Growing up, my family was one big mess. Fighting. Arguing. Yelling. Crying. And eventually, a lot of forgiving.
During the early years, especially before we knew Jesus, it seemed like the holidays were always the worst.
If ever there is a place to learn about forgiveness … to practice forgiveness … to struggle with forgiveness … it is in the family. And interestingly, it is in the context of family where the word “forgive” first shows up in the Bible.
In the book of Genesis, we meet a young man named Joseph — the 11th of 12 brothers and the favorite son of Jacob. In Genesis 37, young Joseph had several prophetic dreams involving his brothers and father one day bowing down to him. Rather than keep that bit of information to himself, it seems perhaps immaturity loosened his lips, and he shared it with his already jealous siblings. When he was 17, his brothers had had enough of Joseph, who they saw as a rather bratty brother.
So one day, when Joseph went out to the fields to check on them, they schemed to throw him in a well, shred his fancy coat and tell Jacob his favorite son had been killed by a wild animal. Just after they had tossed him in the pit, a Midianite caravan came passing by. Then the brothers hatched another plan; rather than leave Joseph to die, they sold him into slavery and pocketed a bit of money in the process.
Joseph served as a slave in the home of a high-ranking Egyptian official named Potiphar. Genesis 39 tells us that, while there, Joseph was falsely accused of sexually assaulting Potiphar’s wife and thrown into prison. (Talk about having a bad day!)
During his prison stay, he interpreted dreams for some of his fellow inmates. One day the Pharaoh of Egypt had a disturbing dream no one could interpret. Pharaoh’s cupbearer, who had been in prison with Joseph, told Pharaoh about Joseph’s gift of interpretation.
Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s dream and predicted seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine in the land. Pharaoh was so enamored with Joseph’s God-given wisdom that he appointed Joseph governor of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh himself. (Genesis 40-41)
During the famine, who showed up in Egypt, looking for food? Joseph’s conniving brothers! They were terrified when the governor revealed, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt” (Genesis 45:4c, ESV). Don’t you know they were terrified? What would Joseph do?
What would you have done?
This was Joseph’s response to the injustice inflicted by his brothers: “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” (Genesis 45:5, NIV). Later, he said, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20).
Joseph did not say, “Oh, that’s OK. Don’t worry about it.” No, he called the betrayal what it was — evil against him that resulted in 13 years of slavery. At the same time, he chose to forgive the wrong done to him and allowed God’s grace to flow through him. He opened the door for reconciliation and entrusted to God the matter of justice.
When we passed forgiveness around the table in the serving dish of grace at my home, we weren’t saying that what had gone on in our family was right or that it didn’t matter. We were saying yes, it was wrong, it did matter, and now we were choosing to let it go.
Joseph’s forgiveness ends Genesis, the first book of the Bible. We close out the epic narrative with a portrait of forgiveness that continues throughout the entire Bible, and it all begins with a very mixed-up family. That gives me great comfort; I hope it does for you.
Why? Because forgiveness prevents us from getting stuck in the bad parts of our stories and opens a door for a new ending.
Heavenly Father, family is so messy. We hurt each other and love each other, sometimes at the same time. Help me to forgive quickly. Help me to focus on following You better and not becoming bitter. Help me to trust in Your sovereignty in every situation. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.