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How Joseph Helps us Understand the Difference Between Forgiveness and Reconciliation

Forgiveness and Reconciliation
As parents, we need to teach our children to forgive hurt and to ask others for forgiveness. Forgiveness is the gospel glue that keeps a family together. However, for teens and adults, our understanding of forgiveness needs some more nuance. Specifically, we need to make sure we know the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. It is vital that we keep those two concepts clear in our minds.

Joseph’s Story
As I have worked with individuals to explain the difference, I have often found myself going back to the story of Joseph (Genesis 37-50). Although Joseph’s story makes a quaint child’s story, when viewed with realism we actually start to feel sorry for him and to admire him.

What are the facts? Joseph was one of twelve brothers and born into a dysfunctional family. He had a father who treated him with favoritism, inciting the jealousy of his other brothers. When God gave him a dream of ruling over them, Joseph reported it to his brothers. We don’t know whether he told them out of innocence or from arrogance. Incensed, they gave him over to human traffickers. He was shipped far from his family and became a house slave.

Eventually, he worked his way up in that house. As a young man he was handsome and his owner’s wife made sexual advances at him. But Joseph was a man of integrity and spurned her attention. For being rejected, she falsely accused him of attempted rape. Without a trial, Joseph was removed from his position, placed in jail, and left to rot. But here he also started to rise in respect and responsibility. God gave him the ability to interpret the dreams of two of his fellow prisoners. His only request was that he would be remembered before Pharoah. But when one of those prisoners was restored, Joseph was forgotten again.

Over and over we see Joseph victimized and sinned against. The whole string of events started because his brothers had been willing to betray him. Joseph, however, seems to be a man who has completely forgiven those who sinned against him. In the biblical record, there is no hint of grumbling, complaining, or bitterness toward God or others.

This example is a challenge for us to let the debt go and to mark it forgiven. Jesus tells us we are to ask the Father’s daily forgiveness just as we forgive others (Matt 6:12). Like the man with an infinite debt, we should let go of those who sin against us (Matt 18:23ff). By marking the debt canceled, we are fighting against bitterness. Bitterness and cynicism, though they start in the heart, inevitably come out of the mouth and defile others (Heb 12:15).

Keeping a loving heart, however, is not the same as unilateral reconciliation. Reminding myself that I have been forgiven and therefore cannot hate my enemy is different than personal fellowship.

We also see this played out in the life of Joseph. When his brothers arrive in Egypt to purchase food, they don’t know the ruler is their brother. But Joseph recognizes them. He then plans an elaborate test to see if they have changed. Will they betray Benjamin, his brother, just like the betrayed him? In Genesis 44:33 we learn that, no, the brothers have changed. Judah offers to go to prison himself rather than leave Benjamin. Joseph realizes his brothers are different. It is at this point he reveals his identity to them. It is at that moment there is full reconciliation.

Joseph’s story helps us understand the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. It depicts why we can have boundaries with difficult people. It even illustrates how we can have  tense relationships without being bitter. God’s Word tells us, “As far as possible be at peace with all people” (Rom 12:18). Sometimes, because of their closed heart or continued manipulation we cannot have full fellowship.

A Different View?
Some have argued that there cannot be true forgiveness without reconciliation. They would use different words to describe this inner dynamic. This point of view would say that if a person repents we should forgive. However, if a person does not repent, we do not have an obligation to forgive. Instead, we should entrust the sin to God and his final judgement.

I don’t think this is the way the human heart works. I would find myself tempted to entrust it to God with a vengeful spirit. I would probably find myself grumbling something like, “We will not reconcile in this life but I can’t wait for God to pay him back for eternity.” Given my own sinful heart  I would find it hard to “love my enemy” (Matt 5:44)  “feed my enemy” (Rom 12:20) if I am waiting for God to throw him in hell.

No matter which position you take, the point remains the same. There are two arenas that each person must deal with to prevent from becoming embittered. The first involves the dynamics of our own inner heart no matter what the other person does. The second involves the dynamics of the interpersonal relationships

How Could Joseph Do It?
Finally, we must ask, “How could Joseph have reacted in this way? What would allow him to magnanimously forgive?” No doubt, the key is found in Genesis 50:20 when Joseph gives us insight into his understanding of God. In speaking to his brothers, he says “You meant it for evil but God meant it for good,” Joseph does not minimize their sin or sweep it under the rug. “You meant it for evil,” he states. He is a realist about the human heart. But Joseph has a big view of God. He understands that God is both sovereign and good. He is working their evil out for good.

The same is true for us. Every relationship in our lives is not good. There are times that we have experienced or will experiencing evil. But we, like Joseph can work on inner heart dynamics and outward relationships knowing that God is God and God is good.