I am unable to deal with forgiveness, on any level, without returning to the story of Joseph. In particular, I want to touch on the relationship between forgiveness and reconciliation, as illustrated by Joseph and his brothers.
Forgiving someone is absolutely not the same thing as being reconciled to them. Forgiving is all about letting go. When I forgive someone, I let go of my offense with them, I let go of the hurt they caused me, and I let go of the vengeance they’ve earned at my hand. (I am not being dramatic by mentioning vengeance—it is absolutely real, absolutely earned, and it is God’s to mete out.)
Reconciliation, on the other hand, is all about coming together, and the only true unity in the universe is in the Spirit, under the very real Lordship of Jesus Christ. So reconciliation is entirely the purview of God. I can forgive a person, truly forgive them, and never speak another word to them in this life. There is no contradiction between the two because they are entirely unrelated. I didn’t understand that at first.
There are times when I was tempted to withhold forgiveness, even knowing it meant I would forfeit my own much-needed forgiveness. This was partly due to a thirst for vengeance – it’s no secret that I run pretty hot – and partly because I believed that it would all be business-as-usual if I forgave. I figured that I’d be right back where I started and it was only a matter of time before I got kicked in the teeth again. I mean, that’s what forgiveness is, right? I wipe the slate clean for a person and three days later I’m taking it on the other cheek? Well, maybe…and maybe NOT.
If you haven’t lately, go back and read Genesis 42. Not only does Joseph have the ability to kill his brothers when they walk back into his life, he has the enormous advantage of recognizing them while they remain clueless as to his true identity. But Joseph doesn’t attack. He’s reminded of the dream that started it all, and he follows the instructions given to him so many years ago. Though Joseph “spoke roughly to them,” he’s not heartless or detached where his brothers are concerned. At one point he has to duck out of the way because he can’t keep from weeping. Joseph has forgiven his brothers, and his heart is wide open to them, but reconciliation is not immediate. Not even close!
Joseph’s work of forgiveness has enabled him to be an agent of reconciliation, but he’s not the one setting the terms—God is. The events that Joseph sets in motion over his brothers are pretty harsh. Everybody goes to jail for 3 days, then all the brothers get to go home except Simeon, who is bound in front of them and thrown back into jail to serve as collateral for quite a while. The rest get to go home and tell dear old dad that another one of his sons is gone. Oh! And to get him back, daddy’s new favorite son, Benjamin, has to travel back to Egypt with them, where he could easily be mummified by Egypt’s paranoid lord who thinks everyone is a spy. Fortunately, Jacob is an understanding and compassionate dad who rolls with all of it. Hahahahahaha! No, he SO is not!
“You have deprived me of my sons. Joseph is gone and Simeon is gone.
Now you want to take Benjamin. Everything happens to me!”
Gen. 42:36 HCSB
I’ll let you read the rest of this swashbuckling tale of intrigue and dynastic feuding. This story has everything, doesn’t it? I love it!
Back to reconciliation, Joseph didn’t initiate a reunion even though he had forgiven completely and had great love for his brothers. He followed God’s lead. His brothers had to be reconciled to God before Joseph could be reconciled to them. There is only one unity, ever, and it’s on God’s terms.
What comes after the work of forgiveness is a surprise and an adventure, because it’s different for everyone. Maybe I’ll be an agent of reconciliation, like Joseph. Or maybe I’ll be an agent of vengeance, like Moses (Num. 31:1-2). Or maybe I’ll be an agent of deliverance, like Esther, or huge repentance, like the reluctant Jonah. The point is, I don’t know what God wants to do through me until He tells me. He made His will evident to Joseph, and He does the same for me. Forgiveness is only the beginning.