Forgiveness. It’s a beautiful thing. It sets you free from bitterness. Forgiving your enemies can be a lot like love: for your good, rather than theirs. They may never know that you forgave them, but it’s still medicine for your soul.
This year we’ve been in the position of watching relationships end, or at least be put on hold. It’s not a fun place to be in. And as I’ve sought wise counsel and tried to live in peace as far as it was up to me, I’ve had several discussions about forgiveness and reconciliation. Several years ago, I learned that there was a distinct difference between the two. Christians are so apt to mush them together, but they’re not the same thing. This year I’ve found myself fighting that battle all over again. I’ve been counseled by a couple people that forgiveness necessitates reconciliation even if the person in question is abusive, and that it’s my Christian duty to trust them again (“love always trusts”) and to give them full access to my life. And after hearing it from more than one source, I started wondering if I was in the wrong by keeping my fences up. It’s so easy to slide back into the mindset that love means being a doormat (at least for me).
Fortunately, Joseph has recently come up in my Bible study. He’s one of the heroes of forgiveness in Christianity. We talk about how he forgave his brothers even after they plotted to kill him and sold him into slavery. That’s a lot to forgive. But as I was reading the text, I was struck by his method of reconciliation:
[Gen 42:6-9, 15 NIV] Now Joseph was the governor of the land, the person who sold grain to all its people. So when Joseph’s brothers arrived, they bowed down to him with their faces to the ground. As soon as Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them, but he pretended to be a stranger and spoke harshly to them. “Where do you come from?” he asked. “From the land of Canaan,” they replied, “to buy food.” Although Joseph recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him. Then he remembered his dreams about them and said to them, “You are spies! You have come to see where our land is unprotected.” … And this is how you will be tested: As surely as Pharaoh lives, you will not leave this place unless your youngest brother comes here.
Notice that Joseph recognizes them right away, but what does he do? Does he run to them and hug them? No, he pretends to be a stranger and then he gives them a test. I think, as Christians, it’s easy to think about Jesus’ parable of the prodigal sons and assume that we’re supposed to be like the father in that parable–we’re supposed to welcome our hurters/enemies back with open arms. But we forget that we’re not God: we can’t see people’s hearts. We don’t know if they’ve changed or not, if we’re walking back into a war zone or not. I think that, like Joseph, it’s appropriate for us to test people–to see if they’ve changed. Joseph isn’t holding a grudge against his brothers. I think it’s obvious from his relationship with God that he forgave his brothers years before he reconciles with them. Jump forward in the story:
[Gen 44:33-34; 45:1-5 NIV] [Judah said] “Now then, please let your servant remain here as my lord’s slave in place of the boy, and let the boy return with his brothers. How can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? No! Do not let me see the misery that would come on my father.” Then 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.”
Notice that the instant Joseph knew his brothers had changed–that they weren’t going to repeat their sin by getting rid of the now favored brother, Benjamin–he reveals himself to them and works to reconcile with them. There’s no holding back on his part, which speaks to the importance of making sure my heart is in the right place. But relationship takes two parties and even if I work to get my stuff together, the other party might not be ready for true reconciliation. If I want to have a God-honoring relationship with them, I will work to forgive, work to love, and reconcile the instant I know they’re ready/changed.
I don’t know about you, but when I reconcile with someone, I don’t want to have the same relationship I had before with them. I want something better and I’m willing to wait for that better. So that means I keep dipping my toe in to test the waters before I jump in. Forgiving like Joseph does not mean putting myself back into an unhealthy relationship. It means forgiving right away, but then waiting and testing before I reconcile.