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Joseph’s Forgiveness

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.

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The Protection of Love

As I said, this has been a rough year, in part because of lots of interpersonal conflict. So I’ve been thinking a lot about love lately, specifically about loving my enemies. There have been days when it’s pretty hard to even ask God to give me love for them. In fact, the amount of hurt and anger I’ve felt this year have left me so tempted to jump headlong into bitterness and hatred. And there are days when I can feel my heart start to grow hard and cold. It’s a terrifying feeling. If you’ve read my book, Tales from a Spacious Place, you know that I firmly believe bitterness only hurts the person who’s bitter–not the one they’re bitter towards. I’ve been bitter before. I’ve seen what it does to my heart, how it cuts me off from experiencing God’s best, how it leaves me alone. I know that being bitter only hands someone the power to wreck my life. So I know that I don’t want to be bitter. But love my enemies? It feels like I’m giving them something, despite the fact that my “enemies” are people who have taken and taken and taken from me already. It’s paradoxical that God asks me to give even more to them. It seems extreme.

In the past when I’ve thought about loving my enemies, I’ve always felt resentful about what they get out of it–even if it’s just love from afar (e.g., praying for people I don’t have contact with anymore). But recently, my view has changed. I know that loving others benefits the others, but I’d never looked at the other side of the equation: I started thinking about what loving my enemies does for me. And I realized that it acts like a shield that protects me from the corrosive power of hatred and bitterness, which destroy you physically, emotionally, spiritually, and mentally. If I don’t love my enemies, I’m liable to end up eaten alive by those things. It’s sort of that whole adage about how you can’t ever stand still in life, only move forwards or backwards. Loving my enemies keeps me free to move forward. Hate and bitterness toward them drags me backward. Love is this shield that creates space for me to live my life. I may not like loving my enemies, but it’s definitely in my best interest to do so. And when I think about it that way, it’s much easier to want to do things God’s way.

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Finding Emotional Rest

So in my post on mental rest, I actually addressed worry, which is both emotional and mental. Emotional rest covers a wide variety of issues–just ask yourself if you ever feel like you experience an emotion that’s taking a lot of energy and you can find areas you need God’s rest in. I had a day a couple of weeks ago where I felt really energized and cheerful for most of the day, which is VERY unusual for me (I usually run out of spoons by about 10 a.m. :)). I was pondering why I felt so great and suddenly realized that I wasn’t in any pain (also really unusual). It really re-reminded me how draining/exhausting pain is.

Emotional stressors are like that. We carry around bitterness and shame, etc. without realizing what a toll it’s taking on us. I think one of the saddest things to see is someone who’s been lugging around the same emotional baggage for years and years. I don’t know about you, but I want to figure out what my baggage is and unpack it so I won’t be carrying the same junk 10 years from now. There are much better things to spend my time and energy on than baggage.

I’ve kicked around writing on shame or bitterness, despite having already written copious amounts on them in my book, but I keep losing my drafts so maybe God’s trying to tell me something. The emotional rest I’ve found in Christ is so amazing–more than I ever hoped for. By the time I reached college I had many, many pounds of baggage, and I just expected that I would have to manage life with it. And then God started working a miracle. I still have plenty of issues to work through, but I’m not carrying the acres of junk I started out with.

I think the first place I had to come to was understanding who God is. Psalm 46:10 says “Be still and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations; I will be exalted in the earth” (NIV). It was only once I stopped pretending my baggage wasn’t there, or trying to blame it on other people, or downplay the sheer amount of it, that I made progress. It was in just sitting with it before the Lord and admitting I couldn’t do anything to change the amount I had… in finally admitting I wasn’t God, that I was able to know God was God. And then the more time I spent in His presence and reading His Word, the more I came to know four crucial things about Him. And those four things ripped up all the excuses I had used to explain my baggage.

1) God is holy. There is no darkness in Him at all. And He can’t tolerate any darkness. Sitting in His holiness opened my eyes to the depth of my own sin… it forced me to take responsibility for my issues–to realize that I had developed sinful survival skills. Even though they saved me at the time, to continue in them is sin. And sitting in His holiness showed me that He is incapable of working evil in my life, which really helped with my trust issues (at least as far as God is concerned).

2) God loves me, and you. In the cross we see the embodiment of that love (Romans 5:8). Jesus died for me. Just sit with that for a moment. Re-read Matthew 26-28 if you’re a little fuzzy on the actual events. Jesus suffered and died. Yes, He did it to satisfy God’s holiness. Yes, He did it because God will judge sin. But, more than that, He did it for you. Hebrews 12:3 says that He did it for the joy set before Him. How much love would it take for you to die a horrible death for someone and consider it a joy because you were rescuing them from the hatred they had for you?

3) Because God loves me, He always wants what is best for me. I love how Lewis talks about God’s love: that it is a terrible love, relentlessly working to make the beloved more lovely, even when the beloved would prefer to remain as they are. Sometimes the things God has allowed in my life have quite frankly sucked. But then I see what He’s done with them and I wouldn’t trade them for anything–it’s like the transition from a lump of dirty coal to a valuable diamond. You don’t have to like the coal, but you can’t get the diamond without it.

4) God is God and I am not. I have no right to play God in anyone else’s life. I have no right to play God in my own life. I can’t judge or punish someone else, even just by refusing to forgive them. I can’t judge or punish myself. I am fundamentally incapable of distinguishing between truth and lies apart from God. My only safety lies in running back to Him (which I am willing to do because of #1 & #2).

Whenever I feel myself falling into worry or bitterness towards someone or resentment over situations or shame, I try to run back to God’s character and take refuge there, to be still and know that He is God. He will be exalted among all people. He will be exalted in the earth.