Monday, January 15, 2018

Reuben, Dysfunctional Families, Depending on God

[I try to keep a quiet time with God five days every week. Below is my journal entry for today. Here. I explain how I approach my quiet time with God.]

Look: “When Reuben heard this, he tried to rescue him [Joseph] from their hands. ‘Let’s not take his life,’ he said. ‘Don’t shed any blood. Throw him into this cistern here in the wilderness, but don’t lay a hand on him.’ Reuben said this to rescue him from them and take him back to his father.” (Genesis 37:21-22)

Reuben is a man in the uncomfortable middle. Nine of his brothers are intent on murdering their step-brother Joseph.

In these circumstances, nine people constitute a mob and Reuben is afraid to stand up to them. They want Joseph, the kid brother preferred by their dad in their dysfunctional extended family, gone. (This rings true: Extended families often behave exactly like willful, controlling mobs, anxious to keep its members in line.)

The nine want to murder Joseph. Reuben wants to rescue Joseph and take him back to their father. But, fearful of his brothers’ rage, sure that he can rescue Joseph later, he suggests that the mob simply throw Joseph into a cistern. Then he, Reuben, would go back, free Joseph, and return the kid to Jacob.

Compromise and calm can be good things. Shrewdness can be too. Jesus says that believers are to be “as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). But when our shrewd acts are rooted in our own analysis and not in the mind and plans of God, they can backfire. “There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death” (Proverbs 16:25).

Later, when Reuben returns to the cistern to rescue Joseph, he finds that his brothers have sold the younger brother to passing slave traders. He goes to his brothers and says: “The boy isn’t there! Where can I turn now?”

Reuben then acquiesces to the brothers’ plan of lying to their father about what had happened to Joseph. Joseph must have been killed by a wild animal, they intimate. Reuben may have rationalized being a party to this lie. “After all,” he may have thought, “better for my father to think that Joseph is dead than to learn he’s still alive and set us off to search for a brat nobody liked.”

Besides, the lie was now being enforced by the conspiracy that had been hatched at Dothan. The mob (the family) had proven ruthless enough to dispose of those who stood in their way; who was to say that they wouldn’t go after Reuben if he showed any inclination to break from the conspiracy?

Reuben had reason to feel guilty on multiple counts: (1) for not standing up to his brothers in the first place; (2) for hatching his own plan, relying on his own resources; (3) for not trying to find Joseph after he had been sold into slavery.

Listen: Peer pressure can a be a horrible thing, especially when the peers in question are one’s own family members. Families can have a brutal way of pigeonholing and suppressing their members.

This happens a lot when there are dysfunctionality and favoritism from parents. These spawn a kind of dog-eat-dog nastiness among siblings that remains into adulthood. I’ve observed this many times, making the story of Joseph and his brothers accessible and believable.

The basic problem, of course, is disconnectedness from God. When we remain connected to the God now revealed to everyone in Jesus, in faith buttessed by worship, prayer, receiving Holy Communion, and remaining in fellowship with God's people, the Church, God gives us the capacity to deal with things like family dysfunctionality, fear of the crowd, and our own limited thinking. As we pray to God in Jesus’ name, He supplies the Holy Spirit to give us faith, authentic repentance, guidance, a desire to do what God wills, love for God and for others, and courage.

These are all assets that Reuben could have used at Dothan and beyond.

Even his fear of death at the hands of his brothers in revenge for his helping Joseph would have been overcome. When we cultivate a close relationship with the God we know in Jesus, we know that death isn’t the worst thing that can happen to us.

In fact, there is a kind of living death that Reuben must have endured all of those years.

Not all things that people know need to be revealed, of course. The Hebrew midwives were right to conceal the birth of Hebrew boys from the murderous Pharaoh (Exodus 1:19). Corrie ten Boom and her family were right to conceal the Jews they attempted to save from the murderous Nazis.

Sometimes, I think, it’s also best to conceal facts that would only hurt, disrupt, or kill relationships. Much of the Oprah-zation of America, our practice of spilling all of our thoughts, feelings, and actions, is predicated on the idea that this is healthy for the one doing the revealing. But how healthy, how helpful, is it for the one to whom sinful thoughts and actions of which they had no knowledge of them are revealed? Jesus says that one day, all of our secret thoughts will be revealed, of course (Luke 8:17).

But God’s Word also tells us to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). Some people speak the truth but without a hint of love, making others miserable. They speak it in order to shock, to elevate themselves, to bring others down. This is weaponizing truth, a bit like what the serpent did in the garden when he told Eve that if they ate the fruit from the forbidden tree, they wouldn't die. That was a true statement, in a way: Eve and Adam didn't die immediately after eating the fruit. But what the serpent concealed with his artful truth-telling was that because they ate the fruit, Adam and Eve would die, just not right away.

We should always, I think, prayerfully examine our motives before speaking truth to someone else. God, in fact, may sometimes call us to keep our traps shut and keep the misery to ourselves rather than unnecessarily spreading it to others.

This, in fact, maybe what Reuben thought he was doing by not telling his father all those years what had really happened to Joseph. On that then, we might want to give Reuben a pass and spare him our judgment. (This is an example of why I'm so happy not to be God!)

But since Reuben was complicit in so many ways with what happened to Joseph and he failed to do the right thing because he relied on himself rather than on God, it’s hard not to see him as a morally compromised person.

The question that remains, of course: Is God showing me some of myself in Reuben? Is there something in Reuben story indicating that God wants me to see or change my own behaviors?

I have to say yes. Like Reuben, I’m prone to stand down when I should stand up. Like Reuben, I can be fearful of what others might say or think of me rather than heeding God’s will. Like Reuben, I often busy myself with my own plans when I should be consulting with God regarding His plans for me.

Respond: Help me, Lord, in a tangible way, to stand with You today. And help me today to make plans in consultation with you and not with my own heart, mind, or preferences. In Jesus’ name I pray.

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