Understanding Forgiveness Through Joseph
Why forgiving is not synonymous with forgetting
We describe Joseph’s account in the Bible like this:
He is beloved of his father; his brothers become jealous of him; they beat him and throw him in a pit; then they decide instead to sell him into slavery; Joseph ends up in Egypt and over time, he becomes the second most powerful man and then he forgives his brothers…
We conclude as believers that his life’s testimony is one of tremendous faith and trust in God and we tell others and ourselves that if only we could have enough trust and faith like Joseph, God will allow us to experience that redeeming moment in our life, that pay-off, that victory.
The account of Joseph is more telling than meets the eye. We see Joseph outside of the land God promised in His covenant; we see him outside of the house where he is supposed to be serving; he wears fine linen garments from Pharaoh; he weds a pagan wife, despite Abraham forming a promise with his eldest servant regarding the matter of his son, Isaac, whom he did not want to take a pagan wife (Genesis 24). Joseph gets his name changed. All this on top of naming his children this way: Manasseh (for God hath made me forget all my toil, and all my father’s house) and Ephraim (for God hath caused me to be fruitful in the land of my affliction). These circumstances sound disheartening.
In all his wretchedness, Joseph adopts a name change and in turn, gives his children very significant names. We reconcile our hard feelings about this by comforting ourselves with Joseph’s eventual wealth, his power, and influence. However much this end-game may put us at ease, we cannot forget that Joseph was separated from the covenant community, from his family of origin, from the promise.
There are two themes visible in the life of Joseph as we read his account in the scriptures: forgiveness and redemption.
Redemption is clearly seen in the life of Joseph. In order to understand it fully, we need to look at the promised seed. Judah is the promised seed through Abraham, who begat Isaac, who begat Jacob, who begat Judah, whose lineage begat King David. Although Joseph was Jacob’s favoured son, mothered by his favoured wife, Rachel, the promised seed is Judah, mothered by Leah, the unfavored wife of Jacob.
Judah is the one who becomes surety for the life of Benjamin, his half-brother. We see this redemption in the life of King David as well, when he puts his life on the line for the people of Israel in the valley as he slays Goliath. And of course, there is our redeemer, Jesus, who lays down his life on the cross for the sins of the world.
Forgiveness, on the other hand, results from languishing in the valley. As believers we are in one of two extremities: we either store up bitterness against another, or we learn to forgive. We cannot be in the middle.
If we are bitter, we may have learned to bury or hide it. It makes us sick and we reject those we are hurt by, or whom we’ve hurt. In order to rid ourselves of this sin, we must forgive. It is the only antidote.
We need to look at forgiveness as a command from God, not as an option. Ephesians 4: 32 tell us:
And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.
The enemy has many devices against the believer and deception is one of them. We are deceived when we hear that we need to forgive and forget. Jesus said to forgive seventy times seven, a sum total that is too large to number. But are we called to forget, are we commanded to forget? Are we able to?
The words that Joseph said to his brothers when they encountered him after being apart for years are very significant and we must listen to them closely:
Then Joseph could not refrain himself before all them that stood by him; and he cried, Cause every man to go out from me. And there stood no man with him, while Joseph made himself known unto his brethren. And he wept aloud: and the Egyptians and the house of Pharaoh heard. And Joseph said unto his brethren, I am Joseph; doth my father yet live? And his brethren could not answer him; for they were troubled at his presence. And Joseph said unto his brethren, Come near to me, I pray you. And they came near. And he said, I am Joseph your brother, whom ye sold into Egypt. Now therefore be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that ye sold me hither: for God did send me before you to preserve life. For these two years hath the famine been in the land: and yet there are five years, in the which there shall neither be earing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve you a posterity in the earth, and to save your lives by a great deliverance. Genesis 45: 1-7
Here, Joseph did not forget the offenses that were done unto him by his brothers, yet he forgave them anyway. Joseph did not forget nor should we.
The enemy will deceive us by having us think that we must not be forgiving people if we keep remembering the hurt and the past. But let’s remember that we were not created by God to have amnesia, to lose our memory about all that we’ve done or that has been done to us. God is the only one that can cast our sins and remember them no more, after all (Micah 7:19).
A Right Way to Forgive
Joseph teaches us to forgive. He understands God’s authority and tells his brothers that it was God who put him in Egypt. He doesn’t try and figure out how God can be sovereign while his brothers did wickedly by him. Likewise, if we question God’s sovereignty in our lives when circumstances beset us, we are asking God to explain Himself to us, and He does not have to explain anything to us, does He?
We forgive in word and deed. When we tell someone I forgive you, we cancel the debt they have and we remove the right to collect. We do not punish others by ignoring them, by withholding affection and attention towards them. If we do, then we haven’t forgiven.
It may help to think about it this way: when we do not forgive believers who are washed of their sins as we are, we are basically saying that we require more than God does in order to forgive. When we don’t forgive an unbeliever, we are saying that God’s punishment (hell) to the unbeliever is not sufficient. Both of these responses to conditions of forgiveness yield the sin of pride.
Along these lines are other myths we hear in the world about forgiveness. We hear, if you are really sorry, you wouldn’t do it anymore. However, we are made into Christ’s likeness through sanctification. We don’t need to say we are sorry in order to stop sinning. We need sanctification to become aware of our sin and to hate it enough to repent and sin no more.
Another myth we hear is that we can only forgive if someone asks to be forgiven. This faulty thinking is another lie from the enemy because we cannot possibly ask for forgiveness for every sin we’ve committed, now can we? There are sins that we commit that we don’t even know are sins, let alone have asked forgiveness about.
Despite what we think about Joseph and his apparent position of power and influence, he was still enslaved. He didn’t see his father in years; he took a pagan wife who bore him children who didn’t know about their family heritage, who were named in sorrow. He wept for this loss, he grieved and mourned. But the beautiful redemptive value in his circumstance is that he was able to tell his brothers to gather their families and come back to him in Egypt. He wanted them close to him. He demonstrated that he loved them and furthermore, forgave them.
Can we do the same? By grace of God, yes we can. Joseph understood the purpose of redemption, and we need to as well.
Post originally published on December 7, 2013