The Power of Forgiveness — Genesis 50

The power of forgiveness begins with God and sets free both the offended and the offender. Forgiveness heals, reconciles, and restores.

The Power of Forgiveness — Genesis 50
Photo by Anastasia Sklyar / Unsplash

Have you ever daydreamed of becoming a hermit? You know, getting away from it all. Perhaps a mountain man a la Jeremiah Johnson. I imagine hermits do so for a variety of reasons. Get away from the craziness. Run away from conflict. Maybe as a means of avoiding pain. Such thoughts remind me of the old Simon and Garfunkel song, “I Am a Rock.” When I first started listening to their music as a young man, I primarily just liked the tune, though I could sing along fairly faithfully. Let me reprint the lyrics in their entirety for you here. As you read the words, consider the individual who, to avoid hurt and pain that often comes with human contact, removes himself so as not to fall victim to such travesties.

"I Am a Rock" (written by Paul Simon, 1965)

A winter's day
In a deep and dark December;
I am alone,
Gazing from my window to the streets below
On a freshly fallen silent shroud of snow.
I am a rock,
I am an island.

I've built walls,
A fortress deep and mighty,
That none may penetrate.
I have no need of friendship; friendship causes pain.
It's laughter and it's loving I disdain.
I am a rock,
I am an island.

Don't talk of love,
But I've heard the words before;
It's sleeping in my memory.
I won't disturb the slumber of feelings that have died.
If I never loved I never would have cried.
I am a rock,
I am an island.

I have my books
And my poetry to protect me;
I am shielded in my armor,
Hiding in my room, safe within my womb.
I touch no one and no one touches me.
I am a rock,
I am an island.

And a rock feels no pain;
And an island never cries.

From where does such pain come? In general, from humans, who are by nature sinners (Eph 2:3), bristling up against each other. When we do, we are bound to harm others by our words, deeds, and actions.

In this article, I would like to look at an event in the life of Joseph from Genesis 50. In it I hope that we can see the potential power that is found in genuine forgiveness: a power, a healing, that reaches all involved; the offended and the offenders. I say “potential” because as sinners, even those who are Christ followers, we have it within our means to reject forgiveness and all that it offers.

Background to Genesis 50

Before looking specifically at Genesis 50, a quick reminder of what brought Joseph to this point in his life. Joseph was the eleventh of twelve sons born to Israel (Jacob), and was his father’s favorite (Gen 37:3). This was visually indicated by the “coat of many colors” Israel gave to Joseph. This, along with a set of dreams Joseph had indicating that his family members would one day bow down to him, infuriated his older brothers with jealousy.

One day when the opportunity presented itself, the brothers plotted to kill him. Due to the compassion of one brother, Reuben, they instead threw him into a pit. This was followed by selling him into slavery to a passing caravan. Picking up the pace a bit, Joseph is sold to the Egyptian officer Potiphar, is quite successful serving over his master’s household, is wrongfully accused of raping Potiphar’s wife, subsequently thrown into prison, eventually released, and is made chief administrator over all Egypt in light of a coming famine, second only to Pharaoh himself. (Let the reader know there are many valuable details left out due to space.)

In Genesis 42 we read that Joseph’s brothers are sent to Egypt to buy some grain due to the severe and extensive famine. The story is very moving at this point, for as they come face-to-face with Joseph, they did not recognize the brother they thought was dead. Joseph eventually reveals himself to his brothers (Gen 45:3) and the entire family is brought to Egypt to live.

When the patriarch Israel dies, the brothers are terrified that Joseph would now enact his revenge. Perhaps there is a hint of Proverbs 28:1 here, which reads, “The wicked flee when no one is pursuing…” This brings us to Genesis 50. What we see played out is a demonstration of the incredible potency of forgiveness.

Let us now consider four principles regarding the power of forgiveness.

1. The Power of Forgiveness Begins With God.

A. God Is Sovereign

Those seeking to know the power of forgiveness must first recognize God’s hand in all of life. That is to say, God is sovereign over all, including what we might call bad providences. Joseph had clearly come to this understanding in his life when he proclaims, “Do not be afraid, for am I in God's place? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive.” (Gen 50:19-20; emphasis mine)

We already had a hint of this belief in God’s sovereign reign back in Genesis 45 when Joseph had first revealed himself to his brothers. No fewer than three times in that chapter he insists that it was God who had sent Joseph to Egypt (v. 5, 7, 8). It’s important to note that in his declaration in Gen 50:20, Joseph is not saying that the brothers did not sin and are not culpable. See how he states, “you meant evil against me.” Yes, they are still responsible for what they have done, but God’s rule over His Creation will always bring about His perfect purposes, even through the wicked, sinful actions of men.

We see a very similar instance in Peter’s first sermon on the Day of Pentecost. The Apostle says quite clearly, “Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst, just as you yourselves know — this Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death. But God raised Him up again, putting an end to the agony of death, since it was impossible for Him to be held in its power.” (Acts 2:22-24; emphasis mine) The crucifixion was carried out by sinful, wicked men, but it was also all part of God’s “predetermined plan and foreknowledge.” Man’s sinful will being exercised freely, accomplishing God’s perfect design.

Why is this so important? Because when we realize that God is in control, that our King will bring about good even in the most difficult circumstances, we can trust wholly in Him. This includes any justice or revenge in this life. I say “in this life” because that might not be seen in our time. However, we can rest assure that a God of perfect holiness and justice will bring an account to every sinful action. When we demand that on our timetable, we are seeking to take the place that belongs to God alone. Does this mean we always take a passive stance (i.e. not seeking protection from our courts or other means)? No, that is not what we are saying. Romans 13:4 clearly indicates that our governing authorities are there to bring about justice. But sometimes even those means fail us. Our ultimate trust is in God.

B. God Forgives So We Can Forgive

A second principle should be mentioned in the power of forgiveness beginning with God, and it is related to what has just been said. The basis for authentic forgiveness is in the forgiveness that we, and others, have received from God. This is a difficult one for many of us. “Sure, I love that God would extend His grace and mercy to me, but do you know what that person did to me? How could God forgive such a wicked, heartless individual? And maybe that sets them straight with God, but I don’t think I could ever forgive and forget!” When you feel such a heart of resentment welling up inside you, may I suggest refreshing your mind with the words spoken by the psalmist in both Psalm 32 and 51. I share only the first few words here:

How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven,
Whose sin is covered!
How blessed is the man to whom the LORD does not impute iniquity,
And in whose spirit there is no deceit! (Ps 32:1-2)

Be gracious to me, O God, according to Your lovingkindness;
According to the greatness of Your compassion blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity
And cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions,
And my sin is ever before me.
Against You, You only, I have sinned
And done what is evil in Your sight,
So that You are justified when You speak
And blameless when You judge. (Ps 51:1-4)

These are the words and promises made to any who seek the Lord’s forgiveness. Jesus was clear on this issue. We are to forgive others as we have been forgiven by God. It is the lesser (how others have sinned against us) to the greater (how we have sinned against a holy, righteous God). We have no right, no standing, to withhold forgiveness to others who seek to be reconciled. The same Christ who took upon His body the wrath meant for us is the same Christ who took the sins of those who have offended us. As a sampling of the clear teaching of Jesus on this, I offer the following passages:

And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil. [For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.'] For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions. (Matt 6:12-15)

Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father who is in heaven will also forgive you your transgressions. But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father who is in heaven forgive your transgressions." (Mark 11:25-26)

Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering. (Matt 5:23-25)

Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, 'I repent,' forgive him." (Luke 17:3-4)

For those who reject these teaching, or at least in practice refuse to extend such compassionate mercy and grace, we are reminded of the unforgiving servant mentioned in the parable spoken by Christ in Matthew 18:23-25. The story clearly teaches the heart and expectation of forgiving others as we have been forgiven first by our Lord.

2. The Power of Forgiveness Sets You Free.

Because the basis, the foundation, of the power of forgiveness is rooted in God and not fickle humanity, both the offended and the offender(s) can be set free. Let’s first consider the offended.

As we have just stated, having been forgiven by God, you are free to extend forgiveness to other who have sinned against you. In short, you are free to leave the matter with God. Free not to hold on to anger. Free not to seek revenge. Free to release any bitterness you might have clung to for so many years.

I point the reader to Joseph’s heart as reflected in Genesis 50:19. He tells his brothers who were terrified at this point, “Do not be afraid, for am I in God’s place?” It’s almost like he is saying, “Hey, look, if there is going to be any punishment or retribution for what you did to me, that’s between you and God. It’s not coming from me. I am so past that.” Had Joseph been in this high governmental position a couple months after his brothers dumped him into that pit and then sold him into a life of slavery, I’m not sure he could have made such a bold statement. I have to believe the years in prison, albeit wrongfully placed there, were used by God to soften his prideful heart.

But not only does the power of forgiveness free the offended, but it also frees the offender. It frees you from the guilt and shame of your sin. The brothers clearly still carried the weight of their sin, even though they had lived under his care for some time in Egypt at this point:

When Joseph's brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, "What if Joseph bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong which we did to him!" (Gen 50:15–16)

Years ago I sinned dreadfully against my wife. I recall sitting in the kitchen weeping over how I had offended her, seeking her forgiveness. I can’t recall all that I said. I’m sure only a few of my words were coherent through my blubbering. Without a word, she came over and embraced me. I knew I was forgiven. I nearly collapsed. And it was through this profound act of mercy and grace that I knew in greater ways of the forgiveness granted me by my Lord, and how the weight of even greater sin has been removed.

Connected with this is the sense that genuine forgiveness frees the offender from the fear that the other person will bring it back up at some other point—or that they are reconciling conditionally. See how Joseph consoles his brothers. Twice he reassures them, “Do not be afraid.” (v. 19, 21). This is a key element of true, biblical forgiveness. To forgive means it truly is forgotten. Perhaps not in the physical, mental sense, but in the relational sense; as if it never happened. It is how God treats our sin that has been dealt with at the cross of Christ. We have already considered Psalms 32 and 51 which touch on this, but consider the following two passages:

The LORD is compassionate and gracious,
Slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness.
He will not always strive with us,
Nor will He keep His anger forever.
He has not dealt with us according to our sins,
Nor rewarded us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
So great is His lovingkindness toward those who fear Him.
As far as the east is from the west,
So far has He removed our transgressions from us.
Just as a father has compassion on his children,
So the LORD has compassion on those who fear Him.
For He Himself knows our frame;
He is mindful that we are but dust. (Ps 103:8–14)

"They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, 'Know the LORD,' for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them," declares the LORD, "for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more." (Jer 31:34 — also quoted in Hebrews 10:17)

Forgiveness is indeed a powerful thing that frees both the offended and the offender. But lest we feel that forgiveness is simply a perfunctory act or formality to wade through, we must understand the depths to which it can reach.

3. The Power of Forgiveness Heals.

Just as forgiveness has the power to set both parties free, so it has the power to heal both. You no doubt have been sinned against by another individual. I suppose we all have and all will in this lifetime. Sadly, sinners hurting one another is part of the human experience this side of eternity. And if we are honest, we have sinned against others. One of the most detrimental elements of sin is that it almost always leaves pain and hurt in its wake, especially when it has not been dealt with. That is to say, when there is no forgiveness sought, or no forgiveness extended, it can leave festering wounds.

When we do not seek for forgiveness when we know we have sinned against others, we are telling the other party that either we never did such a thing (a lie), it wasn’t that big of a deal (a lie and minimalization), and/or they really should not be that offended but rather “get over it” (you are not that important).

After several years of pastoral ministry with other men with whom I shared responsibility, I took my first “solo” position. I was young and thought I pretty much knew a thing or two. After all, I had a piece of paper hanging on the wall from my seminary that said I did. Let’s just say I was less than gracious in some of my dealings with individuals in my church.

After a few years I left that church knowing in my heart that while I had made some wonderful relationships that I have kept to this day, I had left others deeply wounded. At some point the Lord brought one couple to mind; more specifically the wife. I contacted her husband with whom I was still in contact and asked if the three of us could get together. A time was set and we looked over a small table at some local coffee shop. I believe I did most of the talking. I confessed my sin against them/her in both my words and deeds, giving specific details, and asked for their forgiveness. There was no hesitation on their part, and you could physically see the change that immediately came over the wife. I was able to affirm how she had been sinned against and that she understood that I valued her enough to seek out forgiveness. There was healing. Was it easy? Oh my, no. But it was right and it was necessary.

We see from Genesis 50 that there was healing for the offenders as well. Not in the same way as the pain felt by the offended, but in reference to the weight we spoke about above. This section of Joseph’s life and that of his brothers ends in the most beautiful way. We read, “‘So therefore, do not be afraid; I will provide for you and your little ones.’ So he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.” (Gen 50:21; emphasis mine) This is an astounding thing. The one offended is comforting the offenders. The ones who sought his death, who instead decide to make a profit off him, are the ones being cared for and soothed. This would not have been possible if not for the power of forgiveness.

4. The Power of Forgiveness Reconciles and Restores.

We could make the argument that everything we have said up to this point all comes to a completion at this final principle. From a human perspective, this is the ultimate goal: relationships made right. In the greater scheme, it is a reflection of our mended relationship with God, and it shines a spotlight on His glorious mercy and grace. I just recounted above the story of the church members against whom I had sinned over years of ministry. Because there was forgiveness sought and given, not only was there healing but our relationships were fully restored. When either of these aspects are missing (forgiveness not sought or given), reconciliation and restoration cannot happen.

Years ago I was in my first pastorate working alongside a brother who I highly regarded and one I considered a spiritual mentor. As our relationship, both personal and ministerial, began to cool, this man I admired sinned against me regularly. We parted ways, but the wounds remained. I was now ministering with others in a different setting. At one point, as I counselled others to seek reconciliation in broken relationships (“If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.” Romans 12:18) I came under the conviction that I should not harbor resentment but rather seek healing for both of us. A letter was sent stating where I felt I had sinned in the relationship, where I had been sinned against, and my desire for things to be made right between us. In a matter of time I received a response. I was told of the surprise the offender felt at receiving the letter, and told if I felt I needed to meet with him for my sake, he would be willing to do so. No acknowledgement of his contribution to the crumbling of our once solid relationship. No acceptance of his role, only words that let me know that I was clearly the one with the problem. No meeting ever took place. No reconciliation or restoration.

This raises the age old question, “Can you forgive someone who doesn’t seek forgiveness?” I’d say yes … and no. You can be settled in your heart to forgive, but forgiveness is something that must be sought, given and received. Whether you are currently in the position of the offended or the offender, perhaps you need to be the initiator (Romans 12:18 above). Remember, you cannot control the outcome or other person’s response. Leave that with God.

Some Final Thoughts

Forgiveness is a beautiful thing, especially in a broken, sinful world. It has often been said, “Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that crushed it.” (Attributed to Mark Twain) Be that which gives of the aroma of Christ when sinned against through forgiveness anchored in our Lord.

Allowing yourself to love and to be loved means you also risk being hurt. But what is the alternative? Locking ourselves in a room, away from anyone else, a la “I am a Rock”? God clearly made us for relationship (Genesis 1–2), with Him and with others. Don’t hide away. Love is worth the risk.

I close with one final illustration. It has been quoted (verbatim) so many times I cannot say with any certainty of its origins (my apologies to the original author).

Ernest Hemingway grasped some of the difficulty that characterizes relationships between fathers and sons in his short story, The Capital of the World. The story revolves around a father and his teenage son Paco, set in Spain. Paco was an extremely common name in the Spain of that time. With desires to become a matador and to escape his father’s control, Paco runs away to the capital (from which the title is derived) of Spain, Madrid. His father, desperate to reconcile with his son, follows him to Madrid and puts an ad in a local newspaper with a simple phrase:

“Dear Paco, meet me in front of the Madrid newspaper office tomorrow at noon. All is forgiven. I love you.”

Hemingway then writes, “the next day at noon in front of the newspaper office there were 800 “Pacos” all seeking forgiveness.”