, complex combination word that is pronounced is-sum-agi-joujung-nain-ermik. Literally, it translates into English to mean “not-being-able-to-think-about-it-anymore.2 That is the essence of genuine forgiveness. It is choosing not to think about how others have hurt us.
These guilty brothers never ask Joseph to forgive them. Neither does Joseph demand their apology. Genuine forgiveness doesn’t act that way. Like grace, it is freely given and freely offered. Joseph chose to forgive. But Joseph did something else also.
II. Joseph Chose to Live in the Present.
There is an old adage that states, “You can learn much about a person by noting what they say.” But the opposite is also true. You can learn much about a person by noting what they don’t say. After all he has been through, Joseph does not say much. He never mentions what it was like being Potiphar’s slave, losing years of his life in an Egyptian jail. He never speaks of being thrown in the pit, what it felt like to be sold and bought like an animal. No, Joseph isn’t imprisoned by the bitterness of his past. Instead, he is living in the present with eyes focused on the future. In Genesis 45:9-11he says,
“Hurry back to my father and tell him that God has made me lord over all of Egypt. Come down to me . . . You shall live in the region of Goshen and be near me. . . I will provide for you because five years of famine are still to come.”
Making peace with your past always includes choosing to let go of yesterday and living for today and tomorrow. For many people that is a difficult action to take. The painful experiences of years ago have locked them in that moment of time. I know a woman who lost her husband fourteen years ago, and still sets a place for him at her table. Every night she sits in silence, eating with the memories of her husband who used to sit behind the now empty place setting.
A few years ago, an Indiana man was imprisoned for beating his wife. Under state law, his wife had him prosecuted. He was sentenced to two years. While behind bars, he had the opportunity to think about the events of the past. He could have realized his problems with controlling his temper and received counseling. He could have emerged from prison a different person. Instead he clung to his pain. He remembered it was his wife who made him serve time. He plotted on how he would get even. The day he was released, he hunted her down, and savagely stabbed her to death. Today he is sentenced to serve the rest of his life behind bars.
Those two stories serve as tragic reminders of how people may miss joys of today and hopes of tomorrow. Reliving and recalling the sorrows and pain of yesterday does nothing but prevent you from experiencing the wonders of the present. Every Christian knows that to be true. A call to serve God and others confronts us with the decision as to whether or not we will let go of our past and with the help of God focus on our present and future. In1 Timothy 1:15, Paul confides to Timothy,
Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners — of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.”
Paul never forgot he was “the worst of sinners.” Yet he believed that God’s forgiveness could change his dark past into a bright future. His life is an example that a Christian’s past does not poison their usefulness to God, if their focus is on the present. Saul the murderer becomes Paul the missionary. Paul’s past was always with him, but so was his God, who offers all a new future.
The same is true of Joseph. In fact, Joseph was able to make peace with his past because . . .
III. Joseph Saw the Hand of God in the Person He Became.
With all he had been through, Joseph came to realize that God, not his brothers, determined what Joseph would become. Three times in this chapter, Joseph declares his belief that God’s purpose, not their evil intention, brought Joseph to Egypt. In Genesis 45:5 he says, “Do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because is was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. . .”
Later in verses Genesis 45:7-8 Joseph states:
“God sent me ahead of you . . . So then it was not you who sent me here, but God. He made me father to Pharaoh, lord of his entire house and ruler of all Egypt.”
Joseph believed that for whatever reason, God was at work through all the painful events, preparing and molding Joseph to be the person God needed him to be. Faith in a sovereign God calls Christians to believe in a God who is working even in those areas of our lives where we do not envision God is at work. Ultimately, Christians become the sum total of all of their experiences, which for whatever reason, God has permitted into their lives. In Paul’s words,
And we know that in all things (both good and bad) God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose. For those He foreknow He also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of His Son . . .”
A sovereign God could shelter us from life’s pain. It is often those painful events that conform believers to become more like Jesus, though. Such events are the divine preparation for serving God and others.
It has been my observation in the pastorate that the most effective ministry is accomplished by those who personally know the hurt. The key behind the success of many support groups, is that the members have “walked in the same shoes” as those they are working with. Questions are anticipated. Feelings are understood. All because the members have been there.
The world is full of pains that few of us will experience, but our experience often becomes God’s classroom. No book can communicate what a couple feels when a marriage is crumbling. No words can accurately express the hurt that results from burying a spouse. . . or watching a parent slowly lose their mental capacity to Alzheimer’s disease. Those who have crossed that valley –hey have been there. They can look back and attest to God’s hand leading them through it, and shaping them while they were in it.
Someone once said, “Just as a diamond cannot be polished without friction, a man cannot be perfected without trials.” For divine reasons, God permits the painful trials to come in order that we may be of more value to others and the work of the kingdom. Joseph understood that the hand of God was in the situations he had experienced, and shaped him into the persons he became. Like Joseph, we have been prepared for whatever ministry God has in store for us. Perhaps this awareness may help us deal with the memories, let go of the pain, and accomplish the service for which we have been called.
1The Saturday Evening Post, 246 (October, 1984), 16-19 and People Weekly, 20 (November 21, 1983), 152,153.
2Don Emmitte, cited in The Pastors Professional Research Service, Seven Worlds Publisher, (January-February, 1988), 24.