Jason Free

The Cost of Forgiveness

by Jason Free on September 17th, 2023
Genesis 50:15-21

In 2018, a book titled “The Rise of Victimhood Culture” was published by dual authors Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning. In their book, they make the case that modern culture tells us that our primary concern is to demand respect and affirmation of our own identity, whatever that identity might be. At the same time, modern culture also tells us that many individuals today are oppressed and controlled by society’s expectations, roles, and structures. And these two things, the demand for affirmation and the oppression of individuals – real or imagined – by society, has created “a shame and honor culture of victimhood.” 

Today, the authors would argue, the more you are victimized, the more you feel you are oppressed, that society and the powers that be are against you and shaming you, this victim status gives you a sense of honor. And so what has happened? Well, the authors say we now live in an age where people compete for the status of victim and thus try to come up with new ways to be hurt, wronged, or offended. This in turn has swept away the concept of forgiveness and reconciliation because, if you forgive someone, that short-circuits your ability to be a victim, and those who are victims hold power. 

Now, what I just shared with you is something you already know. You’ve maybe never thought about it in the way I just described, but I’m almost positive at some point in your life someone has wronged you and felt awful about it, and that person came to you for forgiveness, and at that point what did you hold? Power. You held the power to forgive that person, to set them free from their guilt and shame. You also held the power to not forgive that person, to leave them in doubt, as they searched for ways to make it up to you. So, it makes sense that we currently live in an age where many have realized that forgiveness, saying, “I forgive you.” that comes at a cost and, for the sake of power, perhaps it’s better to not forgive, or, at the very least, to make that person who wronged you pay dearly for their sin.

Yet, as we have been spending these last weeks of worship looking at God’s church, I think we’ve come to realize that God wants us, his people, to look at things in this world differently, and that’s the case when it comes to forgiveness. And this morning God holds up Joseph as an example for us. 

In Genesis 50, the last chapter in the book of Genesis, we step into a private family affair. Joseph’s father, Jacob, had recently died, and Joseph’s eleven brothers were afraid that, with his dad dead, their brother, Joseph, would punish them. Now, why would they think that? You may recall their family history When Joseph was 17, he had a dream and in that dream, his brothers were bowing down to him – he was ruling over them. At the same time, Joseph also was favored by his father, Jacob, and all of this led to some jealousy amongst the brothers resulting in a rather shocking moment. The brothers threw Joseph into an empty cistern, only to pull him out a little while later so they could sell him for 20 pieces of silver to some merchants who in turn sold him as a slave to a man named Potiphar. If that wasn’t bad enough, these brothers then told dear Dad that they found Joseph’s robe covered in blood and that some wild animal must have killed him. 

Now, I gotta tell ya, I have three older brothers, and we have egos, and we compete, and we’ve gotten into fights, but I don’t think I’ve ever been tempted to sell one of my brothers off to some passing merchants. My point is that there were some real issues in Joseph’s family. And that’s why we find Joseph’s brothers afraid. You see, Joseph didn’t remain a slave, no, God blessed him. At age 30, Joseph found favor with the Pharaoh of Egypt and became his right-hand man, and now, here he was, in our lesson at the age of ~56, a powerful man, and his brothers knew it. And they were terrified that with Dad dead, with Jacob gone, Joseph would finally punish them for what they did. So, you see this. Joseph had the power. He was a victim of the highest order. But take a good look. Look at what did with that power. 

He actually really did two things. First, he wept. Why? Well, years before this moment in Genesis 45, Joseph had already forgiven his brothers. He welcomed them into Egypt. He gave them land and their freedom. He thought they were at peace. Yet, here he finds that, after all this time, they still carried guilt. They couldn’t believe that Joseph actually loved them, that he ever truly forgave them. Guilt and shame do that to a person, maybe you know this well. Some guilt you just can’t shake, some scars from your past still hurt, and it’s hard to believe that you’re ever truly forgiven. 

And, so maybe you’re starting to see it, but often as God’s people, we walk this same path. We’re like Joseph’s brothers. We know of Jesus and his love for us, but it’s hard not to doubt. And that doubt shows up in a myriad of ways – the way we try to earn our self-worth through our overwork, the way we continually beat ourselves up over our failures, the way we approach God in our prayers as if we’re not worthy of being in his presence. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that God weeps when we act like this, just as Joseph wept as his brothers came to him in fear. And by the way, look what those brothers tried to do to appease their guilty consciences. In verse 18, they offered to be Joseph’s slaves. They thought this might pacify their brother, and earn his forgiveness.

But what would have been accomplished if Joseph had taken the advice of his brothers and made them slaves? Would that actually have been enough? That wouldn’t have given Joseph those lost years of his life back. It wouldn’t have somehow restored the broken relationship between the brothers as if now they’re even. No, this would have only contributed to the brokenness of the family. It would’ve only made things worse. That’s why Joseph wept. He had this power, but it couldn’t really fix anything – it never would!

That’s worth thinking about. Um, when someone comes to you for forgiveness the temptation is to think that you got to make that person who wronged you suffer, or pay, or do something to make it up to you. And while that might make you feel better, and while that might even make that person feel better, is that really forgiveness? Check the Bible. I never find Jesus describing forgiveness like this. And there is a reason for that. Forgiveness is lifting a burden off of someone, not adding more burdens on them. Forgiveness is restoring a relationship not creating a new one with one person above another, but to forgive like this requires a person to let go of the power. Joseph got that, and this is the second thing he did.

In verse 19 he said to his brothers, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God?” With those words, Joseph set aside his real earthly power, he humbled himself and he forgave. You see forgiveness is an act of the will, not of the emotions. It is a decision you can make even when you’re still feeling bad about what was done to you. Even if someone devastated you, even if they’re not sorry, you can still give the whole matter over to God. This is what Joseph did. He took off the robe of Judge and gave it to the Judge – to God – so he, Joseph, could just forgive.

That’s the cost of forgiveness. It’s giving all that up, all that power. But we sit here and say, “Well, sometimes people do need to make it up, sometimes someone doesn’t deserve to just walk away forgiven, sometimes “No”  we’re not ‘good,’ not yet at least.” But, you tell me, “Are you in the place of God?” Are you!?“ 

God alone punishes sin. He alone takes revenge – “vengeance is mine he says.” He alone knows what is fair and right. That is God’s place. Reserved only for him. Now, to be clear, I’m not saying then that you and I should ignore the sins of others. God calls us to hold one another to account and to warn those who are living in sin. This we are to do. But, he’s the judge. 

And here is why this is a good thing. Your God is a holy and just judge, and he works in ways that are so beyond us. Joseph admits this in verse 20. He tells his brothers that, somehow, their intention to hurt him, their evil, God worked this all out for good. God does that, and where you see that best is here the cross. 

What happened on the cross was an awful thing. The best possible man, Jesus, was treated in the worst possible way. He was physically nailed to wood after being scourged, beaten, spit on, laughed at…and, as the nails were pounded in, as it was happening, do you know what he cried out? “Father, forgive them.” 

This is God’s answer to the seemingly infinite cycle of hurting and hurting back that we endure in this world. He says, “Hold on! Before you start judging away, keep in mind that I am the one offended by your every sin. I am the object of your rebellion and your hurt. I am the one who holds your debt. The right to justice is mine. The right to punish you is mine…but I give you my Son.” You see this? God gave up his power. He gave up his right, to punish us all, to leave us in hell…and what did it cost?… everything. But he did it anyway because this was the only way our relationship could be restored. This was the only way the burden of our sin could be truly removed. He did it, so he could say this – to you! – “I forgive you.”

And when you start to understand that, that I am the recipient of this costly forgiveness, that Jesus went to hell’s heart for me and was loving and obedient for me…There. That’s what changes me. That brings tears. That love brings me to my knees. It fills me with joy. It changes you. Because, on the one hand, it humbles you out of your pride and self-centeredness while also ripping you out of your self-pity. It makes you hate your sins because those sins led to Jesus’ death. But it forbids you to hate yourself because he did this for you. Nothing else changes us like this. And, you’ll find that in this there is no room for an inferiority complex – because I’m so loved. Yet, there is also no room in your heart for a superiority complex – because I’m a sinner saved by mercy and grace. 

All this is true because God paid the real cost of forgiveness, he gave himself, body, and blood. Today, many of you will see and taste how he did this for you. And whether you’re up here in a moment receiving that forgiveness or sitting there singing God’s praises or reflecting on his sacrifice, know this: the debt is paid. You are forgiven. May that truth, perhaps, bring you tears today, but more than that, may it lead you to weep when someone comes to you burdened with guilt and they’re sorry, and may it lead you to give up that power that you could wield against them…may you instead forgive as you have been forgiven. In Christ, the bitterness, the anger, the hate…it’s done. You can let go now. God grant it. Amen. 

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