Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Testing for Repentance

I was re-reading the account of Joseph's life in Genesis several nights ago. I saw something there I had never taken note of before. I'll try, as best I can, to distill it down to the part you might find helpful.

The story of Joseph is a long one. It starts in Gen. 37. It jumps over chapter 38 and continues on from chapter 39 through 49. I'll do a quick review of the first part of his life and then concentrate on what happened in chapters 42-45.

As far as I'm aware, there are only two men (other than Christ, of course) in the Bible that do not have sins recorded against them in the record. Joseph and Daniel. The Scriptures don't call these men sinless, but no specific mention of a personal sin is recorded against them. The greatest patriarchs for Jews and Christians, Abraham and Moses, both had some significant personal failings. The Scriptures never shy away from presenting even the most noble of its characters as they were...real men with real sins. David, "a man after God's own heart", was guilty of adultery and murder. It wasn't those sins which made David God's man; it was his consistent faith and his ability to fully repent when he sinned. David never blame-shifted. He took his lumps without complaint and trusted in the mercy of God.

I set up this observation about Joseph not having any sins of his recorded against him because of what he did when he found his brothers in front of him after having been sold into slavery by them many years before. What he did in testing the depth of their repentance was no sin.

Some of his brothers had wanted to kill Joseph, but cooler heads prevailed that fateful day. They sold Joseph into slavery to be rid of him. Joseph was likely around 17 years of age when this happened. A mere youth. Then the brothers faked Joseph's death to their father. They killed a goat and smeared its blood onto Joseph's coat and presented it along with the sad tale of Joseph being torn limb from limb by a wild animal. It nearly crushed the life out of Jacob, their father. What precipitated this horrid event was the envy and hatred Joseph's brothers had nurtured against him for being the favored son of Jacob. A son born of Jacob's favored wife, Rachel. A wife who died in giving birth to her second son, Benjamin.

I recommend you read the events that followed Joseph being sold to slavery. His hardships. His unswerving integrity. His faithfulness to God and man. His optimistic and uncomplaining attitude despite the serial injustices foisted upon him by unscrupulous people. His brothers first, then Potiphar's wife. After many years and a long and undeserved imprisonment, everything turned around and Joseph found himself suddenly elevated to second in command in Egypt. Second only to the Pharaoh himself and entrusted with saving Egypt from the coming famine. A famine that God warned was coming in a dream to Pharaoh. This dream caused the series of events which brought Joseph and his God to Pharaoh's attention. The famine was promised to last for seven years after seven years of plenty. Joseph came up with the plan to save a portion of the increased abundance for the years of famine ahead. Pharaoh couldn't think of a better man to implement this plan than Joseph himself, "Can we find such a one as this, a man in whom is the Spirit of God?" Gen. 41:38. The famine was not confined to Egypt. All the surrounding nations were affected including Joseph's family in Canaan. Peoples from the surrounding areas streamed into Egypt for relief of their want.

Which brings us to the day that Joseph suddenly finds his brothers bowing in front of him and asking to buy wheat. "Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him." Gen. 42:8. Joseph didn't reveal himself to them either. It would be months later and after some very close testing of their characters that Joseph finally showed himself to them.

What interested me in this part of the story was how seriously and almost brutally Joseph tested his brothers to see if they had changed. He was in a particularly unique position to test their characters without their knowledge...and test he did. Each test went deeper and more painfully into truth of who those men now were. Joseph had a younger brother from the same mother, Benjamin. Benjamin was not among the other brothers as they importuned the governor of Egypt to sell them food. Benjamin was Jacob's favorite after the "death" of Joseph. How would Joseph's brothers behave toward the favored youngest son of Jacob? Were they just as jealous and cruel to Benjamin as they had been to Joseph? That question had to be settled to Joseph's mind before he decided whether or not to reveal himself to them.

The first trial Joseph presented them was his insistence that they were spies. They had already revealed that there was another brother who didn't come with them. Joseph knew it was Benjamin. He then demanded that they clear his accusation against them (of being spies) by leaving one of their number behind in his prison and bring back to him the other brother they spoke of. No compliance, no more wheat, and their lives were forfeit. Joseph selected Simeon to stay in prison. Simeon was the instigator of the crimes against Joseph those many years earlier. The test of character begins.

The brothers are thrown into instant distress. They speak among themselves unaware that this "Egyptian" could understand them since he had only spoken to them through an interpreter. Their consciences were smiting them and they immediately tell each other that their present distress was the result of their sin against Joseph. "Then they said to one another, 'We are truly guilty concerning our brother, for we saw the anguish of his soul when he pleaded with us, and we would not hear; therefore this distress has come upon us'." Gen. 42:21.

Joseph was moved by their words. He removed himself from the room and wept. He didn't swerve from the necessity to test the depth of their repentance despite how he was moved by their words. These words revealed their awareness of their guilt and how they were blaming their present dire straights on their sin against Joseph. It was indicative of possible repentance, but Joseph needed much more proof. When he had pulled himself together, he took Simeon and put him in prison.

What follows is a series of more tests of their characters which cut closer and deeper each time. Joseph takes them back over the very same ground of years earlier to see what was in their hearts. I will not go into it here because the story is long and detailed. Read it for yourself today.

What I want to draw your attention to is how Joseph's close and almost (seemingly) cruel testing of his brother's level of repentance for their vile acts against him is a righteous act on Joseph's part. There is no Biblical condemnation of his need to see whether or not these people were safe for him to be around and safe for him to grant favors to. No superficial glossing over of the past was done. No demand for a few words of apology as if that would prove anything at all about their characters. It was in Joseph's heart to protect and nurture his family as was proven by the grand favors given after he eventually revealed himself to his brethren. But he was not going to grant these favors on evil and unrepentant men. He must first prove them. Are they worthy of mercy because their repentance runs deep and true? Or must he remain anonymous to them and resist his desire to preserve them and hold them close? His brothers' reactions to the tests would give Joseph the information he needed in order to proceed. Notice that the tests did not depend on Joseph's brothers' words. They were judged on their actions. Repentance can never be determined on the weight of naked words alone.

Here is a greatly detailed Biblical account of someone going to some significant lengths to prove whether or not their abusive family members were truly repentant and safe to be around. If it was a sin for Joseph to do this the Scriptures wouldn't have failed to say so. But that isn't the record. The record reveals Joseph to be a righteous and honorable man as well as having great wisdom. What did wisdom and integrity and righteousness demand? A full revelation of the motivations of the hearts of his formerly hateful and vengeful brothers. There is no doubt at all that Joseph wanted them to pass his tests. He greatly missed his family and wanted nothing more than to embrace them. But he over-rode these desires with the absolute need to determine first if those he wanted to embrace were safe to embrace. Joseph was not testing from a sense of vengeance in his own heart. This is made clear. His motive was simple and straightforward. Have my brothers changed and are they safe to reveal myself to?

The first person to tell us we are wrong, bad, and cruel when we demand a clear demonstration of repentance is the malignant narcissist. The next person to tell you it is wrong to expect this clear demonstration are the Christian do-gooders who have bought into a mindset that expecting unequivocal signs of repentance is itself somehow sinful. Their ill-conceived advice and admonishment are not in accord with the Bible record. The story of Joseph tells us it is not wrong to test for repentance. It is the course of wisdom and integrity. To state it in the positive, it is right and good and wise to test for repentance. Not to be cruel to our former abusers, but to ascertain whether or not someone is sufficiently changed so that contact with them no longer presents a danger to life or liberty. If someone is unwilling to bear the test they leave you with no way to assume they are repentant.

The story doesn't tell us outright that Joseph would not have revealed himself to his brothers if they failed his testing. Logic tells us this. Joseph's first instinct was to conceal himself from them. If they failed his tests, he would likely have never shown himself to them. He may have granted them a few anonymous favors to keep his father and Benjamin alive, but any relationship would have very likely been "at arm's length". I realize that I now have entered into a bit of speculation, but it doesn't seem to be wild speculation. It is based on Joseph's behavior and his immediate instinct to not say, "Hey, guys! Hey, it's me!!". He proceeded so cautiously as to readily support the supposition that not ever revealing himself to them was an option he was keeping open.

It is also not insignificant that Joseph never sought out his family even after he was free to do so. He apparently was content to live on the assumption that it would not be wise to seek them out since the majority of the family (his ten brothers) had thrust him so cruelly from themselves. The only reason he found himself testing his brothers was because, through no choice of Joseph's, they suddenly ended up in front of him. Joseph had been content to let God guide his life through circumstance. He didn't force any outcome by pining or lusting for what he didn't have. In this particular case, he had no family. Yet, he takes life's lemons and trusts God to help him make lemonade with it. We see this attitude demonstrated all through his life. When circumstance thrusts his brothers in front of his face, he then dealt with what was before him as wisdom would demand he should proceed from there. I find it quite interesting that such a good and righteous man didn't feel obligated to seek out his family. The estrangement was forced upon him, but he didn't sin by maintaining the estrangement. I think this may apply to many of us as well.

I think the record is also clear that Joseph had long ago forgiven his brothers because his heart was very soft toward them though he hid that fact from them for some time. Notice, though, that his generally forgiving attitude toward them didn't mean he trusted them without solid proof of repentance on their part. He felt under no obligation to reveal himself to them without this proof. He was not willy-nilly handing out forgiveness to his abusers. His forgiveness wasn't cheap grace. What you do in the privacy of your own heart should not cause you to skip the necessary step of proving the depth of the abuser's repentance before openly showing them your forgiving spirit and trusting them enough to stay in their company. Telling an unrepentant narcissist you forgive them is a travesty and violation of true forgiveness. They will take your cheap grace and throw it in your face along with greater abuses.

Please also take note that Joseph's tests of this brothers were not done in a day. He gave them multiple tests, each time circling in closer to bring out envy and anger if it was in there. The testing period was not short. It likely lasted for many months as it involved multiple trips from Canaan to Egypt and back again. Each time they waited until they ran out of food to go back to face the scary governor of Egypt. One doesn't test the depth of someone's repentance in a single encounter or a single day. Time is necessary in this process. The narcissist is angry if you show any expectation that they prove their repentance over time. This alone should prove to you that their hearts are unchanged and they are unsafe to your life and liberty.

I know I was grateful to discover this detailed record of a righteous man doing some very close testing of the characters of his former abusers. I hope that you find comfort and affirmation from this as well.

15 comments:

jordie said...

Wow, thanks Anna. Joseph is one of our family's favourite stories. In fact my husband and I were only discussing it on the weekend. This way of looking at it is completely unique though. I had always cringed a bit when I read of Joseph's insistence that they prove themselves, I thought it went a bit over the top.

The cartoon version of this story has Joseph's wife just wanting him to forgive his brothers and not to hate them. In her eyes, Joseph is being vengeful and grudging. Typical religious attitude to those who have sinned so terribly.

Your ideas cast a whole other light on this story. Thankyou for your insight.

krl said...

This is fantastic, Anna! Thank you. MUCH to mull over, for sure.

Wondering how this contrasts with David and Saul in the Bible.....how David kept contact with Saul....even sparing Saul's life several times when Saul was hell-bent on killing David because he was jealous and fearful of him. This contact with Saul (and his sons) haunted David for most of his life. David would relent, Saul would say all the right words of apology, and go right back to the business of trying to kill David.

I'm no Bible scholar...so I can't quote Scripture and verse...but, anyone who recalls this story can see that it is full of much of the same recycling of evil that we have all suffered by staying 'merciful' and 'forgiving' and 'understanding' toward the Ns in our lives. No contact is the best recourse....unless, like you say, it is in your face and can be tested for true repentence and changed heart.

So, what IS in a heart? said...

WOW! I never knew that! It's been a long time since I've read the Bible. I'd like to point out though, that some people in Joseph's situation might have sought some merry vengeance.

That being said, I don't see it as being anything but careful as abusers are not safe people.

Anonymous said...

Great gleaning of some wonderful truths about the wisdom of Joseph.
Has anyone on this board or Anna honestly seen or heard of a MN repent and return or gain a right mind?

Anna Valerious said...

No, I haven't heard of such a malignant narcissist.

If there is any doubt at all that you are dealing with a malignant narcissist then testing for repentance will remove all doubt. Sometimes people do stupid shit. Most people will own their stupid shit especially if they realize they've injured someone in some way. Testing for repentance will reveal the kind of character you are dealing with. Narcissist or not, if they won't endure the test you should probably jettison them out of your life.

Joseph proved to himself (and us!) that his brothers were genuinely changed. They no longer exhibited the lack of compassion they had in his youth. They were not hardened in their evil ways. They grew up. If Joseph hadn't put them to such calculated tests that tested them on the same points where they failed so miserably many years earlier then how would we know that they were really changed? In a very tangible way, Joseph allowed these men to restore their reputations for all the generations which have followed. Posterity has been the benefactor of Joseph's wise testing. So, it can be said that Joseph did what he did for the benefit of his family and for the benefit of history. His brothers should be thankful for the chance to prove how fundamentally they had changed. How horrid to be dogged forever by the terrible crimes they had done against their own flesh and blood in the days of their youth. Redemption.

Naive No Longer said...

To the question posed by anonymous about whether anyone's had experience with a malignant narcissist changing their ways or coming to a right mind:

My therapist, who is one of the most solid, emotionally healthy Christians I know, who also holds a PhD, is someone that I trust completely because he has earned that trust.

He knows how to spot a narcissist from a mile away whereas there are many a therapist who get the wool pooled over their eyes by the narcissts dazzling ways. I thank God for him (as well as Anna's blog) for being instrumental in helping me to see straight with respect to the narcissistic (ex)husband I married as well as my narcissistic mother.

In any case, when I posed that question to him, he said that it is very sobering to him how few if any narcissists truly change. They are not motivated to change because they feel that there is no reason or need to change. He said their defensive structure is so woven into their personality that they don't recognize it nor do they want to recognize it. Because to do so would mean to bring down the house of cards that they have so carefully constructed. And that would mean a fall - a very hard fall of which they are unwilling to tolerate.

Those of us who have been through therapy know that it is takes much courage to be willing and pain to confront the defensive strategies and coping mechanisms we have employed to survive and to allow them to come down so that we can operate in a more healthy fashion. This is something, in his opinion, that he never sees the narcissist do - not fully.

In the case of my mother, who has a Master's degree in Psychology (a scary combination for a narcissist) - she is always playing the "game" of appearing to look within and better herself. This would serve to confuse me as I thought her attempts were sincere. I began to see however, that this was filtered through her narcissism. It never was genuine or legitimate as was evidenced by the lack of lasting fruit. What it does do for her is make her look good in the eyes of others that she is so willing to gain insights about herself and make improvements upon herself. It is a way of putting a nice veneer over the inner venom and rot so that she can present this to the world for their admiration.

Anonymous said...

I just watched today's Dr. Phil show. Talk about Non Repentant! The mother was so concerned with herself and her excuse. If you are truly repentant, you prostrate yourself before your victim and beg for their forgiveness. You don't continue to fight out the details. Especially in a molestation case.

holy water salt said...

Thank you.

I have recc.that article on forgiveness to a few folks.

Regarding tetsing the N- I agree.
We'd be masochistic not to.

Just yesterday, my N mom was on the phone caliming she finally got it-she's a rotten mother (at first her tone was pity me, then sounded authentic when I called her on it) next words out of her mouth- "Of, course I know what Nicole Brown Simpson felt like"meaning she was an abused woman- NO one ever laid a hand on her- or even dared to disagree....MY GOD my heart just sank. No, they don't ever learn.

Anonymous said...

It would be fantastic to always be able to go with what our intellect tells us, wouldn't it? Most of us intellectually understand that narcissists are never sorry or willing to truly change in a way that's discernible. Plus, we can hear this from people we trust and that have been where we currently are.

However, as humans, I think we're inherently more governed by emotion more so than intellect, which makes it difficult to accept the truth of narcissists' soul emptiness.

Sad to say, I had to learn this truth, which I knew but couldn't accept emotionally, through brutal experience. It hurt, but through having experienced the N as a monster at their worst, I am on my way to emotionally accepting it as well. That said, I wouldn't take having to experience something to learn too far in life, just in reference to accepting the truths about N's. That's just my situation though.

I also believe now that when an N offers to change for you, that's code talk for them wanting you to change your mind and come back to them, making things like they were before. Change to them is really a tool of manipulation to get you to relent and come back to the fold. One finds out sooner or later that the N really never did any introspection or had any real plans to change. If they did, it didn't get past the intellectual realm.

I agree that N's should be tested. However, I don't think it has to be a specific test with an agenda, as with Joesph. Rather, at least for me, I have stayed pretty removed and detached with self-professed "cured" N's. I keep them at arm's length (emotional distance) and observe them. Sadly, as Anna has pointed out before, these cretins really don't change themselves.

Anonymous said...

The story of Joseph through my NM's eyes:

First off, my NM (acting as Simeon) would tell Joseph, "Who do you think you are Mr. High and Mighty testing ME? You deserved everything you got when you ABANDONED US to pursue your life of luxury here in Egypt, while me and your brothers have been struggling trying to keep the family farm alive all these years.

I don't give a rat's ass what we did to you...you deserved it b/c you were such a show off with your fancy coat and needed to be brought down a few pegs.

I can't believe you'd have the NERVE to test us and make us prove loyalty to you!....

SO you want us back in your life eh? Well, it won't be so EASY Joseph. You'll have to prove to me you're not the stuck up snob brat brother you were in your youth...

And another thing... I can forgive...but I will NEVER forget...

Take your grain and shove it... I can't believe you blackmailing your own family...what an ingrate you are... just wait until God gets ahold of you Joseph...you will have a lot of explaining to do.

Cassandra said...

Anna, this was absolutely brilliant. I never thought of Joseph's situation in this light before.

As to the poster who contrasts this with David, my feeling is that David was not very effective in his personal relationships. In modern vernacular, I wonder if he fell too much for "peace-faking" and thought it was the same as grace (I did this too for many years).

Many times he forgave people that other kings would have killed immediately. In some ways this was good (I believe he spared Saul out of respect for God, and I think God rewarded that), but later in life, David seemed to just accept *any* kind of bad treatment and let the person go. I think that's in part why Joab just killed Adonijah and told David later simply that Adonijah was dead.

Anna, what do you think?

Anna Valerious said...

I think it would be a mistake to try to compare David with Joseph. There are no similarities in circumstances; the choices they were faced with were quite different. I never analyze Bible characters by superimposing modern psychoanalytical paradigms onto them. My reasons are many and I won't be outlining them now.

I would need to re-read David's very long story to feel I have a firm grasp again on all the details of his very long life to comment in an accurate way. So I'll comment briefly.

His relationship with Saul was one of subject to king. On top of that, Saul was a king who was anointed by God to his position. David was also anointed once God had rejected Saul. But David had to wait for God to give him the throne. David didn't force the circumstance. He respected God's anointed...and that was good and right. When Saul's venomous and murderous hatred made him too dangerous to be around, David did flee. David lived for years in hiding. A good and right response to a dangerous person. Not murder, but no contact.

In David's later years, his wisdom and strength of character was undermined by at least a couple of factors. He had fallen into the custom of the heathen kings...that of taking multiple wives. Just like in today's society where multiple ex-spouses and children from multiples causes all kinds of potential for interpersonal struggles and big problems, David's household was rife with jealousies, favoritism, conspiracies, and complex political intrigues. This would have been difficult for even the wisest of men to negotiate well, and David was not the wisest man. He was subject to sentimentality and averse to addressing the simmering problems in his family. He was also undermined by his own sins. His personal sense of guilt for his sins tended to erode his resolve to correct others. Being so keenly aware of his own failings, he was hesitant to condemn those failings in others. This can be true for any of us. When we mess up big time it can be very difficult for us to stand on principle because of the accusations of our conscience even though we've turned from our mistakes. If someone outside of us makes a similar accusation as our conscience does then we are often stopped dead in our tracks and rendered helpless in the face of blatant evil doers. It is really important to overcome this failing of decent people...and something I have addressed in various places on my blog.

David's life as shepherd boy, king in waiting, and then king of Israel is long and very complex. Overall, he demonstrated his desire to be God's servant and he trusted utterly in his God's salvation. He was flawed, but that just means he was like us. The coming Messiah was promised would come through David's line and would sit on "David's throne". I think the scriptures full description of the life of David, warts and all, was to emphasize to us that the human side of the Messiah was very human indeed. Christ overcame sin and evil in a very faulty, broken and human vessel. He got down in the dirt to save mankind.

Writer in Washington said...

Hi, Everyone:

Good insights here about Joseph, although I do think he probably experienced the normal human emotions (anger, resentment, confusion at being in his situation) he handled them all well enough not to LOSE his faith. That's very hard to do when you are dealing with all the hell a N can unleash.

Thanks "Heart" for directing me here.

jenny said...

Ditto, WOW, Anna! I've read this story so many times and even read commentaries, but never 'saw' the testing of their character to see if they truly changed and they were safe for him to be with. He was wisely protecting himself and his family. Whata guy!

Anonymous said...

I cannot even tell you how good it was for me to read this. Wow. This puts things in such a different light for me. Thank you. 'm'