Why People Hurt People
by Christopher C. Thompson | 15 October 2021 |
Let’s start by stating the obvious: hurting people hurt people. This is a fact of life. And for all of those on a path to pursuing some grand and lofty goal that God has set before you, hurt is bound to happen.
I’m going to describe some of the motivations for why people hurt others, and I want you to see if you can identify similar situations from your own experiences.
Hurt Caused by Misguided Love
It is often said that the people who are closest to us hurt us the most. This is partly a matter of proximity. The people who come into close contact with you are in the best position to harm you because your guard is down around them. Some do so ignorantly, while others view family members, especially children, as easy targets for manipulation and control. No matter the case, in the context of family relationships there are so many landmines where lines become blurred, and relationships become unhealthy spaces of codependency, enmeshment, manipulation, and flat-out abuse.
Joseph’s upbringing was far from perfect. He had several relationships with family members that were hostile and conflicted, but his relationship with his father was quite possibly the one that indirectly caused him the most pain.
Jacob appears to have had a depressive tendency (see Gen. 37:34-35; 42:38). Therefore, one could argue that Jacob may have become depressed after his wife Rachel died. She was his favorite wife, so losing her when she gave birth to Benjamin was likely a devastating blow (see Gen. 35:19). Jacob’s loss may have led him to develop unhealthy forms of affection towards Joseph and Benjamin. While none of this is crystal clear, we do know that Jacob failed to discipline Joseph properly.
Joseph was coddled and pampered, while his brothers worked hard as fieldhands and shepherds. Jacob’s love was misguided, and it ended up hurting Joseph. It’s important to notice that neither Joseph nor Benjamin is identified as consistently caring for their father’s flocks with their brothers. It’s possible that as Rachel’s sons they held special standing among the brothers. The story plainly says that they hated Joseph because their father loved him more (Gen. 37:4). Further, Jacob had made his preferences evident by making that special robe for Joseph. He inadvertently made Joseph a target when he gifted the robe and then made him a quasi-overseer.
While Joseph is described as shepherding with his brothers in Gen. 37:2, he was sent by his father to spy on them in 37:13. This suggests that sometimes Joseph had to do chores, and other times he was exempt. It’s indicative of Jacob’s inability to set up a clear, consistent, and appropriate set of responsibilities and boundaries for his son. Jacob knows the dynamics amongst his sons’ relationships, so you would think he wouldn’t place Joseph in such a precarious predicament. Nevertheless, Jacob is so blinded by his favoritism that he has no clue that on that day he was sending Joseph on a path that almost cost him his life. Not only that, but as one of the youngest of the brothers, Joseph likely didn’t even have the capacity to evaluate or manage his brothers properly or effectively.
The irony is that Joseph didn’t even know where to find his brothers and ended up wandering in a field. He wasn’t ready to lead, but Jacob gave him a level of authority over them. It would have been so much better had he told Joseph to go help his brothers. But again, it illustrates how Jacob’s affection for Joseph caused him to use poor judgement, thus putting his son at risk. His misguided love had unintended consequences.
In having little and inconsistent responsibility, Joseph also fails to develop the type of discipline that will be essential for him to live and lead well. He will have to learn the hard way how to be faithful with undesirable work because it appears that his father had a tendency to give him the easy way out.
Hurt Caused by Insecurities
When Joseph approached his brothers while on an errand from his father, their initial response to seeing him was significant.
They saw him from afar, and before he came near to them they conspired against him to kill him. They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits. Then we will say that a fierce animal has devoured him, and we will see what will become of his dreams.” (Gen. 37:18-20 ESV)
This scene illustrates a very sobering reality: People will sometimes do you harm in order to compensate for their own insecurity. There are several really interesting elements to their response. First, because they were in a clandestine location where their deeds might remain concealed they determined that they could possibly rid themselves of their annoying little brother forever. From the moment they saw him, they conspired to kill him. But it was their actual words that really betrayed the root of their sinister ideations.
Behold the dreamer cometh . . .
I have often marveled at the simple profundity in that statement. It’s practically teeming with significance and meaning.
I never found out who said it, and I actually don’t want to know, but early on in my ministry, some church leaders said of me, “We don’t pay him to write books.”
The irony is that pastors actually are paid to write. Pastors write Bible studies, wedding homilies, baby dedications and sermons every single week. It only makes sense to at least compile some of what we have written, knowing that people forget most of the things we say anyway. But their intimation was not a logical one. Those leaders were trying to disparage a good thing.
Joseph’s brothers did the same thing. They were trying to disparage the gift, promise, and purpose of God in his life.
The problem is that some people do you harm in order to compensate for their own insecurity. They will disparage you for doing what they wish they had done a long time ago. Now they resent you for doing what they should’ve done, or can’t even do.
Hurt Caused by the Cowardice of Others
The plan was very simple. Kill him and then say that some wild animal devoured him.
But when Reuben heard of their scheme, he came to Joseph’s rescue. “Let’s not kill him,” he said. “Why should we shed any blood? Let’s just throw him into this empty cistern here in the wilderness. Then he’ll die without our laying a hand on him.” Reuben was secretly planning to rescue Joseph and return him to his father (Gen. 37:21-22 NLT).
These little details have always intrigued me. Reuben is the oldest of Jacob’s children. He was the official leader of the band of brothers and the one who should have kept his brothers accountable. While Reuben appears to be sensitive to their evil intentions, he never actually appeals to their better nature.
The brothers believe that Joseph will still die. He will either starve or be drowned when the cistern fills with rain. Either way, he dies. Reuben has decided that he will help Joseph, but only if he can do so secretly. So notice what he said next. “Let’s just throw him in this empty cistern here in the wilderness.”
Reuben’s harm was rooted in the fact that he wasn’t courageous enough to stand for what was right in the face of strong opposition. He tried to hide behind a lesser evil, and thus he placed Joseph in the position to be abused beyond the cistern, through slavery in Egypt. I have witnessed this several times.
I once had a boss who had attempted to protect me a little. His team had been displaying abusive behaviors and while he didn’t address them head on, he did help me make some changes to ensure that I could navigate a little easier. The problem was, as soon as he directed those changes, he abruptly left for another position. At the time, I didn’t have the necessary skills needed to navigate some of the hostility the team directed toward me. So it persisted.
The new boss seemed more concerned with protecting his own interests than he was with protecting mine. Years later, I was still on their radar. Simply put, they were petty, and I was stubborn. They wanted me to shut up and I had to speak my mind. I learned the hard way.
I’m convinced that in several instances, my boss was more concerned with currying favors with his leadership team than standing up against the mistreatment that was so clearly being perpetrated. That was Reuben. He was trying not to incur any kind of pushback or backlash from his brothers, so he just let the evil plan unfold.
Hurt that Benefits Others
The sons of Jacob are in an all-out brainstorming session, trying to figure out what to do with their little brother. Someone suggested that they kill him. Then Reuben spoke up and said that they should throw him in a pit instead. However, it’s the most sinister idea that stole the show.
They ripped off his robe, threw him in the hole and left him for dead. After all the fuss they realized that it was lunchtime, so they sat down to eat. While they ate, they noticed a caravan coming across the horizon. Ishmaelite traders were following the beaten path of the major Mediterranean routes where they traded, bartered and peddled their wares, spices, and ointments in the various towns and cities along the way.
When Judah saw them in the distance he had what he believed to be a brilliant idea. Judah said to his brothers, “What will we gain by killing our brother? We’d have to cover up the crime. Instead of hurting him, let’s sell him to those Ishmaelite traders. After all, he is our brother—our own flesh and blood!” And his brothers agreed. (Gen. 37:26-27 NLT).
Allow me to speak plainly here. Beware of people who are motivated to hurt you because they know they stand to benefit from your pain.
In short, Judah is a very dangerous person. For him, it is not enough that Joseph is going to die, or that he will suffer greatly and then die. Judah intended to receive a direct benefit from this entire ordeal. The worst part though is his supposed motivation.
He tops off his argument with the most sinister of phrases; “After all, he is our brother.” There is loads of irony there. I always imagine that Judah made that remark with the classic cartoon villain laugh. It’s fitting here because his words are so dark and evil.
Avoid people who mask their evil intent with goodwill. Those people may be able to receive help, but not from you. If you are the intended target of their evil machinations, then you should avoid people like this. Stay away from them. Stay far, far, away.
When you look at your painful experiences there’s one thing you have to admit. You’re still here. You are still the sum total of all of your choices, experiences, and the favor of God on your life. Therefore, those trials, tribulations, pain, and suffering worked together for your good, for your growth and for God’s glory. God doesn’t give us pain. God doesn’t cause us to suffer. God allows pain and suffering, and with the divine hand of providence, orders things for us so that they will work out according to the divine plan. Remember this: God’s plan overrides any hurt or pain you will ever endure.
Christopher C. Thompson writes about culture and communication at thinkinwrite.com. He’s the author of several books and an adjunct professor at Oakwood University in Alabama. When not writing, he’s jogging or binge-watching Designated Survivor. He’s married to Tracy, who teaches at Oakwood University.
This chapter is adapted from Christopher’s book Choose to Dream.