messy stories

We often create biblical characters that do not exist. At least I do. When I read the Bible, I see people possess excellent traits in certain stories, and I get tunnel vision. I begin to see them only through the eyes of what they did well. I forget that these characters were in fact, human.

God chose to give me an honest portrayal of men and women who have followed him in history. He chose to write a story in which I can see their successes and failures, strengths and weaknesses. When I don’t let the story be messy, I miss seeing how God takes messes and creates masterpieces.

I have been doing a series of posts on Joseph. He in particular, seems to be a biblical character we see through rose-colored glasses. He does so many things right in his life, that it’s difficult not to.

That happens often in the section of his story found in Genesis 42-45, when he reunites with and forgives his brothers. He famously says

“And now, 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.” – Gen 45:5

Joseph’s response is held up as an example of how we should forgive those who have wronged us. And it should be: it is a great example. But, when we see only this sentence, we over-simplify the story.

Joseph doesn’t see his brothers until twenty one years after he was first sold into slavery. And, he doesn’t see them again until after God has rescued him from the worst of his story. The wound is not fresh and it is not gaping open. God has had twenty one years to transform it.

Even when Joseph does finally see his brothers, he does not reveal his identity and forgive them instantly. He tests them first. He wants to know if they have changed. Then, he gives himself time.

First, he puts his brothers in prison for three days. Then, he sends them on their journey home, which was over 200 miles. Joseph doesn't see them again until they return, which is after they ran out of food. It is easily several weeks or more between when Joseph first sees his brothers and when he says the famous words of Genesis 45:5.

We have no idea what was going on in Joseph’s mind and heart during those weeks. He might have been celebrating the chance to be with family again. He might have been wrestling with God about what he should do compared to what he wanted to do. He might have done some crying, some shouting, or some dreaming. We don’t know.

I bet Joseph’s journey to forgiveness was messier than we picture it. He was a human too. He was able to see how God took something terrible and turned it into something good. But I’m guessing that didn’t come easily. I don’t think it was an instant revelation when someone quoted Romans 8:28 to him (especially since Romans 8:28 didn’t exist yet).

If Joseph’s journey was a little messy, that’s okay. That doesn’t take away from the power of the story. Because ultimately, it is not a story about Joseph; it is a story about God. Joseph did not forgive because he was a perfect guy who always did the right thing. Joseph forgave because he was a human who let God soften his heart.

No matter what our struggle is, or how messy things have become, God can redeem our lives, our stories, and our choices. Sometimes it’s not in our timeline. Sometimes it’s not in our preferred method. But he does it. If we let him.

Have you ever watched artists paint? Paintings are covered with layers. The background often looks messy. But that’s the way it’s supposed to be. As each layer is added, the picture becomes more clear. And in the end, it’s beautiful.

I want to let God paint.