Joseph: A Guilty Conscience (Genesis 42)

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A guilty conscience must not be ignored. A guilty conscience is the result of unresolved guilt and unresolved guilt manifests itself in misery. Two famous literary examples of guilt are found in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart and William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. In The Tell-Tale Heart, a guilty man hears the heartbeat of the man he murdered growing louder until he confesses his crime. In Macbeth, Lady Macbeth subconsciously washes her hands in order to wash the blood of those she and her husband have murdered. One of the famous lines she utters is, “Here’s the smell of blood still. All perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.” What does Lady Macbeth and the man in The Tell-Tale Heart have in common with Joseph’s brothers in Genesis 42? They all have a guilty conscience that must not be ignored. Today, we shall learn that the cure for a guilty conscience is not to forget but to repent.

  1. You Never Forget. As Genesis 42 begins, the famine has spread to the Promised Land and Jacob sent his 10 oldest sons to Egypt to buy grain. Upon arriving, the brothers were unaware that the Egyptian official they meet is actually their brother Joseph (the one they sold into slavery twenty years prior). Joseph recognized them but “treated them like strangers and spoke harshly to them” (Gen 42:7). He accused them of being spies and imprisoned them for three days. He then released all but Simeon and instructed them to bring back their youngest brother Benjamin. It is clear that Joseph’s brothers never forgot what they did to him. In Genesis 42:21-22, they say to one another “Obviously, we are being punished for what we did to our brother. We saw his deep distress when he pleaded with us, but we would not listen. That is why this trouble has come to us.” But Reuben replied: ‘Didn’t I tell you not to harm the boy? But you wouldn’t listen. Now we must account for his blood!’
  2. God Never Forgets. Joseph’s brothers never forgot the sin they committed against Joseph and the fact that their consciences were awakened at this meeting means that God was working in their hearts to bring them to repentance. They were convinced that their current distress was the result of their sin against Joseph. They remembered “the distress of his soul” and said to one another this is “why this distress has come upon us.” In the midst of difficulty, it is wise to examine yourself to see if there is any unconfessed sin in your life. In this instance, they are correct. God had ordained this situation to come to pass in order to save the children of Israel. This present situation is ultimately part of God’s faithfulness to fulfill His promises to Abraham. God also brought the ten older brothers to Joseph in order to awaken their guilty consciences so that the brothers would recognize their great sin and repent.
  3. Those Affected Never Forget. The ten older brothers begin to understand their sin and are starting to turn back to the Lord after their encounter with Joseph in Egypt. They are still unwilling to be honest with their father about Joseph, but they faithfully relate to Jacob all that transpired in Egypt and the Egyptian officials request to see Benjamin. Jacob became furious and said, “It’s me that you make childless. Joseph is gone, and Simeon is gone. Now you want to take Benjamin. Everything happens to me!” Reuben, desiring to make things right, foolishly offers to put his sons to death if anything happened to Benjamin, but even that did not appease Jacob. The chapter ends with Jacob answering, “My son will not go down with you, for his brother is dead and he alone is left. If anything happens to him on your journey, you will bring my gray hairs down to Sheol in sorrow.” Jacob stubbornly refuses to forget.
  4. Do Not Forget, Repent! Since no one forgets, what shall we do? Repent! Our conscience helps us repent if we are willing to listen. Our conscience is a gift from God designed to help us have a moral awareness of right and wrong. It has been corrupted by the Fall of Adam and Eve (Genesis 3), but still operates so as to leave no excuse for sin (Rom 1:21). The conscience is very important. Those who heed the voice of their conscience will find its voice grow stronger, but those who ignore the voice of their conscience will find its voice grow fainter. A neglected or ignored conscience may become “defiled” (Titus 1:15) or “seared” (1 Tim 4:2). If you are not a Christian: (1) Admit to God that you are a sinner and repent. Repentance is a change of mind that results in a change of action. Turn away from your selfish, sinful life and turn to Jesus Christ, (2) Believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Believe that Jesus is who the Bible says He is. Believe that He can save you, and (3) Confess your faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. Accept Him as your boss/Lord. Turn over control of your life to Him and follow Him. Forsake all other ways, knowing that they are false.

Christians have a conscience that is empowered by the Holy Spirit and are held accountable to strive to have a clear/good conscience (Acts 24:16, 1 Tim 1:5). How do we have a clear/good conscience? The first thing we must do is to remember that “if we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit” (Gal 5:25). Strive for holiness and live a righteous life. But what do we do when we sin and our guilty conscience is awakened?

  1. Step 1: Remember – Remember that Jesus has forgiven you of all your sins. There is “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1). You have not committed the unforgiveable sin. Remember great love and mercy.
  2. Step 2: Resolve – Confess all of your sins to God. Do not withhold anything from Him in confession. Ask Him to search your heart (Psalm 139:23-24) and reveal anything you may have missed. Let His great love for you fuel your love for Him and confess all.
  3. Step 3: Reconcile – After you have confessed to God, He will guide you to reconcile with others with whom you have sinned against. Go humbly and honestly and do not hide or justify yourself. Allow God’s love to fuel your love for them and attempt to reconcile.
  4. Step 4: Rest – You can have peace regardless of what the other person thinks, says, or does. Once you have peace with God, you have peace in your heart and can live at peace in all situations. Truly, you cannot put a price tag on a clear conscience.

Why do we think we can silence our guilty conscience by trying to forget? The cure for a guilty conscience is not to forget but to repent. The only answer for a guilty conscience is Jesus. Only Jesus can remove the guilt and replace it with peace. Are you struggling with guilt? Are you needlessly miserable by your past failings? Come to Jesus and be healed.