Forgiving Means Not Forgetting

Genesis 50:15-21 When Joseph's brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, "What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?" 16 So they sent word to Joseph, saying, "Your father left these instructions before he died: 17 'This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.' Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father." When their message came to him, Joseph wept. 18 His brothers then came and threw themselves down before him. "We are your slaves," they said. 19 But Joseph said to them, "Don't be afraid. Am I in the place of God? 20 You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. 21 So then, don't be afraid. I will provide for you and your children." And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.

While you were growing up, your father was difficult and verbally abusive towards you. Now that you are older and have children of your own, he is much softer and wants to have a relationship with you. But you keep him at arms length. He hurt you too badly to have him close to you again.

On more than one occasion your teenage daughter has stormed out of the house, slamming the door behind her, muttering under her breath. A time or two she has even said to your face, “I hate you!” You have had enough. You love her. But you can’t stand her.

Perhaps there are kids on the bus who give you a hard time every morning on the way to school. Or there is superior at your job who benefits from your hard work, but you receive no recognition or bonuses. Or there is a next-door neighbor whose yard and house are an eyesore and he is a pain in your backside.

What do you do?

The world will tell you to hold a grudge. It will tell you to get even. It will tell you that you should never let those people hurt you again.

Well-intentioned Christians, thinking they are quoting the Bible or at least a Bible concept, will tell you the opposite. They will counsel you to “forgive and forget.”

So, what should you do?

The first is obviously wrong. Even though it is what every one of us does … if only for a little while.

Holding a grudge makes you feel good. When you hold a grudge, the other person is the bad guy, and you are the victim. When you hold a grudge, you can play the part of the tragic hero and bask in your righteous indignation. Best of all, when you hold a grudge, your life is simple. You’re right. They’re wrong. And unless they come back and grovel to your satisfaction, you don’t have to go out of your way to deal with them.

But there’s a downside to holding a grudge. Playing the victim seems like an easy pass for a while. But over time it leaves a sense of hopelessness that is bitter and dark. Righteous indignation may taste sweet for a moment, but eventually it sours the soul. And when you hold a grudge in front of your eyes, you are blinding yourself to all the ways you have failed others, all the ways you have disappointed others, all the ways you have hurt and sinned against others … and all the ways you have given others good reason to hold a grudge against you.

So then you should forgive and forget, right? Not so fast. Is forgiving and then forgetting even possible? When someone hurts us, it isn’t like a bad soap opera where all of a sudden we get amnesia and we’ve forgotten everything that has been done to us and everything is now better. We cannot forget. The scars are too deep. The hurts are too painful. The sins are too egregious. Our memory is too long.

And then well-intentioned Christians counsel us to “forgive and forget,” but we just can’t do it. It’s not humanly possible. So now we have guilt on top of our grudges. So there the unforgiveness sits, unresolved. Like a festering sore that never gets treated, it doesn’t go away. It’s a constant source of irritation and pain. It ends up making us irritable and miserable all the time.

So what are we to do? Listen to the account of Joseph and learn a lesson.

Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery when he is 17 years old. Egyptian slaves at the time of the Pharaohs were kind of like a Kleenex – use it and throw it away. They didn’t have much of a life expectancy. So this is a one-way ticket to Egypt, with a sandy cemetery at the end of Joseph’s hard labor.

But along the way, Joseph works hard for his master, Potiphar. He is put in charge of all the other house slaves. But then Joseph is accused of attempted rape by Potiphar’s wife. Falsely accused, he is thrown into a dungeon. After some time, Joseph thinks he might get out after he interprets the dream of the Pharaoh’s cupbearer, who Joseph correctly predicted would go from the prison to the palace. Joseph tells the cupbearer, “Don’t forget about me” … but that’s exactly what happens

And there he sits, a Hebrew young man in an Egyptian prison. Think of all the grudges that could have grown so well in the damp, dark dungeon. Against the no-good cupbearer, who forgot about the favor Joseph had done for him. Against Mrs. Potiphar and her Desperate Housewives behavior. But most of all, against his brothers, for selling him into slavery in the first place.

After no one else can interpret Pharaoh’s weird dreams, the cupbearer remembers Joseph. Joseph is then miraculously rescued from prison and placed as Pharaoh’s secretary of state. Joseph is put in charge of storing food during the seven years of plenty in order to be prepared for the seven years of famine.

During the famine, Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt to buy food. Joseph didn’t forget what his brothers had done. He keeps his identity a secret and creates a test for his brothers to see if they have changed. He plants their food money in their packs and his royal goblet in the pack of the youngest brother, Benjamin. Then he sends the guards after them to see what they would do. The brothers show that they have had a change of heart. One even offers to exchange places with Benjamin so dad wouldn’t lose his new favorite son.

Later, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers. They are terrified that Joseph has been holding a grudge all these years and they are going to be thrown in prison. Joseph didn’t forget what his brothers had done. He just didn’t hold it against them. He forgave them. Forgiveness means that you’re not keep score. You’re letting it go, giving it to God instead of giving it back to them. You are leaving the scorekeeping to God.

After their dad dies, Joseph’s brothers again think that Joseph is going to punish them. “What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?” They think that Joseph was just being nice to them while dear old dad was alive. But now they are going to get it! So they sent word to Joseph, saying, “Your father left these instructions before he died: ‘This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.”

Joseph is hurt by their words. He forgave them a long time ago. He forgave them – not by forgetting what they had done to him, but by remembering how God had turned their sinful actions into a way of saving many lives. Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”

Joseph did not hold a grudge. But he didn’t forget what his brothers had done to him, either. In the past, he recalled how his brothers had overpowered him, but now that he was in a position of power, he doesn’t do the same to them. He chose forgiveness. He blessed the ones who cursed him. He gave grain to the ones who ripped off his robe. He prayed for those who mistreated him. He warmly pressed his cheek against the faces of those who pounded their fists against his. And now, all these years later, Joseph promises, “Don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.”

While many people believe forgetting an injury is part of forgiveness, it is just the opposite. Forgetting isn’t even possible. You cannot make the hurts go away.

Rather, the way to deal with the hurts is to remove the debts others owe us. In the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:23-35), Jesus shows that forgiveness means no longer holding a person’s debt against them. In the parable, a servant is forgiven a large debt, but then he goes out and refuses to forgive another servant’s much smaller debt. The point of the parable is that all of us owe a hopeless debt to God, but our heavenly Master has forgiven that debt of our sins. Now we are to forgive the much smaller debts that are owed us by others.

Bill was on his deathbed. He had withheld forgiveness from his brother for a very long time. Bill’s pastor persuaded Bill to see his brother who had wronged him so many years earlier and forgive him. Bill finally agreed and his brother came to Bill’s house where a formal reconciliation took place, complete with tears and hugs. Then, as the brother was leaving, Bill called out from his bed, “Remember, if I get better, this will all be off!”

Thank the Lord that He does not forgive like Bill. Though it is humanly impossible for us to forgive and then forget, it is a divine promise that God forgives and forgets. The omniscient God makes it clear, “I am he who blots out your transgressions and remembers your sins no more” (Isaiah 43:25). Again He who is all-knowing says, “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (Jeremiah 31:34). How wonderful that our God has divine amnesia when it comes to our sins.

God doesn’t say, “Remember, if circumstances change, this will all be off!” The gift of His forgiveness is not surrounded by exceptions, conditions or exclusions. Jesus bore the punishment for all our transgressions with His innocent suffering and death. Our Master had mercy on us servants, but treated His own Son as if he was the ungrateful servant. God unleashed His righteous anger for thousands of years of humanity’s sins – not on us – but on Jesus. Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” because His heavenly Father had turned His back on His Son, so that He might turn His face towards us in blessing. When Jesus shouted on the cross, “It is finished!” He confirmed that the payment for every sin had been made for all time. All of your sins have been taken away, removed, put on Jesus. “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). Your sins have been considered, counted, cleansed and cleared.

The first missionaries to Labrador found that the native people had no word for forgiveness in their language. The missionaries had to determine a way to express this precious gift of God. They made a glorious choice: “not-being-able-to-think-about-it-anymore.” God doesn’t recall our sin because Jesus paid the penalty for us. Through Jesus, we are free from guilt and free to live in peace and joy with God because He remembers our sins no more.

Holding a grudge and refusing to forgive will only make you emotionally (and maybe physically) sick. Refusal to forgive keeps you trapped in an anger prison. Refusal to forgive leads to a false sense of moral superiority. Refusal to forgive poisons and embitters your spirit. Refusal to forgive motivates Christ to withhold the forgiveness you need. “But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” Matthew 6:15).

Here’s a better way: “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:29). The forgiveness of Jesus gives you the power to forgive others, to release old grudges, and to dismiss old grievances that have been darkening our lives far too long.

Because God doesn’t remember our sins any more, now we can forgive, even when we can’t forget. You can save someone from the slavery of sin when you forgive them. You can release them from the dungeon of despair when you forgive them. And when you do, you might be surprised to discover that the one who has actually been freed is … YOU! Amen.