Embracing Forgiveness and Reconciliation
Lessons from the Life of Joseph, Part Three
"To err is human, to forgive, divine." When Alexander Pope wrote those immortal words many years ago, he stated a truth that still resonates in our own hearts. Forgiving others seems to be one of the hardest things some of us ever have to do. Why?
At times it is difficult to face the wrongs that have been done to us. In other cases, we are well aware of the hurts we've experienced, and we believe the offender should suffer some consequences for what he or she did. If we forgive, it seems we're letting the culprit off too easily.
Life offers us plenty of opportunities to feel unforgiving. The trouble is, a lack of forgiveness does more damage to us than to the offender. Ravi Zacharias once told me, “Jeff, the person you haven’t forgiven has more power over you than anyone else on earth.” When we don't forgive, we grow hardened, untrusting, sour, and bitter. Those negative feelings war against the love and compassion that should characterize the Christ follower, and we hinder our own spiritual growth.
God knows how difficult forgiving is for us to do. His Word records—in great detail—the life of a man who had more to forgive than almost anyone. We learn valuable lessons about forgiveness from Joseph, whose story is told in the book of Genesis.
Joseph was not to blame for his misfortunes. Jacob, his father, inadvertently invited the sibling abuse that Joseph suffered through his open favoritism. With Joseph's brothers already hating him, Joseph made matters worse when he dreamed two strange dreams, both predicting his rise to prominence and authority, indicating that he would rule over his family.
On the day Joseph’s brothers found their opportunity to get rid of him, and they sold Joseph to some traveling slave traders, who took him to Egypt. We can only imagine Joseph's thoughts as he trudged through the desert on his way to Egypt….as he slept every night in the slave quarters…as he was ordered to do menial tasks day after day—tasks his father's servants did at home. Poor Joseph must have been devastated by the rejection and hatred of his brothers. He surely longed for his father's embrace.
What kind of person would Joseph have become if he had nurtured an unforgiving spirit? We have to imagine that because Scripture gives us every evidence that he didn't let injustice erode his character or his trust in God.
Years later, just as his dream had foretold, Joseph advanced to a high position ruling over Egypt, and his brothers came to seeking help. In Genesis 45, Joseph reveals his true identity to his family and demonstrated for us some important principles about forgiveness.
First, I need to relinquish the desire for revenge. We who know the Lord have a Defender. We can commit our cause into His hands and let Him be the One who does what is just. We can give up the need to retaliate against our offenders because we can commit our cause to our heavenly Father. He is a Judge who will not let the guilty go free.
Secondly, we need to understand the forgiveness doesn’t absolve the guilty of responsibility. (Genesis 45:4) We shouldn't try to pretend that nothing hurtful has happened when it has. We need to admit feeling the emotions that painful events have aroused. If we don't acknowledge them, we will never deal with them, and they will control our lives. Instead, we need to place the responsibility on the individuals who deserve it.
Next, realize that forgiveness can lead to reconciliation. Sometimes the other person doesn’t want anything to do with it. That’s okay. You and I are not responsible for their responses; we are only responsible for our own. When Joseph finally revealed his identity to his brothers, they wept together, embraced, and kissed. Then he told them to bring their father and all their families to Egypt, where he could provide for them during the years of famine.
Reconciliation is one of the primary purposes of forgiveness. It doesn't always happen, of course, depending on the circumstances, but it should be an ultimate goal.
Joseph also demonstrates that I am to forgive as I have been forgiven. If I have trusted Christ, I have been freely forgiven for every sin I have ever committed or ever will commit. For this reason, I am to freely forgive others. God’s Word urges us to, "Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you" (Eph. 4:31-32, NASB).
It takes a major effort of the will to "forgive each other, just as in Christ God forgave you" because most of the time, I don't feel like forgiving. When I choose with my will to obey God, He will give me the power to do what is necessary.
Finally, we must believe that God will use my pain to accomplish His purpose for my life. God is Sovereign. He doesn't abdicate His sovereignty when someone treats me unjustly. Instead, He weaves the dark threads of pain into the tapestry of our lives to deepen our character and accomplish his purpose. God never wastes a hurt.
Can you look back on your life and see now how God has used painful experiences to shape your character? How He has provided opportunities and understanding you never would have had without your suffering? If there's someone you have difficulty forgiving, you can safely believe that God will use the experience to accomplish His purpose in your life.
God has reconciled you to Himself through Christ, and therefore, you have been given the ministry of reconciliation. So, if there’s a broken new relationship in your life, take the first step. Forgive.