I don’t know if it’s because of the popular musical or because of Sunday School stories long ago, but it seems like a lot of people know at least a little bit about the story of Joseph. Maybe it’s his Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat.
Maybe it’s all the bad things that kept happening to this really nice person: the betrayal by his jealous, callous brothers; slavery in the far away land of Egypt; betrayal again, injustice, prison, hopelessness… How these numerous wrongs must have festered in those long dark nights of Joseph’s suffering!
But then – by a series of odd circumstances – Joseph comes into the favor of the king and is raised to unimaginable prestige and power in his “adopted” land of Egypt. This is great story telling: a strong lead character who faces multiple challenges to his deep moral core; a panoply of interesting villains; unlikely plot twists; Technicolor dreams, poetic justice, reconciliation and a happy-ever-after-ending.
But one thing that comes to mind when I read Joseph’s story is: how on earth was he able to forgive such injustice and betrayal?
If you have ever been hurt deeply, you know it is not easy to forgive. And you know it may not happen quickly. Forgiveness is a process; it must be engaged with intention and attention. In order to truly forgive, we must begin with the willingness to even want to enter into the process of forgiveness. We first have to be willing to want to forgive before we can hope to make it to the actual act of forgiveness.
And it helps to enter the process of forgiveness keenly aware of how very badly we need to forgive; how forgiveness is as much for us as it is for the other person.
You have heard the old saw: “forgive and forget” but I will argue that is not only impossible, it is also unwise. God may be able to forgive and forget but that’s not usually how it works for us humans. Experiences that have been seared into our souls leave indelible marks that change us in deep ways, and because we are human, those events stay with us; some things we just cannot forget.
Besides, I think there is something biblical and wise about remembering: remembering who we are and where we come from and what we’ve learned along the way. I believe a key part of faithful and wise living is our remembering – remembering even past hurts.
For one thing, remembering honors the pain we have borne. We don’t dismiss it and downplay it because betrayal hurts and the remembering of it acknowledges how damaging and deadly sin can be. When we remember, we do not stuff our feelings or dismiss that hurt. Rather we honor the significance of the wrong that has been done to us. We grieve the damage done to relationship; we grieve the loss of trust. We don’t say it’s okay, that it doesn’t matter, because it does matter. It matters to us. It matters to the health and to the witness of the entire community. It matters to God.
For another thing, in our remembering we hold each other accountable to right behavior and Christ like living. We don’t make excuses for people who have hurt or harmed someone else; we don’t let them off the hook. Destructive behaviors need to be exposed and confronted. Healing happens in the light; toxic festering is what happens in the darkness of denial.
Have you ever been hurt by a minister? Me too.
Have you ever been hurt by Christians? Me too.
Have you ever hurt someone else and broken faith with another who trusted you? Me too.
Right remembering not only recollects the wrongs done to me, it also remembers how easy it is for me to inflict hurt on others. Right remembering makes us wise and keeps us humble.
There is something especially damaging when a community of faith breaks faith. Countless people have experienced tragic betrayal by the Church. Countless people have been alienated from Christ’s work of love and reconciliation because the body of Christ has too often lived in antithesis to reconciliation. We Christians have much to answer for.
But unforgiveness also is something we must answer for.
Some years ago, someone hurt me and that hurt changed me. Sunday after Sunday I would pray the prayer: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us,” but I had no clue how to forgive this deep wound; how to let go of this painful past. I was so badly curved in upon myself, I was not even willing to start to begin to try to embark upon the process of forgiveness. (“the Self turned in on itself.” Martin Luther’s understanding)
Forgiveness and repentance are two sides of a coin. In repentance, we name the ways we hold on to bitterness or anger; the ways we participate in gossip or slander. We acknowledge how easily we tend to become a self curved in on itself; we admit how hard it is for us to bend our lives toward the One who creates and calls us.
In repentance, we own up and name our failings honestly – to God, to ourselves, and to at least one other human being. And then – having entered into repentance – we are empowered to enter into forgiveness. Having emptied ourselves of ourselves as best we are able, only then are we able to be filled up with that which is God’s – amazing grace, profligate mercy and unfailing love.
Love is the key here.
Consider this wonderful little poem by Derek Trasker:
I wonder what would happen if
I treated everyone
like I was in love with them,
whether I like them or not
and whether they respond or not and no matter
what they say or do to me and even if I see
things in them which are ugly twisted petty
cruel vain deceitful indifferent,
just accept all that and turn my attention to some small
weak tender hidden part and keep my eyes on
that until it shines like a beam of light
like a bonfire I can warm my hands by and trust
it to burn away all the waste which is not
(never was) my business to meddle with.
When I think back and remember the times I have not forgiven well, it is clear to me that I have not loved well.
Paul’s letter to the churches of Galatia is so profound in so many ways. Here Paul is preaching a gospel of God’s radical grace that is astounding, unimaginable, unbelievable. So much so, as it turns out, that some fellow Jewish Christians (and even Peter!) pull back from that divine wide-openness. “Yes…But…” Paul’s critics say. There are rules to be followed, rituals to be honored, lines to be toed.
Paul’s famous response is: Love. “The fruit of the Spirit is love…” Paul insists. When Spirit has its way with us, love happens. When Spirit plants its life in us, love blooms. When Spirit breaks wide open our curved in little Selves, there is amazing grace, profligate mercy and unfailing love.
And what does love look like? What does love act like? Much as he does in that wonderful 13th chapter of First Corinthians, in Galatians 5, Paul clearly describes Love as:
So how could it be that one could ever live in this life-giving Spirit and at the same time live in unrepentance or unforgiveness? I don’t think we can.
When the wide-openness of God’s Love takes root in our lives, we can’t help but grow towards the wide-openness of Grace. It is the grace we have received that allows us to offer grace to others.
When we have been hurt, wounded or betrayed, it is only forgiveness that will allow us to let go of the past and move into a wide-open future. The one who has hurt us may never know, may not even care that we have forgiven them – but we know. We will know that we are released from the anger, freed from the bitterness, unshackled from the past and changed forever.
We may remember the hurt, we may still feel some of the pain, but over riding all that, we remember God’s amazing grace, profligate mercy and unfailing love.
The happy ever after ending of the Joseph story was possible because he was able to take all the hurt, pain and betrayal of his life and let it be redeemed within the life giving process of forgiveness. Joseph was able to allow grace to absorb and transform everything that was ungracious, unjust and unkind. If he was human, then I’m pretty sure that took time and effort. Forgiveness doesn’t just happen; forgiveness takes attention and intention.
Even for God, forgiveness requires work – and in the Christian understanding that work was accomplished in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
And so we are invited to live in this story of forgiveness. We are invited to let Spirit break wide open our closed off, curved in little Selves so that we may become large enough to enter into the hurt, pain and betrayal of the world.
We are called to “take up our cross and follow” the Christ, carrying God’s redemption and reconciliation with us wherever we go.
Genesis 37-50; Psalms 55, 75, 107; Mark 8-10; Galatians