Then you turn the corner of an aisle in a grocery store and you quite literally and unavoidably bump into that person. In an instant, the past comes rushing to the surface and suddenly you are dealing with the hurt all over again - it is as if the wound had never healed at all. And as one part of your mind is still reeling from the shock, another part of your brain kicks in and begins to assess the situation and to plan an exit strategy. Perhaps you stand staring at each other for an awkward amount of time. Perhaps you both blurt out meaningless words and common small-talk cliches. "Hey, long time no see. How are you doing?" "I'm fine, how are you?" "I'm fine, how are you? Uhm...the weather outside is frightful."
From this point on, there are a number of different scenarios, most of which depend on your temperament or personality or heritage or upbringing.
You could give the person the proverbial cold shoulder. Simply keep moving on and hope that your pounding heart does not reveal itself in a red hot face.
You could give the person your best left hook.
You could give the person a verbal dressing down.
Or you could do what most people do. Suppress your inner raging emotions, suck in your bottom lip, and put on a happy face...make as if nothing happened, walk away, deal with your festering wound once more, and hope that this sort of thing never happens again.
Mental note: That particular grocery store is now out of bounds for you.
Joseph faced such a situation when, after years of dealing with the consequences of his brother's awful actions against him, he quite unexpectedly came face to face with them in the royal Egyptian court. He was a powerful man by this time...no longer a weak little brother, or a slave or a prisoner. So, there were many options open to him. He could have snubbed them and sent them packing with nothing but what they came with in their sacks. He could have slammed them hard and left them in prison. He could have verbally abused them, mocked them, and humiliated them. Or, he could have simply given them what they needed and let them go back without another word. After all, they didn't know who he was and he had started a new and happy life...gainfully employed, happily married, and a father of two strapping young lads. Why not let bygones be bygones and losers be losers?
But in a series of events, Joseph not only dealt with the past, but also with the present and, indeed the future. His statement in Genesis 50:19-20 says it all. "Do not be afraid, for am I in the place of God? But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive."
How on earth did he get to the place where he could actually speak those words and mean them? Looking at the life of Joseph and the general teaching of the Scriptures, I believe we can come up with a few principles that may help us when we find ourselves in a place of conflict, whether, physically, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually.
Be prepared. It is a small world we live in and bumping into your past is very easy. We are not told whether Joseph ever contemplated the possibility that his brothers might one day show up grovelling in the dirt before him, but, if he was anything like me, it is probable that once in a while he would recall his dreams and ponder on their meaning and possible fulfillment. We also need to remember that it doesn't have to be a face to face encounter with someone...it can be a smell, a song, a picture...anything can bring back a memory and invoke pain and you need to be prepared for that. Benjamin Franklin once said, "By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail."
Be proactive. Do not try to deal with your hurt on your own. Seek help and make sure that the wound is properly healed before moving on. When the confrontation does take place, it may not be as open to re-infestation as it would have been otherwise. We are told that "the Lord was with Joseph"...I believe we can safely assume then that Joseph took all his hurt and pain to the Lord on a daily basis...how else would he be able to cope as well as he did?
Be patient. Not only did Joseph wait for years to have his dreams fulfilled, but even at the time of confrontation - when his brothers stood before him - he took a few steps back to give himself time to think through the situation before making a move. I wouldn't necessarily recommend some of his actions...it might not be a good idea to throw someone in prison or to keep them hostage while accusing them of lying and spying...but take appropriate actions that will allow you to calmly test the waters before setting sail.
Be prayerful. Again, we are not told explicitly that Joseph sought the Lord's guidance, but then do we really need a "chapter and verse" for this? The prayer that immediately comes to my mind is the prayer our Lord Jesus taught his disciples. Yes, you know it well enough to recite it from memory, but do you mean what you say in that tricky middle part? "And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors."
And then there is that little bit Jesus added on after the Amen. "For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses." Oops.
Easier said than done is quite the understatement in this case. Two options are open to us here. Either we can jump through all sorts of theological hoops to reason away the obvious meaning of the text, or we can find a way to actually do what Jesus seems to be saying. Forgive as we are forgiven. For me, the way to do this is to meditate on the cross. Figuratively speaking, those nails and that hammer were in my hands. To quote Stuart Townend: "It was my sin that held him there until it was accomplished." If he forgave me then, and forgave me yesterday, and the day before, and all the way back and all the way forward, then who am I to hold onto a wound that is minor in comparison?
So, I pray and contemplate and meditate on what made the cross necessary - my own sin - on a regular basis , so that when I am confronted with the sins of others - even those committed against me - they fade in the light of my own guilt.
Once you find yourself standing at the foot of the cross, you are able to view others in a different light. You quickly find out that the ground is level here - we are all equally guilty of offences against each other and against God - and once you get to this point, all the commandments you once thought were impossible...be the least...esteem others better than yourselves...be reconciled...do not judge...love your enemy...all of these begin to make sense. Of course they may still be difficult, but if you live before the cross, "looking unto Jesus" and considering him "who endured such hostility from sinners against himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls," they come to be within your reach.
Be peaceful. Following the Prince of Peace means that you ought to seek ways to prevent further conflict through personal inner healing or through mediation. The world has always needed peace-makers, so be one. You will be blessed as you will closely resemble the character of your Father God. Paul encourages us to "repay no one evil for evil" and "if it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men."
Joseph certainly sought to establish peace with his brothers and ensured that things would remain peaceful by looking beyond the offense to focus on the divine intention instead.
Have you bumped into a "blast from the past" before? How did you deal with the situation? Were you happy with the outcome? Perhaps just reading this has brought something sulfurous bubbling to the surface.
Why not try to conquer conflict? It will take time and loads of practice and many retakes, but if a mere man like Joseph could do it, so can you.
Are you prepared?