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Lesson 7: A Disease Called Unforgiveness

When I asked Christine how she felt about her parents, her attractive face seemed to lose all expression. She reflected for a moment, then matter-of-factly stated, "I get along fine with my parents. I just haven't seen them in a while. Why?"

I studied her, noticing that her large, blue eyes weren't looking into mine. They were fixed, instead, upon her slender fingers.

Christine had already told me that her father and mother had been rather cruel to her during her childhood. They had locked her in a closet when she didn't please them and had slapped her across the face repeatedly if she questioned their authority. Unfortunately, they were very active in their church and felt that they were disciplining her in a godly way. "If I break your will," her father had once told her, "then God won't have to."

Christine had moved out of the house at sixteen and had quickly created a life of her own. For many years, she'd wanted nothing to do with her father, mother, or their religion. More recently, however, her personal failures had reminded her that she needed a Savior. Grateful to learn that He wasn't the terrible God of her childhood, she had trusted Christ.

In response to her "Why?" question, I explained, "Well, you say you've got a short fuse and that you lose your temper more often than you'd like to. I was just wondering if you're still angry with your parents."

"My parents did the best they could," she answered coolly. "They thought strictness was the biblical way to bring me up. They never meant to hurt me."

"I don't agree," I explained. "I don't think they did the best they could do. Child abuse is sin, and they sinned against you."

"Well, I'm supposed to forgive them, right? So that's my way of forgiving them—I'm willing to say they did the best they could. And I just avoid seeing them as much as possible."

"That's not forgiveness, Christine. Forgiveness is acknowledging everything they did to you. You need to face the fact that they treated you very, very badly. Then, with God's help, you can forgive them for the worst things they ever did. Watering it all down and then walking away from it is not forgiveness."

Christine and I discussed at length the cold, hard facts about her childhood. She prayed that God would forgive her parents for several specific incidents when they deeply wounded her physically, emotionally, and spiritually. In the months to come, Christine found that her unwelcome rage and short temper were diminishing. Through improved communication and honesty, she was eventually able to establish a comfortable adult relationship with both her father and her mother.

Forgiveness—A Challenging Requirement

"To err is human, to forgive, divine." When Alexander Pope wrote those immortal words, he stated a truth that still resonates in our own hearts. Forgiving others seems to be one of the hardest things some of us ever have to do. Why?

At times it is difficult to face the wrongs that have been done to us. Like Christine, we deny, even to ourselves, the severity of our wounds.

In other cases, we are well aware of the hurts we've experienced, and we believe the offender should suffer some consequences for what he or she did. If we forgive, it seems we're letting the culprit off too easily. We don't want to encourage repeated offenses.

Then there's the element of trust. Our trust is eroded with each hurtful incident. Isn't it wise simply to write the person off or to avoid him or her as much as possible? That way we can protect ourselves from the possibility of further pain.

Like Christine, you may carry the memory of offenses that date all the way back to your childhood years. Your parents may have rejected you or abused you. Perhaps your mother preferred your sister because she was attractive and you were not. Or maybe your father made it his habit to hit you first and ask questions later.

You might be in a marriage that requires you to forgive almost daily, even though all feelings of love and warmth have disappeared.

And let's not forget the injustices you may have experienced in the workplace—passed over for a position just because you are a woman or because you wouldn't go to bed with the boss.

Life offers us plenty of opportunities to feel unforgiving. The trouble is, lack of forgiveness does more damage to us than to the offender. When we don't forgive, we grow hardened, untrusting, sour, and bitter. We become vengeful. We want the person who wronged us to suffer. Those negative feelings war against the love and compassion that should characterize us as Christians, and we hinder our own spiritual growth.

God knows how difficult forgiving is for us to do. And His Word records—in great detail—the life of a man who had more to forgive than almost anyone. We learn valuable lessons about forgiveness from Joseph, whose story is told in the book of Genesis.

Israel's Favorite Son

Joseph was not to blame for his misfortunes. Jacob, his father, provoked Joseph's abuse through his open favoritism. Joseph was Jacob's favorite child because he was the son of Rachel, the wife Jacob loved the most dearly. And Joseph's ten half-brothers were well aware of it. You'd think Jacob would have remembered all the problems that transpired in his own family due to favoritism. But he was like many parents today: Tragically, we are prone to repeat the sins of our parents rather than to learn from them.

"Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons, because he had been born to him in his old age; and he made a richly ornamented robe for him. When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him" (Gen. 37:3-4).

Joseph's brothers already hated him. It just made matters worse when he dreamed two strange dreams, both predicting his rise to prominence and authority, indicating that he would rule over his family. That was more than his brothers could take. We read, "They hated him all the more because of his dream" (Gen. 37:8).

More than once, the ten half-brothers must have discussed how great it would be to get rid of Joseph. Finally, one day he walked into their clutches, and they had their opportunity. They threw him into a pit and tried to figure out how to snuff out his life. Just then a caravan of merchants passed by. Instead of murdering him, they decided to sell Joseph to the slave traders, who took him to Egypt.

Painful Circumstances, Painful Memories

We can only imagine Joseph's thoughts as he trudged through the desert on his way to Egypt. As he slept every night in the slave quarters. As he was ordered to do menial tasks day after day—tasks his father's servants did at home. Poor Joseph must have been devastated by the rejection and hatred of his brothers. He surely longed for his father's embrace. He could never have dreamed that his brothers' animosity would lead to this.

What kind of person would Joseph have become if he had nurtured an unforgiving spirit? We have to imagine such a thing, because Scripture gives us every evidence that he didn't let injustice erode his character or his trust in God. It didn't matter where he was, whether in the house of Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh's guard, or chained in a prison cell on a false charge of rape, or sitting on a throne in Egypt—we read of God's favor upon Joseph: "The LORD was with Joseph and he prospered. . . . The LORD gave him success in everything he did. . . . The LORD was with him; he showed him kindness and granted him favor" (Gen. 39:2-3, 21).

Joseph was a slave. He was owned as property in an idolatrous, pagan country. Yet he never lost his awareness of the presence of the living God and his accountability to Him. Again and again, he spoke fearlessly of his God to Egyptians of every rank, always sprinkling his answers to their various questions and charges with references to his heavenly Father:

  • "How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?" (39:9).
  • "Do not interpretations belong to God?" (40:8).
  • "I cannot do it, but God will give Pharaoh the answer he desires" (41:16).
  • "God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do" (41:25).
  • "The matter has been firmly decided by God and God will do it soon" (41:32).

The Right Man to Know in Egypt

Joseph did not wallow in self-pity or allow himself to be eaten alive by bitterness. He never planned ways to avenge himself against his wicked brothers. If he had done so, he could never have retained such a close relationship with God. Instead, Joseph accepted what had happened to him, and in doing so, he was able to mature in his faith. At last the day came when he had his chance—he could choose to exact revenge or he could decide to demonstrate forgiveness.

God had revealed, through Pharaoh's dreams, that seven years of abundant harvests in Egypt would be followed by seven years of drought and famine. When Joseph interpreted the dreams, Pharaoh placed him, a thirty-year-old, in charge of all the food in Egypt. Joseph built storehouses for grain throughout the land during the years of plenty. Then, when the years of famine ravaged Egypt and the surrounding countries, he was also in charge of selling grain.

One day, his heart leaped within him. Tb his amazement, he recognized the men bowing before him, in search of food, as his own brothers! Joseph had forgiven these men long before, but he had some questions that needed answers before he let them know who he was.

Were they still the same vicious thugs who had treated him so heartlessly?

Did they feel any remorse for what they had done? Had they done anything to harm his only full brother, Benjamin?

Was his father alive or had grief killed him?

Joseph tested them in various ingenious ways to find the answers. He listened as they expressed their guilt to each other in their own language. He ordered them to bring Benjamin to Egypt so he could see for himself that he was alive and well. He verified for himself that they weren't jealous of Benjamin as they had been of him—one brother, Judah, even offered himself as a hostage in Benjamin's place rather than bringing further grief to their father by taking Benjamin away from home.

'Twenty-two years earlier, these same men hadn't even considered their father's feelings when they brought Joseph's torn and bloody coat and threw it at Jacob's feet. Yes, they had changed. Joseph was convinced he could trust them.

Learning from Joseph's Example

Take a few moments and read Genesis 45. Here Joseph reveals his true identity to his family, and they respond. As he did so, Joseph demonstrated for us some important principles about forgiveness:

Give Up the Need for Revenge

A craving for revenge is very normal. However, it is a negative emotion that doesn't hurt the other person unless we actually carry it out. Meanwhile, it can control and corrupt us.

While we spend time fantasizing about ways to strike back, we remain in emotional turmoil, frustrated and unhappy. It's a healthy and necessary step to give up the need for retaliation. We who know the Lord have a Defender. We can commit our cause into His hands and let Him be the One who does what is just. As the psalmist wrote, "But you, O God, do see trouble and grief; you consider it to take it in hand. The victim commits himself to you" (Ps. 10:14-15).

Jesus set our example for forgiveness when He hung on the cross. "When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly" (1 Pet. 2:23).

We can give up the need to retaliate because we can commit our cause to our heavenly Father. He is a Judge who will not let the guilty go free. Joseph would not have become the man he was if he had spent thirteen years of hardship in Egypt plotting revenge . . . and that brings us to the next aspect of forgiveness.

Don't Absolve the Guilty Party of Responsibility

We shouldn't try to pretend that nothing hurtful has happened when it has. As Joseph's brothers stood before him, begging for his help, he told them, "I am your brother whom you sold into Egypt." You shouldn't simply forget that your father or stepfather raped you as a child. You shouldn't disregard the fact that your mother neglected or abandoned you. You shouldn't pretend that your husband didn't have several affairs.

The trouble with forgetting is that it grants absolution. It is also a form of denial: "If I forgive you, we can pretend that what happened wasn't so terrible."

This kind of forgetting keeps you from expressing your emotions. So how can you acknowledge your anger against a person you have already forgiven? As Susan Forward suggests, "Responsibility can only go to one of two places: outward, onto the people who have hurt you, or inward, into yourself. So you may forgive the other person but end up hating yourself all the more in exchange."8

We need to admit feeling the emotions that painful events have aroused. If we don't acknowledge them, we will never deal with them, and they will control our lives. Instead, we need to place the responsibility on the individuals who deserve it. And even though we forgive, we also have a right to determine if they have changed before we trust them in the future.

Sometimes a woman tells me her husband has been physically abusive in the past. Each time he says he's sorry and won't do it again, so she forgives him. Then he does it again. Each time she finds it harder to forgive because she trusts him less. But then she feels guilty for not forgiving and forgetting.

In fact, he is the one who has violated her trust and not earned it back, because he hasn't changed. He is the one who must be held responsible for his behavior. There are consequences for our sins. God forgives our sins but we usually suffer the temporal consequences. An abused wife's lack of trust is a consequence for her husband's sins. Joseph was very careful to determine what his brothers were like before he decided to trust them.

Sometimes we don't have the opportunity to regain trust. One woman told me that her father had molested her when she was a teenager. By the time she and I had our conversation, she was in her forties, and she still had not forgiven him. The thing that infuriated her was that she could never confront him and get an apology—because he had been dead for several years! In this woman's case, she had to forgive her father, apology or no apology, because the bitterness that was consuming her was corrosive to her own spirit. We must forgive, if only for the sake of our own spiritual health.

One Goal of Forgiveness Is Reconciliation

When Joseph finally revealed his identity to his brothers, they wept together, embraced, and kissed. Then he told them to bring their father and all their families to Egypt, where he could provide for them during the years of famine. Thus Joseph was reunited with his family after twenty-two years of separation.

Can you imagine what that meant to all of them, especially to Jacob? Reconciliation is one of the primary purposes for forgiving. It doesn't always happen, of course, depending on the circumstances, but it should be an ultimate goal.

Jesus stressed the importance of reconciliation when He taught, "If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that 'every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses" (Matt. 18:15-17).

Don't hold a grudge. Instead, approach the one who has hurt you so that you may be reconciled. If he refuses, it's a matter for church discipline—something we don't practice very much today.

The reason for this policy is that when family members are estranged it affects the whole family. Likewise, when members of God's family are estranged, it affects the local church. It hinders the work of the Holy Spirit who wants the whole body to grow to maturity in Christ.

Another time Jesus urged His followers to be ready to forgive each other over and over again, if necessary. When Peter asked, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?" Jesus answered, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times" (Matt. 18:21-22).

Peter had some trouble understanding how many times he should forgive. Jewish tradition said three times, so Peter thought he was being really generous when he picked the perfect number, seven. What a shock Jesus' answer was! The King James Version says, "seventy times seven"—in other words, a number without limit!

Forgiveness Is Free to the Offender But  Costly to the Forgiver

Jesus used a parable to give us God's perspective about forgiveness. He described a king who forgave his servant's massive debt—it amounted to what would be millions of dollars today. But the servant turned right around and refused to forgive a fellow servant's debt of around ten dollars. When the king heard about it, he was enraged. He sent the servant he had forgiven to the torturers in the prison. "This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you," Jesus explained, "unless you forgive your brother from your heart" (Matt. 18:35).

In Jesus' story, the king freely forgave his servant, but he absorbed the cost. In the same way, God forgave us, but He absorbed the debt of our sin when Christ died on the cross in our place. Like Him, we are to give forgiveness freely to the sinner, even though it is costly to us.

We Must Forgive Because God Forgave Us

If we have trusted Christ, we have been freely forgiven for every sin we have ever committed or ever will commit. For this reason we are to freely forgive others. The king forgave the servant's debt of millions of dollars, yet the forgiven servant would not forgive a debt of ten dollars. God views our lack of forgiveness for one another from the same perspective. His Word urges us to "Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you" (Eph. 4:31-32).

It takes a major effort of the will to "forgive each other, just as in Christ God forgave you" because most of the time, we don't feel like forgiving. The first step we have to take to do this is to tell the Lord that even though we don't want to do it, even though we aren't willing to do it, we are willing for Him to make us willing. When we choose with our will to obey God, He will give us the power to do what is necessary.

Believe That God Will Use Your Pain to Accomplish His Purpose for Your Life

Years after their father, Jacob, had died, the brothers still could not believe Joseph had really forgiven them, because they had never forgiven themselves. "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?" (Gen. 50:15).

Joseph's answer gives us the right perspective: "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" (Gen. 50:19-21).

Joseph still placed the responsibility for their actions on them, but he had no desire to avenge himself. He knew what we should remember: God is the only righteous Judge.

God is Sovereign. He doesn't abdicate His Sovereignty when someone treats us unjustly. Instead, He weaves the dark threads of pain into the tapestry of our lives to deepen our character and accomplish his purpose. As Philip Yancey has said, "Faith believes ahead of time what can only be seen by looking back."

Can you look back on your life and see now how God has used painful experiences to shape your character? How He has provided opportunities and understanding you never would have had without your suffering? If there's someone you have difficulty forgiving, you can safely believe that God will use the experience to accomplish His purpose in your life. Commit your cause to Him, and let Him do what is right. Justice may not happen here on earth, but it will happen someday.

Forgiveness Is Something Good You Do for Yourself

God, in His grace, has forgiven us a debt we can never repay. His generosity to us is the basis for our forgiveness of others. We're told, "See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many" (Heb. 12:15).

If we won't forgive, bitterness will become firmly entrenched in our characters. It will make us cynical, unable to trust, and unable to maintain close relationships. Just as in Jesus' parable of the unforgiving servant who was sent to the torturers, our own bitterness will torture us for a lifetime. On the other hand, forgiveness will free us to go on in peace, unhindered in our enjoyment of the Lord. Let's forgive. Let's let go of the past and leave all the paying back to Him.

8 Susan Forward, Toxic Parents (New York: Bantam, 1989), 189.

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