Genesis 45:4-5 (ESV)
4 So Joseph said to his brothers, “Come near to me, please.” And they came near. And he said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. 5 And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life.
We find ourselves looking at a tense scene. Joseph has again met his brothers (brothers who had sold him into slavery years earlier) and told his brothers who he is. As you might imagine, these men who formerly hated and abused their brother are terrified to see him sitting in a position of power over them. Joseph literally holds their lives in his hands. He has the power to have them thrown into prison or executed.
What would you do if you were Joseph? How would you feel? Would you want to get back at these men for the hurt they caused you? Would you want them to suffer to make up for the suffering you went through? Would you want to gloat over the fact that you are now the master while they are in your power? Would you want to remind them that your dreams from twenty-something years ago were indeed true?
Joseph says something to his brothers that is unheard of. Though his brothers did him great damage, Joseph says, “do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here.” How in the world can Joseph look at these men and tell them not to worry about the wrong that they did?
Some would presume that Joseph saw the sadness in his brothers when they talked about him thinking he was gone forever. Some would say that Joseph realized that his brothers were truly sorry. Maybe so, but the fact still remains that many of us would have far too bitter a heart to even consider the state of the brothers’ hearts. Many of us would be out for blood the moment we found out that we had them in our power.
Not Joseph. Joseph had a heart that was tender and forgiving. He does not pretend that nothing wrong happened, but something about Joseph gave him the perspective that he needed to be able to tell his brothers that he was not holding a grudge against them for what they had done to him. What was it? Joseph tells us when he says, “for God sent me before you to preserve life.” Joseph was looking at his situation with his brothers from a bigger-picture perspective. He saw that God had a bigger plan than any of them could have dreamed. Joseph understood that, though his brothers were terribly wrong, totally evil in what they did to him, God had something greater that he was accomplishing. Though all that the brothers did to Joseph was evil, God was working all things together for good.
What about you? Do you have that kind of perspective that we see in Joseph? Can you look back over your life, even at the things that hurt you deeply, and see that even your pains and struggles and hardships are tools that God has used to teach you of his mercy and grace? Can you recognize that the shadows that you have walked through have opened for you opportunities to glorify God, to enjoy his kindness, to tell others of his provision?
Let’s face it, all of us have been through hardships at one point or another. We have all been wronged by people whether they were family members, coworkers, or maybe even fellow church members. How can we be like Joseph and have hearts that are eager to forgive?
The best answer that I can give, and the one that I think the Bible bears out for us time and time again, is that we must have a larger-than-this-life view of our circumstances. We must understand that God is in the picture and not absent.
Picture in your mind the two beams of a cross. One is vertical and the other horizontal. Before you can be ready to become a person who offers horizontal forgiveness, forgiveness between fellow human beings, you must first be a person who understands his or her vertical relationship with God. Consider where you stand before God. God is perfect, and endlessly so. All of us have fallen short of God’s perfection, and endlessly so. God, as a just judge, rightly could have punished us by casting us into hell forever for the endless offense of our rebellion against him. But God, rather than throwing us into hell at our first sin, chose to send his own Son to earth to die as a substitute for the sins of people like you and me. God moved to forgive us.
If you have been forgiven by an endlessly holy God, forgiven an endless offense, how can you not, before God, desire to offer forgiveness to those who have wronged you. You may not be able to actually transact forgiveness with them. You may never get a chance to talk with them. They may never choose to repent and agree with you that they need to be forgiven. But, when we recognize who God is and how great is our own forgiveness, we, in our hearts, will begin to learn that, before God, we do not hold grudges against those who have hurt us in the past.
Trust me, I know this can take time. None of us becomes instantly perfect when we are saved by Jesus. None of us will find this heart change easy. Some will battle with this stuff for years. Joseph, as you may remember, had not seen his brothers for twenty years. But, as Joseph saw from a bigger picture perspective, he understood that the wrong that his brothers did him actually helped to put Joseph in the position he now occupied. Joseph knew that he was able to help others, to save lives and protect his family, because of the horrible circumstances that he had been put through.
So, what should we learn from Joseph’s example here? Keep an eternal perspective in order to have a soft and forgiving spirit. Instead of looking at the short-term, small picture, pray that God will remind you of his eternal plan. Ask him to let you think beyond the bounds of a few years, or even a few decades. Ask God to show you that, in eternity, we will see that he truly worked all things, even our most painful things, together for good according to his plan.