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I love a good payback story. I don’t know what that says about me, but it’s true. And before you start judging me, you judgy judger, you know that you feel a level of satisfaction when you see someone get pulled over just moments after they cut you off in traffic.

But why are we so drawn to payback? I think it’s because payback is so natural and hard wired into us. It’s why Shakespeare penned these famous words in The Merchant of Venice…

“If you prick us do we not bleed? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us shall we not revenge?” 

I think payback feels so natural precisely because forgiveness feels so unnatural. You don’t have to teach a child how to retaliate. You do have to teach a child how to forgive. And that’s because forgiveness feels foolish. But even if that’s how we feel about forgiveness, it’s always the right choice. 

The story of Joseph in the book of Genesis is a prime example of the pain and power of forgiveness. Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery and essentially left him for dead. Joseph grew to power in Egypt and was later reunited with his brothers. But as you can imagine, he wasn’t sure if he could fully forgive and return to a relationship with the very people that wished him dead.

Genesis 42:7–8

Joseph saw his brothers and recognized them, but he treated them like strangers and spoke roughly to them…but they did not recognize him.

As you see in the story, Joseph deals with significant inner turmoil as he wrestles through the decision of whether or not to forgive. Finally, the story culminates with Joseph no longer being able to hold the past against his brothers.

Genesis 45:1–3

Then Joseph could not control himself before all those who stood by him….And he wept aloud, so that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. And Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph! Is my father still alive?”

At the end of the day, Joseph’s desire to forgive his brothers won out over his desire to hold their sin against them. Joseph made the right decision, not just because forgiveness is always the right thing to do, but because it spared him from greater pain and heartache. That may sound backwards. Wouldn’t forgiving someone actually be more painful?

The truth of the matter is that in our attempts to hurt the one who has hurt us by refusing to forgive them, we actually end up hurting ourselves. And that’s because unforgiveness in our hearts slowly ferments inside us and turns into the sour wine of bitterness. Eventually it eats away at us on the inside. 

Withholding forgiveness is like holding your breath, hoping that the other person will pass out. We think that we are getting even with the person by withholding forgiveness, but in the end we will find that it produces a self-inflicted wound. When we withhold forgiveness from someone, we think we are building one prison cell, but we really end up building two. And we are in one of them.

We imprison ourselves with our refusal to forgive because we allow the bitterness to fester inside of us. We also allow our self righteousness to convince us that “I would never do what they did to me.”  The unforgiving person is quick to see others as more heinous and themselves as more virtuous.

Croatian theologian Miraslov Volf offers these stinging words for us.

“Forgiveness flounders because I exclude the enemy from the community of humans and myself from the community of sinners.” -Miraslov Volf (Exclusion and Embrace)

So we’ve seen what happens when we don’t forgive. What happens when we do forgive? Returning to the story of Joseph, when we see his outburst of emotion we almost get the sense that he can’t wait to forgive his brothers. He has to release this emotion that has been built up for the last 22 years!

In this sense, forgiveness is like a great pressure release valve that ends up being a blessing to the forgiver, not just to the forgiven. Just as withholding forgiveness ends up building two prisons, extending forgiveness ends up setting two prisoners free. 

So what does it take to forgive? 

  • Behold the greatness of God

Joseph was able to embrace his brothers in forgiveness because he knew that while they intended a great evil against him, God was at work through it all to accomplish a greater good. Joseph believed that God was the one who sovereignly orchestrated this whole story in order to bring about greater good for many people. 

Genesis 45:5-8

…for God sent me before you to preserve life…And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth…So it was not you who sent me here, but God.

A small view of God diminishes our ability to forgive. A big view of God increases our ability to forgive. If you find that the wrong done against you is too great to forgive, then it’s quite possible that God is not great enough in your life.

  • Trust in the justice of God

When we fail to trust that God will right all wrongs, we feel like we can’t forgive because this person will just get away with it. If there is no judge sitting on the bench of the courtroom of the universe, then forgiveness truly becomes a foolish act of letting people off the hook. Because if God won’t punish evil, then someone has to.

Violence and revenge have their way in our world when we fail to believe that God will set the world to rights. But when we trust that God is just, then we can forgive those who wrong us because we trust that the judge of all the earth will do what is right.

  • Rest in the forgiveness of God

The best way to know how to forgive is to know how forgiven you are. The reason that you and I struggle to be a forgiving people is because we struggle to believe that we are a forgiven people.

One of my favorite examples is related in Luke 7, when Jesus has an encounter with a woman who quite likely is a prostitute. She arrived at the home where Jesus was dining with many religious leaders, and began to wash Jesus’ feet with perfume. The religious leaders grumbled and complained about this because she was such a great sinner. But then Jesus so beautifully and powerfully flips the script on them and shows them that it is precisely because she knows how great a sinner she is that makes her worthy of love and forgiveness.

Luke 7:47

Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” 

There is a direct correlation between our ability to forgive and our understanding of our own forgiveness. The power to forgive comes from the power of being forgiven. 

If we claim that the sins committed against us are unforgivable, then we are in that moment revealing how little we think of our own sin and how little we think of God’s forgiveness toward us. But when we understand the depth of God’s forgiveness toward us in Christ, then there will never be a wrong so egregious committed against us that we can’t forgive.

Do you want to be a forgiving person? Then become a forgiven person. Forgiveness feels foolish but it’s always the right choice. Praise be to God that Jesus made the right choice for us.