Joseph had been deeply wounded by his brothers. In their collective disdain for this seemingly favored son of their father, they trafficked him to those who would sell him into slavery. It is an awful and ugly story, but one to which the Most High God was attentive. Despite what anyone might have expected, and through God’s mercy, Joseph overcame his slavery and become one of the most effective political leaders in Egypt’s history. When, many years later, circumstances brought him and his brothers back together, Joseph had a choice—either forgive them or destroy them. He chose forgiveness.
But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them. (Genesis 50:19-21)
I am not the brightest man around, but I do have a lot of miles on me, and I have observed while racking up those miles that most if not all of us struggle to forgive someone. Forgiveness is unconditionally releasing the one who offended you from owing you anything for the offense, because you are completely satisfied with Christ and His work. Consider these four truths about forgiveness:
First, the forgiving person acknowledges God can and does use pain for ultimate good. Note that Joseph, when looking at the meandering movement of his life, understood that God used even the pain of betrayal and abandonment to set up the scenario wherein good could unfold. Indeed, when he first was reunited with his brothers, and they were understandably terrified, Joseph told them, “do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life” (Gen. 45:5). It takes a very mature person to recognize this dynamic.
Secondly, forgiveness and trust are two completely different things—one is a gift, the other must be earned. The biblical narrative of Joseph’s journey suggests that forgiveness was not necessarily something he was withholding. However, to trust his brothers was a whole other matter. Thus, Joseph tested his brothers repeatedly to see just what they were made of; to see if by chance their hearts had grown tender (see Gen. 44 for an example of this). Many people withhold forgiveness because they think it means they have to trust the offender. Yet the offender must earn trust, and, the fact is, he or she may never be able to do so. Recognizing that these are two completely different matters has brought great freedom to many people who, while not trusting, have been bound up with unforgiveness.
Next, forgiveness liberates the one hurt to love freely and without condition. Notice in Genesis 50:21 that Joseph seeks the good of his brothers and their families. Forgiveness completely frees him to love them without any sense of loss—to be generous, even. Indeed, the ancient language suggests that Joseph was eager to bless his brothers. “I will provide for you,” is an intensive verb speaking to the magnitude of Joseph’s interests. This is a powerful picture of what a forgiving spirit can afford.
Lastly, forgiveness is an act of the will within the hurting and tender heart of the one offended. It is not mere words. Joseph actually never said, “I forgive you,” but his behavior demonstrated it nonetheless. Too many people utter the words while their hearts are not yet ready, and then they wonder why they remain in their hurt. The Apostle Paul underscores this in Ephesians 4:32, writing, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” Notice the kindness flows first from a tender heart, and this from the recognition that we ourselves are sinners in need of Christ’s redemptive touch.
Stop right now and consider: to whom must you offer forgiveness? Talk to God about this person and the issues at play. Ask God to help you forgive, and, if needful and possible, connect with that person and let him or her know. It may well free that person to hear from you. But ultimately, and perhaps most importantly, it will liberate you.