Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? — Romans 2:4
Family conflicts start very early in life. Ray (9) and Milly (11) were working on cleaning the kitchen together. They began to argue over who would do what job. Ray wanted to wipe the counter. Milly wanted him to clear the table. Milly, as the older sister, shifted into “boss mode” and harshly issued her orders. Rush (5) was playing with his toys in the next room and could hear what was going on between his siblings in the kitchen. Rush shouted, “Milly, say I’m sorry! Milly, you need to say I’m sorry!” He said it four times. Milly finally received his advice and said, “Ray, I’m sorry.” Then Rush shouted, “Now, Ray, you say, I forgive you!” Ray followed instructions. Opportunities for repentance and forgiveness come early and often.
As we learned in the previous chapter, family conflicts are rarely one- sided, with all the fault for the problem resting on just one person. Even if the problem we’re having with a family member is mostly their fault, we have likely contributed to the situation with our words, actions, and attitudes. To whatever degree we have sinned, hurt someone, or caused a conflict to worsen, we can pursue healing of that relationship through repentance.
It is not easy to focus on our part in a family conflict. We quickly and clearly see all the things our brother has done over the years, and continues to do, to hurt us. Our vision is far less clear, and our spirit far less eager, to identify and take responsibility for our own sins.
Maybe you have thought something like, “He should apologize first! As soon as he apologizes, then I will apologize.” Many family conflicts hit a roadblock at this point. Who should be the first to apologize? At a seminar, I heard Dr. Emerson Eggerich answer the question this way: “The more mature person should apologize first.” That was a winsome and convicting way to encourage each of us to take the lead in confessing and seeking forgiveness. The Lord gives us a gentle challenge on this point in Romans 12:18, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” You can’t control if your mother will seek peace in her relationship with you, but you can still seek peace in your relationship with her.
Repentance Begins with a Change of Mind
Repentance is a churchy word. Sometimes we use religious words without understanding their actual meaning. In the Bible, particularly the New Testament, the word repentance literally means “a change of mind.” It means that we radically shift our thinking, attitude, and mind-set in regard to our sin. We take responsibility and drop the excuses. We stop sugarcoating, minimizing, and blaming.
I can think of situations when I have lost my temper with Amy. I went to her and said, “I am sorry I yelled at you, but I would not have gotten angry if you had not spoken disrespectfully to me.” Rather than take full responsibility for my anger and harshness, I blamed my wife. Repentance is a complete changing of the mind. Instead of passing the buck, I fully accept that the buck stops with me.
Repentance Continues with a Change in Behavior
True repentance does not stop with a change in our thinking, but continues with a change in our behavior. We have all experienced people in our lives who apologize to us over and over for the same offense, and yet their behavior never changes. After a while, the apologies begin to ring hollow.
Imagine that you are out for a long hike in the woods. After walking a while, you recognize that you have taken a wrong turn. You stop hiking in the wrong direction, turn around, and hike back toward the point where you took the wrong turn. That is repentance. First, you recognize that you have gone down the wrong path (your mind changes). Second, you turn around and take intentional steps in the right direction (your behavior changes).
The Example of Joseph’s Brothers
A powerful picture of family healing is found in the account of Joseph and his brothers. Joseph was the eleventh brother out of twelve. He was favored by Jacob, his father, and his older brothers were jealous of him, so much so that they sold him into slavery and told their father he had been devoured by wild animals. In Egypt, after many years, God delivered Joseph from slavery and elevated him to serve as Pharaoh’s second-in-command. God enabled Joseph to save the Egyptian people from an extended period of famine. However, the famine spread to Israel, and Joseph’s family was starving. Joseph’s father sent the ten brothers to Egypt to buy food. They appeared before Joseph but did not recognize him. Was there any hope for healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation? Joseph needed to know if his brothers had changed, or if they were the same selfish, angry, jealous men who had sold him into slavery.
Joseph devised a way to test them. He accused them of being spies and had them detained. He told them that he would believe their story if they were to return home and bring Benjamin, the youngest brother, back to Egypt. This was a moment of crisis and panic for the ten brothers as they recalled their sin against Joseph.
Then they said to one another, “In truth we are guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the distress of his soul, when he begged us and we did not listen. That is why this distress has come upon us.” And Reuben answered them, “Did I not tell you not to sin against the boy? But you did not listen. So now there comes a reckoning for his blood.” They did not know that Joseph understood them, for there was an interpreter between them.
What a powerful moment. The brothers, thinking they were having a private conversation, said to one another, “In truth we are guilty concerning our brother . . .” Joseph saw a sign of repentance! Their minds had changed. They made no excuses for what they had done. Reuben was blunt enough to simply call it sin. Joseph, seeing his brothers’ repentant hearts, left the room and wept. Nine of the brothers returned home to get Benjamin while Simeon remained in custody in Egypt. The brothers returned to Egypt with Benjamin, but Joseph had one more test for them. — Genesis 42:21–23
[Joseph] commanded the steward of his house, “Fill the men’s sacks with food, as much as they can carry, and put each man’s money in the mouth of his sack, and put my cup, the silver cup, in the mouth of the sack of [Benjamin], with his money for the grain.” And he did as Joseph told him.
When the “stolen” items were discovered, the brothers were brought back to Joseph. They were terrified, and rightly so, that Benjamin would be imprisoned or executed. Years ago, these ten men callously discarded the life of their younger brother Joseph. What would they do now with their youngest brother, Benjamin? — — Genesis 44:1–2
Repentance is a change of thinking that leads to a change in behavior. The brothers had changed their thinking about what they had done to Joseph. They had taken responsibility. They had called it sin. But would they act differently in regard to Benjamin? Yes! Judah took the lead in pleading with Joseph for Benjamin’s life, explaining what would happen if they returned home to Jacob without Benjamin.
“. . . as soon as he sees that the boy is not with us, he will die, and your servants will bring down the gray hairs of your servant our father with sorrow to Sheol. For your servant became a pledge of safety for the boy to my father, saying, “If I do not bring him back to you, then I shall bear the blame before my father all my life.” Now therefore, please let your servant remain instead of the boy as a servant to my lord, and let the boy go back with his brothers. For how can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? I fear to see the evil that would find my father. — Genesis 44:31–34
Judah offered his own life to save Benjamin! This was true repentance. It was at this moment that the floodgates of healing and reconciliation opened. Joseph could no longer control himself, cleared the room, and through many tears announced his true identity to his brothers. God then brought about a miraculous healing, reconciliation, and family reunion.
An excerpt from “Healing Family Relationships” by Rob Rienow: