Forgiveness is not just a New Testament idea. Joseph modeled God’s call for us to forgive in Genesis. Joseph suffered terribly at the hands of his own brothers, who sold him into slavery because they were jealous of him. He was taken to Egypt where he was imprisoned and mistreated.
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. Genesis 50:15-17.
Joseph could have insisted that his brothers pay for their wrongs against him. He certainly wielded sufficient power in Egypt to make this demand. Instead, he chose to forgive his brothers’ transgressions against him. He recognized that only God could determine the appropriate punishment, if any, for the sins of his brothers.
Forgiveness benefits both the one who forgives and the one who is forgiven. Paul explained God’s call to forgive to the church at Corinth:
If anyone has caused grief, he has not so much grieved me as he has grieved all of you, to some extent—not to put it too severely. The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient for him. Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him. 2 Corinthians 2:5-8.
Forgiveness protects us from the power of Satan to separate us from God and make us less productive as Christians. Paul went on to say to the Corinthian church, “If you forgive anyone, I also forgive him. And what I have forgiven—if there was anything to forgive—I have forgiven in the sight of Christ for your sake, in order that Satan might not outwit us. For we are not unaware of his schemes.” 2 Corinthians 2:10-11. Paul reiterates the idea that anger and lack of forgiveness give Satan power in our lives when he wrote to the Ephesian church: “In your anger do not sin: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.” Ephesians 4:26-27.
Years ago, I had a secular counselor tell me I had a right to be angry for harm that had been inflicted on me. For a long time I believed her, and I held on to my anger. I sought out this counselor for healing, but her advice did not result in healing, only more pain. Although I was a Christian, I felt far from God during this time and I was definitely not a witness of His love and mercy. It was only when God taught me that I needed to forgive that I was healed. I learned that when God tells us to do something, it is for our own good and is not meant as a constraint. I learned that my “anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.” James 1:20. I learned that although I might have a right to have the one who had harmed me pay for what he had done, I needed to forgive the transgression and trust God to work out the consequences.
Jesus never sinned against any of us. Yet he suffered terribly at the hands of the Jewish leaders and the Romans. He was beaten, mocked, spit upon, and crucified. He bore the sins of all of us and was separated, because of our sin, from His Father for this first time in His existence. He suffered more in that one day than any of us do in a lifetime, more than we are capable of comprehending. And what was His response? Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Rather than demand that we pay for what we have done, Jesus paid the price for us and pleaded that we be forgiven.
Jesus taught His disciples, and us, to pray “forgive us our sins, as we have forgiven those who sin against us.” Matthew 6:12. When others hurt us, let us remember these words. God has forgiven much. He has forgiven all our sins. In the same manner, let us always forgive both the small and large transgressions against us. In this way, we will remain close to God, be a witness of His love and mercy, and grant healing and comfort to others. I am thankful that God does not demand that we get what we deserve, but grants us forgiveness instead. May you always experience the love and forgiveness that God, through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ, has offered to you.