Any student of the Bible might wonder why the book of Genesis devotes more space to Joseph’s life than to Adam and Eve, the first couple, or to Noah, the hero of the ark and the flood, or to Abraham, father of the Jewish nation. I believe the answer is that Joseph illustrates one of life’s most important choices: the choice to forgive.
Think for a moment what would have happened if Joseph had not forgiven his brothers. Imagine that when his brothers came requesting grain, Joseph had answered, “You want food? Funny you should mention that. Just today I was thinking about how much I wanted food when you left me for dead in that stinking pit.”
Had Joseph held on to his desire for vengeance and allowed his brothers to starve to death, the lasting consequences would have reverberated throughout eternity. Instead, Joseph’s remarkable story not only ensured the development of the nation of Israel, from whom Jesus Christ would come to save the world, but also serves as an inspiration and illustration for how we’re to bestow true forgiveness upon others.
True Forgiveness Admits That Someone Has Wronged You
How often have you heard the following advice: “Stop playing the blame game. Instead of concentrating on what other people have done to you, focus on the wrongs you have committed”? Such counsel, while sounding pious, is actually lethal to the process of true forgiveness. You cannot forgive another person without first acknowledging that they’ve wronged you. Lewis Smedes writes: “We do not excuse the person we forgive; we blame the person we forgive.”
Joseph understood the importance of assigning blame to his brothers. In his confrontation with them he did not act like a Pollyanna by saying, “Now guys, I know you didn’t mean to sell me into slavery. You were probably just having a bad day. Let’s forget this ever happened.”
Nor does he acknowledge his own partial responsibility for his childhood conflict with them by saying, “Brothers, there’s enough blame to share among all of us. Let’s allow bygones to be bygones and try and start over.” Instead, Joseph is painfully direct: “You meant evil against me.” Joseph was saying in effect, “What you did to me was inexcusable. You and you alone are to blame for the years of unjust suffering I endured.”
Nor did such a statement reveal unresolved bitterness in his life. With his next words — “but God meant it for good” — Joseph showed that he was focused not on his brothers’ offenses, but on God’s sovereignty over the situation. Nevertheless, Joseph understood that we cannot forgive people we aren’t willing to blame.
In the same way, before you can forgive someone, you must first identify who and what you’re forgiving. You must admit (at least to yourself) that an injustice has occurred.
True Forgiveness Acknowledges That a Debt Exists
Wrongs create obligations. A traffic violation results in a fine. A guilty verdict results in a sentence. A broken curfew results in grounding. Sin results in eternal death. “For the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Usually we think of wages positively, but Paul uses the term negatively: Because of our sin we have “earned” eternal separation from God. Wrongs result in an indebtedness.
Joseph not only admitted that his brothers wronged him, but that they owed him for what they had done. When Joseph said, “do not be afraid” (Genesis 50:19), he was implying that they had every reason to be afraid! They deserved the death sentence for what they had done, and with a simple nod Joseph could have had them executed. Before either we or our offender can appreciate the freedom that comes from forgiveness, we must first understand the obligation that accrues from our offense.
Yesterday morning I was in a hurry to get to work and was doing about 70 miles per hour when I sailed past a patrolman. I’m not sure he noticed me. Or perhaps he did notice me and even recognized me and decided that it was “Be Nice to a Speeding Pastor Day” and let me off the hook.
But suppose the patrolman had turned on his lights and siren and stopped me. He would have reminded me of the speed limit for that stretch of road, then informed me to what degree I had violated that, as well as the penalty for such a violation. He might then have continued, “Although I should throw the book at you, I’m going to let you go this time. However, if I ever catch you speeding again …” But before “forgiving” me of my violation and deserved penalty, he would still have made it clear what that violation and penalty were.
Before we can properly forgive another person, we must accurately access what he or she owes us.
When you think of the word forgive, does someone’s name immediately come to your mind? In addition to identifying exactly what that person had done to you, I encourage you to calculate the debt he or she owes you for that wrong. Be severe as you think you need to be.
“Because of your affair, I should divorce you.”
“Because of your negligence, I should sue you.”
“Because of your actions, I should prosecute you.”
Remember, offenses always create obligations.
True Forgiveness Releases our Offender of His or Her Obligation
Only after we’ve identified the offense committed and calculated the debt owed can we truly forgive the other person. Remember that the word “forgive” means to release another person of his obligation toward us, as Joseph did. Instead of giving his brothers the death sentence they most certainly deserved, he formally released them from their debt by giving them a new land that they did not deserve:
“And you shall live in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children and your flocks and your herds and all that you have (Genesis 45:10).
In the same way, there needs to be a specific time when you formally release your offender of his obligation toward you. Whether or not you choose to voice your forgiveness to your offender, you can express it to God. Visualize in your mind the person who has wronged you. Admit to God that you’ve been hurt — deeply hurt — by what he or she had done to you. Calculate what that person owes you for the offense: money, separation, divorce, jail, or maybe death. Finally, let me encourage you to pray something like this: “What ______ did to me was wrong, and he should pay for what he did. But today I’m releasing him of his obligation to me. Not because he deserves it, or has even asked for my forgiveness, but because You, God, have released me from the debt I owe You.”
Adapted from When Forgiveness Doesn’t Make Sense © Robert Jeffress (Waterbrook Press)
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