"Be Not Grieved nor Angry with Yourselves"

Cary S. Crall, “Be Not Grieved Nor Angry with Yourselves,” in BYU Religious Education 2010 Student Symposium (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2010), 75–86.

“Be Not Grieved Nor Angry with Yourselves”

Cary S. Crall

Even by modern standards of morality, Joseph of Egypt had a right to be angry. When similar situations arose on my elementary school playground—when John kicked Carlos’s ball over the fence, Ricky threw gum in Tori’s hair, or Shannon stayed on the swings past the maximum count of fifty bananas—retribution was swift and crushing. Second graders know how to deal with personal offense, as did most of the characters in the Old Testament. When Amnon wronged Absalom, Absalom killed him (see 2 Samuel 13:22–29). Simeon and Levi massacred an entire city of incapacitated men in response to a wrong against their sister (see Genesis 34:25–27). Jehovah was not to be crossed either, and many characters who chose the wrong team were taken out of the game forever (see Genesis 19:26; Exodus 23:27–28; Joshua 7:25–26; 2 Samuel 6:7). The Old Testament neatly ties off loose ends, leaving tightly bound stories with obvious winners.

But then there was Joseph, who often rubbed people the wrong way. His confidence and the favor of his father mixed to create enemies who “hated him, and could not speak peaceably unto him” (Genesis 37:4). Yet with Joseph, we have one of the greatest types of Christ scripture has to offer. In the end, Joseph could have destroyed his brothers. When the situation had been reversed, they had tried to destroy him. Yet Joseph shattered the hierarchy and conventions of the playground. By story’s end we read that “he kissed all his brethren, and wept upon them: and after that his brethren talked with him,” a testimony to the power of forgiveness to transform estrangement to acceptance (Genesis 45:15; emphasis added; see also Genesis 37:4). Joseph’s grace breaks the cycle of violence that seems to plague the Old Testament narrative as he teaches the gospel of peace and gives us the key to understanding both our Savior and the Atonement.

God cares more about how we feel toward him as a result of our sin than he does about punishing us for those sins. This has been taught by the Savior since sin was first committed. One of the consequences of Adam and Eve’s transgression in the Garden of Eden was that they discovered their nakedness and succumbed to the ethic of the playground as they played hide-and-seek with their God. Indeed, one of the chief ways sin causes estrangement from the Lord is that we recognize our own unworthiness to stand in his presence and choose to shrink from it. Adam and Eve’s best efforts to undo this effect of their transgression fit as awkwardly as the aprons of leaves they hastily fashioned to cover their nakedness. In the end, Jehovah showed them the consequences for their transgression and, as a last act of love, made “coats of skins, and clothe[d] them” (Genesis 3:21). It was not until that point that they were fully saved from transgression and could once again stand unashamed, their nakedness covered—not through their own efforts but through those of their God.

I have felt a piece of what God must have felt as he watched the feeble mistakes of his stumbling first children. While serving a mission in South Carolina, I had the chance to teach the gospel to a sister. I remember how grateful she was for our presence, how she would clean her humble apartment and spray whole cans of air freshener to try to get the smoke stench out before we arrived. Her Book of Mormon and Bible would sit neatly in the middle of her coffee table, along with whatever pamphlet we had last left, and she would patiently wait for our message to heal her soul. Linda had lived a difficult life. Her son had recently been killed in a gang fight, and she had turned back to an old addiction to crack cocaine. The addiction had ruined what fragments of life that had remained. We would pray with her, fast for her, read scriptures to her, drag her to church, and invoke the priesthood on her behalf, and yet she still struggled. I still remember the last time I saw her. She was hopeful, after receiving a blessing and recommitting to a baptismal date, that this was the time she would finally overcome her addictions. She never answered her door again.

I can picture her shame and embarrassment as she slipped up one more time. Each knock at her door must have reopened the pain of promises broken and expectations shattered. I can imagine the barbs of the adversary sinking deep into her heart: “You’re wasting their time,” “How dare you try?” “You’ll never escape.” If God answers prayers based solely upon how desperately they are offered, he would have thrown open that apartment door and allowed us to hold her in our arms and whisper the healing words, “Be not grieved nor angry with yoursel[f]” (Genesis 45:5). As far as I know, the door is still closed.

Now I know why the father of the prodigal son ran to his child while he was yet afar off. He was not thinking of consequences. He was thinking of his son and how much he desired to “encircle [him] in the arms of safety” (Alma 34:16) before the young man could find another meandering path leading away from home. This is how I choose to define grace: safety over consequences.

Safety was what Joseph offered his brothers in Egypt. I wonder how he felt looking down at the gaunt faces he had last seen as he looked up from a barren pit: faces with ears that had not been nearly as familiar with mercy as their tongues now suggested. Perhaps Joseph thought of his old dreams in this moment—when his star and stalk stood foremost and full before his beleaguered brethren. He did not chuckle with irony but wept. “And he turned himself about from them, and wept” (Genesis 42:24). Why did he hide? Did he fear that his brothers had learned the meaning of tears since the time his had flowed unnoticed to the Ishmaelites’ feet? These were tears capable of comprehending the rolling extrema of human emotion. Their birth encompassed betrayal, anger, familial longing, empathy, and all other stations of soul-tearing ambivalence. I wish I could have caught them in a small bottle as they fell from his contemplative eyes. Instead, they fell as simply more Israelite tears watering the fertile plains of Egypt.

At that point, Joseph could have decided to do whatever he wanted. Justice and power were both pushing on him, and it seemed unlikely that a force would arise strong enough to keep his brothers from being crushed. It is delicious to me that Joseph chose simply not to choose. In essence, when Joseph decided to hold Simeon while the remaining brothers went back to fetch Benjamin, our hero bought himself more time (see Genesis 42:18–20). His instinct, like our own, did not tell him to instantly forgive. Here, the story reads like a twisted episode of Candid Camera: just when the much anticipated moment of revelation and resolution arrives, it is restrained so we can see what the camera will catch if left running for one more scene. With this maneuver, Joseph left the door open to both punishment and mercy as he worked through the complex emotions his brothers had brought him with their arrival.

Joseph’s situation is similar to that of a priesthood leader listening to the confessions of those in trouble. Both men stand in a position of power. Their options for potential consequences are diverse, and their choices will carry deep significance in the lives of those sitting across the table. They deal with people broken by famine, sorrow, and guilt. Sometimes the correct choice is not clear and added time is needed to evaluate all aspects of the situation. At these times, I hope the priesthood leader will look to Joseph’s example to see what his priority should be. Joseph might choose to have his brothers killed later, but for now he feeds them. Upon their return, he might send them all to prison and watch them rot as he did, but for now he chooses to “fill their sacks with corn and . . . give them provision for the way” (Genesis 42:25). While Joseph wrestles with the important task of choosing his brothers’ consequences, he focuses first on filling the needs their destitute situation has exposed.

I had a friend in need of such a leader. After a prolific series of abysmal choices, he came to me looking for advice on how he should go about telling his bishop about those choices. I asked him to picture how he expected the bishop to react to his confession; I myself imagined handcuffs, sackcloth, and decades of ashamed exclusion from the sacrament. He thought for a second and responded, “A ring, a robe, and a fatted calf.” I was shocked. How dare he? How dare he trust that parable so much, without question? (see Luke 15:11–32). When I come cowering back from my detours into sin, I expect punishment. Instead we receive forgiveness and repentance. It isn’t fair, but oh so healing.

I think God meant the prodigal son’s saga to be read with people like Joseph and my friend in mind. I became convinced of this while scrutinizing the account of Joseph’s brothers selling him to the Ishmaelites and seeing so much of the fallen prodigal in these Old Testament verses: the supreme tale of rejection and rupture coupled with the supreme tale of reunion and redemption. They are bookends to a body of scripture designed to teach us the meaning of Christ’s Atonement.

Like the story of Joseph’s estrangement, the prodigal’s restoration begins with his family spotting him “a great way off” (Luke 15:20; see also Genesis 37:18). While the sight of Joseph inspires his family to “[conspire] against him to slay him,” the sight of the prodigal inspires compassion (Genesis 37:18; see Luke 15:20). Both stories focus next on the main characters’ basic human needs: clothing and nourishment. Opposing actions are taken in regard to the two men’s robes, which are symbols of authority and position in Old World culture. Joseph is “stript
. . . out of his coat,” the best coat of all in Jacob’s house, while the prodigal’s father commands his servants to “bring forth the best robe, and put it on [his son]” (Luke 15:22; see Genesis 37:23). Also, while Joseph is left in what the scriptures emphasize to be an “empty pit” with “no water in it,” the prodigal is revived from his famished condition while feeding upon “the fatted calf” (Genesis 37:24; Luke 15:23). The opening sections of the stories are then summed up by statements and actions confirming what the basic necessities do best—bring people from death to life. While the prodigal’s father declares, “this my son was dead, and is alive again,” Joseph’s brothers feel the pull of their family tie to Joseph and decide to spare him from sure death in favor of a slave’s life (see Luke 15:24; Genesis 37:26–27).

After the basic necessities are taken care of, both stories turn sharply from the main character to focus on the experiences of the other characters in the story. In Genesis, Reuben, Jacob’s eldest son, returns to the empty pit and selfishly mourns Joseph’s loss. Reuben’s question of “Whither shall I go?” emphasizes his self-interest in the position of trust given him by his father for Joseph’s protection rather than his genuine concern for his brother’s well-being (Genesis 37:30). Similarly, the story of the prodigal has a painful transition to an older brother trapped by feelings of jealousy and self-aggrandizement that keep him from joining in his brother’s rescue (see Luke 15:28–29). Finally, both stories end with the reaction of the father, he who is always most interested in the welfare of his son. While Joseph’s estrangement leaves his father “[refusing] to be comforted,” the prodigal’s restoration brings his Father to exultation (Genesis 37:35; see Luke 15: 32).

 

Parallel Structure in the Stories of the Prodigal Son and the Selling of Joseph

 

The prodigal son

(Luke 15: 20–32)

Joseph (Genesis 37:18–35)

Seen “afar off”

Father has compassion (v. 20)

Brothers conspire to slay him (v. 18)

Robe/Coat

Best robe given to son (v. 22)

Stripped of favored coat (v. 23)

Nourishment

Fed the fatted calf (v. 23)

Left in empty pit with no water (v. 24)

Death to life

“This my son was dead, and is alive again” (v. 24)

Joseph saved from death in the pit to become slave (vv. 26–27)

Selfish older brother

Oldest son complains to father (v. 28–29)

Reuben worries about consequences (v. 30)

Father’s reaction

Rejoicing (v. 32)

Mourning (v. 35)

 

This striking parallelism between the two accounts begs to be infused with meaning. However, the two stories are bound together tighter by what they teach us about our relationship to our Heavenly Father than they are by mere structure. Both Joseph and the prodigal’s father show us how God treats sinners. He respects and protects them. This is why the unrepentant soul so tortures divinity. That soul is the dying refusing treatment, the starving snubbing food, the rock climber too proud for a belay. God purchased these provisions, safety, succor, and salvation, at great price for the benefit of his wayward children. How prodigal must we be to deny ourselves their use in favor of our own self-loathing? Joseph’s abandonment and the prodigal’s restoration show us the contrast between how we and God respond to our sins. He spares us the humiliation of our desperation, discarding the quiet dignity expected of the Master of the House in order to run across his fields, fall on our necks, and kiss us. We, in turn, must learn to stand in his powerful presence, accepting the gift of his forgiveness in spite of our failure.

Just as the power of an embrace is magnified by its timing, the chronology of the events teaches how grace heals. Joseph gives his brothers food and then overhears their expressions of remorse (see Genesis 42:19, 21). The prodigal’s father likewise runs to his returning son before the son’s well-rehearsed penitence can be expressed (see Luke 15:20–21). As the merciful, they have no reason to believe that their efforts in behalf of those whom they have the right to punish will bear any fruit. However, the merciful know God’s secret: grace inspires repentance and worth that often are not present before it is extended. Sinners are not forgiven because of their potential to be profitable, they are forgiven to give them the potential to be profitable.

The Apostle Paul taught the Romans: “For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die. But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6–8). Once again, chronology is emphasized. Christ died for us when we were “yet without strength” and “while we were yet sinners.” He did not die for good people, but for bad people to become good. Knowing this should free us from the self-imposed expectations and requirements that keep us from claiming grace that falls like manna at our feet.

I do not consider a God who blesses when cursing is deserved to be my enemy. Perhaps this is why King Benjamin’s assertion that “the natural man is an enemy to God” had always rung so false to me (Mosiah 3:19). Why would God choose to define our relationship to him in such adversarial terms when our natural state bears so much of his fingerprint? The answer came with my first speeding ticket. Suddenly the policemen whom I had always looked to as my protectors became my enemies. They had not changed, but our relationship had. In essence, I had made them my enemy by choosing to break the law, and we would remain enemies until I changed my behavior and, more importantly, how I chose to see both them and myself. They did not desire to be my enemy any more than God does. Commenting on this theme, Elder D. Chad Richardson taught: “We will need the Savior’s help to feel self-acceptance rather than self-contempt. With the Lord’s help, we will experience a change in how we see ourselves.”[1] This to me is one of the most important ways the Atonement saves us from sin.

Paul’s writings—a body of scripture that many Latter-day Saints look at with both confusion and suspicion—overflow with instruction on how to undergo such a transformation. When he proclaims himself “a new creature in Christ” for whom “there is now no condemnation,” he is not casting off the consequences of his unrepented sins, but allowing the Atonement to free himself from the residual self-condemnation that would make God his enemy and ultimately damn him (see 2 Corinthians 5:17; Romans 8:1). It is Paul who teaches us to “come boldly unto the throne of grace,” having faith that although we are wretchedly unworthy standing on our own merits, the Atonement of Christ, activated in our lives by our best efforts, has taken away our reproach and left us spotless before the Father (see Hebrews 4:16).

These thoughts have fundamentally changed the way I take the sacrament. The Latter-day Saint life cycle can largely be mapped out as a function of how one uses the ten to fifteen minutes of largely uninterrupted silence that occurs each Sunday while the bread and water are passed around the congregation. As toddlers, we rapaciously root through the cache of toys and crayons our beatific mothers have heaped up in sacrifice to appease the demanding god of our tiny attention . Around age eight, the toys and crayons are stripped away as we enter “reverence boot camp”: the beginning of preparation for the mental stamina required to withstand the tedium of priesthood meetings and zone conferences looming darkly on our horizons. Boot camp is survived by gum chewing and sibling pestering. Then there are the Aaronic Priesthood years, when the timeline becomes more formal and scrapbook worthy, as a young man progresses through the duties of passing, preparing, and blessing the sacrament. Often a mission follows next, and at this time in life sacrament time is most often spent explaining to investigators the symbolism of the ordinance, the reason our hymns do not “swing” like the ones at their old church, and why they should just ignore the ominous-looking ward clerk walking down the aisles making tally marks on his program.

After twenty-one years, I finally have time to relax during sacrament and figure out how to fill the silence as it was meant to be filled. At one time, most of my time was spent dwelling on pain. I split it between picturing the pain of Christ as he performed the Atonement and feeling my own pain of guilt for all the sins I had committed the previous week. At the end of the sacrament, I was exhausted and depressed, more ready for a nap than service in God’s kingdom.

Eliza R. Snow was the voice of reason that finally freed me from this awful phase in my sacrament life cycle. In her hymn “How Great the Wisdom and the Love,” Sister Snow named a purpose for the Atonement that I find both unique and empowering. This is a typical sacrament hymn with drawn out phrases and a reverent, plodding meter that catches and holds on certain notes. One such note in the second verse is the close of her astonishing phrase in which she calls the Atonement a “sinless sacrifice for guilt.”[2] To Eliza R. Snow, and now to me, one of the primary reasons Christ suffered through the Atonement was for our guilt. I was already familiar with the Atonement’s role in paying for sins and transgressions; granting true empathy for sorrows, sicknesses, and infirmities; and giving access to power capable of healing, strengthening, enabling, and even resurrecting, but I had never before noticed its role in taking away the psychological burden of our guilt.

My soul caught hold upon this idea and struggled with it until it made perfect sense. The sacrament is meant to reconcile us to our God. By focusing on sins and suffering, I was leaving the ordinance feeling more estranged than ever. Now, I still think about my shortcomings and Christ’s suffering as a result, but only until the water comes. At this point, I try to place that all aside and picture myself in the arms of Jesus, surrounded by my family, perfect and complete. This is the miracle of the sacrament and the gospel of Christ that it teaches: flawed and damaged people can dare to imagine themselves perfect. With gratitude for our Savior we can discard our shame with our empty cups, knowing that Christ has not only “forgiven us of those our many sins . . . which we have committed,” but also “taken away the guilt from our hearts” (Alma 24:10).

Whatever new phases in the sacrament life cycle lie in my future, I hope to stay in this one for a long time. Never have I left sacrament meeting so energized and ready to serve God’s children, confident that when my mind goes in old age and I am once again distracted by toys and crayons during sacrament meeting, my ebbing life will be acceptable to my God.

When that day comes, I want to see myself as Christ sees me—worthy, forgiven, redeemed, perfect. It is my profoundest nightmare that I will be as those described in the Doctrine and Covenants whose misunderstanding of the Atonement strips them of confidence and renders them “not willing to enjoy that which they might have received,” even what they were worthy to receive if they just had faith to accept Christ’s efforts in their behalf (D&C 88:32). Many of us will one day find ourselves with God in his highest kingdom. Some will be there because they stopped sinning; the rest of us, because we stopped hiding. And so, when I am overwhelmed by the sins that I commit and the darkness that follows, I choose to emerge from my hiding place, find my Savior, and remember that because of him I no longer need to be “grieved nor angry with [myself]” (Genesis 45:5).

Notes



[1] D. Chad Richardson, “Forgiving Oneself,” Ensign, March 2007, 33.

[2] Eliza R. Snow, “How Great the Wisdom and the Love,” Hymns, no. 195, emphasis added.