Forgiveness is never easy, so any story of forgiveness is an epic story, but there are some that capture our hearts and minds more than others.
The story of the members of Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston forgiving the shooter last year was an epic story of forgiveness.
The Amish forgiving the man who killed 5 little girls in Nickel Mines PA was an epic story of forgiveness.
Pope John Paul II forgiving the man who tried to kill him in 1981 was an epic story of forgiveness.
Corrie Ten Boom who forgave the Nazi prison guard who worked in the concentration camp where she was housed and where her sister died during WWII is an epic story of forgiveness.
What makes these stories so epic is that they are hard to believe. How do you forgive someone who killed a loved one? How do you forgive someone who was involved in the senseless killing of innocent children? How do you forgive someone who was part of one of the worst atrocities our world has known? How is this kind of forgiveness possible?
Today we are going to look some of the steps needed in any journey of forgiveness through the epic story of forgiveness seen in the life of Joseph. Joseph was the son of Jacob, who was the son of Isaac, who was the son of Abraham. In time Jacob came to be known by the name Israel and as we heard he had 12 sons who came to be known as the 12 tribes of Israel. Joseph was Jacob’s favorite son because he was the first son born to Rachel, which was the wife Jacob loved the most. As the favored son, Joseph got special treatment from his father and he was given a beautiful robe. Genesis 37:3-4.
To make matters worse, Joseph also had a dream where he saw himself placed in a position of power and authority over his entire family and instead of keeping this dream to himself, Joseph shared it with his brothers which made them even angrier. Joseph’s brothers finally had enough of him and set out to kill him but at the last minute decided to sell him to a group of Midianite merchants to be a slave. The brothers then went and told their father that Joseph had been killed by wild animals who tore apart his beautiful robe.
I can’t imagine that as Joseph was being led through the desert to Egypt he felt like forgiving his brothers. Forgiveness was not part of his thoughts as he began his life as a slave. In the midst of tragedy, betrayal and pain, forgiveness is not the first thought in anyone’s mind which means that forgiveness for most of us is a process. When we are hurt or taken advantage of, our initial feelings are usually outrage and anger and that’s ok. Those are very natural human emotions that we all have and it is normal to be feeling those things when we are hurt by others, but we can’t give in to those feelings and we can’t hold on to them because God calls us to forgive. Joseph moved on from his initial feelings, but it was not an easy journey.
Once Joseph arrived in Egypt he was sold to a man named Potiphar who was an official in Pharaoh’s court and Joseph did very well as a servant in his home. Everything Joseph did was successful and so eventually he was put over Potiphar’s entire household and he had complete authority. Joseph was also very handsome and so Potiphar’s wife made a play for him and when Joseph ran away, Potiphar’s wife accused Joseph of starting the whole thing. In anger, Potiphar had Joseph thrown into prison.
Can you imagine what Joseph must be thinking at this point? It’s happening all over again. Just like with his brothers, Joseph has been misunderstood and treated poorly and once again he has been cast down through no fault of his own. First he went from a favored son to a foreign slave and now he has gone from the top official in Potiphar’s house to being a lowly prisoner in Potiphar’s jail. How do you forgive in the face of this kind of injustice? Again, forgiveness was probably not the first thing on Joseph’s mind sitting in jail, but he also didn’t give in to anger and despair. Joseph didn’t spend time feeling sorry for himself and blame all his problems on others, he keeps his eyes and his heart on God.
Genesis 39:20b-23. So Joseph thrived in prison. He moved forward in his life. If Joseph had given into the bitterness he never would have been seen as someone who was responsible and if his heart and mind were set on revenge there would have been no room for God to bless him the way God did. So while forgiveness may not have been at the forefront of his mind, letting go of his anger and bitterness and dropping all thoughts of revenge was the first and necessary step Joseph needed to take in forgiveness. As long as we are holding on to the hurt that others have caused us there is no opportunity to reach out to take hold of the blessing God wants for us. As long as we are clutching to the pain of our past we cannot grab hold of the life God wants for our future so letting go of anger and bitterness and dropping our desire to get revenge has to be part of forgiveness.
In many ways, this can be good a first step because it doesn’t mean we have to come face to face with those who have harmed us and it doesn’t mean we have to move forward in a relationship with that person, we just don’t let what they have done to us in the past shape our future. Joseph doesn’t spend a lot of time whining about how his brothers betrayed him or how Potiphar’s wife had set him up – he simply moved forward with the opportunities God gave him. He doesn’t have to confront his brothers or work for Potiphar at this point, he just needs to let go of the past.
This is such an important part of forgiveness because it reminds us that the person most hurt by our unwillingness to forgive is not the person we are mad at or the person who has wronged us, but ourselves. As long as we are holding on to the past we are not able to move forward into the future and as long as we are allowing pain and hurt to fill our hearts and minds we cannot experience the peace and healing God wants for us. Joseph learned this as a slave and as a prisoner. Even though he suffered due to betrayal and false accusations, he let go of the past so he could move forward into God’s future for him
Now let’s jump ahead in the story. Joseph is set free from prison and is made an officer in Pharaoh’s court where once again he excels and soon becomes the second in command, Genesis 41:41-43. During the next 7 years there was a great abundance and Joseph wisely decided to store up grain for the future. After those 7 prosperous years came 7 years of drought and the entire region was in need, but there was plenty of food in Egypt because of Joseph’s wisdom and foresight.
One of the areas hit by the drought was the land of Canaan which was Joseph’s hometown and Joseph’s father, brothers and all in their families were in great need. When they heard that there was plenty of food in Egypt, the brothers went down to buy some, but what they didn’t know was that it was their brother, Joseph, who was in charge of food distribution.
So Joseph’s brothers come to Joseph to buy food and while they did not recognize him, they assume Joseph died as a slave years ago, Joseph immediately recognized them. Joseph didn’t let on that he knew who they were at first but he kept them in Egypt for several days and then made them return home and bring back their brother Benjamin who was Joseph’s only full brother. Joseph is making things hard for his brothers and through this time he might be struggling with what forgiveness looks like here, but what is clear is that his heart desires to forgive. In Genesis 42:24 it says, Joseph turned away from them and began to weep. Joseph wasn’t weeping due to anger or pain but from the joy at seeing his family again. Joseph’s heart had already forgiven his brothers and in time he tells them who he is and that he forgives them, Genesis 45:1-7.
So Joseph was able to forgive his brothers but it didn’t happen right away. Forgiveness came only after Joseph had been willing to let go of his bitterness and anger and it came after a period of time. For many of us, time is needed in order to let go of pain and find a measure of healing. Time is needed for us to work through our past and come to terms with our future. Time was needed for Joseph and it was part of what helped him to forgive. Another important part of forgiveness that we see in this story is that for there to be true reconciliation and the restoration of relationships, honest confession and repentance are needed.
Before Joseph revealed himself to his brothers there is a scene where the brothers are in distress and they are talking to one another and Joseph overhears them saying that what they are now experiencing was similar to what they put their brother through. One brother even says they were having to give an account for their actions against Joseph years before. What Joseph hears is that the brothers are owning up to their actions and confessing their sin. For there to be true reconciliation in relationships that comes with forgiveness there has to be real confession and forgiveness. Joseph’s brothers had to realize their sinful ways and Joseph had to let go of his anger. Only then could the door open up for an epic story of forgiveness.
Another important part of forgiveness that we see is that Joseph is honest about what his brothers did to him. Joseph says clearly, I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into slavery. Joseph doesn’t deny what happened and what his brothers did to him. Joseph doesn’t act as if it never happened, he is honest about the past but doesn’t hold the past against them. In fact, Joseph was able to see how God used the past to bring them all to this place in the present and to help all of them move together as a family into the future.
So in every epic story of forgiveness we see these important steps:
• letting go of bitterness
• time to heal
• confession and honesty
• offering of grace and mercy
• desire to move forward together
In all of our lives we are faced with opportunities to forgive. We will all be hurt or betrayed by those we love. We will all face some kind of injustice where we will be falsely accused or where people will misunderstand our motives and actions and in each of these situations we are given a choice. Will we hold on to anger or will we start a journey of forgiveness? While it’s ok to feel hurt and anger at the beginning, but we can’t stay there – we have to look to God and let go of the past. We don’t do this alone, however, we do this with God’s help. Throughout the story of Joseph is the unseen hand of God which leads and guides Joseph each step of the way.
It was God’s hand that saved Joseph from death at the very beginning by keeping his brothers from killing him. It was God’s hand that blessed Joseph’s work in Potiphar’s house and in prison and in the court of Pharaoh. It was God’s hand that guided the brothers to Egypt during the drought and it was God’s hand that brought the brothers face to face with Joseph. So God’s hand was part of this entire process of forgiveness and that’s because Joseph allowed God’s hand to be there. Joseph’s trust in God opened the door for him to forgive his brothers and that forgiveness brought salvation to the tribes of Israel.
The epic of story of forgiveness that we see here is also a foreshadowing of the epic story of forgiveness seen in Jesus. Think of all the ways these two stories parallel each other. Joseph was the favored son of Jacob and Jesus was the only begotten son of God. Joseph was betrayed by his brothers and Jesus was betrayed by Judas and then abandoned by the rest of the disciples, his brothers. Joseph let go of what his brothers did to him and from the cross Jesus looked at the crowds and said, Father forgive them for they know not what they do. Joseph’s epic story of forgiveness points to Jesus. Jesus doesn’t hold our sin against us. Jesus doesn’t hold onto any bitterness or anger but chooses to forgive and it is that forgiveness which brings us life in the midst of death. Joseph gave his family life in the middle of a severe 7 year drought that would have killed his family. In Genesis 50:20-21 Joseph said to his brothers…
Couldn’t those same words be said of Jesus? What the world intended for evil, to crucify the son of God, God intended for good, to accomplish what is now taking place which is the salvation of many lives. The story of Joseph forgiving his brothers not only teaches us how to forgive but it is a foreshadowing of God’s epic story of forgiveness seen in Jesus and any time we choose to forgive we are telling the story of God. Every time we let go of bitterness and anger we are telling the story of God. Every time we seek reconciliation and peace we are telling the story of God and every time we forgive others we are telling the epic story of forgiveness and that is a story that needs to be shared and experienced and told in our world today. May this be the story of our lives.
The Story of Joseph
1. What epic story of forgiveness has touched you heart and captured your imagination? What is it about that particular story that moves you and inspires you? How does it encourage you to forgive?
2. The story of Joseph covers 13 chapters in the book of Genesis. Read or review the story found in Genesis 37-50.
3. Track the process of forgiveness in the story of Joseph. Where do you see Joseph:
• Letting go of bitterness
• Finding time to heal
• Being honest
• Offering grace and mercy
• Having a desire to move forward
4. Where in your life do you need to offer forgiveness?
• Where are you in the process?
• What do you need to do to move to the next step?
5. In what ways has God’s forgiveness touched your life? Where is confession of sin still needed?
6. Share a story, scripture or picture on facebook that talks about forgiveness and use the hashtag #epicforgiveness.