At the expense of abandoning some of the obvious ongoing themes in Genesis for one day, I can’t help but to use the opportunity presented in this chapter to talk about forgiveness.
I have a good friend who has as much a reason as anyone to be unforgiving toward his mother. She was physically and verbally abusive to him all of his life, and since his father passed away, she only seems to call when she needs something from him. I personally led this friend to a relationship with Christ. This was a journey that took two years, and along the way we had to unpack a lot of stuff from his past. At the top of the pile, was the issue with his mother. I remember him asking me once, “what does the Bible say about forgiveness? Do I really have to forgive her for everything she’s done to me? Because, I don’t know that I’m ready to do that.”
Let’s start by answering the question. What does the Bible say about forgiveness? Here’s some references that point to basic principles outlined in scripture…
Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. – Ephesians 4:32
…as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. – Colossians 3:13
If you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. – Matthew 6:15
Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven. – Matthew 18:21-22
These verses, and many others like them can be summarized like this: the Bible commands us to forgive others without limits, because God has forgiven us without limit. If you’ve been wronged by someone, no matter how badly, there is simply no room in scripture for us to withhold forgiveness, as it is a clear statement of our feelings toward how God has forgiven us. For the Christian, forgiveness is a “Pay it Forward” type of concept, and is in fact one of the only areas where we should rightfully feel condemnation for not practicing it. The reason I say this is that the sin of un-forgiveness is not a weakness of the flesh, but rather an unwillingness of the spirit and a hardness of heart.
This brings us back to Joseph, who in this chapter comes face-t0-face with his brothers who ruined his life years earlier because of their jealousy. Let’s be honest, what they did to him was probably worst than anything that’s been done to most of us. Surely if anyone had reason to withhold forgiveness it was Joseph.
Of course, Joseph does forgive his brothers in the end, but not without a little bit of drama as a prelude. You might think that Joseph’s actions are not forgiving at first, and that perhaps he was struggling with finding room in his heart to overlook the offenses committed against him. However, I see something more nuanced than that.
As a pastor, it always feels slightly irresponsible to present anything in the Bible as nuanced. We have such a built-in reverence for black and white authority and Scripture is certainly that. However, when we discuss forgiveness, we ought not to do so without admitting that wisdom has it’s place in reconciliation as well. What I mean to say is that I believe there is a difference between forgiveness and offering someone a second chance. Certainly there are times when forgiveness is accompanied by second chances, but they aren’t inextricably linked.
For example, let’s imagine a couple with two kids. The husband is physically and verbally abusive to both the wife and the kids. One day one of the kids winds up seriously injured and the wife finally has had enough. She leaves him for the safety of her children as much as her own. Some time later, the husband turns his life around. Actually, let’s go one step further and say that the husband finds Christ and significantly turns his life around. He comes back to his wife and in the most sincere way possible, humbly apologizes for his behavior and tearfully asks for her forgiveness.
Now, if the wife is a believer, I would suggest that she needs to forgive the husband, as she is certainly not perfect herself and has been forgiven of much by God. However, I still grant her the right to decide whether or not it is a good idea to reconcile based on the circumstances. She could be putting her children at risk, and it may be more appropriate to forgive the past, with some wise caution being reserved for the future.
What we see here with Joseph is a bit of a test. I believe that more than anything Joseph wants to reconcile. However, the level to which they will be able to reconcile will greatly depend on if his brothers have changed their ways. If he takes the lid off and reveals who he truly is then his brothers may act differently out of fear. He wants to know how they act when he’s not in the room. Make sense?
It’s a fine line to walk as this kind of discernment can easily manifest itself inappropriately. If we approach possible reconciliation with “I’ll forgive you but I’ll never forget” or “let’s put you on trial to see how you do” then we won’t have a chance. On the other hand, I also believe that unless biblical forgiveness allows for this type of discernment, there may be some people that we never even try to forgive as there is simply to much risk involved.
We need more forgiveness, not less. We need to take chances on relationships that have been broken and need to be restored. The slate isn’t wiped clean in the sense that we forget what they’re capable of, but rather we no longer bring up their past offenses. This is the type of forgiveness that Joseph offers…one that is willing to forgive people of the worst kind of injustice, while being tempered by a wisdom that comes from experience.
With all of that said, I hope it wasn’t too pragmatic to be personally challenging. Who is it that you need to forgive? Isn’t it time that you set that burden down? Hasn’t it ruined your life enough? When we refuse to forgive, we are the ones who suffer, not the people who wronged us. We carry that chip on our shoulder. We get furious at the sight of the person and loathe any success they have. We allow their misdeeds to ruin our ability to enjoy life on any given day while we fixate on their awfulness. When this happens, not only have they hurt us in the past, but now we allow them to continually hurt us in the future. Let’s turn the tables and allow their misdeeds to give us something positive – a personal experience of something beautiful, of forgiving the way we ourselves have been forgiven.