One of the most important skills we can demonstrate to the children in our lives is how to reconcile in a way that actually transforms a relationship.
The number one indicator of how I am most likely to respond to conflict in my adult life is how I saw conflict responded to by the adults in my childhood. While that statistic is interesting to us in terms of how we respond to conflict, it is also a little scary to us when we realize its application to the children in our lives. Their getting to watch how we confess and apologize and forgive, i.e., how we reconcile, is critical to their own relational health.
There is a terrific example of this in the story of Joseph in the Bible (the Old Testament Joseph, not the New Testament one). His brothers hate him, plot to kill him, and then opt to just sell him into slavery instead. They come home from that adventure and tell their father Joseph has been killed by a wild animal. Through a pretty amazing series of God-ordained circumstances, Joseph ends up in Egypt and, over time, rises in social status from slave all the way up to becoming one of the most powerful men in Egypt (second only to Pharaoh). The plot twist in the story is when Joseph’s brothers then find themselves kneeling before him, begging for food, and they don’t even recognize him. Joseph is then confronted with a whopper of a decision: to punish them or to reconcile with them.
If it were a television series, this would be the end of a season. The cliffhanger we would wait all Summer to resolve would be this question hanging in the air: will he punish or will he forgive? Indeed, even in the real life version, considerable time would pass before Joseph makes that decision. He actually sends most of them back home to retrieve their youngest brother, while Joseph keeps one of the brothers in his prison. Months, perhaps even years would pass (all during the offseason of our television series).
The new television season opens in an unexpected time and place. We are some 40 years earlier in time, and we are not in Egypt. We are at the scene of two other brothers who have been estranged due to hatred and are about to cross each other’s paths for the first time in 20 years. The scene is tense. Will it be battle or will it be something else? Here is the way the Bible describes it:
Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming with his four hundred men. He divided the children between Leah and Rachel and the two maidservants. He put the maidservants out in front, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph last. He led the way and, as he approached his brother, bowed seven times, honoring his brother. But Esau ran up and embraced him, held him tight and kissed him. And they both wept. Genesis 33:1-4 (The Message)
The scene is riveting. Jacob and his 12 children and their 4 different mothers all standing fearfully to see how Esau (and his 400 men) would react. But the Bible then does the literary equivalent of a camera zoom in on only one of the children. Only one is mentioned specifically by name: Joseph. And, in our television production, as the camera frames Joseph’s eager eyes watching his father reconcile with Uncle Esau, those child’s eyes morph into adult eyes of Joseph 40 years later, pondering how to respond to his long-estranged brothers.
The story leaves little doubt about what forces must have come to play within Joseph as he pondered his choice. And it illustrates beautifully the impact it has on our children when they witness how we reconcile with one another.
We all have our own stories of broken relationships, especially within family. We all have cliffhangers where the miraculous potential for reconciliation hangs in the balance. And we have choices to make in the midst of those cliffhangers; choices that not only impact our relationships, but which impact relationships in future generations. This is true because little eyes are watching. And learning. From us. Always.