Jesus, Joseph, and Forgiveness

“I forgive you.”

These three words may be the most difficult thing you’ll ever say to another human being.  But forgiving and letting go are essential steps if one is to truly follow Jesus and experience the abundant life He offers.

Jesus preached a radical message of forgiveness, instructing His listeners to turn the other cheek and pray for those who persecuted them (Matthew 5:38-48). Peter thought he was being generous with an offer to forgive seven times. But Jesus told him to forgive “seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:22), and made the point even more clear with the Parable of the Unforgiving Debtor. The message of the parable is clear: my debt to God dwarfs any transgression my fellow man has committed against me. Jesus didn’t just preach forgiveness—he demonstrated it on the cross when he asked his father to forgive those who were torturing him (Luke 23:34).

We know we should forgive. It honors God and it heals our souls. But our nature is to seek revenge, so forgiveness can only come through the supernatural grace and power of God.

Let me say a couple of things before I go any further.

1. Forgiveness and trust are not the same things: God does not require us to trust everyone, even those we have forgiven. Forgiveness should be freely offered, but trust must be earned.

2. Seeking legal justice is consistent with the Bible’s teachings (Romans 13:1-5). Laws have to be enforced in order to protect the innocent.

What I’ve said may help to clarify the issue, but it still doesn’t make it “easy.” How can we really forgive and let go?

I find one of the most profound, helpful lessons on this topic in the Old Testament: the story of Joseph.

Joseph was the favored son Jacob. He was treated preferentially and given a beautiful robe. The family tension came to a breaking point when Joseph spoke of his dreams—visions of his entire family bowing before him. His siblings, consumed with jealousy, plotted to kill him. Judah talked his brothers out of murder and convinced them to sell Joseph into slavery. The favorite son was stripped of his coat, his rights, and sent off to Egypt as a piece of property.

Joseph wound up in the house of Potiphar, and Egyptian officer. He found favor there, and was soon put in charge of the entire household. But there was a problem—Potiphar’s wife. She continually made sexual advances towards the young, handsome slave boy. Ironically, she accused him of rape after he refused to go along with her plan. An enraged Potiphar threw Joseph in prison.

Joseph continued to use his gifts in prison. He accurately interpreted the dreams of two fellow inmates. One of them was the Pharaoh’s cupbearer, a position of considerable political power.  The cupbearer was released from prison and restored, just as Joseph had promised. But he quickly forgot Joseph after returning to office.

Two years later, the Pharaoh himself was disturbed by a dream. He consulted with all his spiritual advisers, but none of them could help. His cupbearer finally remembered the young Hebrew who gave him hope. Pharaoh immediately ordered Joseph to be brought to him.

Joseph accurately interpreted the Pharaoh’s dream: there would be seven years of prosperity, followed by seven years of famine. He encouraged the Pharaoh to store as much food as possible in preparation for the coming shortage. Pharaoh was so impressed with Joseph’s counsel that he put him in charge of the entire nation. His power would be second only to Pharaoh himself. Joseph had been a favored son, a slave, a prisoner, and now one of the most powerful men in the world—all by age thirty.

The story doesn’t end there. The famine did come, but Joseph had prepared his adoptive nation.  Joseph’s family, however, was not so fortunate. They were starving, and reluctantly came to Egypt in hopes of buying grain. Joseph’s brothers approached him, but they no longer recognized him. They bowed before him with their face to the ground, unwittingly fulfilling the dream they so despised.

Joseph didn’t immediately reveal his identity. He used some clever (and amusing) tactics to ensure his brothers would return with Benjamin, his full brother (the others were half-siblings). Finally, after some terrifying moments for his siblings, Joseph revealed his true identity. The Pharaoh also heard of this and invited the entire family to come live under the protection of Egypt. Joseph was eventually reunited with his entire family, including his father.

The last chapter of Genesis records the death of Jacob. Joseph’s brothers were afraid he would finally take revenge once their father was gone. Once again they fell before him, this time begging for forgiveness. Joseph responded with this statement:

“You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people.” –Genesis 50:20

Think about all the people Joseph chose to forgive:

*His own brothers, who sold him into slavery.
*Potiphar’s wife, who falsely accused him of rape.
*Potiphar, who threw him into prison.
*The cupbearer, who forgot as soon as he was released from prison.

Joseph could have unleashed his rage on everyone who had harmed him. Remember—his power was second only to Pharaoh. Why didn’t he? Why did he choose to forgive?

I think Genesis 50:20 gives us part of the answer. Joseph knew that God was ultimately in control of his life. No human action could thwart what God had in store for him—regardless of the harm intended or the damage inflicted.

Embrace this truth and you, like Joseph, will learn to forgive.