Genesis 42:1-28 – Guilt and Grace

Jacob grieving Joseph

When Jacob learned that there was grain in Egypt, he said to his sons, “Why do you just keep looking at each other?” He continued, “I have heard that there is grain in Egypt. Go down there and buy some for us, so that we may live and not die.”

Then ten of Joseph’s brothers went down to buy grain from Egypt. But Jacob did not send Benjamin, Joseph’s brother, with the others, because he was afraid that harm might come to him. So, Israel’s sons were among those who went to buy grain, for there was famine in the land of Canaan also.

Now Joseph was the governor of the land, the person who sold grain to all its people. So, when Joseph’s brothers arrived, they bowed down to him with their faces to the ground. As soon as Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them, but he pretended to be a stranger and spoke harshly to them. “Where do you come from?” he asked.

“From the land of Canaan,” they replied, “to buy food.”

Although Joseph recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him. Then he remembered his dreams about them and said to them, “You are spies! You have come to see where our land is unprotected.”

“No, my lord,” they answered. “Your servants have come to buy food. We are all the sons of one man. Your servants are honest men, not spies.”

“No!” he said to them. “You have come to see where our land is unprotected.”

But they replied, “Your servants were twelve brothers, the sons of one man, who lives in the land of Canaan. The youngest is now with our father, and one is no more.”

Joseph said to them, “It is just as I told you: You are spies! And this is how you will be tested: As surely as Pharaoh lives, you will not leave this place unless your youngest brother comes here. Send one of your number to get your brother; the rest of you will be kept in prison, so that your words may be tested to see if you are telling the truth. If you are not, then as surely as Pharaoh lives, you are spies!” And he put them all in custody for three days.

On the third day, Joseph said to them, “Do this and you will live, for I fear God: If you are honest men, let one of your brothers stay here in prison, while the rest of you go and take grain back for your starving households. But you must bring your youngest brother to me, so that your words may be verified and that you may not die.” This they proceeded to do.

They said to one another, “Surely we are being punished because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that’s why this distress has come on us.”

Reuben replied, “Didn’t I tell you not to sin against the boy? But you wouldn’t listen! Now we must give an accounting for his blood.” They did not realize that Joseph could understand them, since he was using an interpreter.

He turned away from them and began to weep, but then came back and spoke to them again. He had Simeon taken from them and bound before their eyes.

Joseph gave orders to fill their bags with grain, to put each man’s silver back in his sack, and to give them provisions for their journey. After this was done for them, they loaded their grain on their donkeys and left.

At the place where they stopped for the night one of them opened his sack to get feed for his donkey, and he saw his silver in the mouth of his sack. “My silver has been returned,” he said to his brothers. “Here it is in my sack.”

Their hearts sank and they turned to each other trembling and said, “What is this that God has done to us?” (NIV)

So far, the story of Joseph has been told in three acts:

  1. Joseph was sold into Egypt and rose to the head of Potiphar’s household.
  2. Joseph was sent to prison and rose to oversee the prisoners.
  3. Joseph was released from prison and rose to be the administrator of all Egypt, second only to Pharaoh himself.

Today’s Old Testament narrative hinges on the treatment of Joseph toward his brothers, who don’t know who he is, and on the response of guilt the brothers have concerning their encounter with Joseph. It is a story of guilt and grace; and, there must be one before the other.

Joseph’s brothers have a history; they aren’t very nice guys. Thus far in the book of Genesis, we have these events from them:

  • Simeon and Levi committed premeditated genocide against the town of Shechem.
  • Reuben committed incest.
  • They all, except for Benjamin, sold their own brother Joseph into Egypt.
  • Judah impregnated his daughter-in-law, Tamar.

These guys seem like disappointing recipients of Abraham’s covenant.  Yet, this only heightens how gracious God is (who is always the principal actor in all these stories). God’s covenant loyalty is the operative force and is not dependent on the actions of less than stellar brotherly spirit.

So, Joseph, knowing his brothers’ character, put them to the test. He did not trust them any more than he could lift a pyramid, and so, set up a ruse to find out about his brother, Benjamin, and his father, Jacob. Joseph appeared to carefully craft a plan to see Benjamin (his only full brother) and be with him – whereas he doesn’t seem to have any desire, understandably, to be with his other half-brothers.

Joseph’s plan awakened (likely unintentionally) guilt in the brothers for what they had done to Joseph.  There are two kinds of guilt: true guilt and false guilt.  False guilt takes responsibility for something which we have not done or assumes guilt for some nebulous action. On the other hand, true guilt arises from a specific act which spurs the person to seek forgiveness, repentance, and reconciliation. This is a grace from God.

Sometimes we need to get our behind in the past before we can get our past behind us.

Moving forward in life, while ignoring actions which have hurt or damaged others, will eventually come back to bite us in that same behind – not to mention the unattended guilt which, over time, turns into gangrene of the soul.

Today is the day to deal with unresolved stuff lingering within your spirit, for tomorrow may be too late. Let us confess our sins:

Holy and merciful God, I confess my sinfulness – the shortcomings and offenses against you and your people. You alone know how often I have sinned in wandering from your ways, wasting your gifts, and forgetting your love. Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I am ashamed and sorry for all I have done to displease you and harm your image-bearers. Forgive my sins and help me to live in your light and walk in your ways, for the sake of Jesus Christ, my Savior. Amen.

Free to Serve

I am not into arm-twisting when it comes to recruiting volunteers for service in the church.  And whenever someone thinks I am being “soft” on people by not making them feel guilty, I respond with conviction:  “That kind of approach is not consistent with the gospel of grace.”
Yet, that does not mean we ignore guilt because only true guilt can lead us to grace.  We all have times when we feel guilty.  Guilt in and of itself is not a bad thing.  Guilt is the response of the conscience to things we have done or left undone.  Guilt is the conscience telling us that we have done something wrong or have not done the good we know we ought to have done.  It is what we do with the guilt that determines the trajectory of our Christian lives. 
There are several ways we can respond to guilt.  We can rationalize our guilt and not accept the truth about what we have done.  When we use phrases like “it’s not my fault,” “it’s only wrong if I get caught,” “I didn’t hurt anybody,” “they deserved it,” and “it’s not that bad,” then our conscience can be seared like a hot iron so that we eventually do not feel guilty.  The result is of this is always hardness of heart.
            Another inappropriate way of dealing with guilt is the opposite of denying guilt; it is to hyper-focus on the guilt by feeling ashamed.  There is a difference between guilt and shame.  Guilt feels bad for actions done or not done.  Shame feels bad for who I am, as if I am incapable of being good.  Shame believes I do bad things because I am bad and deserve the consequences.  In other words, shame is really false guilt.
            The result of shame and false guilt is always one of two responses:  either we become inactive through feelings of discouragement and defeat; or, we become hyperactive by working like crazy to feel better and hope that the guilt and shame go away.  It is to impose a certain penance upon yourself in order to cope with the dirty feelings of guilt.
            But the good news is that every one of us can have freedom from guilt and a clear conscience because of Jesus Christ.  If we have been victimized in the past, we no longer have to feel ashamed as though we caused or deserved the violence done to us.  If we have said or done some truly egregious things that displease God and damage others, we no longer have to live with the regret and guilt on our consciences.  If we have failed others and God by not living up to who we ought to be, we no longer have to live day after day with our consciences bound with guilt.
            Here’s why we experience freedom and a clear conscience:  Christ has obtained eternal redemption for us by his blood (Hebrews 9:11-14).  Back in the Old Testament sacrificial system, the high priest would enter the temple/tabernacle to offer animal sacrifice.  Once a year, on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) he would enter the Most Holy Place.  The Ark of the Covenant was there.  The priest would slaughter the heifer and take some blood and sprinkle it on the altar. 
There were all kinds of rituals to perform in order to access God, and even then the sprinkling of blood only outwardly took care of cleansing the people.  But when Jesus offered himself once for all, the curtain that separated the Most Holy Place from the people was torn from top to bottom.  The way has been opened for not only an outward purification, but an inward cleansing of a guilty conscience so that we might now serve the living God with freedom and confidence.
All are now welcome at Christ’s Table.  There are no hoops to jump through.  There is only a radical hospitality that accepts everyone who comes to God by faith in Jesus.  We are holy because of the blood of Jesus Christ.  We can now serve God with joy and not serve him in order to gain spiritual brownie points and assuage our guilt. 


Service in the church needs to be motivated not by feelings of guilt but by a deep awareness of grace.  When we are overwhelmed with grace, to serve is to love God, which is the very thing we become eager to do.  So, when recruiting volunteers, take the route of inspiring grace in others, not guilt, for we are gloriously free in order to serve.

False Guilt versus Godly Sorrow

            In many ways pastors and church leaders are in the guilt business.  No, I am not talking about ministerial dopes using guilt as a tool to get congregants to serve in the church’s programs.  Instead, I mean that preachers, teachers, and leaders traffic in dealing with people who either feel a false sense of shame, or have godly sorrow.  Knowing the difference between the two is critical to having a church ministry that is truly helping people and is life-giving, or a ministry that just gins-up worldly sorrow and produces spiritual death (2 Corinthians 7:10).
            Because we live in a fallen world everyone exhibits tendencies toward false guilt at times in their lives.  We can all identify with these dynamics of worldly sorrow that leads to nowhere:  taking responsibility for others; being so concerned for helping others that there is a failure to take care of oneself; self-hatred; martyr syndrome; hopelessness and a victim mentality; over-emphasizing what you have done wrong.  In other words, there is plenty of true guilt to have in this life without scrambling to create the kind of guilt and sorrow that God himself does not level on us.  Heaping unnecessary guilt on ourselves or others is just plain egregious and goes against Christ’s gospel of grace.
            But that does not mean we should never feel guilty; it is just that we need to experience the right kind of guilt.  There are plenty of lists in the New Testament about what sinful behavior and speech really is, and we ought to stick with those things rather than add our separate list of the terrible ten or nasty nine which do not appear in Scripture.  For example, Paul said to the Galatian church that the acts of the sinful nature are obvious:  sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and the like (Galatians 5:19-21).  Let’s be struck to the heart about gossiping about another person, slandering a fellow brother or sister in Christ, or viewing pornography rather than worrying about why someone failed to say “hi” to me in the hallway.
            Before mentioning Paul’s description of what godly sorrow is really like, let’s acknowledge that there are people who avoid true guilt at all costs.  When confronted with the truth, an avoider of godly sorrow will be characterized by one or more of the following:  defensiveness; rationalizing the behavior or speech; making excuses; blaming others; feeling threatened and switching the focus on the other.  In short, worldly sorrow does not take responsibility but sticks with the delusion that they caught a bad break or that others pushed them to it.  The avoider of responsibility may go on and on about how unfair life has been to them or even shed tears in order to receive empathy when they really have no intention of changing.  When a person gives you a blank affect when telling you what they have done wrong and exhibits no indication of wanting to face the consequences of their actions, beware!  They want you to agree with them.
            According to the Apostle Paul, godly sorrow produces several things (2 Corinthians 7:11).  It creates earnestness to hear the truth about how your actions wounded another with a sincerity to listen and care for those you have hurt.  True guilt is an eagerness to make amends and understands the person(s) they hurt need time to forgive.  Godly sorrow brings indignation – a real sense of understanding how bad the actions or words were that wounded another.  Godly sorrow is alarmed at the reality that you have and still could easily harden your heart and continue to abuse another.  Godly sorrow knows how easy it is to fall back into destructive patterns that damage others, and invites accountability and help.  Godly sorrow has a longing to restore broken relationships and desires proper boundaries so as to not hurt the other again.  Godly sorrow has a deep concern for anyone touched by the abuse.  In short, godly sorrow is the willingness to face any and all consequences that helps others feel safe.
            We all need to begin identifying and dealing with our own destructive patterns.  We must actively listen by welcoming confrontation and input from others; taking responsibility to remember what others tell us; telling others the truth about how we use them to help enable us in our sinful patterns; stopping the belief that hiding truth protects others; telling yourself the truth; and, being honest about your feelings even if they expose that you are in a terrible place.
            Every one of us has had both false guilt and avoided true guilt.  We will tend, however, to be dominant with one or the other.  It is essential to determine which we tend toward.  Most people who heap false guilt upon themselves constantly want to blame themselves.  Most avoiders of true guilt want to see themselves as struggling with false guilt.  This really cannot be done alone because, the Scripture tells us, the heart is deceitful.  This is why belonging to a church family and getting involved in the church’s ministries is essential for us – because we need one another in order to become the people God wants us to be.  And church leaders must have a solid sense of when they are talking with people who exhibit signs of genuine repentance and when they are trying to be manipulated into feeling empathy for an abuser.


            By God’s grace the church of Jesus Christ will grow together into maturity as we commit ourselves to helping one another face the truth and consequences about ourselves.  Even so, come Lord Jesus.