How to Do It
So we’ve been jamming now for four weeks on the issue of forgiveness. As I was getting ready for this morning and taking the next step in this journey with you, a couple of different stories came to mind that I think help illustrate what we’re going to be talking about today. I actually heard the first one just a couple of weeks ago along with many of you. In the 1950s a young man named Carl Ericsson was in Junior High. At some point in this harrowing time of his life Carl was teased by some other boys in the locker room. The only real clue ever given about the nature of the torment was that someone had put a jockstrap on his head. Well, life eventually moved on and Carl grew to adulthood and it seemed like this was merely an isolated incident much like many of us have faced at one point or another in our lifetimes. Except for Carl, it wasn’t. A few years ago, more than 50 years after the ridicule took place, Carl went to the house of one of the boys who had given him such a hard time and murdered him in cold blood.
At the same time I was thinking about Carl’s story, another story came to mind. I heard this one a couple of years ago when a book was published about it and several churches jumped on the opportunity to have the hero of the story come and relate it to their congregations personally. The man’s name is Louie Zamperini. Today, Louie is 96 years old and as sweet as you could ask for. Now, when he was growing up he was a scoundrel, but he was fast. He was so fast, in fact, that he made the U. S. Olympic team for the 1936 Olympics. Before he had a chance to participate in the 1940 Olympics he was drafted to fight in World War II in the Army Air Force as part of B-24 squadron. After flying a few successful missions, including being in a plane that was struck with gunfire almost 600 times, the plane he was in crashed in the Pacific. After surviving on a raft for almost a month through sunburn, starvation, sharks that literally jumped up on their raft in attempts to pull them back into the water for dinner, Louie and his men were picked up by the Japanese and taken to a prisoner of war camp. Being shark bait may have been preferable to this in their minds. Louie was beaten daily for several weeks. One particularly sadistic guard, nicknamed, “The Bird,” took a special interest in making sure Louie was subjected to as much pain as he could physically withstand on a regular basis. Eventually the war ended and Louie returned home, miraculously, still in one piece. Dealing with the shock of his experiences was too much, though, and he turned to alcohol to deaden the nightmares. Louie continued his downward spiral until his wife filed for divorce and it looked like he was going to lose everything. The real miracle, though, is found in what happened next. But you’re going to have to wait on that.
This morning , as we take some more steps on our journey of understanding the ins and outs of forgiveness, we are going to finally pivot around to talk about forgiveness itself. So far we have spent the past three weeks essentially talking about unforgiveness. We started this whole journey by establishing the importance of forgiveness as opposed to unforgiveness. We discovered through one of Jesus’ parables that if we don’t forgive, we won’t be forgiven. Unforgiveness will eventually prevent us from receiving the forgiveness of God for the things we have done wrong in this life. Two weeks ago we got more specific and personal. Unforgiveness isn’t just some abstract idea that we need to deal with at some point to avoid getting in the wrong line when we line up for judgment. It impacts our lives right here and now by separating us from our Father. This separation causes all sorts of problems for us including preventing us from receiving the blessings God desires to give us, interrupting key relationships in our lives, giving us a false lens through which to view the events of our lives, and generally poisoning our hearts. But, far from being merely a personal problem, as we saw last week, unforgiveness poisons the whole relationships systems of which we are apart. Through the story of Jacob and Esau and the latter brother’s unwillingness to forgive his younger brother for some pretty serious offenses, the two nations were always at war. Edom, the nation founded by Esau, eventually came to ruin because their patriarch settled for calling the offense water under the bridge instead of actually forgiving it. The water was toxic and the whole reservoir was polluted for it. The antidote we need to counteract the poison of unforgiveness is forgiveness. We need to take this medicine frequently and with urgency to make sure that not even the slightest trace of unforgiveness is left in us to poison our lives.
All of that has led us to this morning. So far in this journey I have encouraged you to forgive the various offenses in your lives. I’ve warned of the dangers of not doing so in a number of different ways. Yet, I haven’t stopped to explain exactly how to do it or what it looks like. Perhaps you are growing frustrated at this lack because I keep asking you to do something you don’t really know how to do. This morning we are going to fix that. I want to show you this morning both what forgiveness is and how to do it. I’ll even take you one step further than that and show you what the results of forgiveness can be. And as has been our trend so far in this journey, I want to show you all of this through the vehicle of a story. This story actually concerns the children of Jacob. Like their father, they were guilty of a pretty significant offense and it stood a real chance of destroying the whole family even more quickly and thoroughly than the fallout of Esau not forgiving Jacob as we saw last week. The story itself can be found in Genesis 50, but it begins several chapters before when a privileged young man named Joseph is dealt a terrible injustice by none other than his brothers. Find your way to Genesis 50 and I’ll tell you this amazing story.
The story begins with a young man named Joseph, father’s favorite, who didn’t know when to keep his mouth shut. His brothers were already jealous of him because their father showered extra affection and attention on him. But then he had a dream that featured everyone in the family bowing down to him…and he was dumb enough to share this with them. Some weeks later when dad sent the golden boy to check up on his brothers and report back—something that seemed to them to be sneakily similar to spying and tattling on them—they responded by hatching a plot to kill him on the spot. The oldest brother, recognizing the long term consequences of this act, convinced them to merely scare him by throwing him in an old, abandoned well, planning to later come and pull him back out. Unfortunately, when he was gone, the rest of the brothers jumped on an opportunity to add some injury to the insult and sold Joseph to some passing slave traders. Thus Joseph began his own personal exile to Egypt.
Joseph was purchased by the captain of Pharaoh’s guard, a man named Potiphar. He made the best of the situation, though, and distinguished himself by his outstanding character such that Potiphar eventually made him the head of his household. By this time Joseph was an attractive young stud, a fact not lost on Potiphar’s lustful wife. After a scene that could have been stolen off a Desperate Housewives episode, Joseph, still maintaining his exemplary character, found himself dealt yet another injustice and landed in prison. Here, again, because of his character, Joseph found his situation with Potiphar repeating itself and soon the head jailer had set him over all the other prisoners. Well, a man with such obvious leadership qualities doesn’t seem likely to be long for prison. Indeed, after an interesting turn of events Joseph found himself second in command over the whole nation of Egypt and tasked with preparing the region for the seven-year famine he predicted on the basis of a couple of dreams that the Pharaoh had.
Here, then, is where things get really interesting. A few years later the famine finally arrived, just as Joseph had predicted. The famine eventually spread to consume the whole region in its deathly swirls. It extended, in fact, all the way to the land where a still-mourning Jacob and his sons were living. Jacob sent them to Egypt, which had grain to spare according to the reports they’d received. The brothers obediently went and found themselves not face-to-face with their brother, Joseph, but face-to-ground in front of him, just as his dream predicted so long before.
At this point things start moving pretty quickly. After giving his brothers a bit of a hard time, Joseph revealed himself to them to much fear at first, but then joy. He sent them back to bring their father and the rest of the household to Egypt where Joseph would provide for them by the power of his position. Eventually, though, Jacob died. The brothers, Joseph included, all journeyed back to their homeland to bury their father in the family plot. And here let me remind you of something from last week. Do you remember Esau’s private vow made out of the earshot of Isaac after Jacob had stolen his blessing? “The days of mourning for my father are approaching; then I will kill my brother Jacob.” This was a pretty common sentiment back then. We’ll make nice until dad dies and isn’t around to keep the peace between us with the force of his word, then all bets are off. After Jacob died, Joseph’s brothers were terrified that he was going to use his power to get his revenge on them after all these years.
Our story for this morning, then, picks up here as the brothers scrambled to try and preserve their own lives. Take a look with me at Genesis 50:15. “When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, ‘It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil that we did to him.’” Stop there just a second. Can you blame them for thinking like this? They knew exactly what they had done to their brother, by now they had probably learned what Joseph had gone through as a result of their mistreatment of him, and now he was one of the most powerful men in the whole world. Can I just say that I would be joining them in a big gulp? If he held a grudge, now was the perfect time to unleash it. So what did the brothers do? They did what they do best: they schemed. Verse 16: “So they sent a message to Joseph, saying, ‘Your father gave this command before he died, “Say to Joseph, Please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.” And now, please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.’” While perhaps Jacob really did issue such a command, we don’t have any evidence of it. And what more, given the character of the brothers and their desperation, I have little trouble believing that they made it up to save their lives.
Either way, Joseph’s response is fully consonant with the glowing character he has already been revealed to have. Verse 17b: “Joseph wept when they spoke to him. His brothers also came and fell down before him and said, ‘Behold, we are your servants.’ But Joseph said to them, ‘Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.’ Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.” In other words, Joseph forgave them. In spite of everything they had done to him, Joseph forgave his brothers. He declared their debt to him paid in full and released them from the burden they owed to him. When you think about the full extent of what his brothers made Joseph go through (20-30 years or more of slavery and imprisonment) this is pretty remarkable. It might be tempting to say, “Well, of course Joseph forgave them. He didn’t have any reason not to any longer. God had finally made right all the injustices done to him and he was living a life of luxury now as second-in-command over Egypt.” But not so fast. Simply because life has gone on and things seem to be going pretty well does not mean that forgiveness has happened. We saw that last week in the story of Jacob and Esau. We saw that just a few minutes ago in the story of Carl Ericsson.
Forgiveness can be a very hard thing in spite of life circumstances that seem to turn our way after an injustice has been done to us. So how did Joseph do it? How was he able to forgive his brothers for the monumental blow they had dealt to him? How do we forgive the people in our lives who have hurt us so we can avoid all the pitfalls of unforgiveness? In this little interchange we are given a glimpse of the mechanics of genuine forgiveness. There are five key aspects of forgiveness on display here that chart a course forward when we need to forgive someone else. Let’s look at these together.
First, there has to be a full acknowledgement that something wrong has happened. This may seem insignificant, but it is important. So often to avoid either conflict or dredging back up the pain of an old wound, when we go to forgive the person who has hurt us, we don’t really acknowledge that something has happened. Forgiveness is not, “Oh, forget about it.” It can’t be. If nothing wrong was actually done then there really isn’t anything to forgive. Genuine forgiveness cannot happen until there is a full coming to terms moment regarding what has happened. In these seven verses the fact that Joseph’s brothers did something evil to him is mentioned four times. They acknowledge it twice, they suggest that their father acknowledge it, and Joseph acknowledges it. Everybody is aware that something evil happened. When we are trying to forgive someone else, depending on the severity of the event, this may be really hard to do. It may bring back up painful memories we’ve been working hard to forget. We don’t want to go back there. But we have to. Until we come fully to terms with whatever it is, forgiveness simply isn’t going to happen. Furthermore, if the other person isn’t willing to acknowledge their debt to us, we have to be honest with ourselves and do it for them. We can’t pretend it didn’t happen. It shouldn’t have, but it did, and now there’s work to be done. This has to be first and nothing else can happen until it does. Clear?
Second, with the debt owed to us by this injustice established we must make a second important recognition: we’re not God. Remember, this is why we don’t forgive in the first place. By declaring whatever it was “unforgivable,” we are sitting ourselves firmly on God’s throne who alone is the one with the proper authority to make such a determination. In order to forgive someone who has hurt us, once we’ve acknowledged the offense, we must step down off of God’s dais and put ourselves back in the place we were designed to fill. Joseph did this before saying anything else to his brothers. “Am I in the place of God?” he asked them. The answer, of course, was no. But until he admitted as much, forgiveness wasn’t going to happen. Once we understand who God is, we’ll have a better handle on what He’s done for us. And, when we’ve grasped the full extent of what He’s done for us in going to the cross to pay the price for our sins, we’ll be empowered to do this in the lives of the people who have hurt us. When we understand who God is and who we are, forgiveness becomes possible.
Third, and related to this second thing, we must come to recognize that avenging evil is neither our call nor our duty. Both belong to God. You see, when we understand who God is, we will grasp the fact that all the world belongs to Him. All of it. Every single part. Because of this, He is solely responsible for fixing the places that are broken. Our job is simply to bear witness to this fact. When we go about trying to fix evil on our own we are going to try and do it in accordance with our vision and our sin-broken sense of justice. This is only going to cause more trouble as our vision is not God’s vision and our “justice” often plays itself out very unjustly. We can and certainly should work for justice, but vengeance really does belong to God because He is the party chiefly offended.
Fourth, and again, in line with the previous two steps, we need a vision of what God is doing in His world and how this event might fit in with that. Let me say right out of the gate here that this is really hard. We don’t often find ourselves on the complete other side of an injustice as Joseph does here such that we can say with confidence, “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” Most of the time, when something terrible has happened, something bad enough that forgiveness is a real challenge, we can’t see how there could possibly be any good to come from it. That’s okay. God doesn’t expect us to be able to see that. His expectation is merely that we trust that He is able to do it anyway. This comes when we understand who God is. Often our vision of God is too small to be of any use to us in hard situations. If He’s pretty much just there to make us happy, we’re sunk when something has happened out of which we can’t really see happiness as possibility. But when we have a firm grasp of God’s full glory and the grand vision He has for His world, we will have a much easier time embracing the truth that God is both willing and able to take our pain and transform it by His grace into our joy; His intention to turn our mourning into dancing.
Fifth and perhaps most important: in light of everything we’ve just said, we must release the other person from the debt they owe us. This is the point at which forgiveness actually happens. The previous four steps are merely the pre-show entertainment to this main event. When we have understood who God is and what He is doing in His world we get before the one who owes us a debt of forgiveness if possible or at the very least go to the place in our heart where the burden lies, and release them from it. We verbally or at least emotionally say, “I release you from this burden. Your debt has been paid in full by another and you don’t owe me anything anymore.” We see this on the part of Joseph when he not only releases his brothers from the debt they owe him, but goes so far as to put himself in a debt of service to them. This, by the way, prefigured what Jesus did for us. He went to the cross on our behalf to release us from our debt of sin and now serves us by working to see us become fully who we were created to be. He calls us to this same thing in the lives of those who have hurt us. As the apostle Paul said, let’s make sure that the only debt we owe to anybody else is the debt of love; the debt of working intentionally to see them become fully who God designed them to be. And here’s the important part: this might have to happen more than once. When we discover new places damaged by whatever the offense was we very well may have to forgive all over again. But we do it because the alternative is terrible. This is going to be excruciatingly difficult in some cases, but when we have a good grasp of who God is and what He’s doing in His world, it will become much easier to cross the gap.
Bringing all of these points together, then, let’s answer the question that’s been driving all of this: how do we forgive? How do we come to the place where we are able to forgive a person who has hurt us? Quite simply, by knowing who God is and what He’s doing. Forgiveness comes when we know who God is and what He’s doing. Forgiveness comes when we know who God is and what He’s doing. And I don’t mean that we know specifically what God’s plans are, but rather that we are aware of the fact that He is bringing all creation to the glorious end He has planned for it. This end will involve the righting of every wrong, the making just of every injustice. Forgiveness comes when we know who God is and what He’s doing.
This was certainly the case for Louie Zamperini. In a last stitch effort to save their marriage, Louie’s wife suggested he go to the Billy Graham Crusade that was in town. He didn’t really want to go, but did so anyway to try and appease her. The first night he sat mostly checked out, but for some reason he came back the second night. That night he was overwhelmed by the Gospel for the first time in his life. Suddenly, he saw everything in a totally new light and gave his life to Christ. With the power of the Spirit in Him and a new awareness of who God is and what He’s doing, Louie began cleaning up his life. He stopped drinking and went to work on his marriage (which lasted until his wife passed away in 2001). He also realized that the only way he was going to be free from the nightmares that still haunted him from the war was to forgive the men who caused them. Forgiveness, and freedom, for Louie came when he recognized who God is and what He’s doing. He forgave in his heart the men who had done so much evil to him and the nightmares stopped. Some years later he even got the chance to go to Japan and forgive some of the prison guards who had tortured him to their faces. Louie set those men free from their debt to him and began to live in the full freedom of Christ himself. All because of the power of Christ expressed through forgiveness. Forgiveness comes when we know who God is and what He’s doing. Forgiveness comes when we know who God is and what He’s doing. Now, go do it.