“When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, ‘It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil that we did to him.’ So they sent a message to Joseph, saying, ‘Your father gave this command before he died, “Say to Joseph, Please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.” And now, please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.’ Joseph wept when they spoke to him. His brothers also came and fell down before him and said, ‘Behold, we are your servants.’ But Joseph said to them, ‘Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.’ Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.” – Genesis 50:12-21
Often people wonder how in the world they can possibly forgive someone who has injured them so deeply. Whether it was a parent (or parents), a boyfriend, a rapist, a boss, a spouse, or a murderer who took away their child’s’ life, how can we forgive from the heart and it not be a forced thing that we know we’re supposed to do? How can forgiveness just come naturally as a way you operate when offended?
Joseph got it. This passage makes clear he did. He had no qualms forgiving his brothers. In fact, he was glad to do so, and instead even comforted the offenders! This is so counter to the way our radically sinful natures react many times though. We want to get back, get revenge, seek justice upon those who have caused us so much grief. Instead, Joseph gives up any revenge and instead comforts his brothers. How is such a thing possible, in light of a parent who may have deserted you? Or neglected you? A spouse who left you? A wicked boss who caused you so much grief and fired you?
I believe the key is in Genesis 50:19, when Joseph says to his brothers, “‘Do not fear, for am I in the place of God?'” Joseph understood the justice of God, that he himself deserved punishment by his hand and had instead received pure grace. In fact, Joseph even goes so far as to say that though his brothers “meant evil against [him], God meant it for good.” (Genesis 50:20) Joseph knew that God owed him nothing, that he was owed God’s judgment and deserved punishment. He knew it was an absolute wonder that he was not judged but instead found mercy at God’s hands.
And even moreso, what seemed like desperate, hopeless situations in Joseph’s life were actually mercies of God, for Joseph personally and for his brothers and their descendants. This is hard for us to comprehend and accept. This is not just “positive thinking” as our culture sets forth. Something has struck Joseph so deep, to the core of his being, that he can’t help but forgive and comfort his brothers and know that what they meant for evil, God meant (that is sovereignly purposed) for good. God was involved (without sinning) in his brothers actions. And He meant it for good.
Until you understand in your heart that you are a sinner who has offended God so deeply that He must punish you when you die, that you deserve nothing but wrath for the way you have treated Him and His laws, and that in Christ you will be forgiven of all wrongs by placing faith in His work for you, you cannot forgive like this. It is impossible really. Of course, Joseph did not have the full expression of the Gospel. Yet he had clearly experienced and found the favor and mercy of God, that would ultimately be fulfilled in the Person and Work of Christ to save him. In fact, this very story of Joseph forgiving his brothers itself is a pointer to the forgiveness of Christ in the future of God’s overarching plan of redemption. Joseph forgiving his brothers is such a clear picture of Christ forgiving His brothers, that is, all who have rested in Him and His work, before Christ came and after.
For me to hold out Joseph as an example of “how to forgive” simply does nothing for you, for the forgiveness he had experienced, that caused him to naturally forgive in this manner, was a divine, supernatural forgiveness. It was a forgiveness bestowed upon him by Another, the only forgiveness that matters. It was the pure, unhindered, free grace of God, ultimately provided for in the cross and resurrection of Christ. In Joseph’s heart, a radical change had taken place so great that he naturally responded, “How can I possibly take the place of God? Who am I? I’m a sinner too and have yet received the mercy of God! How can I not forgive all of you?”
A radical grace had broken into his life so powerful that the natural effect was a radical forgiveness toward his brothers. And on top of that, he clearly saw that the hand of God was in it the whole time. Pray that the Lord grants you this divine forgiveness through faith in the Gospel. And if He already has, pray He shows it to you in deeper and greater ways, that the default response of your heart would be more and more Christ-like, instead of how the world naturally responds when offended, all to the glory of God.