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  • Writer's pictureRev. Chris Brademeyer

Why is it so Hard to Forgive?


The Fourth Sunday after Trinity

Genesis 50:15-21

Rev. Christopher W. Brademeyer


That portion from God’s holy Word for consideration this morning is our Old Testament lesson from the book of Genesis in the fiftieth chapter with special emphasis on verses nineteen through twenty-one which read as follows:


                “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.”


Thus far the Scriptures.


In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


                Forgiveness and mercy are things that are hard to come by. Even harder is the task of us doing the forgiving and mercy extending. There is a strange form of hypocrisy that most, if not all, of humanity suffers under concerning this: we demand and expect mercy and forgiveness from others. We do not expect them to count our sins against us, but most of us have a hard time being towards others how we expect them to be for us.

                There is a simple reason for this: it is unnatural to forgive people. That is to say, we, as sinners, are not wired to forgive each other nor to be gracious in receiving it. Think about all the ways that this could go wrong. We can refuse to admit guilt. We can decide that we like holding onto grudges and victimhood rather than extending the mercy and forgiveness that was freely given to us  by Christ Jesus our crucified Lord.

                When I say that it is unnatural to forgive, I mean that it rubs against our sinful human hearts. We do not expect nor want to extend forgiveness. The sinful heart loves vengeance and the illusion of power that it gives over forgiving. Why? Because having a wrong done against us gives us the idea that we have power over that person. That is to say, we can hold that sin, that wrong, over the person’s head whenever we need some extra ammunition in a conflict. You have probably seen this in action: the mom who guilt trips her kids whenever they do not do what she wants by reminding them of past wrongs. The husband who uses guilt and coercion to force his wife to comply with his demands. The friend who always wants you to pay for things because of that one time you did not bring your wallet. All of these have at their root the same problem: the human desire to hold on to sin and wrong and use it against people.

                But forgiveness is not like this. Forgiveness lets go of the wrong. It does not hold the wrong against the person anymore. In other words, forgiveness means letting go of the right and ability to hold something against someone. It means that there is no longer a debt that needs to be satisfied, a toll that must be paid, a reckoning that will come due, or justice to be satisfied. The tallies are settled, the bonds are satisfied, the debts paid off, the shackles unlocked.

                So, this means on a very practical level that a person must let go of his anger against someone who has wronged him. It means that the one who has done wrong cannot be attacked, belittled, or talked down about. To do anything less is an unchristian holding on to wrongs and a denial of the plain command from our Lord Jesus to forgive others as we have been forgiven. More than this, we are taught by the Lord that withholding forgiveness from others is enough to deprive us of the very forgiveness of God Himself.[1]

                Now forgiveness does not mean that we are to be exempted from the consequences of our sins in this life. For example, I may forgive a murderer who robbed me of someone close to me, but my forgiveness is not a reason for this murderer to be kept from prison. He still has a debt to society, among other things, that he must pay. Another example is that when a man is removed from the office of the holy ministry for sin, he no longer is found to be an apt teacher and therefore cannot put himself out in public as a teacher or preacher of the Gospel. He must still hear the Word as all Christians must, but he is no longer to preach or teach no matter how repentant and sorrowful he might be, as St. Paul notes in his description of pastors as being “above reproach.”[2] But, when Christians are involved in meting out appropriate punishments, they must do so from anger or vengeance, but instead should do so in a fair and fitting way. The offices that God gives us, the vocations that He bestows, these should never be employed for such things as vengeance. Such conduct in unbecoming of Christians.

                Which brings us to the example of our father in the faith, Joseph. He has every reason to hate his brothers. More still, he has the power and authority to give them the justice that they deserve. If you remember you Old Testament Bible stories, Joseph was the favorite son of his father Jacob. As such, Jacob liked to dote on the boy, including giving him a fancy coat.[3] I’m sure you probably heard of his coat of many colors, but the Hebrew term is difficult to pin down and refers to extending to the palms of the hands and soles of the feet, implying a long and rich robe of the sort you wouldn’t wear to do farm work or shepherding. The root may also mean that the coat was indeed a fancy one of many colors. Regardless of the exact meaning, the idea is clear: Jacob gave a fancy robe to his son. And his brothers became envious of it. So much so that they hatched a plot to fake Joseph’s death and to sell him into slavery.[4] This led Joseph to being sold to Potiphar, a high-ranking official in Egypt. Joseph excelled at all that he did and was a handsome young man, leading to Potiphar’s wife trying to seduce him and then accusing him of trying to force himself on her. [5]Jospeh was imprisoned. He was eventually released and brought into the service of Pharoah after interpreting Pharoah’s dreams when no one else could. From prison he eventually rose to being the second in command after Pharoah of all of Egypt.[6] Joseph was warned by God of an upcoming famine and so prepared Egypt by building storehouses and granaries and filling them with grain. This famine was widespread and led his brothers to come to Egypt in search of food. Eventually, Joseph revealed himself to his brothers and they and their father Jacob moved to a land in the north of Egypt called Goshen.[7] 

                So you can see that Joseph has plenty of reasons to hate his brothers. They wrecked his nice coat. They wanted to kill him. They sold him into slavery. And because of this he lost his home, his people, was falsely imprisoned for over three years, and suffered greatly in all these things. And the brothers expected vengeance from Joseph. Scripture does not record that Jacob told his sons that he wanted Joseph to forgive them before he died, but surely such a desire is in line with what fathers wish for their children. Regardless, the brothers are worried and make it a point to tell Joseph that dad wanted him to forgive them. And so they do to him, hat in hand. They do not come in presumption or claim to have a right to forgiveness, but instead, they do so as those under Joseph’s authority and below his station in Egypt. And Joseph weeps. Certainly, such a moment would be filled with emotion. Long held grudges and grievances being apologized for will do that. Perhaps Joseph wept because his brothers did not trust him simply to forgive them. Either way, Joseph quickly extends forgiveness. And he also notes that in all this, what they intended for evil God worked for good, reminding us that all things ultimately serve God’s will and plan in ways he desires.

                Forgiveness is difficult. It rubs against our sinful nature. But, by the grace of God and the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, we are able to do this great and miraculous thing. Every time we extend to others forgiveness, we are showing them a picture, a little glimpse, of the nature of God whose desire for forgiveness is so great that He even gave up His Son to accomplish it. We are commanded to forgive not as some arbitrary thing, but because God first forgave us. And while there are certainly benefits to us not holding on to wrong and sin, we should always remember that all parts of the Christian life, including forgiveness, are for the sake of other people, including those who have wronged us. It is not always easy to do this. Sometimes the evils done against us are great. But this great example from our father in the faith Joseph serves to remind us that all things are possible, indeed, all good things come from God and those who are in Him receive them, especially the great and merciful gift of forgiveness.


In the holy Name of + Jesus. Amen.


 The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.


[1] Matthew 6:14-15

[2] 1 Timothy 3:2

[3] Genesis 37:3

[4] Genesis 37:12-34

[5] Genesis 39

[6] Genesis 41

[7] Genesis 42-46

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