I’m working on a teaching message about forgiveness. No principle for living an abundant life stacks up higher and better than forgiveness. It is the very heart and essence of my life’s testimony. But, friend, let me tell you what forgiveness is not.
Forgiveness is not romantic. My favorite “apostle of forgiveness” is our good biblical friend, Joseph. His brothers sold him into slavery at age 17. His life took a sharp downturn for the next 13 years: falsely accused of attempted rape, he was in prison until age 30. (Bear in mind this is before anyone was concerned about human rights violations in a prison.) It would be about another 10 years after that when Joseph would see his brothers come riding up to Egypt, desperate to buy food because they were already two years into a famine. Joseph fed them. He was kind to them. Then years later, when Joseph’s father died…
Genesis 50:15-21 (NIV): 15 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?” 16 So they sent word to Joseph, saying, “Your father left these instructions before he died: 17 ‘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.
18 His brothers then came and threw themselves down before him. “We are your slaves,” they said.
19 But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? 20 You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. 21 So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.
We don’t know why Joseph wept, but we can take a good guess. These boys are still lying. These brothers are still more concerned about themselves than they are about Joseph. Don’t be fooled by verse 18. That’s not an apology. Sometimes we expect the person who has wronged us to come and say it. We wait and we wait, and that day never comes. Where does that leave us?
Joseph forgave his brothers without first getting a forced apology. It’s not romantic, but it’s real.
Most of us have seen news footage of someone standing in a courtroom offering forgiveness to a convicted murderer. It makes the news because it’s jarring to our senses. We don’t naturally connect the dots between justice and forgiveness. No, we connect justice with punishment and accountability. This kind of forgiveness is gritty, so we want to see it in action. This is why it makes the news.
And what does it look like when a wife silently wakes up every morning to choose forgiveness again for the hundredth time, hoping today it will stick, for her husband’s past betrayal? Does it look romantic? Or, when the son, now all grown up, forgives the father he heard say, “I don’t want anything to do with that kid”, in a courtroom to abandon parental rights. Also, who does the young woman even talk to, to forgive the pedophile that stole her childhood and is long since in the grave? How about the black man who forgives the police officer after being pulled over yet again for no other reason but hatred, and who is now running late for his job interview?
When any one of these real-life human beings steps forward and chooses forgiveness, what it is not is romantic. Consider the words of Jesus, the crucified forgiver — (who purchased our freedom and forgave our sins, see Colossians 1:13-14 NLT)
Luke 23:33-34 (NIV) When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. 34 Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.
It is as if Luke wanted to make sure this costly forgiveness wasn’t painted with a romantic brush. Luke followed up Jesus’ words with a seemingly mundane statement about Jesus’ clothes. The sentence about Jesus’ clothes happens to fulfill prophesy, but what I’m pointing out is that the forgiveness Jesus offered as he hung on the cross wasn’t romanticized by Luke. Jesus said it, and others were busy seeing who would get his clothes.
But…if we want that abundant life we’re dreaming of, all the while steeped in hurt and suffering, we will need to roll up our sleeves and get gritty. At least you’ll know you won’t be in the trenches alone. Joseph, Jesus, and so many more of us will be right there with you.
Stay tuned…more to come on forgiveness. Do you have questions about forgiveness? Put them in the comments.