When trust has been broken in a relationship, it can be confusing and overwhelming to know how to begin the process of rebuilding. The one who has been harmed or betrayed may want to be able to trust again but might not know how to go about this process wisely. The one who has broken the trust of another may find it difficult to know where to begin to pick up the pieces.
Just as we learned in middle school algebra class, more complex math problems require us to follow an order of operations to know how to properly solve complicated equations. God’s Word has given us an “order of operations” to know how to properly restore trust in otherwise broken relationships.
The account of the life of Joseph in Genesis 37-50 is an excellent guideline because it shows a virtually complete picture of the steps going from the broken trust of Joseph’s brothers’ betrayal of selling him into slavery to the restoration of trust and fellowship between them. (I recommend reading the whole story before reading further if you are not familiar with it.)
Many of us marvel at Joseph’s forgiveness and the beauty of the reconciled relationship he shared with his brothers, but this result did not happen overnight. Their remarkable restoration was a product of BOTH Joseph cultivating a heart of forgiveness as he tested his brothers to see if they were truly repentant combined with the important element of Joseph’s brothers living their lives out of a repentant heart over a significant period of time.
Here are the steps we too can follow when there has been a breakdown of trust in a relationship:
Step 1: There should be a specific admission of guilt without making excuses or blaming others, and the guilty party should take full responsibility for the consequences of their sin.
We see this first step fulfilled in Genesis 42:21 as Joseph began testing his brothers:
Then they said to one another, “Truly we are guilty concerning our brother, because we saw the distress of his soul when he pleaded with us, yet we would not listen; therefore this distress has come upon us.”
Notice, the brothers did not blame their sin of selling out their brother, Joseph, on the fact that their father, Jacob, had made their lives difficult for years by favoring Joseph. They took responsibility for the guilt of their past. Period. Furthermore, they connected the current distress they were experiencing with (and only with) their choice to betray Joseph. They took responsibility for the unpleasant consequences of their present.
Some would say that because the brothers had admitted guilt that they were repentant; however, their admission of guilt is only step one of a greater picture that was not yet complete. Therefore, Joseph did not yet reconcile with his brothers.
Step 2: There should be a display of true sorrow.
As Joseph continued in his series of tests with his brothers, he recreated a similar scenario where “daddy’s favorite,” (this time) Benjamin, was at risk not to be returned to their father. At this deja vu moment, the brothers responded with great sorrow over the potential of bringing hurt and pain on their father once again. In Genesis 44:13, it says the brothers “tore their clothes.” They were obviously grieved, and it had a lot more to do with their past sin against Joseph than simply over what was happening with Benjamin.
But were they truly sorrowful that they had sinned against God, Joseph, and Jacob, or where they just feeling sorry for themselves?
We learn about the difference between godly sorrow and worldly sorrow in 2 Corinthians 7:10, which says:
For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death.
At this point, Joseph did not know if his brothers had a godly or a worldly sorrow; therefore, he did not yet reconcile with his brothers.
Step 3: The previous sin should not be repeated.
Even when given the opportunity to betray Benjamin, the brothers would not do it as they had previously betrayed Joseph. The story could have been very different if in Genesis 44 the brothers had left Benjamin and gone home with one less “spoiled little brother.” But they did not wish to repeat their previous sin.
Ephesians 4:22-24 instructs us to “put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”
So, the good news is that the brothers seemed to be choosing to “put off” their old selves. However, were they also choosing to “put on” their new selves by replacing their sinful ways with good deeds?
Would the brothers simply employ behavior management to avoid the guilty feelings associated with repeating a past sin, or would they take the next step in repentance by proactively pursuing righteousness? Joseph did not yet know the answer to that question, and perhaps that would explain the wisdom of his choice to continue to hold off on reconciling trust and fellowship with his brothers.
Step 4: The previous sin should be replaced with doing what is good and right, no matter the personal cost of doing so.
Faced with the predicament of losing Benjamin, Judah (speaking for the family) pleads with Joseph to understand that if Benjamin did not return with them that it would kill their father. During Judah’s lament in Genesis 44, he offers to remain as Joseph’s slave in Benjamin’s place.
Judah’s concern was not about protecting himself or getting what he wanted at whatever cost to others. He was not even concerned about hiding his previous sin. This was evident by his willingness to go to absolutely any length to do what was right, despite how it may make him look or feel.
This “putting on” of righteousness is much like John the Baptist’s exhortation to the Pharisees and Sadducees who wanted to look good on the outside but were full of darkness when faced with situations where they believed they would not be exposed in their sin. John told these men to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance,” also translated, “prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God” (Matthew 3:8).
After patiently following the “order of operations” to restore their broken relationship, Joseph chose to reconcile with his brothers after steps one through four had all been satisfactorily completed by the brothers. That is, the forgiveness that had been prepared in Joseph’s heart all along was finally able to be exchanged with his brothers in a tear-filled transaction.
Joseph’s job was to forgive from the heart. He could do this whether or not his brothers completed each of their four steps. That is, Joseph could forgive even if there could be no reconciliation on account of his brothers. We too are called to forgive those who have harmed or hurt us, and our level of responsibility is first to do so from the heart.
In Matthew 18:35, Jesus said, “My heavenly father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from the heart.” We must forgive from the heart, even if we are unable to see that forgiveness transacted with those who need to receive the forgiveness available to them — even if reconciliation and/or the restoration of trust is not wise or possible.
When we are able to experience full reconciliation of a broken relationship, both parties are blessed to be able to experience the gift of being a beautiful picture of God and His people who have been made right through Christ (2 Corinthians 5:18-21).