As I read the story of Joseph dealing with his brothers, this is yet another time when I wish we could look into the mind of a character in the Bible. What was Joseph really thinking throughout this entire episode of arresting his brothers, threatening them, sending them away, putting their silver back in their bags, falsely accusing Benjamin of theft, and finally revelation?
Had Joseph completely dealt with his anger and bitterness toward his brothers by the time they first arrived in Egypt? Or was he still struggling with it all? Was he simply testing his brothers to see if they had changed? Or was he trying to take some measure of revenge, trying to make them suffer as he suffered?
I really don’t know. Sometimes I think he had completely forgiven them; sometimes I’m not so sure. But whatever his feelings throughout these chapters, I think there are some things we can learn about forgiveness.
First, forgiveness doesn’t mean ignoring what the other person did to you, or saying it never happened. Joseph says to his brothers quite clearly, “I am Joseph. You know. The one you sold into Egypt as a slave. I am the one that you wronged.” Sometimes people try to avoid feeling pain by refusing to acknowledge that they were hurt. But before the pain you feel can be dealt with, you have to acknowledge it, not ignore it. And things can never be made completely right with the person who hurt you, unless you are willing to admit, “You hurt me.” That’s what Joseph did.
Second, it’s saying to the other person, “You don’t owe anything to me anymore.” He told his brothers, “And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here.” Genesis 45:5
So often, we want people to be angry at themselves. We want people to feel guilty for what they’ve done to us. But here, Joseph says, “I’ve forgiven you. Don’t beat yourself up for what you’ve done to me. I’m certainly not.”
Third, it’s letting go of the past and embracing the future. Joseph didn’t dwell on how wrong his brothers were in selling him as a slave. Instead, he pointed out how God was able to turn their actions into something that would save their family. He said, “It was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.” Genesis 45:5-7
God has a plan for each and every one of us. And he wants to work in us and through us to touch lives. But unforgiveness is like a chain that binds us to our past. And as long as we are chained to our past, we can’t move forward into the future God has for us. So in order to move forward and find God’s blessing in our lives, we must let go of the past. One person put it this way, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”
But one thing that forgiveness does not mean is recklessly putting yourself in harm’s way. God calls us to forgive, whether the other person is sorry or not. As long as we don’t forgive, we’re a prisoner to our past, and we can’t move on into our future. But if the other person is not sorry, then they can be a danger to us, both physically and emotionally. Forgiveness doesn’t require repentance by the other person. But full restoration of a relationship does.
I believe that’s why Joseph treated his brothers the way he did. He wanted to see if they had really changed. And when he saw that they had, full restoration was possible. It’s very possible that if there had been no change, Joseph would never have revealed himself to them.
When someone hurts you, forgive. But unless they are truly sorry and are committed to change, you would be wise to be very cautious in your relationship with them. If you’re not, you’re just opening yourself up to being hurt again. Too many people get hurt, because they want to restore a relationship before there is repentance. As long as the other person doesn’t acknowledge that they’ve hurt you, as long as the other person refuses to acknowledge there needs to be some change in their behavior and are making serious efforts at change, you’re much better off keeping your distance from them. If that’s not possible, then at least don’t fool yourself into thinking that things will get better. Know what they are like, and prepare yourself in your heart for the kinds of things they’re capable of. At least that way, you’re not caught completely off guard when something happens, and you can prepare yourself emotionally.
But once again, repentant or not, we need to forgive. Not so much for the other person’s sake. But for ours.
Lord, sometimes it’s hard to forgive. We’ve been hurt so deeply and so often, that often times, we don’t know how to forgive. Lord, help us to let go of the past. Not ignore it. Not pretend like it never happened. But to let it go, so that we can embrace the future you have for us. Help us be wise in our relationships. Help us to know when to restore a relationship. And when to keep our distance. But do teach us in every situation we face how to forgive. In Jesus name, amen.