Ruth Woodliff-Stanley

Year A

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Soft Hearts

September 13, 2020

Revised Common Lectionary

Hi Everyone,

Welcome to Paintbox. If you're new to the site, you can learn more by visiting the about page. Each week you'll find links to interdisciplinary lessons followed by my collecting question for the week and then my personal reflection.

As I hear again the story of Joseph forgiving his brothers, I am moved by our capacity to help one another soften our hearts amid the wounds we all experience in this life.



Science & Nature

Softening the Hardened Heart

Deborah MacNamara

Neufeld Institute

MacNamara describes a process, rooted in the findings of neuroscience, for softening the hardened heart.

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What does a soft heart make possible?


Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?” So they approached Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this instruction before he died, ‘Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.’ Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him. Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, “We are here as your slaves.” But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.— Genesis 50:15-21

I have come to understand that a soft heart is a gift. We cannot manufacture our response to remorse. We cannot fake the kind of response Joseph made to his brothers. God gives us the heart of true forgiveness. No one can coerce us to offer it. No one can shame or guilt us into forgiving someone. And our forgiveness is not for others to give.

A soft heart comes to us by grace. I suspect we are most open to receiving the gift of grace when we are broken. Not by the wrongdoing of others, but by the cost of our own hardened hearts. We harden our hearts to protect ourselves. It is an adaptive response to threat to close the windows and batten down the hatches. But then, the hardness starts to wear us down. What we did to protect ourselves, at some point, becomes a source of harm to us. It is when we begin to notice this harm that we are perhaps most open to receive the gift of grace. Grace that brings us a soft heart.

As Deborah MacNamara notes in today’s science and nature lesson, “We were meant to develop a language of the heart, one that takes us towards civilized relating around emotional content.” She goes on to say that each of us needs a “guardian of the heart”—one who establishes a relationship of trust and healthy attachment with us.

Relationships change over time, often in ways we could not have imagined. When they disintegrate, as they did between Joseph and his brothers, we can enter a season of deep grief. And we naturally harden our hearts for protection.

Perhaps our growing edge, as a species, is to learn how to soften our hearts toward those whose actions or words have led to the greatest pain in us. It is simpler to relegate those individuals to the land of “those who hurt” than to consider a more nuanced way of holding our experience. Joseph’s story suggests a different option.

His brothers had plotted to kill him. They left him in a pit to die. Surely, they deserved to be relegated to the land of bad guys—those who hurt. But that is not, ultimately, how Joseph held the story.

In a strange turn of events, Joseph’s oppressors—his jailer, Pharaoh himself, and the Egyptian royalty—helped Joseph to receive grace to cultivate a soft heart toward his brothers. He came to see that what they had intended for harm out of their own limited sight, God had used in the larger narrative of their lives for good for their family.

God can use new relationships to give us a fresh start—new experiences that let us see even those who have hurt us most in a new light. We can come to see their words and actions as part of a larger narrative, just as Joseph did with his brothers.

I expect there is not a person alive who has not said or done things that have caused pain for someone else. And I expect there is not a person alive who has not experienced pain as a result of another’s words or actions. I’ve come to understand that in the matter of softening our hard hearts, it truly does take a village. Each of us will have opportunity to be guardian for someone’s heart where the one before us has spoken or acted in ways that elicited pain. And each of us will have the experience of eliciting pain another will come to help heal.

The world is not made up of “those who hurt” and “those who protect”—the good guys and the bad guys. The world is made up of complex human beings—whose complexity contains the beautiful, terrible, mundane, truthful, deceptive, naive, wise, sad, angry, joyful, hopeful, hateful, loving, anxious, calm, shaming, honoring aspects of our nature. All of it makes us who we are; none of it is beyond the reach of divine love and redemption. No action any human being commits places that person beyond the reach of God’s saving embrace. If that is the divine perspective, who are we to hold a harsher view?

To be fully alive is to give ourselves to the flowing river of being vulnerable, experiencing pain, protecting ourselves when necessary, and then receiving the gift of grace that lets us forgive and begin again with curiosity.

Soft hearts allow us to be human together, holding all that we are, even and especially our brokenness, with compassion and hope.