1 Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone leave my presence!” So there was no one with Joseph when he made himself known to his brothers. 2 And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard him, and Pharaoh’s household heard about it.
3 Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph! Is my father still living?” But his brothers were not able to answer him, because they were terrified at his presence.
4 Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come close to me.” When they had done so, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! 5 And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. 6 For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will not be plowing and reaping. 7 But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. 8 So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God. He made me father to Pharaoh, lord of his entire household and ruler of all Egypt. 9 Now hurry back to my father and say to him, ‘This is what your son Joseph says: God has made me lord of all Egypt. Come down to me; don’t delay. 10 You shall live in the region of Goshen and be near me - you, your children and grandchildren, your flocks and herds, and all you have. 11 I will provide for you there, because five years of famine are still to come. Otherwise you and your household and all who belong to you will become destitute.’”
12 Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. 15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. 17 And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.
There is no doubt that one of the most crippling obstacles that threatens our relationships with other human beings is the inability to forgive another person. “I can’t get this out of my mind. It haunts me. It keeps me awake at night. I know I need to forgive him (or her), but I just can’t!”
So many of us carry burdens of resentment and unforgiveness in our hearts for decades, and the bitterness that goes with unforgiveness can begin to define the people we are as we allow these things to continue to haunt us.
Is forgiveness easy? No, never. But this does not excuse us from the obligation we have as Christians to forgive each other.
Joseph’s story and his struggle to forgive his brothers for selling him into slavery is one of the best Old Testament examples of forgiveness.
He struggled to forgive, and who can blame him? We know his story well, and when we pick up the account of Joseph in Genesis 45, it is more than 20 years after his brothers sold him. God had guided and protected Joseph in Egypt, and he was now the second most powerful man in the land. His father Jacob had heard there was food available in Egypt, and he sends his sons there to buy food.
A detail we easily forget is that Joseph was a powerful man, and if he had wanted to, he could have travelled to his homeland to visit his family. It was a journey that would have taken no more than a few days, but he hadn’t done so. In fact, when he finally revealed himself to his brothers, his first question to them was to ask if Jacob was still alive. It’s an odd question really, because if you think about it, he could easily have found out. He had the authority to send people wherever he wanted, so finding out whether his father was alive or not was a simple task. But he didn’t.
Why is that? Because he thought he had been abandoned by his father and the rest of his family. In those days names meant something, and he named his first son Manasseh, which means “forget.” Genesis 41:51 says, “Joseph named his firstborn Manasseh and said, ‘It is because God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father’s household.’” The past was too painful for Joseph, and he’d made a new life for himself in Egypt. God had blessed him, and he was grateful for that, but he wanted to get on with his life and forget the past.
It is obvious how hurt Joseph was and why it would have been so difficult for him to forgive his brothers and the rest of his family.
When the brothers reached Egypt, they were told they had to take their request to an Egyptian official, an important man second in authority only to Pharaoh. Of course, they had no idea just who this man was. When Joseph’s brothers came into his presence, they didn’t recognise him, partly because he was dressed as an Egyptian, but it had also been more twenty years since they’d had seen Joseph, and as chapter 42:13 tells us, they assumed he had died long before from mistreatment as a slave. All they saw was an imposing figure, an Egyptian ruler, sitting on a throne and speaking through an interpreter. The possibility of this being Joseph just didn’t occur to them.
But Joseph knew exactly who these men were. And we can only imagine the flood of emotions that must have been going around in his head as he looked at these people, his own brothers, who were the reason for so much suffering and torment. They had hated him and treated him so cruelly, so it is no wonder that Joseph spoke to them so harshly at their first meeting, accusing them of being spies.
We can also imagine the burden of guilt these brothers had carried for so long. They would have sworn each other to secrecy, and they had lived a lie for more than twenty years. There may well have been an unwritten agreement between them to not even speak about Joseph to each other, but can you imagine how awkward it must have been when it was just them together, all aware of the elephant in the room, but not daring to raise the subject of what they’d done?
They’d had twenty years to reflect on what they’d done. No doubt they had tried to forget, but they couldn’t. For twenty years they had seen the sorrow etched in their father’s face, and those twenty years had changed them. They were no longer saying, “Here comes this dreamer,” but now their guilt haunted them. They had no idea that Joseph knew exactly what they were saying in 42:21 – “Surely we are being punished because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that’s why this distress has come upon us.”
We’re also told that Joseph was deeply moved. I think it’s fair to say that’s a bit of an understatement. How would you feel if you were Joseph? So he left the room and overcome with emotion, he wept. Forgiveness for Joseph did not come easily, but to his great credit he forgave.
Interestingly enough, the words “forgive” and “forgiveness” are not mentioned here, but the final chapter of Genesis ties it all up for us when their father Jacob died, reading from verse 15 in chapter 50: “When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, ‘What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?’ So they sent word to Joseph, saying, ‘Your father left these instructions before he died: ‘This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.’ When their message came to him, Joseph wept. His brothers then came and threw themselves down before him. ‘We are your slaves,’ they said. But Joseph said to them, ‘Don't be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.’ And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.” Amazing.
The brothers found it difficult to believe that Joseph could ever forgive them, but with the help of God, Joseph had done just that.
Joseph forgave his brothers, and God expects us to forgive others.
The Bible contains many passages on forgiveness, simply because it is so important. Ephesians 4:32, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” Matthew 6:14-15, “If you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” Mark 11:25, “If you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.” And there are many others.
So it is obvious that God wants us to forgive others, but just what is human forgiveness? It might help if we first look at some things that forgiveness is not. Some are reluctant to forgive because they just don’t understand what it means. “If I forgive him, it will mean that he has won.” Forgiveness is not about winning or losing. Forgiveness is also not necessarily admitting that the other person was right. Forgiveness is not a condoning of sin either.
If I do something to you or say something that hurts you, and you choose to forgive me, the main beneficiary of your forgiveness is yourself. This principle gives us a glimpse of what forgiveness between human beings is really all about.
True forgiveness is about ridding your own heart of hatred, bitterness, and hostility. Sometimes discussions on forgiveness become bogged down with the issue of whether or not we can forgive until the person who has wronged us repents. This makes forgiveness conditional, which is not really forgiveness.
The photo on the bulletin today is a wonderful picture of what forgiveness brings. The chains in that picture illustrates perfectly what unforgiveness can do to us. When we harbour resentment and bitterness, we put ourselves in bondage, rather than the other way round. If I refuse to forgive you for something you’ve done to me, I’m the one who really suffers! Choosing to forgive is a means of loosing ourselves from the chains of the past and ridding our hearts of bitterness.
But how do we forgive? It’s very easy for me to stand here and quote chapter and verse and say you must forgive because the Bible says so, but we’re dealing with some deep emotional issues here. Given the choice I think we’d all like forgiveness to be as easy as flicking a switch, but life just doesn’t work that way. Forgiving is hard, and sometimes we just think it’s impossible.
So how do we forgive?
A good place to start is by remembering how much God has forgiven us. Does everyone who has ever hurt you deserve your forgiveness? Probably not. Do you deserve God’s forgiveness? Definitely not.
But God has chosen, through the sacrifice of His own Son, to offer us complete and unconditional forgiveness. And He expects us to do the same, but again as we all know, this sounds a lot easier than it really is. What we need to remember though, is that we have the Spirit of God within us. Added to that is the amazing statement that Paul makes in 1 Corinthians 2:16, “We have the mind of Christ.” And what does 1 John 4:8 tell us? “God is love.”
God, by His Holy Spirit lives within us, and we have the mind of Christ and God is love. Do you see what this means for us? “For God so loved the world.”
How do we forgive? By learning to love. Christian love is one of the keys to learning to forgive as God has forgiven us.
In speaking about Christian love, 1 Corinthians 13:5 says that love, among its other traits, “keeps no record of wrongs.” The Message translation says love “doesn’t keep score of the sins of others.” One Christian psychologist says that some people who choose not to forgive are like scorekeepers, always concerned about who’s ahead and who’s losing.
Hatred can be so self-destructive. In extreme cases you hear of people refusing to speak to each other for the rest of their lives. Imagine taking so much hatred to the grave…
The American pastor Harry Fosdick said, “Hating people is like burning down your
own house to get rid of a rat.”
But the way to get rid of hatred is to learn to love. Just as forgiveness is a choice, so is the choice to love. Love is not a feeling, and nor is forgiveness a feeling or is it an emotion. It is a conscious choice of the mind and the heart.
It may help to understand that true forgiveness is a gradual process. It would be easy if it was as simple as flicking a switch, but it takes work and it takes time to restore a relationship. Psychologists call this emotional forgiveness. It takes time to remove hatred and bitterness from the heart and to replace negative emotions with compassion and love.
There is a statement we often hear when we talk about forgiveness: “Forgive and forget.” People often say that the two belong together, and that we should forget as well as forgive, but God did not create us that way. We can’t just decide to forget bad things that have happened to us and simply wipe them from our memories. Joseph tried it, but the moment he saw his brothers all the pain and hurt came flooding back.
I found a wonderful story about Corrie Ten Boom where the process of forgiveness is so well illustrated, and will help us to understand the difference between forgive and forget. She told a story of not being able to forget a wrong that had been done to her. She had forgiven the person, but she kept replaying the incident over and over in her mind and she couldn’t sleep properly. Finally, she cried out to God for help. This is what she wrote: “His help came in the form of a kindly Lutheran pastor, to whom I confessed my failure after two sleepless weeks. ‘Up in that church tower,’ he said, ‘is a bell which is rung by pulling on a rope. But you know what? After the sexton lets go of the rope, the bell keeps on swinging. First ding, then dong. Slower and slower until there’s a final dong and it stops. I believe the same thing is true of forgiveness. When we forgive, we take our hand off the rope. But if we’ve been tugging at our grievances for long enough, we shouldn’t be surprised if the old angry thoughts remain for a while. They’re just the ding-dongs of the old bell slowing down.’ And so it proved to be. There were a few more midnight reverberations, the occasional dings and dongs when the subject came up in my conversations. But the force, which was my hand tugging on the rope, had gone. They came less and less often and at last they stopped altogether. And so I discovered another secret of forgiveness: we can trust God not only with our emotions, but also with our thoughts.”
What we can do is make the decision to forgive and then ask God to heal our hearts over a period of time. It’s been said that forgiveness is complete when you can recall a past mistreatment without pain. For some of us, reaching that point may take a lifetime, but remember that with God, nothing is impossible.
Again, forgiveness is not easy, but that does not mean it is impossible, and it certainly does not mean we should not try. The Bible is clear that we need to consciously forgive each other. And when we do, and that bell finally begins slowing down, we often find to our amazement that the main beneficiary of our decision to forgive is ourselves.
Joseph’s forgiveness of his brothers brought about reconciliation. Your forgiveness of another may or may not bring about reconciliation. The person you need to forgive may no longer be alive, but why would you want to continue dragging the chains of bitterness and anger around? Let go of the rope, and stop swinging that bell. The reason you need to forgive is not for that person’s benefit, but for your own. And also because Jesus has commanded you to let go and let God. It is important that you forgive for the sake of your own heart and soul.
Ask God to help you look into your own heart. What animosity or even hatred is there? Are you holding a grudge? Is there someone you need to forgive? If there is, I pray that you will make a decision to forgive that person and then ask God to help you heal…
Homegroup Study Notes
Read Colossians 3:12-17
Why do you think it is so difficult for us to forgive others?
If you feel able, share with your group how a burden of unforgiveness towards another person has affected you in the past.
Have you been able to forgive?
How has this forgiveness (or unforgiveness) changed your life?
We often hear the saying “forgive and forget”, but as we’ve all experienced, it is virtually impossible to completely forget a hurtful incident from the past.
What are the differences between forgiving and forgetting?
How do we guard against past hurts that we have forgiven from turning into hatred and unforgiveness once more?
Colossians 3:13 says we are to “forgive as the Lord forgave you.”
How are we to use God’s forgiveness shown to us as a motive and example to forgive others?
Apart from merely agreeing that forgiveness is a good idea, what steps will you take this week to forgive someone (whether they are still alive or not) who has hurt you in the past?
Close by praying that the Lord would teach us how to love and how to forgive.