Breaking the Cycle
Rev. William Bills
Cycles of bad or destructive behaviors can be broken. When it comes to breaking negative cycles, we may not want to consider the role that we play in perpetuating them. Negative cycles of behavior require participation. At any given time any one of us can choose to step out of the cycle and interrupt negativity and destructive cycles of behavior.
It’s easy to accept ill will and destructive behavior and simply say, “That’s just the way things go… That’s just the way the world works… That’s just the way life is.” We may think we are acknowledging reality and dealing with it but such an attitude is really little more than participation in the cycle of negativity. We may not actively perpetuate the cycle, but failing to interrupt the cycle allows negativity to persist. We can always choose our response to anyone’s words or behaviors
Our willingness to become agents for better relationships and a better world, our choice to offer a positive response in a negative situation can be life-giving to others.
As a boy, Joseph was his father’s favorite son. He had eleven brothers but Jacob played favorites and Joseph benefitted at the expense of his brothers. He was spoiled and he knew it. His brothers resented him and he knew that, too. He did little work. He was given a special coat to wear and he couldn’t get it dirty working with his brothers. Joseph had dreams that he shared with his brothers. In his dreams he became a ruler over his brothers and they bowed down to serve him. Ten of his brothers were older than Joseph. They resented his dreams.
We pick up the story today and find that Joseph has risen to a very powerful position. He is one of the most powerful men in the world. He is running the Egyptian empire of the pharaoh. His journey to this current post was long and convoluted, taking many years. In taking it he had suffered much.
Joseph’s talk of rising to power and lording it over his brothers got under their skin. He must have run his mouth way too much for one day his brothers had finally had enough and they decided to do him in. They thought about killing him. Then they thought better of it. So they only staged his death. They lied to his parents and led them to believe that Joseph had been killed. They smeared blood on his coat and showed it to their parents. They allowed Joseph to be sold into slavery.
Jacob’s bad behavior led to Joseph’s bad behavior. Joseph’s bad behavior led to his brothers’ bad behavior. The brothers’ bad behavior led to conspiracy and lies. The conspiracy and lies led to grief for Joseph’s parents. The destructive cycle of lies and resentment lasted for decades.
If only Jacob hadn’t so overtly favored Joseph. If only Joseph hadn’t kept running his mouth at his older brothers. If only his older brothers hadn’t taken this all so seriously and felt like they had to get even with Joseph. If only someone would have stepped up and said, “Hey! Let’s stop this nonsense and treat each other with respect!” If only someone had taken a stand and tried to break the cycle. Maybe some heartache could have been avoided.
When I was a kid I sometimes wondered what it might be like to live in a normal family. My mother was married four times. One of my step-dads adopted me when I was two years old. For decades my mother kept up the charade, trying to make me believe my step-dad was my biological father. She didn’t know that when I was about fourteen, while snooping in her closet to see what I was getting for Christmas, I found wedding pictures. My two sisters and I were in the wedding pictures. My mother’s entire family played along, too. They all pretended like my step-dad was really my father. My birth certificate was changed to reflect the adoption. There are five Bills in my family, too! Great grandpa Bill, Grandpa Bill, Uncle Bill, Cousin Billy and me. But none of them were named Bill Bills. Only me! They are all Bill Robison. That should make you wonder!
But the cycle persisted. Even when I knew my step-dad wasn’t really my dad I still played along. The family had a lot invested in that secret. After a while I wanted to know the truth. And I sort of got the truth. My mom told me who my dad was. But she didn’t tell me his real name. She used a nick name. It wasn’t until I was forty-four years old that I met my father. I tried to respect my mom’s feelings as long as I could. Her secret was more important to her than me knowing my father. But after a while I decided that I wasn’t going to let this go on forever. I broke the cycle. With some pressure on my mom and help from Google, in 2003 I met my dad.
He had a new family. I had two sisters I had never met before. He had been remarried for over 40 years. He had a rough childhood and made some mistakes as a young man. But then his life and his new family became pretty normal. Well, about as normal as a family can be. I have found in dealing with church families for thirty years that normal doesn’t really exist. He made mistakes, but he was able to interrupt the cycle. My mom made mistakes and I chose to interrupt her cycle. I did what I needed to do but mom never really forgave me for it.
Most of us don’t want our personal stuff to be this public. How would you like to be Jacob and Rachel and Leah and their twelve sons? Their cycle of bad behavior got written up as the word of God! It got written up so we would know that families aren’t perfect and God can do pretty good work with the imperfect ones. Some of God’s best work is done with imperfect people. Those twelve brothers and their parents were something, though.
After years of bickering and secret keeping and conspiracies and lying, now Joseph and his brothers are once again face to face. He knows who they are but they don’t recognize him right away. He looks like an Egyptian now. He speaks like an Egyptian now. He isn’t in a hurry to tip his hand. He plays some games with his brothers. Why shouldn’t he? They gave him to slave traders. He spent time in prison, too. He hasn’t seen his parents for decades. He is a powerful man. He can play games with them if he wants to.
The text says his brothers could not speak when they realized who they were standing before. I wonder what was going through their minds when Joseph said to them, “Come a little closer to me.” If Joseph wants to keep this destructive cycle of bad behavior going, well, you know what they say about payback. Joseph’s brothers don’t even try to apologize. They know they are too far down the wrong road for a simple apology to mean much now.
They really harmed Joseph. But they felt harmed by him, too. And what about their dad? If he hadn’t played favorites… What about Rachel and Leah? Why didn’t the boys’ mothers put an end to all this bad behavior? A lot of people behaved badly. There is always plenty of blame to go around in cycles like these.
It’s a rough and tumble world out there. We all know that. Only the strong survive, right? Some say it’s a jungle out there; its dog eat dog! Only the strong survive! Do unto others before they do unto you. Never back down, never apologize; never let anyone see you as vulnerable. It’s the American way! And whatever you do, don’t say you’re sorry. That’s a sign of weakness.
Imagine eleven brothers standing there before one of the most powerful men in the world; probably about to wet their collective britches, and he says to them, “You meant to do me harm, but God meant this for good. You meant to do me harm but God sent me here ahead of you to preserve life. You meant to do me harm but God wants me to save you. You meant to do me harm, but I am not here to harm you. I am here to save your lives.”
Joseph was in a perfect position to settle the score with his brothers. But he chose to break that cycle. He could have been vengeful but he chose grace. He set aside all the ill will and hard feelings and broke the cycle.
The Gospel is big. It is bigger than our feelings. It is bigger than our self-righteousness or self-justification. It doesn’t demand that we always be right, that we get revenge and that the score be settled. The Gospel doesn’t allow for such human pettiness. It is the gift of God’s grace. Each one of us stands in that same grace. Heaven help us all if God decides to even the score and give us what we deserve.
The terms for life are not our own. We like to think that but it’s not true. God sets the terms. We just have to live by them. That means apologizing when we are wrong. It means that other peoples’ feelings are just as important as our own. It means treating others with respect and dignity and compassion even if you think they don’t deserve it. The Gospel is a lot bigger than we think.
The terms for faithful living are set by the creator, not by the creatures. We like to think we are in control all the time. We like to think that we are right. When we are wronged we like to think we are justified in getting even. But that only perpetuates the cycles of pain and suffering and hurt feelings. More than ever the world now needs the grace that says, “Let’s stop this senseless behavior. Let’s choose something different. Let’s choose Gospel. Let’s choose to respond not with our first instinct, but with grace.
Everybody suffers. Everybody gets hurt sometime. One of our biggest mistakes is thinking that our suffering is more important than the suffering of anyone else. A second big mistake we make is thinking that because I have suffered, someone else must suffer to make things even. All that means is more people suffer and the cycle keeps going on and on and on.
Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you… Do unto others as you would like them to do to you… Bless those who persecute you… Pray for those who abuse you…” When he was being nailed to the cross he prayed, “Father, forgive them…” Jesus didn’t even the score. He broke the cycle. He started a new one.
It’s okay to say you’re sorry. Forgiveness isn’t weakness. It takes great strength to forgive. Compassion isn’t weakness. Compassion leads to healing and stronger bonds of love and friendship.
Score keeping, getting even and lashing out when we feel hurt or threatened; anybody can do that. It’s human nature. You have been clothed in Christ. Put off the old nature and put on the new. Become a peace maker. Become a healer. Turn suffering and disappointment into new life. Don’t perpetuate destructive cycles. Start new ones. Break the old cycles and start new cycles of hope and healing.