When you have done wrong to someone and haven’t gone through the necessary process to make things right with them and with God—when you haven’t fully dealt with your transgression—you become the victim of the very distress that you put that person through. “We feel the same distress that we caused him and saw in his face.”
Do you remember Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Telltale Heart? In it the murderer couldn’t sleep because he kept hearing the beating heart of his victim beneath the floorboards. He wasn’t hearing the victim’s heart, of course; he was hearing his own heart, pounding in his chest, reverberating through his skull. His own guilt awoke him, tortured him, and finally led to the revelation that he was the murderer.
The brothers’ crime was now more than two decades old, but they still felt the distress of it. Time doesn’t erase distress. We have evidence of that in our own lives. We know from experience the inescapable reminders of our guilt. The emotional entanglements brought about by the consequences of our own sin can be so devastating that we become physically sick.
We’re not left to wonder what Joseph felt when he heard his brothers’ words, when he heard them admit their guilt over what they had done. We are told he had to leave the room so he could weep. What tears of relief and joy! He understood well one of the reasons they were breaking. They had been in the dungeon for three days, and he knew what that was like. He had spent years in a dungeon. He knew what that could do to a person. He also knew that when God comes to tap on stooped shoulders and to break a guilty heart, He does not stop with a slight nudge or mild reproof.
The long-outstanding bills were coming due for Joseph’s brothers. And as their debt rose ever higher before their eyes, they openly admitted, “We are guilty!”