By / Sep 20

Most Christians are familiar with the story of Joseph as a powerful example of forgiveness and restoration. It is that. But it is not a simple, flat story. It is a complex story that spans a lifetime. It involves family drama, multiple betrayals, and political theatre. It is not a story we can apply as simply as Aesop’s fable The Fox and The Grapes. The story of Joseph is no simple children’s story.

Tracing the theme of power

Maybe one of the most dangerous misapplications in the story of Joseph occurs when it’s cart-blanche applied to how an abuse victim should respond to their abuser; as if it is a simple one-to-one application. What needs to be understood in order to apply Joseph’s story wisely to cases of abuse? We need to begin by tracing the theme of power throughout the story.

Initially, Joseph has the power. He is his father’s favorite son (Gen. 37:1-11). This means he doesn’t have to do the worst family chores, and he gets nicer clothes than his brothers. Joseph does not steward his power well. He flaunts his power and chides his brothers. By modern, American legal standards, Joseph’s actions were interpersonally offensive (i.e., rude). We would say he needed to repent, but we would not call the police.

Later, Joseph’s brothers have the power. They out-number Joseph and they are older and, therefore, physically stronger than Joseph. Joseph’s brothers do not steward their power well. They beat their brother, throw him in a well, and sell him as a slave (Gen. 37:12-36). By modern, American legal standards, Joseph’s brothers’ actions were criminal — kidnapping and human trafficking. We would say they needed to repent, and we should call the police if we learned of comparable actions.

In the final scene, Joseph has the power again. He is second in command to pharaoh and controls the distribution of grain during a famine (Gen. 42-50). We applaud Joseph because he is the first person in this sequence who uses his power to bless and redeem instead of abuse and demean. Reading this part of the story, we want to be like Joseph and want everyone else to be like Joseph, too. When we hear from someone who has been through hard times, like Joseph went through hard times, Joseph comes to mind as a great example to follow.

Forgiveness and restoration in Joseph’s story

Let’s make another distinction before we try to make wise application of Joseph’s story. When Joseph famously says to his brothers, “What you intended for evil, God intended for good” (paraphrase of Gen. 50:20), two interpersonal activities are occurring: forgiveness and restoration. Because these two responses so frequently travel together, we can easily view them as two sides of the same coin, rather than independent actions.

Forgiveness is the removal of relational debt. Restoration is engaging a relationship as if the relational debt did not occur. To illustrate the difference, if you allowed a friend to borrow your car and they wrecked it by driving carelessly, forgiveness would mean not requiring them to pay for damages, but restoration would mean letting them borrow your next car. You might do one without the other.

In Genesis 50, Joseph is both forgiving his brothers (not throwing them into prison) and being restored to his brothers (inviting them back into family relationship). If we cavalierly use the story of Joseph as an example for abuse survivors to follow, we are communicating that it is good and safe for survivors to do both. Implying their life will turn out like Joseph’s life if they do.

Is restoration wise for an abuse victim? 

So, why was it wise for Joseph to do this, but maybe not for an abuse victim? The answer has to do with power.

It was good for Joseph’s soul to forgive his brothers. It honored God and gave Joseph freedom from bitterness. We can say with confidence that this is what God wanted for Joseph. We can also say with confidence that God was patient with the journey. It took Joseph 13 chapters (Gen. 37-50) and approximately 24 years (best guess from Bible scholars) to come to this place of forgiveness. We should be equally patient in advising survivors to forgive.

But what about restoration? Why was restoration wise for Joseph, and when would it be wise for us? Notice that the power differential that allowed for abuse had been balanced. Joseph was no longer “little brother.” Joseph was no longer outnumbered 11 to 1.

When we are caring for an abused friend considering restoration, a question we should ask is, “Has the power differential been balanced in this relationship?” If repentant, an abusive person who has leveraged power to harm someone will diffuse those power dynamics. An invitation back into an imbalanced relationship is an unwise offer to accept.

This means we must understand the kinds of things that create power in relationships: positional authority, access and control of money, age, social standing, education, etc. A near universal prerequisite for abuse is power differential, and the abuse of power makes other sin more consequential.

For example, if your accountant embezzled money from your bank account, this is more consequential than your child’s friend stealing the same amount of money left on your kitchen counter. The accountant used their position, authority, education, and social standing to get privileged access to your bank account. Even if you forgave the accountant (which would be good for your soul), you would not restore them with the pin number to your checking account.

If you are unfamiliar with the concept of power, I would highly recommend Diane Langberg’s presentation at the ERLC Caring Well Conference. But, with even a basic understanding of power and abuse, we can better understand why a tearful and articulate abuser who insists on maintaining factors that gave them power is most likely not repentant. There is strong reason to believe they are like an emotional accountant wanting your social security number. They are not doing what is within their power to debunk this concern.

This is what makes Joseph’s actions in Genesis 45 an example to follow. Do you notice what Joseph did? He broke the cycle of power. He did not relate to his brothers as the VP of Egypt who had temporary guests. That would have maintained his power. He invited them into a family (power balanced) relationship.

Yet, even in this story, we notice that before Joseph restored relationship with his brothers, he took steps to vet whether greed, power, or fear would cause them to relapse into their old pattern (Gen. 44). He wanted to be restored, but he also wanted to be wise.

So, what are our takeaways from this reflection?

  • Don’t rush a survivor to forgive. Rushing godly responses is not good pastoring.
  • Do understand the power differentials in an abuse case. Unless we do, we will make sloppy application of Scripture.
  • Do set the expectation that power balancing is necessary to make restoration wise. Anything less is not addressing what made the abuse possible.
  • Marvel with a new perspective at what Jesus did to allow restoration with us.

This article originally appeared here

By / Nov 26

Next month, believers in Jesus will celebrate the virgin birth of their sinless Savior. We will think of the annunciation and Mary’s hymn of praise, the cattle stall and the extraordinary star in the sky.

How often do we think of Joseph? And, perhaps most importantly, how often do we think of his role as the world’s foremost adoptive father?

Scripture is clear that Jesus is the prophesied “Son of David,” the long-foretold inheritor of Israel’s throne (Matthew 1:1). This is a critical element of his messianic portfolio; were He not the rightful king of the Jews, Jesus would have been yet another pretender, a religious fabulist best forgotten. Rather, His right to rule the Jewish people is so essential to His assertion to be their Savior it is iterated twice even in the Book of Revelation (5:5, 22:16).

Jesus’s claim to the throne, articulated in Joseph’s genealogy, is affirmed throughout the Gospels, yet we seldom remember that this lineage was His, at least in part, because his legal father (Joseph) was descended from David.

That the eternal Son of God, through the Father made the world, was adopted is a strking thought. Yet in another sense, it should be a rather ho-hum fact for Christians.

Why? Because adoption is a healthy thing. It is the engrafting, legally and, more importantly, emotionally of a child into a family. For many couples, including my wife and me, adoption created their families. That adoption is a personal, social and moral good should be, at least for Christians who take their Bibles with any measure of seriousness, axiomatic.

But some people still struggle with the idea of adoption, as though a non-biological relationship with one’s child will be an impediment to love or loyalty.

This is troubling. If the fact of non-biological relationship prevents a Christian man or woman from giving to a boy or girl the affection, commitment and security for which he or she is longing, that dear soul needs to meet with a mature Christian counselor and work through it.

To sustain such a spirit unchallenged is to abandon one’s heart to fear, coldness or bigotry. It is to embrace an rough internal callous rather than to beat with the heart of flesh and compassion to which God calls those He has Himself called to be His own.

Some professing believers seem unaware that in Christ, all Christians are adopted. Our estrangement from and sinful stench in the nostrils of our Creator and Redeemer did not prevent Him from welcoming us into His arms.

In Romans 8, Paul teaches that all believers in Jesus are adopted “as sons,” and that through this new status before God, we are able to “cry out, ‘Abba! Father’ … and if (we are) children, (we are) heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (vv.15-17). It is thus that followers of Jesus are also His brothers and sisters (Hebrews 2:11), surely one of the most humbling and beautiful truths of Scripture.

For believers in our country, all of these truths come home in a unique way this month: November is National Adoption Month.

In proclaiming the first National Adoption Week (expanded to a month while Bill Clinton was President), Ronald Reagan – the adoptive father of a son, Michael – reminded us, “More children with permanent homes mean fewer children with permanent problems. That is why we must encourage a national effort to promote the adoption of children, and particularly children with special needs.”

National Adoption month is designed to encourage current and potential moms and dads across the country to consider making a child their own. Thankfully, many Americans have responded: According to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families, “In 2007 and 2008, approximately 136,000 children were adopted annually in the United States. This represents a 6-percent increase in adoptions since 2000 and a 15-percent increase since 1990.”

However, the advocacy agency AdoptUSKids notes that thousands of children are languishing in foster care:

More than 250,000 children in the U.S. enter the foster care system every year. While more than half of these children will return to their parents, the remainder will stay in the system. Most of these children are living with foster families, but some also live in group facilities … Each year more than 20,000 children age out of the foster care without being adopted. Today there are 104,000 children in foster care waiting to be adopted ranging in age from less than a year old to 21.

Some of these children have profound developmental, psychological or physical needs. And, too, not all Christian adults are emotionally or financially equipped to deal with children who have such needs. Additionally, families who already have children are wise to be cautious about bringing into their homes children who might have a history of violence or threatening behavior, especially if kids already in the home are younger and thus more vulnerable.

With all of that said, there is a difference between inability and unwillingness: If you have the ability, do not let the discomfort and nuisance and even pain of raising children who “act out” or who need continuous and extensive physical care prevent you from extending to them the same love Jesus Christ has extended to you.

In this short piece, I have focused on domestic adoption, but of course there is a world of children who need loving homes. Their needs are real and the potential dangers for them as they grow-up in subsistence orphanages or worse are so ugly as to discourage description. But whether domestic or international, adoption is an imperative for the body of Christ.

The benefits of adoption are legion. As my colleagues with Family Research Council’s Marriage and Religion Research Institute have documented, “Adoption in the first 12 months of the child’s life produces the best outcomes, but all children will benefit, regardless of their age at placement.”

If you are of an age and in a place spiritually, emotionally and financially where you can adopt, prayerfully consider it. Seek the counsel of Godly men and women, including some who themselves have adopted. Research the issue and find out where and how adoption might fit into God’s plan for your life and that of your family. That’s the least you can do before a loving Father who, in His Son, adopted you.

For more information on Christian adoption agencies, go to and