And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. (Bereshit / Genesis 45:5; ESV)
Some of us, when we realize that we have done something wrong, get very upset with ourselves. The details of the event play over and over again in our minds. We try to think how we could have done it better. We earnestly apologize again and again, but never feel forgiven. Others may feel just as bad, but deal with it differently. Instead, they internalize their sense of guilt and shame and never talk about it, allowing it to fester inside of them.
Joseph was concerned that his brothers would be too hard on themselves for how they had treated him. They certainly had done him wrong. Enraged with jealousy, they wanted to murder him, but in the end sold him into slavery. We can hardly imagine what the subsequent years for Joseph were like. Even with how things turned out in the end for Joseph - after years of slavery and imprisonment, he was promoted to second in command in Egypt - few people would have what it takes to console the very ones who were the cause of their years of suffering. Yet he does console them. Joseph's understanding of what God was doing through his terrible circumstances gave him perspective and the ability to not obsess over his brothers' wrongdoing.
Joseph was not saying that they didn't do wrong. He wasn't saying that they didn't need to face their guilt and deal with it before God. What he was trying to do was share with them a godly perspective to keep them from mishandling their guilt.
When we do wrong, we are guilty. We need to deal with that. How we deal with it is another thing. Punishing ourselves, which is what Joseph was encouraging his brothers not to do, doesn't do anybody any good. It doesn't change what happened or appease the one we have wronged. All we can do for the wronged party is express regret through a sincere apology and make restitution if the situation warrants it.
Self punishment shifts the focus of our wrongs to ourselves, which is most likely how we created the problem in the first place. Wallowing in failure may give the impression that we are taking the situation seriously, but actually prevents us from effectively dealing with our guilt.
Joseph's perspective on his situation is the key to being free from self punishment. Without saying that his brothers were free from any responsibility for their wrongs, he understood that ultimately God was in control of their lives.
Some may think that to accept what Joseph was saying regarding how God used his brothers' wrongdoing for good purposes would lead to their not taking their wrongs seriously enough. Perhaps they would start to think that there is no such thing as evil, since God uses everything - including jealously and murder - for his purposes. This certainly wasn't Joseph's understanding. Later on he would say to them, "You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good" (Bereshit / Genesis 50:20). The key to freedom from self punishment and from the guilt that spurs it on is to understand the relationship between our actions and the God who rules the universe. Do we really think that we control the destiny of others? Beating ourselves up for our wrongs furthers the lie that somehow we rule over life, when God, the Master of the Universe, is always in control. Once we accept that, then we can face our wrongs properly.
Self punishment completely missed the point. Wrongdoing is fundamentally an affront to our Creator. Apart from apologies and restitution, we can only be free from guilt through the forgiveness of God. So many of our misdeeds can never be resolved through anything we say or do. But God has made provision for our guilt. Through the sacrifice of the Messiah and acknowledging the seriousness of our wrongs, we can be free from guilt. The Messiah was severely punished on our behalf. So, stop beating yourself up!