Who has hurt you most? Do you see him or her at home, work, or in the community? Do you find that the very sight of this person sends you into a tailspin of revenge fantasies? I will tell you that is a common response, but I will caution you that it is not a good response. Many times people who hurt us are in some sort of authority over us, which is how they have the power to “get away with” hurting us. Because of this, we might think that, if only we were able to gain authority over the one who caused us harm, we would have the opportunity to exact revenge – to make them pay. Again, this is common, but this is not good – for you, actually.
I know of at least two people who were mistreated by people in authority over them, who suffered quite a bit because of the mistreatment, who were strongly tempted to exact revenge when the tables were turned, and who were given grace by God to fear God and to forgive those who did them harm. The first person is named Joseph, and the other is me. We’ll address Joseph’s forgiveness of his brothers today, but if you want to hear my story, well, that will have to wait for another day.
Joseph’s brothers left him for dead in a pit, then sold him into slavery. He later was falsely accused of rape and sent to prison. When God prompted Pharaoh to pluck Joseph out of prison and set him as Governor over all of Egypt, he was overwhelmed with praise for God. For a number of years, he enjoyed privileges that must have been hyperbolic relief from the previous decade plus of great difficulty. Then, when the famine hit, Joseph began to receive desperate visitors who pleaded to buy grain for survival. Imagine the moment when Joseph saw the faces of the very brothers who sold him into slavery appear before him, ready to beg.
We can imagine that Joseph was tempted to forget God’s continuous mercy to him and try to make his brothers pay for what they had done. We see in the text that he spoke roughly to his brothers after he recognized them. He certainly could have been “playing the part” as they did not know with whom they were dealing. However, we later see that he accuses them of being spies and incarcerates them for three days. His demeanor changes abruptly when he observes the brothers lamenting mournfully among themselves in their own language. God softened Joseph’s heart, and he wept at their confession of guilt toward him. He later secretly blessed his brothers by returning their money to them after granting them the food they requested.
All acts of kindness and mercy are powered by grace from God, not by the human heart. The human heart cannot love the person who has harmed them, but God’s heart is different. God is love. God’s own Son, Jesus pleaded with the Father to forgive his murderers before they had even completed their violent act. You can both be forgiven of your sins, and you can forgive those who have sinned against you, but this is only possible through the fear of Holy God who has the right to invoke wrath and yet continually shows patience and mercy to His people.
“When Jacob learned that there was grain for sale in Egypt, he said to his sons, ‘Why do you look at one another?’ And he said, ‘Behold, I have heard that there is grain for sale in Egypt. Go down and buy grain for us there, that we may live and not die.’ So ten of Joseph’s brothers went down to buy grain in Egypt. But Jacob did not send Benjamin, Joseph’s brother, with his brothers, for he feared that harm might happen to him. Thus the sons of Israel came to buy among the others who came, for the famine was in the land of Canaan.
“Now Joseph was governor over the land. He was the one who sold to all the people of the land. And Joseph’s brothers came and bowed themselves before him with their faces to the ground. Joseph saw his brothers and recognized them, but he treated them like strangers and spoke roughly to them. ‘Where do you come from?’ he said. They said, ‘From the land of Canaan, to buy food.’ And Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him. And Joseph remembered the dreams that he had dreamed of them. And he said to them, ‘You are spies: you have come to see the nakedness of the land.’ They said to him, ‘No, my lord, your servants have come to buy food. We are all sons of one man. We are honest me. Your servants have never been spies.’
“He said to them, ‘No, it is the nakedness of the land that you have come to see.’ And they said, ‘We, your servants, are twelve brothers, the sons of one man in the land of Canaan, and behold, the youngest is this day with our father, and one is no more.’ But Joseph said to them, ‘It is as I said to you. You are spies. By this you shall be tested: by the life of Pharaoh, you shall not go from this place unless your youngest brother comes here. Send one of you, and let him bring your brother, while you remained confined that your works may be tested, whether there is truth in you. Or else, by the life of Pharaoh, surely you are spies.’ And he put them all together in custody for three days.
“On the third day Joseph said to them, ‘Do this and you will live, for I fear God: if you are honest men, let one of your brothers remain confined where you are in custody, and let the rest go and carry grain for the famine of your households, and bring your youngest brother to me. So your words will be verified, and you shall not die.’ And they did so. Then they said to one another, ‘In truth we are guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the distress of his soul, when he begged us and we did not listen. That is why this distress has come upon us.’ And Reuben answered them, ‘Did I not tell you not to sin against the boy? But you did not listen. So now there comes a reckoning for his blood.’ They did not know that Joseph understood them, for there was an interpreter between them. Then he turned away from them and wept. And he turned to them and spoke to them. And he took Simeon from them and bound him before their eyes. And Joseph gave orders to fill their bags with grain, and to replace every man’s money in his sack, and to give them provisions for the journey. This was done for them.” – Genesis 42:1-25