God and human conscience! Genesis 42-45

Summary: Man hardens his conscience and works against God and man. This post says how God works through man’s dead conscience and brings him back to repentance.

Click for full sermon series on Joseph

Every person has a moral compass of right and wrong within, acting as a guide to one’s behavior. This is mysterious and often abused part of the inner life of every human being. Some people think of this part of the human as something to suppress, to trick, or to ignore. Well, I am talking about man’s conscience.

What is the conscience? It is the soul’s automatic warning system, hard-wired into every soul by God. Your conscience is switched on all the time, actively assessing the rightness or wrongness of what we are considering or experiencing.

Someone compared the conscience to a sundial, which is able to give fairly good time by day when the sun is shining on it, but is incapacitated at night. In the same way, the conscience is designed by God to function in the light of God. But subtract that light, and the conscience is left in the dark, completely dysfunctional.

Conscience directs us. Isaiah 30:21 Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.”

Conscience convicts us. 2 Samuel 24:10 David was conscience-stricken after he had counted the fighting men, and he said to the Lord, “I have sinned greatly in what I have done. Now, Lord, I beg you, take away the guilt of your servant. I have done a very foolish thing.”

As we open to Genesis 42, we meet the brothers of Joseph, who long ago put the sundial of their soul in the dark. Decades have passed since their jealous hatred of Joseph had boiled over and in a moment of incredible wickedness, they stripped him of his coat, put him in an empty well, and sold him as a slave to a group of passing merchants. Years turned to decades since that lie they told their father to cover their foul deed about how a wild animal attacked and killed Joseph.

As far as we know, these brothers never repented of the terrible evil they had done. They just did what we tend to do pretend like nothing has happened, suppress all thought of past actions, press through the guilt, and live a lie as if nothing has happened.

Now, what does God do when we harden our conscience until it goes silent? How does God penetrate the hardened heart?

Maybe someone has hurt you very badly and they are walking as if you have done them some wrong. Or could it be that you yourself have a skeleton in some inner closet that you have taken pains to keep locked away, a dark deed, unrepented sin that you work diligently to contain and conceal? How does God work with the human conscience has been deadened?

I want to point out three tools God uses when we mute our conscience to bring our calloused conscience to life again. And it is my prayer that God will use His word to bring us back to repentance and to lead us back to Himself with a clear conscience.

1. Barrenness.

We have seen how God, in His wisdom and power, had positioned Joseph as the Prime Minister of Egypt, assigned with organization and oversight of the distribution of grain. As we come to Genesis 42, the world was experiencing a famine. But as Chapter 42 opens, we are back in Canaan with Jacob and his sons, and their provisions are thinning out. When Jacob learned that there was grain for sale in Egypt, he said to his sons, ‘I have heard that there is grain for sale in Egypt. Go and buy grain for us, that we may live and not die.’

There it is, the first and perhaps most common tool God uses to stir a deadened conscience: He makes us needy. He makes us empty. He sends barrenness into our lives at some point. Have you ever been there? That’s how He awakens our conscience. He deprives us of something. He subtracts from our lives that which we are depending on for need or comfort. He visits upon us a grinding need, the effect of which is to stir a sense of spiritual lack.

Psalm 106:13 But they soon forgot what he had done and did not wait for his counsel. Israel forgot the works that God had done for their good. They forgot the Red Sea miracle and forged ahead with their desires and plans rather than waiting on the Lord. They pushed God’s will away and wanted their own way. Psalm 106:15 So he gave them what they asked for, but sent a wasting disease upon them. One of the things that the Lord will do to get our attention and awaken a dead conscience is to make life unsatisfying.

In the case of these brothers in Canaan, it was a famine. The comfort of food and home was taken from them. They must journey to find a solution. And where must they go? Of all places Egypt, the very country to which those slave merchants took Joseph after they sold his freedom.

See the brothers’ response when Jacob mentioned Egypt: Genesis 42:1 When Jacob learnt that there was grain in Egypt, he said to his sons, “Why do you just keep looking at each other?” The brothers knew that there was grain in Egypt and they never went. When Jacob asked them to go to Egypt, they were just silent and looked at each other. The word ‘Egypt’ brought up old sins, long buried. The very word Egypt pricked their conscience.

This was exactly Jesus’ point in the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15, who squandered his inheritance in a far country. The story says, “And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. Need is something God uses to prick a dead conscience. So, he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.

Jesus tells us that it was right there with the pigs that God penetrated his conscience. He came to himself. He came to his senses. The Bible says he remembered that even the servants in his father’s house had it better. This was the turning point for him, when he rose in repentance and went home.

I wonder if God has sent a famine into your life as well, where He has dried up the satisfaction you once derived in life. Maybe for you it’s a financial famine, a relational famine, or a career famine. Listen, all barrenness is not is not owing to sin, but when barren times come into your life, look carefully within. God may be knocking on the door of your soul, wanting you to sensitize your conscience that has been deadened by sin. Let God in and come out clean.

It is so sad that the brothers still did not confess their sins, nor did they tell their father that Joseph has been sold to Egypt. God decides to take then to the next level to sensitize their conscience.

2. Pain.

Ten of Joseph’s brothers went to buy grain in Egypt. But Jacob did not send Benjamin, Joseph’s blood brother, for he feared that harm might happen to him. What we are going to see is ‘what goes around comes around.’ The day has come when these hardened brothers reach Egypt, came and bow themselves before Joseph with their faces to the ground for grains. Genesis 42:8-9 8Although Joseph recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him.9Then he remembered his dreams about them and said to them, “You are spies! You have come to see where our land is unprotected.”

Were they spies? Of course not. Then why was Joseph doing this? He will maintain this accusation, put his brothers in prison for three days, after which he orders them to select one of them to remain in custody while the other nine return home to bring the youngest son before him as proof of their honesty.

Let me ask you: Why did Joseph hide his identity, put false charges, and go to all this trouble? Why didn’t he just turn the tables and confront them? We’re not told all Joseph’s motives, but here’s what I think rides in between the lines. Joseph was replaying the very words and reenacting the scene at that empty well 22 years before. His accusation of them being spies might well have been the very thing they said to him when he came to see about them in Dothan. Earlier Joseph had brought bad report about his brothers to the father. So probably the brothers accused him of spying. The prison he cast them mirrored the pit into which they had thrown him.

I think Joseph is being used of God as a tool to inflict pain on these brothers, but pain with a purpose. Think about it: the only way for real restoration of their broken relationship to happen, to move sin-hardened men to a place where they can begin again on a new is to break down all their defenses and show them who they really are.

Look at how this time of suffering in custody awakened their conscience: Genesis 42:21-22 21They said to one another, “Surely we are being punished because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that’s why this distress has come on us.” 22Reuben replied, “Didn’t I tell you not to sin against the boy? But you wouldn’t listen! Now we must give an accounting for his blood.” 23They did not realize that Joseph could understand them, since he was using an interpreter. All these circumstances aligned themselves to connect consequences to sin.

This is a second tool that God uses to turn up the heat on our sin. He will treat us harshly in order to mercifully convict us and lead us to repentance. King David said this about him: Psalm 119:67 Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word. David’s sin led to pain, which turned him to repentance and obedience.

Hebrews 12:5-6 5 “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, 6because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.”

Hebrews 12:11 No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.

Listen, hard circumstances are not always proof of past sin. Still, if they have come into your life, maybe God has used them to bring the memory of wrongdoing to the surface. Listen, some suffer innocently, but don’t use the counter-arguments to try to turn off your conscience again. You know you are guilty somewhere, God is not going to let you escape without consequences. Trouble, heartache, loss, and pain can be God’s messengers to bring you to repentance. Don’t reject His messengers. Joseph’s brothers did again.

Eventually, Joseph had Simeon bound and put in prison. Joseph then asked the brothers to prove their innocence by brining Benjamin who is back with the father back in Canaan. Genesis 42:29-32 29When they came to their father Jacob in the land of Canaan, they told him all that had happened to them. They said, 30“The man who is lord over the land spoke harshly to us and treated us as though we were spying on the land. 31But we said to him, ‘We are honest men; we are not spies.32We were twelve brothers, sons of one father. One is no more, and the youngest is now with our father in Canaan.’ There’s no record that they ever mention Joseph or their guilt when they arrived home. Even now, they are telling one of their brother is dead and professing that they are honest men.

Some are very hard in their conscience. They don’t mind doing whatever they want to hurt others and they will never feel any remorse about it. Listen, God knows how to humble the toughest guy.

Illustration: Xaviera Hollander wrote a book with a title: The Happy Hooker. Hollander, a prostitute, sought to silence the people who believe that no prostitute could find joy in what she was doing. In her book, Hollander celebrates the joy that she experienced in her profession, saying that she never felt guilty about what she was doing. To be sure, Hollander said, the first time she involved herself in prostitution, she felt pangs of guilt. But over time, she got to the point where her feelings of guilt dissipated.

However, there was one important exception to this. When Hollander heard the ringing of church bells, her conscience would flare up. She was reminded that what she was doing was under the condemnation of Almighty God. Even this hardened professional prostitute could not totally destroy the conscience that God had placed within her.

God works in every person’s life to show him or her their true colors. One of those insightful verses of Scripture about how God brings out our true colors to lead us to repentance and renewed obedience is in Deuteronomy 8:2 Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. So, God tightened the noose with one more tool.

3. Testing.

Genesis 43:1 The famine was still severe in the land. The more we harden our hearts, the severe the circumstances get. The Bible reports that the famine worsened, and the brothers returned to Egypt, this time with their youngest brother Benjamin. They are vindicated as honest men, their brother is released from the Egyptian prison, and a feast is given in their honor. They must have felt pretty good about how things had turned out as their donkeys were loaded down with food the next day. Their word was proven good and was believed by Joseph. Their integrity was intact. Maybe they wouldn’t have to haul the old skeletons out of the closet after all. Still they never confess.

Genesis 44:1-2 1Now Joseph gave these instructions to the steward of his house: “Fill the men’s sacks with as much food as they can carry, and put each man’s silver in the mouth of his sack. 2Then put my cup, the silver one, in the mouth of the youngest one’s sack, along with the silver for his grain.” And he did as Joseph said.

Once the brothers were a short distance away from Egypt, they were stopped and searched on Joseph’s command. When the Prime Minister’s silver cup was discovered in Benjamin’s grain sack, he was arrested and hauled back to Egypt. Now, their youngest brother, the favored son of their father, faced the prospect of jail and slavery in Egypt. Would they save themselves and leave Benjamin to slavery, as they had with Joseph? Would they make up another lie to tell their father about Benjamin’s fate or would they risk and go back to Egypt to release Benjamin?

Thanks to the work of the Lord. The brothers instead return to face Joseph on behalf of their brother. And then came this amazing statement of acceptance of fault they never committed. Genesis 44:16 “What can we say to my lord?” Judah replied. “What can we say? How can we prove our innocence? God has uncovered your servants’ guilt. We are now my lord’s slaves—we ourselves and the one who was found to have the cup.”

It was voiced by Judah, who had been the most self-centered, immoral and cruel of the brothers. For the remainder of this chapter, Judah, the very one who suggested selling Joseph into slavery 20 plus years before, pleads for Benjamin’s life. Genesis 44:27-29 27“Your servant my father said to us, ‘You know that my wife bore me two sons. 28One of them went away from me, and I said, “He has surely been torn to pieces.” And I have not seen him since.29If you take this one from me too and harm comes to him, you will bring my gray head down to the grave in misery.’

They are still not open about Joseph but repentance slowly comes in Genesis 44:33-34 33“Now then, please let your servant remain here as my lord’s slave in place of the boy, and let the boy return with his brothers. 34How can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? No! Do not let me see the misery that would come on my father.” For the first time in Joseph’s memory, Judah was concerned about someone other than himself and was ready to substitute himself for his youngest brother. Still they are lying about what had happened to Joseph. However, there is some change.

Genesis 45:1-3 1Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone leave my presence!” So there was no one with Joseph when he made himself known to his brothers. 2And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard him, and Pharaoh’s household heard about it. 3Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph! Is my father still living?” But his brothers were not able to answer him, because they were terrified at his presence.

What happened? Barrenness and pain and testing circumstances made plain to these brothers the unbreakable truth from God about all our past sins and well-concealed skeletons. Numbers 32:23 And you maybe sure that your sin will be found out.

Conclusion: Friends, is your conscience reminding of your past sins that you are trying your best to hide? Are you going through barrenness, pain and test in your life? There is only one cure for a guilty conscience – Repent of our sin and confess it to God.

Psalm 32:1-6 1Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. 2Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord does not count against them and in whose spirit is no deceit. 3When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. 4For day and night your hand was heavy on me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer. 5Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.” And you forgave the guilt of my sin. 6Therefore let all the faithful pray to you while you may be found; surely the rising of the mighty waters will not reach them.

David learned this lesson. He wrote this psalm to teach us the same lesson. The time to repent of the sin that is plaguing our conscience and confess it in prayer to the Lord is now. David said, “Godly persons will confess their sins while they still have the time to do so, before the mighty waters of the Lord’s judgment begin to roll over them when it is then too late.”

Whatever our sins, now is the time for us to repent and confess them to the Lord. We cannot hide our sins from the Lord any more than David could, or Adam and Eve could. He knows everything about us and everything we have done. David wrote in Psalm 139:1-3 1You have searched me, Lord, and you know me. 2You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. 3You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways.

As soon as David repents and confesses his sin, he receives the Lord’s forgiveness of his sin. When David told Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord,” Nathan assured him, “The Lord has also taken away your sin. You will not die.” God works with our conscience and lead us to repentance. Let’s introspect our heart and pray.

Complete sermon series on Jacob

Sermon series on Nehemiah