Any student of the Bible might wonder why the book of Genesis devotes more space to Joseph’s life than to Adam and Eve, the first couple, or to Noah, the hero of the ark and the flood, or to Abraham, father of the Jewish nation. I believe the answer is that Joseph illustrates one of life’s most important choices: the choice to forgive.
Think for a moment what would have happened if Joseph had not forgiven his brothers. Imagine that when his brothers came requesting grain, Joseph had answered, “You want food? Funny you should mention that. Just today I was thinking about how much I wanted food when you left me for dead in that stinking pit.”
Had Joseph held on to his desire for vengeance and allowed his brothers to starve to death, the lasting consequences would have reverberated throughout eternity. Instead, Joseph’s remarkable story not only ensured the development of the nation of Israel, from whom Jesus Christ would come to save the world, but also serves as an inspiration and illustration for how we’re to bestow true forgiveness upon others.
True Forgiveness Admits That Someone Has Wronged You
How often have you heard the following advice: “Stop playing the blame game. Instead of concentrating on what other people have done to you, focus on the wrongs you have committed”? Such counsel, while sounding pious, is actually lethal to the process of true forgiveness. You cannot forgive another person without first acknowledging that they’ve wronged you. Lewis Smedes writes: “We do not excuse the person we forgive; we blame the person we forgive.”
Joseph understood the importance of assigning blame to his brothers. In his confrontation with them he did not act like a Pollyanna by saying, “Now guys, I know you didn’t mean to sell me into slavery. You were probably just having a bad day. Let’s forget this ever happened.”
Nor does he acknowledge his own partial responsibility for his childhood conflict with them by saying, “Brothers, there’s enough blame to share among all of us. Let’s allow bygones to be bygones and try and start over.” Instead, Joseph is painfully direct: “You meant evil against me.” Joseph was saying in effect, “What you did to me was inexcusable. You and you alone are to blame for the years of unjust suffering I endured.”
Nor did such a statement reveal unresolved bitterness in his life. With his next words — “but God meant it for good” — Joseph showed that he was focused not on his brothers’ offenses, but on God’s sovereignty over the situation. Nevertheless, Joseph understood that we cannot forgive people we aren’t willing to blame.
In the same way, before you can forgive someone, you must first identify who and what you’re forgiving. You must admit (at least to yourself) that an injustice has occurred.
True Forgiveness Acknowledges That a Debt Exists
Wrongs create obligations. A traffic violation results in a fine. A guilty verdict results in a sentence. A broken curfew results in grounding. Sin results in eternal death. “For the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Usually we think of wages positively, but Paul uses the term negatively: Because of our sin we have “earned” eternal separation from God. Wrongs result in an indebtedness.
Joseph not only admitted that his brothers wronged him, but that they owed him for what they had done. When Joseph said, “do not be afraid” (Genesis 50:19), he was implying that they had every reason to be afraid! They deserved the death sentence for what they had done, and with a simple nod Joseph could have had them executed. Before either we or our offender can appreciate the freedom that comes from forgiveness, we must first understand the obligation that accrues from our offense.