Have you ever had a habit you just can’t break; a recurring thought or behaviour pattern that feels like it’s robbing you of a better life? I’ve listened to hundreds of people over the years who’ve been in such a bind, as well as wrestling with my own fair share of issues. So often I’ve wanted to turn a new leaf, begin a new chapter, but those pesky old habits have returned, like some unwelcome chewing gum welded to my foot.
That’s the trouble with life change – it’s fiendishly difficult to embrace the new if you can’t let go of the old. The story of Joseph in Genesis is of a man with a most turbulent past: spoiled by his father, betrayed by his brothers, sold into slavery, falsely accused and imprisoned – he had some serious emotional baggage to work through.
How interesting then is it that he decides to name his firstborn son ‘Manasseh’, or “I have forgotten my trouble.” (Genesis 41:51) Just think about that for a moment: every single day when he calls his son’s name, he’ll end up remembering all his trouble again!
When Joseph says: “I have forgotten my trouble”, he doesn’t mean it literally – the very next chapter makes that obvious when he sees his family again and remembers everything. Instead, Joseph gets to a point where he is able to say that for all the pain and disappointment he’s experienced, it doesn’t have a hold on him any more.
How does he do that? How does anyone get free of their past?
Well, there’s not time nor space to go into any depth here, but suffice to say it partly involves a decision of the will. Joseph must decide to forgive, decide to change his behaviour and decide to proactively think about a fruitful future – hence the name of his second son in Genesis 41:52. That must have taken some serious persistence.
Contrary to the lyrics of that irritatingly catchy song from Frozen, freedom is not found through doing anything and everything I want. “It’s time to see what I can do, to test the limits and break through. No right, no wrong, no rules for me, I’m free.”
That’s a load of bunkum. Just ask the addict who was free to give in to that habit again and again and again, and now isn’t so free anymore. True freedom still requires discipline, forethought and mental strength. Imagine playing football without those white lines around the edge of the pitch. I might be ‘free’ to take the ball wherever I want, but it would turn the game into a farce. The best games of football have boundaries, and life is very much the same. Boundaried, disciplined thinking is an important step to letting go of the past.
We’ll never fully know just how much Joseph was able to be free of the trauma in his story. I’m sure he had baggage until the day he died – as we all do. But calling his son’s name every single day – the daily discipline of declaring: “My past won’t affect me,” every time he held that cute bundle of joy in his arms – must have made a significant difference.
I doubt that any of us will ever be completely ‘bad-habit-or-trouble-free’, but Joseph at least gives us a helpful model to change our lives step by step. You don’t have to call your child, pet or teddy bear ‘Manasseh’, but you can wake every morning and make a decision, as best as you are able, to think a bit differently. And perhaps one day, like Joseph we’ll be able to say of all our troubles: “God meant it for good.” (Genesis 50:20).