On October 2, 2006, Charles Roberts IV parked his pickup truck right in front of a one-room Amish schoolhouse in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. With gun in hand, he barged into the school and took ten young girls hostage. The standoff ticked by for 30 agonizing minutes. By the end, five young girls lay dead and another five lay critically injured.
Maybe you remember hearing about this school shooting; schools now lock their doors during operating hours because of it. Maybe you remember something almost more shocking than the shooting itself: the Amish community forgave the shooter. They consoled the shooter’s devastated father. They comforted his grieving wife and set up a fund for her family. They even attended the shooter’s funeral. A father of one of the victims even said: “[Roberts] had a mother and a wife and a soul and now he’s standing before a just God.”
Could you forgive something like that? It would be difficult, wouldn’t it? It’s difficult enough to forgive the driver who has cost you thousands of dollars in damage to your car because he was texting while driving. It’s difficult to pick up the phone and call your brother who accused you of being love-less. It’s difficult to even look at the teacher who disrespects your efforts in school. It can be difficult to let this debt against you go.
It leaves you wrestling with so many emotions. On the one hand you understand the need to forgive, but on the other hand the drive, the passion to forgive is missing— and you’re left with this seething, pent-up anger inside. You want to leave this prison of hatred, but how can you do so while still properly dealing with the wrong committed against you? How Can I Forgive?
How could Joseph ever forgive his brothers? He has eleven of them! And they unleashed horrors in his life! They alter the future of his life because they hate him. And Joseph has done nothing wrong! His father, Jacob, favors Joseph more than any other child. He hands him a fine coat crafted out of exotic colors and the finest of linens. He keeps Joseph home and out of the fields so that no harm comes to him.
And Joseph’s brothers watch this! Why doesn’t their father love them all the same? Why is Joseph treated differently? Because this treatment is not fair. They hate it. They hate him. They hate Joseph so much that they plot out ways to kill him— literally: kill him. Have you ever reached the point when all you daydream about are ways to kill your brother or sister or mom or dad? That you actually devise a plot to lure him out to a desolate location? That you craft an elaborate story of how a wild lion jumped out of the brush and ripped him to pieces? That you point to a dried out cistern as the perfect hiding place for the body? (37:18-20). The brothers do!
When their plan goes into motion and Joseph arrives at the desolate location, they don’t kill him. They do not kill him because there is no money in that. Instead, they sell him to a group of slave-traders for 20 shekels of silver. They place Joseph into a life of slavery for $252.72. How can you ever forgive someone who sells your personal freedom and any hope of a future for just a day’s wage?
That’s not all there is; it gets worse. Because his brothers sell him into slavery, Joseph becomes a slave for the supreme commander of the Egyptian army. Joseph does well; his owner respects him. Yet, when his master’s wife lies about Joseph’s seductive ways, he’s thrown into prison. He’s forgotten; no one remembers an innocent man remains locked up. His brothers are the reason he rots in jail. How can you ever forgive that? How can you ever put such hatred behind you? How can you ever talk to them, let alone look at them ever again?
Because that’s what happens. In our reading, Joseph finally stands in front of his brothers. He’s no longer a slave; he’s second-in-command over all of Egypt. Pharaoh had pardoned him and promoted him to the position of overseeing food distribution during a seven-year-long famine. The brothers now stand in front of him, begging for food. They do not recognize him, but he recognizes them.
This is it, right? This is where you get your revenge. Your adversary cowers in front of you and you hold their future in your hand! You can make their life more miserable than the pain they inflicted on you! That’s what feels fair! That feels right! And that’s what our hearts may wrestle with doing.
Make them slaves to you! The sibling who ripped into your reputation and your character— well, let her know you didn’t appreciate it. Hold a grudge! Stop calling her so she feels a hole in her life. Stop sending birthday cards so that she has a miserable day knowing that her sibling does not like her. Fasten her to the chains of guilt so that she must approach you first, bow down, weep and beg for your mercy and your favor! The one who costs you money, hold his guilt over his head! Don’t forgive him, but always mention the accident so that he feels compelled to sing his apologizes! That woman who hurt your family, well, give her the cold shoulder so that she realizes she cannot be friends with everyone. That she’s not as popular as she thinks she is. That you control her happiness.
That’s what makes sense, right? That’s what our heart can lunge at! When someone hurts you, get even— no, inflict worse pain on anyone who crosses you— because, after all, you did nothing for them to start treating you poorly. They hurt you first and you had to suffer. So, make them suffer longer, feel more miserable, and hurt even more. That feels right and fair. That feeling of revenge makes it difficult to forgive.
Even Joseph’s brothers expect revenge. They themselves admit it! “What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?” They make up a letter from dad saying: “I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.” They even try to punish themselves: “We are your slaves!” They know they deserve terrible punishment for their actions.
Joseph stands in front of them, the second-most powerful man in the ancient world. Fingers lifting off his headdress. Index finger and thumb sliding off his signet ring. Chin rising so that his eyes look down at his brothers. This is it; this is where you get even. He opens his mouth, sighs, and announces: “Don’t be afraid. I forgive you.”
How do you forgive something like that so quickly? He lost years because he was a slave! He is kept away from his family! He lives in another land! Yet, no grudge! No resentment! No anger! Just ““Don’t be afraid. I forgive you.” How Can I Forgive like that?
Well, look at the words of Joseph. In verse 19 he says: Am I in the place of God? Joseph puts the motivation of our forgiveness into its proper perspective. If forgiveness is tied to what you feel is fair, then God should treat you fairly. That means, there is no reason for God to forgive the broken promises to be a more patient person. There is no reason for God to look past the times we locked his Word away so that it could not reach our ears, mind, and hearts. There is no reason for God to cancel out the many times we hated hearing his promises that we trusted in our own efforts and decisions. God would have every right to lock us up as eternal slaves in hell! That is what disobedience deserves. That would be fair.
Yet, God, in mercy, cancels out our incredible debt. He allows his Son to suffer because evil men lied about his reputation. He allows his Son to be imprisoned to the cross because the Jewish nation hates him, the non-Jews reject his authority, and his disciples are too afraid to stand up for him. God forgets his Son on the cross, leaving him to cry out alone. God sends Jesus to pay your debt of millions owed him. God sends Jesus so that you are set free from hell’s bondage, set free from guilt, set free for eternal life!
This is where forgiveness starts. How Can I Forgive? Do not start by looking at the person who hurt you. Start by looking at the God you and I hurt first. God would have every right to damn us to hell, but in mercy, he forgives. The first thing he says on Easter Sunday is: Peace be with you! Do not fear divine revenge. Do not be afraid that God will remember your wrongs and hold them against you. Live in the peace of knowing that God has taken your sins and has removed them from you as far as the east is from the west! See how much God has cancelled out! See that you stand before him a debt-free servant!
You have been forgiven eternal death. Be compelled to forgive those whose actions against you do not result in you damning them to hell. To “forgive” means releasing someone from a personal grudge. The picture behind “forgiveness” is that of “lifting up and carrying away.” When Joseph reads the letter: “Forgive your brothers…” he is asked to lift up the baggage of hurt feelings, take them away, and leave resentment and bitterness behind. If you forgive someone, it means you do not seek revenge; you are not fighting to get even or to make someone’s life miserable for the sake of making their life miserable. If you forgive, you are announcing that person is set free from owing you repayment.
So, does that mean you should shrug off and not pursue justice against those who wrong you? No, it doesn’t. Sin has consequences. Consequences may result in punishment. A change in that person’s life may come as a result of their actions. The son who takes advantage of your generosity may have to go without. No, not because you want him to become homeless and beg for food; rather, he you are teaching him how to better manage his money. The friend who lies, may lose your trust. It is not that you treat them poorly. Rather, the result of their lies means that you cannot expect him to be completely honest with you. The one who commits a crime, you forgive—meaning that you will not repeat that crime against them. You are announcing that they do not need to fear your wrath and anger. Yet, their actions may result in them repaying with time behind jail or restitution. How Can I Forgive? Announce that you hold no ill will against that person.
Maybe you still feel angry. Maybe you really don’t want to see the person who wronged you—yet. What do you do? You pray. You pray because forgiveness is not a natural feeling. What is natural is to feel revenge and to get even with those who harm you. The power to forgive others may not come overnight. So, pray, ask God to put words in your mouth, patience in your heart, and kindness in your life. Even our Prayer of the Day addresses the need to pray over this. Lord, let your mercy and grace always lead us, let it motivate us in life and let it be our closing words. Let us show your mercy; let us reflect your undeserved love to others. And so we pray, “Father, forgive us our trespasses and move us to forgive those who trespass against us.
It can be difficult to forgive. It’s difficult to forgive someone who has wreaked such havoc in your life. Yet, before anger takes a foothold in your heart, remember the havoc God has removed from your personal account. God, in mercy, releases you from an eternal prison in hell. He restores to you the rights of children! Set free from sin, you are motivated to forgive others. Set free from sin, you ask for the ongoing strength to forgive. Look to your Savior and find strength in How You Can Forgive.
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