Wrestling with Pandemic, Conscience, and Family

This series of devotions from the life of Joseph is featured in our Expressions of Hope newsletter. You can subscribe here, or view the full devotional series here

For survival purposes, our brain holds negative thoughts or hurtful memories three times longer than anything positive. We remember hurts from our family of origin and gloss over any good times and family ties. Wired as we are, it’s hard to forgive and forget. Past wrongs haunt us and—if held onto—will harm others. 

Remember Joseph’s experience: In one day, he had lost parents, siblings, his Hebrew culture, food, and language. No family gatherings—not just for a year but for the last twenty. Did Joseph ponder what to do with his hurt of separation and betrayal? Did he wrestle with conscience about what to do if he ever saw his family again? What would you have done in Joseph’s shoes? And with Joseph, we also ponder: Am I one to hold onto grudges? Yes or No?

Let’s walk in Joseph’s shoes for a bit … .

This iconic tribute to the bleak 1930s might pass for today’s breadlines, but these statuesque men are standing too close.

Wrestling with famine. Seven years of bountiful grain beyond measure, as predicted by Joseph, had come to an end (41:49, 53–57). The long-anticipated famine was widespread and severe—much like our region-wide famines, global pandemic, and the panicky breadlines we haven’t seen since the Great Depression. 

But with wisdom granted by God, Joseph had prepared for this time of privation. Egypt’s granaries overflowed with enough to feed people migrating to Egypt from around the world. 

That’s when his brothers appeared among the people who had formed long breadlines at the overflowing granaries.

Wrestling with conscience. The brothers did not recognize Joseph—now a clean-shaven, royally outfitted Prime Minister. But he recognized them, now 20+ years older, and he hurt. Would Joseph avenge himself and punish them for their injustice to him? Would he activate his mental blacklist of wrongs suffered at their hands? Or would he shred it—that is, forgive and forget? Joseph is a much-to-be-feared instrument of God in this process: God’s wayward children do not get a free pass; nor do they get all they deserve. Joseph dispensed justice and mercy, much as Jesus does in future judgment (Matthew 25:31–46; Revelation 20:11–15). 

A seesaw scenario. Joseph, as judge and jury, was imperfect and conflicted. So, through an interpreter, he harshly interrogated and accused his brothers (Genesis 41:14; 42:8, 23). He incarcerated them, much as he had been, after falsely accusing them of spying against Egypt (41:9–17). But after three days in jail, the brothers were released to return to their father, Jacob—that is, all but Simeon. In this seesaw scenario, Joseph held onto Simeon as leverage, knowing their father, Jacob, already saddened at having lost Joseph, would be reluctant to lose yet another son. 

Wrestling with family. Leveraging a threat of further loss, Joseph tested his brothers’ integrity and got the desired result—truth, in two respects:

  1. The truth of one more brother—the beloved Benjamin—who must come back to Egypt if the family is to avoid death, survive the global crisis, and experience shalom (42:13–20).
  2. The truth that hurting people, in turn, hurt other people. Joseph overheard the conscience-stricken brothers admit their original sin against the boy, Joseph, some 20 years before (42:21–23). 

Then, as they await their dreaded fate, something strange and wonderful happens: They receive undeserved grace instead. The benefactor whom the brothers had wronged, whose heart they had broken, instead, showers them with grain, money, and freedom. Grateful, debt-free, and out of jail, the brothers returned home, now open to God’s plan for restoration and shalom. 

Engaging on its own terms, the Joseph story of family redemption also foreshadows the Christmas story of divine redemption. It is not brother Joseph, but Christ, our brother, who brings shalom to broken, separated families in these anxious times. 

Joseph thought he could leave the past in the past, unexamined and untreated, with no harm done. Let us not suffer the same delusion. Let’s identify some holes in our hearts, not just our Christmas stockings, that God can fill. Shalom brings wholeness where there is a hole. Imagine bringing all that hurt to be healed by God’s love and mercy, for God can set us free.

God uses severe trials—even global famines and pandemics—to soften hearts hardened by unresolved sin. God works all things for our ultimate physical and spiritual good. So be of good cheer.


Dietrich Gruen