Forgiveness is rarely easy, and it’s always costly.
When Joseph saw his brothers again, after twenty years in Egypt, he felt the pain of their betrayal all over again. To those who knew him, it looked like he had transcended the dysfunction and jealousy of his family. He was no longer the cowering boy they had sold into slavery. He was a powerful leader, Pharaoh’s right-hand man, the one who controlled the nation’s food supply in the midst of a terrible famine. If you stood before Joseph, begging to buy grain, your very life was in his hands.
Mistreated little brothers all dream of the day when they’re strong enough to take revenge. Joseph’s brothers had it coming, and he was finally in a position to pay them back.
Joseph wept like a child when he remembered what they did to him, how they turned a deaf ear when he begged for his life. After twenty years, the pain was still raw. Over and over and over, Joseph wept, the grief of his terrible past driving him to anguish.
But he didn’t take revenge. Joseph chose to forgive, to write off their debt to him facwith the words, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.”
Make no mistake: what his brothers did was evil. Joseph understood, though, that God’s plan and God’s justice are perfect. Joseph forgave because he understood that God is good, even though his brothers were not. Joseph forgave because he knew that his brothers were never really in control. God was in control.
Forgiveness does not require that we call evil good. Forgiveness springs instead from the knowledge that God will enforce His justice in His timing. You and I don’t have to even the scales in our own favor, because God never takes His eyes off of the balances.
What forgiveness costs us is control. It costs us the right to enforce our own brand of justice, to try to ensure that we are paid back for what another person did to us. It costs us the pleasure of seeing the other person suffer as we have suffered.
Forgiveness, by the way, is at the heart of the good news that God forgave us through Jesus.* God forgave us, so we forgive others. Joseph may not have known the name of Jesus, but he knew His Father. Forgiveness reflected Joseph’s belief that every sin was ultimately perpetrated against God, and God would find a way to even things out. Some 1,700 years later, God’s way became clear in the death and resurrection of His son.
Forgiveness is rarely easy, and it’s always costly. Yet Joseph trusted God to pay the price.
In the midst of our pain, in the face of injustice, when our families or friends or co-workers or neighbors betray us, will we trust that God has paid the price for their forgiveness and for ours? In the midst of our weeping, can we forgive? Or will we perpetuate the cycle of revenge and anger, insisting upon control?
Joseph forgave because He knew His God. We can forgive because we know our Savior.
(*I’m indebted to my friend Celestin Musekura for the comment that “forgiveness is at the heart of the good news.” He uses similar language in his book Forgiving as We’ve Been Forgiven.)
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