- What should we do when prayer doesn’t make any immediate change in our circumstances?
- How does God relate to painful and confusing seasons of life?
- How should we relate to God in such times?
One man’s amazing story
After fifteen years of suffering and separation from his family because of the evil done to him by his brothers, Joseph, (now a ruler in Egypt), finally revealed himself to his brothers.
“Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, ‘Have everyone leave my presence!’ So there was no one with Joseph when he made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard him, and Pharaoh’s household heard about it. Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am Joseph! Is my father still living?’ But his brothers were not able to answer him, because they were terrified at his presence. Then Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come close to me.’ When they had done so, he said, ‘I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will not be plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. ‘So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God.'” (Genesis 45:1-8a).
These words reveal the strong and deep understanding that gave strength to Joseph through all his confusing and painful years.
By faith, Joseph embraced a commitment to the providential goodness of God over the evil intentions of people.
We see the same emphasis again after Jacob died.
“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?” So they sent word to Joseph, saying, “Your father left these instructions before he died: ‘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. His brothers then came and threw themselves down before him. “We are your slaves,” they said. But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them” (Genesis 50:15-21, emphasis mine).
Lessons on forgiveness
Joseph had forgiven his brothers long before they confessed their wrongs. Joseph forgave his brothers in the context of his relationship with God apart from his offenders. If he had not forgiven them, he would have allowed bitterness to poison his heart and destroy his effectiveness for God (cf. Hebrews 12:15). Joseph’s forgiveness was based on three truths:
1. God’s authority as the Judge
Joseph’s brothers were fearful that he would want retaliation for the wrong they had done to him. But Joseph said to them: “Do not be afraid, am I in the place of God?” Again, Romans 12:19 says, “Do not take revenge my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: It is mine to avenge; I will repay says the Lord.” (See also: Gen. 45). Those who forgive must relinquish their desire to play judge and executioner toward their offenders. They do this– not by inducing themselves into a state of moral neutrality about the wrong committed— but by releasing the wrongs (and the ones who did them) to the Judge of all the earth (Genesis 18:25).
2. God’s control of His life
Joseph said to his brothers, “You intended to harm me but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20). Here Joseph confessed that God (not his offenders) is Lord of his circumstances. His brothers were clearly responsible for their evil deeds (and he directly acknowledged this truth) but he recognized that God was sovereign over their evil actions (see Acts 2:22-24; 4:27-28). Life is lived between two intentions: You intended….God intended…. Joseph learned to trace the hand (and presence) of God through the painful twists of a life that seemed to be controlled by the intentions of others.
In Romans 8:28 we are reminded that, “….in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to His purpose.” Those who forgive must confess that God is Lord of their circumstances, not their offenders (Relate: Hebrews 12:7).
3. God’s forgiveness of our sins
An added motive for forgiveness emphasized explicitly in the New Testament is God’s forgiveness of our sins. “Forgive each other just as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). When offended, we must surrender attitudes of revenge in recognition of God’s authority, control and forgiveness of our sins. As with Joseph, all of this must take place in the context of our relationship with God. Forgiveness can occur apart from the confession and repentance of an offender. Reconciliation, however, must occur in the context of our relationship with our offender. But reconciliation will not begin apart from forgiveness.
Two urgent questions related to forgiveness
- Who has been in control? God? or My offender?
- Who will take control? God? or Me?
Yielding to God’s control
For many years, Joseph’s life seemed to be defined by the passions of others. It began with the misguided parental favoritism of his father. This fostered sibling jealousy and hatred which encouraged his brothers evil actions of selling Joseph as a slave. He later became the object of sexual lust, harassment and false accusation by the wife of the Captain of the Egyptian guard. This brought on life as a prisoner in Egypt. It is not easy to understand God’s control when evil people seem to be in charge and our lives are profoundly affected by their desires and actions. The Lord Jesus, our faithful and merciful High Priest, understands this by experience (see: Acts 2:22-23; 4:27-28).
When we yield to God’s sovereign control (Daniel 3:16-18; 4:34-35; Proverbs 3:11-12; Hebrews 12:5-7,11-12), it liberates us. It frees us to follow Jesus in radical kingdom obedience: “But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27-28).
We are free (like Joseph) under God from being poisoned with bitterness and consumed with revenge. We are also free from participating in the multiplication of evil.
We can choose to absorb the loss and return a blessing instead (see: I Peter 3:9).
If we choose to require restitution or other measures of accountability, we are free to do this without a vindictive or vengeful motive.
Most importantly, we are free to open the door to reconciliation with our offender.