Forgiveness – how difficult!
If there was ever an example of a family that simply could not get on, it was Jacob’s family. It seems that Jacob would be dogged with family strife all his life. (Remember how he cheated his brother out of his inheritance and had to escape because his brother swore to kill him.)
Trouble began when Jacob made it quite plain that Joseph was his favourite son. We can understand this - Rachel, his best-loved wife, gave birth to Joseph when Jacob was already an old man. Jacob foolishly made it clear to the older brothers that Joseph was his favourite and gave him special gifts that everyone could not help noticing. The gift that really made their blood boil was a beautiful robe. Apparently, it was a long-sleeved coat, beautifully ornamented; the kind normally worn by young princes and other important people wore. You can visualise Joseph parading around in this fantastic coat. No wonder the brothers were jealous!
Joseph was 17 when the trouble came to a head. He must have been a terrible teenager because he would report to his father anything the other brothers did or didn’t do. Maybe they had lost some of the sheep, or while they were having some fun in a nearby town, they left the sheep unattended and maybe the flock was attacked by wolves. Whenever there was some bad news to report, it seemed that Joseph took great delight in reporting it to Jacob and getting his brothers in trouble.
Then Joseph has a couple of dreams in which he sees sheaves of wheat, and the sun, moon and stars bowing down before him. That was just too much, even for his father Jacob. We are told, "They (his brothers) hated him even more because of his dreams and because of what he said about them" (Genesis 37:8). Three times in a few verses the word "hate" is used. They hated him because he was a spoilt brat, who thought himself better than anyone else and was molly coddled by their father. They hated him so much that they their minds were filled with evil – they wanted to kill him.
Jacob’s family is a mess. This is a story about how relationships can turn sour. Jacob’s favouritism, Joseph’s boasting, the brothers’ jealousy, hatred, and evil planning have all led to separation, a breakdown of all brotherly love.
There is a story about twins who both had barbershops in the same town. They grew up together, did everything together and then something happened about forty years ago. No one knows what it was they disagreed about, but they stopped talking to each other. Their barbershops were in the same street in the same town, twin brothers, yet they have separated since then and each is so stubborn, they won’t get back together.
This happens in families. Maybe you know of a family where one person isn’t talking to another and have carried on like this for years. Maybe there is someone among your relations who doesn’t talk to you or you don’t talk to them because of some incident in the past. Maybe there is someone who you know who has a bad relationship with their parents, a brother or sister, a son or daughter, a grandparent.
This happens also in the family of the church. We know too well; how human nature takes control in the life of a congregation and people end up hurt and separated. They cross the street and look the other way when they see the other approaching. They are stubborn and unforgiving. They stop participating in the church.
There is the story of an old man who spent the last decades of his life sleeping in another room while his wife slept in another. A rift had opened thirty years before over whether the husband showed enough concern when their five-year-old daughter fell ill. Now, neither husband nor wife is willing to take the first step. Every night he waits for her to approach him, but she never appears. Every night she lies awake waiting for him to approach her, and he never appears. Neither will break the cycle that began years before. Neither will forgive.
Does that scenario seem familiar? It’s so hard to make the first move to bring about forgiveness and reconciliation when bitterness and resentment have destroyed a relationship. Look how the unforgiving attitude of Joseph’s brothers led to them to despise and hate their brother. They lost all love for him as a brother. It was as if a solid insurmountable wall of resentment and hatred had been built between them and their younger brother. It is ever so hard to break that down. Forgiveness is a difficult thing, in fact, it’s unnatural, especially when we think that we have been the one wronged, and we won’t give in until the other person says he/she is sorry. And so family members, friends, congregational members stay separated, more interested in getting even, than reconciliation.
It is especially hard to make the first move to bring about forgiveness when we consider that we have been the one wronged. This is hard because our human nature wants justice and revenge, and by holding back forgiveness we are emphasizing that we are right, and the other person is wrong.
What are we to do as Christians to stop the separation and ill that can infect our family and congregational life so easily? What can we do that will prevent what happened in Jacob’s family where resentment and bitterness led to a complete breakdown between Joseph and his brothers?
Before we go any further, we need to establish the fact that forgiveness has that unnatural quality of being undeserved, unmerited, even unfair. It goes against our basic instincts as humans.
Wrestling with the command to "love your enemies" while being persecuted under Nazi Germany, Dietrich Bonhoeffer finally concluded that it was the "peculiar … the extraordinary, the unusual" quality of Christian love and forgiveness that set a Christian apart from the rest of the world. As much as it might go against the grain to reach out with a forgiving hand to those who have offended us; it is the very nature of Christian forgiveness that urges us to do so.
As much as we might look for loopholes or for reasons not to forgive those who hurt us, Jesus leaves no room for doubt that just as God has forgiven us for our persistent and blatant wrong against him so also we are to forgive one another even though we think the other person doesn’t deserve it. Even though we feel deeply hurt by the words and actions of one of the family or a congregational member, and just as Joseph must have been deeply hurt by the cruel actions of his brothers when they sold him as a slave, nevertheless it is an essential part of our Christian faith that just as God forgives us so we ought to forgive those who sin against us. We say it in the Lord’s Prayer, "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us."
Paul said to the Colossians, "Forgive one another whenever any of you has a complaint against someone else. You must forgive one another just as the Lord has forgiven you" (3:13).
God who is hurt and upset at our offensive behaviour has taken the initiative to forgive us. He sent his Son to become human and to die for our sake on the cross. He allowed his Son to be crucified and to take on himself all of our sin and give us forgiveness and eternal life. It was so unfair that someone so innocent and perfect should have to suffer but there you have it – grace - God’s totally unmerited and undeserved forgiveness. It is this grace that Jesus asks us to share with those who wrong us. It could be suggested that we do not forgive because we don’t appreciate the grace, the forgiveness that God has shown toward us.
Henri Nouwen writes this: God’s forgiveness is unconditional; it comes from a heart that does not demand anything for itself, a heart that is completely empty of self-seeking. It is this divine forgiveness that I have to practice daily in my life. It calls me to keep stepping over all my arguments that say that forgiveness is unwise, unhealthy, and impractical. It challenges me to step over all my needs for gratitude and compliments. Finally, it demands of me that I step over that wounded part of my heart that feels hurt and wronged and that wants to stay in control and put a few conditions between me and the one whom I am asked to forgive.
Practicing this divine forgiveness in our lives means making the first move. As hard as that might be and even though we are the ones who have been hurt, Jesus urges us to make the first moves towards reconciliation, when he says, "If your brother (or sister) sins against you, go to him (her) and show him (her) his fault" Matthew 18:15 (brackets mine).
The story of Jacob’s family would have ended quite differently if the cycle of hatred and resentment had been broken and Joseph would have said to his brothers, "I’m sorry for being so obnoxious. Will you forgive me?" The brothers could have gone to Joseph and asked, "We have been so jealous and unkind to you, will you forgive us?" You see, resentment builds upon resentment. It clings to the hurts of the past, to old wounds that never heal.
I think that it has become clear that forgiveness is not easy, it goes against our human nature, but it is something that is required of us as members of God’s kingdom. How can we heal the rifts that might occur in our families or the family of the church or among friends?
Firstly, ask God for forgiveness for your lack of forgiveness. Ask God to forgive the hard heart that has grown in you. Ask him to show you once again what true forgiveness is, how it is undeserved, unmerited, unfair. Feel again the joy of having the burden of your sin lifted from you and think what you can do to give that same joy to someone who is burdened with a strained relationship with you.
Secondly, rather than harbour the hurt someone has caused you, go to them and share the grace and forgiveness that God has shown to you. Make the first step in healing the relationship between you and that person. It might also happen that the other person doesn’t even realise that you have been offended so help the other person see how you have been hurt with all gentleness and love.
Thirdly, ask God to help you. You’re not superman or wonder woman. Forgiveness doesn’t come easy. Our desire for revenge is strong. Ask God to help you to speak to that person with words of love and forgiveness. Ask God to help you and the other person to work together in restoring your relationship. Ask God to help you in those situations where your approach is not welcomed, and the friendship is not restored. Ask God to help when reconciliation takes a hard road, an abusive husband refuses to change his ways, a gossiper can’t stop spreading stories about you, a wife who continues to cheat on her husband. As difficult as it might seem you can forgive these people, but reconciliation will take a lot longer, or may not be possible at all because of their refusal to mend your relationship. Continue to pray that things might change.
Unforgiveness and bitterness are serious dangers to family life. Look at Jacob’s family. Do you have a relationship that needs fixing? Can you see how your family has suffered because of some kind of falling out or how your relationships within the church have been affected by some kind of resentment or hurt? Let’s follow Paul’s advice, "Forgive one another, as God has forgiven you through Christ."
Children’s story from Come and see Jesus, Open book Publishers 2000
What’s so amazing about grace? - Philip Yancy
The cost of discipleship, SCM 1959 p 136
The Ladder of Jacob - James Kugel
Vince Gerhardy Blog
All Things New: Joining God's Story of Re-Creation - Pete Hughes
Touching the God of Jacob - Robert Henderson, Amy Rylander, Jeannie B. Hartman
Joseph and The Gospel of Many Colours: Reading an Old Story in a New Way - Voddie Baucham
Jacob and His Sons: The End of the Patriarchal Era.by Sicker, Martin New