Guilt and Forgiveness
Genesis 50:15, 19-21
When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong which we did to him!” . . . . (19) But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid, for am I in God’s place? (20) “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive. (21) “So therefore, do not be afraid; I will provide for you and your little ones.” So he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.
Last summer I read a news story about a teenage girl being pushed by a friend from atop a bridge into a river three stories below. It is clear from the video of the incident that the girl was getting ready to jump, just as some other teens had already done, but seeing the distance to the water, she hesitated. So her friend gave her a “helping hand” to get her past her indecision. Had the girl gone feet first into the water, this incident might have created some ill will between the friends, but it would not have been news worthy. But the push made the girl lurch forward as she fell; thus she belly-flopped into the water. Besides extensive bruising to her thighs and torso, she broke several ribs and punctured both lungs. She could have drowned had an EMT, there to enjoy some time off, not helped her.
By all accounts, the two girls were good friends prior to the incident. Immediately afterward, the one who pushed her friend gave several tearful apologies saying she never intended any harm. She tried to visit the injured girl to apologize in person, but she refused to see her. She publicly stated that she wanted her former friend to pay for hurting her. She wanted her to go to jail. Now six months after the incident, the one girl has been charged with reckless endangerment and is negotiating a plea deal, while the injured girl, who may be healing physically, has seemingly become embittered.
As I considered this story, I asked myself what happened to forgiveness? Initially, the pain and feelings would certainly be raw. It would be a difficult situation for any person to handle. But without forgiveness, guilt and bitterness will be the end result – guilt for the girl who caused the injury and bitterness for the girl who received the injury. Both girls could allow themselves to be emotionally destroyed in just those few seconds the day of the accident.
In the passage above, Joseph faced a similar situation. His brothers mocked and mistreated him. They had sold him into slavery, where he had been sent to prison for over two years for doing what was right. Now their father was dead. The brothers, knowing their guilt, feared his retribution. Humanly speaking, Joseph certainly had cause to take revenge. But he had not allowed bitterness to take root. Yes, he saw his brother’s actions for what they were – evil (v 20). However, he looked at the purpose and the consequences of those actions from a broader perspective.
What Joseph probably could not see from the jail cell was God’s sovereign working through all of the circumstances. Even though he may not have seen God’s hand then, by the time of Genesis 45.4-8, Joseph saw it clearly, and he reasserted that fact in the words above. And that in itself is a lesson we may learn – trusting in God’s purpose for our lives even when someone else does us evil. Trusting in God does not excuse their evil nor the consequences of that evil. But they no longer control how we will respond.
Here we also see the brothers still dealing with their guilt after all the time that had passed. They recognized what they did was wrong and begged for forgiveness (vv 15-18). Joseph had already forgiven them (45.5), but they had wrongfully held on to their guilt. But what if Joseph had not forgiven them? They could have received Joseph’s revenge and still have had a clear conscience before God. In other words, while we should seek the forgiveness of those we hurt, whether the hurt was intentionally inflicted or not, we are not dependant upon their forgiveness in order to be right before God. Paul tells us, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men” (Romans 12:18). We are only responsible for what “depends on [us].”
The other aspect of this equation is forgiveness. Joseph forgave them, and that forgiveness did not change any of the consequences that he suffered because of their actions. Yet because he was also in the position of authority to legally acquit their actions, he did so. They were not punished in anyway, though they could have been. Thus, they had no consequences accrue to themselves except for any guilt before God (v19). Had Joseph not forgiven them, he would have brought guilt upon himself from God (Mt 6.14-15). But he wanted to forgive them, because he knew God was behind their actions, and he trusted God. He had been spiritually freed from their evil, so bitterness had not enveloped him.
I fear the injured girl, embracing the role of victim, may have allowed bitterness to define her life. As painful as those injuries were, withholding forgiveness will damage her far more emotionally and spiritually. But do we hold grudges? Many of us do. And I dare say our grudges are for wrongs, or perceived wrongs, which are far more trivial than being pushed from a bridge. Forgive. God’s plan is greater than our hurts, and even includes those hurts. And to those who carry guilt, it can be just as debilitating, especially in the form of regret. Seek forgiveness from people when appropriate, and from God always. He forgives even when people cannot.
Lastly, confessing our guilt and receiving forgiveness in the human realm pictures that which happens in the spiritual realm when we seek God’s forgiveness. But instead of someone who may be brooding upon the hurt we may have inflicted, God freely forgives, granting to us reconciliation with Him. The relationship, torn apart by our sin, is repaired. Now reconciled with Him, we become His ambassadors for reconciliation to the world (2Co 5.18-20). How can we not forgive others, when we are representing Him?