The Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy considered the Biblical story of Joseph the most beautiful ever written. He had a point. Do you remember it? Joseph was Jacob’s favorite son. Papa made a glorious coat for the boy and the brothers seethed with envy. They considered killing their hated brother but sold him into slavery instead. Joseph’s life turned around in an Egyptian jail cell. The insufferable narcissistic brat became wise and humble and eventually impressed Pharaoh.

Later, the brothers travelled to Egypt for grain during a famine. They encountered Pharaoh’s lieutenant but failed to recognize him as their brother. Joseph hatched a complicated plot to get the brothers to profess their guilt. After much deliberation, they assumed full responsibility for their aggressive behavior. Joseph overheard them and began to cry. It was utterly heartbreaking. In my reading, his tears were not about what the brothers did to him, but what they did to themselves.

Pressured to hand over another brother by Joseph, disguised as Pharaoh’s right-hand man, the brothers refused. When they passed Joseph’s test of their character, he unleashed a startling cry and ordered everyone to leave. The brothers feared for their lives. In this dramatic moment, Pharaoh’s lieutenant disclosed his real identity as Joseph. Dumbfounded, the brothers worried he would exact his revenge by selling them into slavery. But Joseph merely wanted to embrace his brothers.

Why did Joseph wait so long to reveal himself to his frightened brothers? He made his stunning announcement only after the brothers assumed full responsibility for their behavior, expressing guilt and remorse for what they did to him, and refused to repudiate responsibility for another brother. It wasn’t enough to simply acknowledge what they did to Joseph. He needed his brothers to walk the walk. When they did, Joseph knew his brothers had redeemed themselves spiritually. They chose to behave in an enlightened manner, inhabiting the best version of themselves. After the brothers enacted their spiritual truth, Joseph disclosed his psychological truth, revealing his identity as their brother.

The dramatic climax presents the intimate and essential relationship between psychological and spiritual truth. But they are not merely intertwined. This remarkable story suggests that the more deeply and completely we wrestle with and understand ourselves, we approach something greater than ourselves. As we consider and embrace the full complexity of our psychological truth, we encounter the utter simplicity of spiritual truth. At its core, the psychological and the spiritual dimensions of human experience are one and the same.

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Neal Aponte

Neal Aponte is a licensed clinical psychologist with over 30 years of experience providing psychotherapy for adults, adolescents and children. Read more here.