The Forgiveness that Precedes Forgiveness

A slave owed his master almost $500,000.00 dollars in todays equivalent.  Since the man could not pay at the requested time, the master did not take what he could from the man to settle a portion of the debt, but the master actually forgave the debt. That same slave, the one who was forgiven his almost half a million dollar debt, went to a fellow slave who owed him less that $50.00.  When this debtor could not repay, the forgiven debtor refused to offer forgiveness and had him thrown into prison.  Now, when the master of these slaves heard about this, he had the first slave thrown into prison until he his original debt was paid, which was an impossibility.

Forgiveness is an ambiguous practice which, as a concept, has a variety of different forms and interpretations.  There are many different, and often opposing, definitions and uses of the word Forgiveness.  As believers in Christ, it has been exampled and explained to us, it has been given to and, in some traditions, it has been taken away, it is an emotional act, an ‘I’ll deal with it later, or I’ll forget or ignore it’ offering, a long awaited gift, and a difficult and overwhelming barrier. 

As a practice, forgiveness is a shot in the dark, seldom do we even understand our own words when we ask for it or give it to another. On some occasions we assume the power to forgive when the option is not ours.  It is, often, the most difficult to give to ourselves and to receive from another.  We may not feel a need to be forgiven yet we, consciously and subconsciously, we are relieved when it has been granted.

Along with prayer, forgiveness may be one of the two most misdefined, misused, abused, and sincerely abandoned concept and practice in our faith.

One of the most bizarre misuses of ‘forgiveness’ took place during the 2016 presidential elections.  The rumors of infidelities that dogged Donald Trump had been quickly dismissed by his supporters until an audio tape presented him boasting of his own sexual prowess. Evangelical supporters were in a quandary to justify their continued support, soon, the celebrity religious leaders, and others, took up the mantra of ‘we have forgiven him.’ This was not a applicable use of the concept of forgiveness.  Trump did not need their ‘forgiveness’, he never asked for it, truth be told his offense had not been against them – any action on their part was judgment, not forgiveness.  Their dilemma was not a problem forgiveness would solve, however, instead of struggling through their decision of support, they chose to hide behind a failed use of forgiveness. Forgiveness was not theirs’ to give.

Basic Truths about Forgiveness

1. Forgiveness is a concept and it is an action, it is difficult, but it is worth the struggle, and essential to harmony and unity.  

2. Forgiveness was not a part of God’s creative process, nor did it need to be, there was no offense, there was no sin. 

3. Forgiveness is a noun and a verb, it is not fully either until it is both. 

4. Forgiveness was born out of human need and perfected by God. 

5. God had no obligation to create anything else.  Love propelled him. God returned to the creator’s bench.

6. Love does that.

Let me briefly explain:

After turning from God humans found themself in a struggle – it was a struggle with their own human offenses. They had been removed from the garden to engage in this struggle.  This struggle would bring them to a realization of their need for God. This is why everything, and almost everyone, in the book of Genesis, is such a mess – it all takes place at the beginning of this human struggle.  As humans attempted to fix their need through might and power, the solution was elusive, they didn’t know where to begin because they were not clear on what they needed – there was no way they could devise a strategy to create it forgiveness. 

Forgiveness is a holy creation, holy creations cannot be created by fallen humans.  We see early attempts at forgiveness, Esau accepts and embraces Jacob, Joseph forgives his brothers – otherwise humans met conflict and offense with a ‘let’s just move on mentality’ which never lasted, or, more often, they just created more offense. Humans cried out to God, they cried out from Babble, they cried out from Ninevah, they cried out from Sodom, they cried out from the home of Jacob, they cried out from deep pit.  There was a need, but the cries of humans were only a shell of their actual need – they needed forgiveness. God still heard their cries – the Father perfected their shell of forgiveness from their need, the son manifested it through his birth, life, death, and resurrection, the Spirit ran with it and made lives whole through forgiveness.  

When mankind chose to turn away from God they, then, turned on each other – the human need for forgiveness was presented. Humans found themselves mentally and physically unable to live with themself and with each other when wrongs done to them, and wrongs done by them, were left to fester inside of them. They also found that this same festering messed, muddled, and mangled their relationships and coexistence with God. Life was difficult at best, and impossible in most situations.

Without forgiveness there cannot be love, without love there cannot be forgiveness – without both of these, there will be no respect. Without respect there cannot not be unity, without unity there cannot be community.

When the early believers began to feel the strain of unforgiveness on their communities of faith, Christ addressed the practice of forgiveness. Peter approached Jesus and asked,

“Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”

Matthew 18:21

Peter was attempting to quantify forgiveness, ‘How many times…..?’ Whether this was a low number for Peter, or, if Peter felt that this was a fully appropriate number – no number would have been correct. 

It is not a question that can be given a number, 

it is incalculable.  

‘Without forgiveness, there is no future.’

Desmond Tutu

As Jesus was speaking to community, how to have, and how to maintain, true community. The type of community where members work together to sustain and grow.  

Community is formed on a common center, a town or city is formed on a geographical commonality, a club or organization is formed on a common interest or belief, a church is a community of those with a common faith.

Jesus was preparing the coming church leaders to lead out with this most essential element of their earthly existence.  It would prove to be the most essential building block of the local communities of faith. It was the blueprint for the church.

Peter knew himself, more importantly, he knew people.  Seven times may not have been a low number, it may not have been a holy number, it is quite possible that, in Peter’s assertion, it was going to be a truly arduous number.

At Peter’s question, Jesus answered with the parable of the two unforgiven slaves, both of whom, in the end, suffered. One suffered because he did not receive forgiveness, the other suffered, because he would not give forgiveness.

As I said in the beginning, Forgiveness is an ambiguous concept and an even more ambiguous intentional action.

The absence of forgiveness is blatantly apparent in the first fifty chapters, or 1,533 verses of the bible. Most of the actions of forgiveness we see in the book of Genesis are centered on just two men.  One is the man Esau, who without petition, forgives his brother Jacob of the horrible transgressions acted out in the destruction of their relationship.  The second is the man Joseph, who faced every brutality up to death from his older brothers. It is in the forgiveness given by Joseph, we see visual of how God takes on this essential concept and practice of the human journey.

It is doubtful that you need a reminder of the sins committed by brothers against Joesph.  Their countless, often quickly calculated acts, culminated with the selling of their brother Joseph into slavery. We do not see much of the brothers following their betrayal of Joseph, nor do we truly know any of the mental and emotional suffering that this memory possibly created in them.  We do, however, see the torment surface when they, along with their people, face true physical crisis that requires they travel to a different nation for their own survival.


‘This is because of what we did to our brother, Joesph,’ they began to whisper to each other. ‘We are being punished for our sin.’

We have read of the life and existence of Joseph up to the point, however.  We have not heard of a dwelling on the pain caused by his brothers, rather we see a man who has carried on, in a tradition of doing right, trough very rough, and some surprisingly good times.  When these journey of these bothers, once again, intersects with the life of Joseph we begin to see his forgiveness journey.

The fact that there is not a documented struggle with forgiveness by Joesph towards his brothers, in the midst of a story that details all the other significant aspects of his story – brings us to a conclusion that he had not carried unforgiveness, hatred, or even resentment.

In our Tuesday bible project a couple of months ago, Mitch said (I paraphrase), ‘Joseph was so focused on God’s leading, and his own calling by God, that unforgiveness was not even a factor, there was no room for that to be given a thought.’ His decision had been made – withholding forgiveness, and instead, holding onto resentment and hatred, would have only held him back from God’s call.

As Joseph observed his bothers during the tests he set up, Joseph was not deciding forgiveness, that had already been given, he was, instead, determining the potential of their relationship from this point forward. ‘Could they be trusted?’ ‘Would it work for him to bring them to Egypt to live out out the drought?’, ‘How were the others in his family, especially his younger brother Benjamin, had they been treated properly?’

He was determining the ‘what’ of his future with his family, during his time of non-disclosure.

Eventually, his love would not permit him to hold back his expression of forgiveness.  He could hold it in no longer, it had to come out, he had to embrace each of these that had treated him so poorly.

When he revealed himself to his brothers and acted by proclaiming his forgiveness to them, this did not happen in that moment.  The forgiveness by Joesph of these undeserving bothers preceded this action.  He had already released the forgiveness and now he was acting in a way that released it in them.  But, the forgiveness was not yet complete.

It is in the final chapter of the story of Joesph that we see a human reality, and full circle of forgiveness.  Joseph’s brothers realize, at the death of their father, that Joseph’s forgiveness of them was surely a deceitful display for their father – probably just to reinforce his position of favorite.  

In their own humanness, they expressed the thoughts they had been suppressing since Joseph revealed himself,  ‘Everything that Joesph had done, all that he had forgiven, was not real, it had been an act, there was no way he could have forgiven……we could’t have done that,’ they were thinking.

They had not fully received the forgiveness of Joseph, not because he had withheld it, but because they were unable to receive it.  They were unable to fully accept the forgiveness from Joseph because they were not able to give forgiveness to others, that is the way it works. When we hold on to unforgiveness, when we cannot release our grasp, our hand is closed tight and therefore unable to open up to receive the forgiveness.

Joseph wept because the forgiveness had abruptly halted without his knowledge.  He wept because his brothers had been living in the unforgiven state of their relationship.  Joseph wept for the unforgiven state his brothers had made their home.

This brings us to a full picture of all the realities of forgiveness.

  1. Forgiveness is our own organic choice to let go or hold on. Holding on takes a lot of work, we have to remember, we have to go through the offense over and over again.  In doing this we permit the offense to ferment and grow, negatively impacting every other area of our life. The resentment, hatred, and vengeance that is a biproduct of unforgiveness is a torture and suffering that it, in a very real sense, a self imposed punishment of imprisonment.
  1. Forgiveness frees us to live, unforgiveness reckons us to death in our life.  Much like Ishmael reports of Captain Ahab’s unforgiving grudge towards the whale Moby Dick, climaxing with the death of Ahab in the vengeful pursuit, unforgiveness wraps its rope around our neck and takes us down. 
  1. Forgiveness is not a naive and dangerous forgetfulness. Joseph, who did not withhold forgiveness from his brothers, also did not set him self up to be thrown, once again, into a pit by his brothers.
  1. Forgiveness is seldom easy to receive.  Although the brothers lived ‘in’ the forgiveness of Joseph for several years, at the father’s death it was obvious they had not been able to fully accept it.  We can only fully accept forgiveness when we have freely given forgiveness.
  1. Forgiveness, when fully received, is a blessing to the giver. Only then can a relationship be fully restored and recognized.
  1. Forgiveness is only complete when we are able to see through and past the offending actions.  Joseph says to his brother, each time he presents them with the forgiveness, ‘You intended evil, but God used [your actions] for good.’

In regard to Forgiveness, what is God saying to you?

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