One of the key components to growing in Christ-likeness is learning to forgive. It’s a difficult task. We know the verses from Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount that if we fail to forgive others God will not forgive our own shortcomings. How do we learn to embrace the other who has harmed us in some way? How do we learn to look past the offense and love the other, even when we despise the action? Perhaps the story of Joseph may help. (If you don’t know the story well, read the final thirteen chapters of Genesis.)
Remember the story; Joseph has every right to be angry. His brothers treated him shamefully. When they first arrive in Egypt, he tests them repeatedly to see if they have changed. Clearly, Joseph does not trust them. He is protecting himself. Yet, he finds it in his heart to forgive, or perhaps he finds the strength from God to forgive. He forgives not by his own power, but by God’s power through him. His brothers fear, however, that Joseph is just waiting for the right time to retaliate, waiting for their father to die before he exacts his revenge. So his bothers send him a note, supposedly from their father, begging for forgiveness.
“After the funeral, Joseph’s brothers talked among themselves: “What if Joseph is carrying a grudge and decides to pay us back for all the wrong we did him?” So they sent Joseph a message, “Before his death, your father gave this command: Tell Joseph, ‘Forgive your brothers’ sin—all that wrongdoing. They did treat you very badly.’ Will you do it? Will you forgive the sins of the servants of your father’s God?” When Joseph received their message, he wept.” (Genesis 50:15-17 The Message)
Joseph wept. At times it seems that Joseph is crying every other chapter near the end of Genesis. Everything seems to bring him to tears. Yet the tears are a sign of the seriousness of the offense. Joseph cries because the hurt still runs deep. Joseph cries because he has been harmed by the very people who were supposed to protect him. Joseph weeps as a reminder that sin is destructive; it destroys families, and it destroys lives. Even though God has caused good to come out of the horror, the loss is still real. Sin is serious; the thought of it should bring us to tears. Joseph is mourning the state of the fallen world; a world so distorted that brothers would even harm one of their own. Even the note from Jacob recognizes the seriousness of the offense. “They did treat you very badly.” Forgiveness from Joseph does not come lightly, and asking for forgiveness is not in some way lessening the seriousness of the offense. Wrong has been committed; relationship has been broken.
Sometimes we fear that granting forgiveness somehow lessens the offense. We know that we have been wronged, and while we don’t necessarily want the other to suffer, we do hope for a recognition of the seriousness of the offense. Yet, Joseph’s story reminds us that forgiveness is not cheap. Forgiveness doesn’t disregard the offense. In fact, to go through the act of forgiveness properly requires that the seriousness of the sin be addressed. Joseph’s brothers, recognize the seriousness of the offense and even offer themselves as slaves to appease Joseph’s wrath. In our own lives, sometimes forgiveness can only be granted when the seriousness of the sin is addressed, or acknowledged.
Joseph is ultimately able to forgive through God’s strength. When Joseph addresses his brothers he doesn’t disregard the sin and say it’s no big deal; he acknowledges it. You planned evil for me, he says. What you did was awful? It was wrong. But while you intended evil, God used it to do good. God brought about the salvation you have seen around you. Don’t fear, it’s not my place to judge, but God’s. Joseph is able to forgive not because he has great inner strength, but because he borrows God’s strength. Joseph is able to forgive because he trusts God to avenge wrongs and heal brokenness. That does not lessen the offense, it actually acknowledges that God is the only one who can make the offense right.
Forgiveness is hard work. It is acknowledging the hurt in our lives and recognizing the horror of sin; how sin disrupts everything. Sin is so serious, God is the only one who can undo its consequences. As we strive to forgive, we must realize the strength does not come from us, but from God. And once we recognize this, it allows us to trust God to do the hard work inside of us needed to forgive.