He had every right to be bitter. Life had been painful at every turn. Caught in a mess of family jealousy, he narrowly avoided being murdered by his own brothers as a teenager, only to have them steal his clothes and sell him as a slave. Alone and enslaved in a foreign land, his hard work was rewarded with greater responsibility – until his master’s wife began meddling. After rejecting her adulterous advances, he found himself imprisoned for crimes he never committed, condemned by the lies of the enraged mistress. He spent three years working for the prison guard and helping other prisoners, only to be forgotten by fellow convicts when they were restored to freedom.
Finally, things took a turn for the better. He was remembered, called out of the dungeon, and asked to interpret a dream for the ruler of the nation. When the ruler recognized the wisdom and capabilities of this humble man, the former slave and prisoner became second-in-command of an entire country. He had a family, power, freedom!
And then, amidst long-awaited prosperity, he was confronted by those whose actions had set the miserable events of his life in motion.
His brothers – murderous, thieving, jealous brothers – had come to him, begging for help…the very last thing they deserved.
Contrary to the phrase “forgive and forget,” forgiveness isn’t about forgetting. It isn’t about repressing old memories of hurt and betrayal or waiting until time has erased those memories for a relationship to be restored. Forgiveness is about making a conscious decision, not to erase the past, but to consider past feelings irrelevant to my response in the present and the future.
Forgiveness can be defined as clearing the record of those who have wronged me and not holding grudge – it sounds so simple compared to the reality of truly forgiving someone. Clearing someone’s record isn’t a quick, one-time matter, because the pain of the past doesn’t simply disappear, washed from memory as soon as forgiveness is granted one day. Every morning when I wake up, those memories will still be there, waiting for my daily decision. Will I forgive and choose not to let the past poison the present, or will I keep tallying up offenses, waiting for the right time to remind the offender of all those debts? And not holding a grudge means more than refusing to bring up past offenses. Forgiveness is choosing not to see the past as part of the offender’s identity, part of the relationship, or part of the identity of the offended. It is rejecting victimhood, rejecting even the terms “offender” and “offended.”
It is a gift of freedom, given to those who do not deserve it. Though often a costly gift, forgiveness is a powerful one, with the ability to release those in bondage to the past.
Joseph knew the difference between slavery and freedom. In a very real way, he understood the value of liberty and the oppression of imprisonment. And when it came time to choose between forgiveness and holding a grudge against his brothers, he knew what would set him free from bitterness and free from the burdens of the past.
He chose forgiveness and freedom. He would not be a slave again by letting the wrongs of the past control his future. He would give what was undeserved to the undeserving, and in doing so, open the door to righting the wrongs of the past.
If Joseph could forgive his brothers and welcome them into his life again, surely we can learn to forgive those who have harmed us and free ourselves from the past.