4 Truths Joseph Reveals about Breaking Dysfunctional Family Cycles

4 Truths Joseph Reveals about Breaking Dysfunctional Family Cycles

Like many people in the United States, and presumably the world, I grew up in a dysfunctional family. Learning this didn’t bother me nearly as much as the realization decades later that I, in turn, had raised my daughter in a dysfunctional environment. For a time, I felt stuck. How could I change patterns of behavior that had not only been modeled and trained, but ingrained? Then, as I turned to Scripture and began reading about the patriarchs like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, I felt intrigued. But when I reached the account of a prideful teenager turned humble slave turned Egyptian leader in Genesis 37-50, I became inspired by the transformative grace it highlights.

Here are four truths Joseph’s story reveals regarding breaking dysfunctional family cycles.

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A woman leaving her house with a bag

1. Sometimes God Calls Us to Step Away

When Beth lived at home, she assumed the blame for her chronic anxiety, deep insecurity, and feelings of shame. If only she lost weight, got rid of her acne, or became less concerned with other people’s opinions, then she’d feel confident and worthy of love. The fact that her parents had reinforced her feelings of inadequacy throughout her childhood confused her reality and sense of self. But then she moved away for college, and the distance allowed her to gain some clarity and the ability to better hear God’s voice.

Sensing the Lord’s guidance, she eventually sought counseling. This led her on a healing journey that helped her understand how her upbringing impacted her present. Years later, as she reflected on her adult life, she wondered if she would’ve grown increasingly unhealthy, had she stayed home.

We can ask the same question regarding Joseph’s life. Scripture reveals numerous generational sin patterns that could’ve easily infected his heart. His father Jacob married to two women who, combined, bore him thirteen children, and he favored one wife and one son over the others. This created deep wounds in his less-loved children that, ultimately, sparked homicidal rage against Joseph, the “golden child.” Sadly, Jacob learned this behavior from his mother and father. Not only did his parents each prefer one son over the other, but his mom was so manipulative, she commanded her favorite son to deceive his father for personal gain.

One can easily envision Joseph perpetuating this toxic legacy, had he remained in Canaan with his family. But God allowed his brothers’ sinful acts to remove him from this infectious culture and ultimately, bring Joseph to Himself. Over the next thirteen years, the Lord stripped Joseph of his pride, expanded his perspective, and taught him to receive God’s love. This, in turn, enabled the once boastful and callous teenager to later shower his repentant brothers with humble grace.

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Clock on the wall

2. Transformation Might Take Decades

Mental health experts now know that our experience of feeling cherished and cared for as infants affects our brain development. Our interactions with our parents, from the moment we’re born, train us to view the world as safe or unsafe, and love as secure or conditional. According to Christian Psychiatrist Dr. Curt Thompson, “Thus, the way our neurological system writes its responses to various emotional experiences is significantly influenced by the relational context in which those emotions arise.” Simplified, our early connections mold our growing brain and therefore affect how we perceive, react, and relate to people in adulthood.

The good news, however, is that our brains can change, particularly as we grow closer to Christ and experience His love for us. We see this in Joseph’s story. Although his brothers betrayed him in a horrifically hurtful way, God remained with him. While Joseph endured slavery in Egypt, Genesis 39:2 states, “The Lord was with Joseph so that he prospered and lived in the house of his Egyptian leader” (emphasis added).

His relationship with God is further revealed in how he responded when his master’s wife tried to seduce him. “How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?” he said (Gen. 39:9). Then, when she falsely accused him of assault and her husband threw Joseph in prison, we once again read that “the Lord was with him” (Gen. 39:21), showed him kindness, and granted him favor in the eyes of the prison warden.

God’s love repaired the damage to Joseph’s heart, mind, and soul caused by his dysfunctional family system. But such healing takes time as one first unlearns negative patterns then learns healthier and holier ways of interacting with others. In Joseph’s case, this involved over a decade of growth and transformation. Recognizing this helps us give ourselves grace during our often long healing journeys.

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Silhouette of a man kneeling, with hands up in prayer

3. Healing Requires Recognizing God’s Care

One of the reasons betrayal cuts so deeply is that it often takes advantage of our vulnerability and places us at the mercy of someone else’s actions. This is especially true when it comes to wounds experienced in childhood. As children, our caretakers exert a great deal of influence for which we have little, if any, control. Such experiences can leave us feeling like victims and feed an intense sense of injustice. If we don’t recognize God’s faithful care in our lives and how He has, or is, bringing good from our hurts, we may even harden our hearts toward Him. Sadly, this tends to distance us from our Father, thereby making us feel more alone in our pain.

When we turn to Him in our brokenness, however, and seek His perspective and aid, we position ourselves to more clearly hear His voice. There, in His embrace, He speaks truth to our souls, removing the lies that formed during past wounding. We’re also reminded of our secure position in Him and the fact that no one, not even the most atrocious parents or siblings, can separate us from His love or derail His hope-filled plans for us.

Joseph clearly experienced this Spirit-led maturity. Initially, he tried to elevate himself by bragging about his dreams and flaunting his father’s favor, behaviors which might have stemmed from the rejection experienced from his siblings. When he encountered them again, some 13 years later, however, he said, “‘You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.’ And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them” (Gen. 50:20-21).

In other words, he made clear that their sin remained in the past, but God’s blessings for all of them characterized their future. What’s more, much of that blessing, first provided by God, would come through Joseph the abused to his abusers. Only one who had received the Lord’s grace deep in his soul could offer such radical grace to the very ones who hurt him.

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A hopeful woman looking up at the sky

4. Your Story Isn’t Over

A friend shared her experience with a troubled youth she and her husband invited into their home. He arrived at their house deeply wounded, alternating between explosive outbursts and completely shutting down. Understanding his behavior arose from his unresolved pain, they did their best to show him the patient and consistent love of Christ. In time, the teen became less reactive and more open to relationship.

As he started to break free from the emotional shackles of his old life, he began to dream about various endeavors he might enjoy. But the excitement he felt while looking into career options soon deflated as he considered the requirements of various fields. His traumatic and neglectful background left him with holes in his education and development and the belief that he lacked the ability to change. Although he’d left his past physically, he hadn’t done so mentally and therefore struggled to imagine a thriving future.

Joseph may have once felt stuck in his pain as well, as if his life, in essence, was over. In a short period of time, he’d gone from a favored teenager to a slave. Then, just as his circumstances seemed to improve, he found himself in an Egyptian dungeon. After so many hits, it can be hard to rise again. Past circumstances might even tell us that hope is dangerous and will only lead to more pain. But as Joseph’s story demonstrates, God has good plans for His children and the power to bring them to pass.

If you continue reading in Genesis, you see that God rescued Joseph from prison in His perfect timing and placed him in second of command over all Egypt. What’s more, he became the instrument the Lord used to save countless families from starvation during a time of famine.

Scripture assures us that God has good ordained for us as well. Ephesians 2:10 states it this way: “ For we are God’s handiwork” — or as the NLT phrases it, “masterpiece” — “created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Did you catch the words, “in advance”? Long before we took our first breath, experienced our first hurt or disappointment, or took our first step toward Christ and the life He died to give us.

Sadly, sin has tainted every human relationship since the first man and woman rebelled against God. Dysfunction has invaded every family system since, but through Christ, our Father is bringing healing and increased freedom and joy to His children. We might need distance, be that temporarily or permanently, to understand how our past impacts our present. Our journey to wholeness will probably take more time than we anticipate, but we can trust, as we grow closer to Christ and recognize His attentive care, that He will lead us toward His very best.

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Jennifer Slattery is a writer and speaker who co-hosts the Faith Over Fear podcast and, along with a team of 6, the Your Daily Bible Verse podcast. She’s addressed women’s groups, Bible studies, and taught at writers conferences across the nation. She’s the author of Building a Family and numerous other titles and maintains a devotional blog at JenniferSlatteryLivesOutLoud.com.

She’s passionate about helping people experience Christ’s freedom in all areas of their lives. Visit her online to learn more about her speaking or to book her for your next women’s event, and sign up for her free quarterly newsletter HERE and make sure to connect with her on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and GodTube.