I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian home in which “forgiveness” in order to be “real” had to contain a restoration of trust, even if you knew in your heart that the person who had wounded you (or someone else) would do it again, that they had no remorse in their heart.
Of course, the same person who demanded this kind of “forgiveness” on my part, was great at holding on to grudges herself, and she would never forget something you had done “bad” even a decade before and had not done since, and even though you had profusely and sincerely apologized for it.
This never made any sense to me, and I fought against this concept and definition of “forgiveness” much of the time.
During the summer I spent in hiding from the ex-convict my son Patrick sent to kill me, I lived in a large RV parked at a lake on a friend’s retirement property and I had little to do, and spent quite a bit of time reading the Bible, trying to look at it without the prejudices in which I had been taught.
One of my favourite stories was the story of “Joseph of the coat of many colors” which is found in the book of Genesis, chapter 37:1 to chapter 50:26. Basically, at age 17, Joseph who was of his father Jacob’s two favorite sons out of 12 sons, was given a “coat of many colors.” Joseph was pretty much an arrogant obnoxious teenager and because his 10 older brothers knew their father loved him and the youngest boy, Benjamin, best, they hated Joseph.
One day Jacob sent his son Joseph out to check on his brothers who were watching the sheep distant from the family camp. Joseph had his “special”coat and had also had dreams in which his brothers’ sheaves of wheat had bowed down to him as well as the sun, moon and 11 stars had also bowed down to him. Of course he had told his brothers these dreams. This arrogance made his brothers hate him. They determined to kill him when they saw him approaching their camp in the desert, and soak his coat in blood and tell their father they found it that way. Instead of killing him though, they ended up selling him to a passing caravan for a slave and Joseph wound up in Egypt.
Though things had taken a decided turn for the worst, Joseph quickly showed his master he was trustworthy and became valuable to his master. Then disaster struck again, and his master’s wife, failing to seduce him, cried “rape” and he was tossed into prison, where he again, being a trustworthy prisoner soon rose to a position as a “trustee” in the prison, helping out the jailor. During the time there he made friends with two other prisoners of the king’s. One the king’s baker, the other the king’s cup bearer. Each of these two men had dreams, and Joseph interpreted the two dreams with God’s help, and told the baker he would die, and told the cup bearer that he would be restored to his place. Joseph asked the cup bearer to “remember” him when he was restored, but of course it was years before he did, and that was on the occasion that the king had a dream that no one could interpret. So Joseph was called to interpret the dream and did so, telling the king there would be seven years of plenty and seven of famine. He suggested that the king find someone to store up the excess grain during the years of plenty to save for the years of famine. The king appointed Joseph second in command to the entire kingdom.
By this time, Joseph had figured out that God had sent him to Egypt for this purpose and he forgave his brothers. But only about 9 years later do we see that even though Joseph was no longer bitter at his brothers, he didn’t trust them.
A couple of years into the famine, Jacob sent his 10 oldest sons, retaining the youngest, Benjamin, at home, to Egypt to get grain so the family would not starve. When the brothers came before Joseph, Joseph recognized them, but they didn’t recognize him, because he spoke to them through an interpreter and he spoke harshly to them, and made them tell him about his father and their family, including mentioning Benjamin. Joseph had their donkeys laden with grain, and even had their money sacks returned to their bags of grain, kept one of the brothers in prison as security and told them they must return with the younger brother to prove they weren’t spies or don’t come back.
When I had read this story as a child and even as an adult. I thought,” Why is he doing this? That’s pretty mean.”
Only after the grain ran out did the 9 older brothers convince Jacob that in order for the entire family not to starve they must go back and get more grain and if they didn’t take Benjamin that the man would not see them. So giving themselves as security for Benjamin, the brothers all went back.
When they met Joseph, he had to turn away so they would not see him cry. Then he ordered a meal at his house prepared for the brothers and had them seated by order of birth, and he sent them food from his table (he had to eat separately) and gave Benjamin bigger portions. Then he ordered their sacks filled and them to leave the next morning, but he also ordered his steward to put their money back into their sacks and to put his silver cup in Benjamin’s sack. Of course before they got out of town, he sent soldiers to search them and tell them that whoever “stole” his cup would have to be his slave. The brothers all denied stealing, of course they hadn’t stolen, but the cup was found in Benjamin’s sack.
The brothers all went back to plead with Joseph that the loss of Benjamin would send their father to his grave in sorrow and grief and begged them to take one of them instead. By this time, Joseph was unable to contain his tears and sent out the Egyptian staff as he introduced himself to his brothers.
Again, I asked myself why on earth did Joseph treat them so horribly? Then it finally dawned on me. He was testing them to see what kind of men they had become in the nearly two decades since he was 17 and the present. Were they still the hateful jealous men that had plotted his murder, that had convinced their grieving father that he was torn to pieces by some wild beast?
Joseph had long ago gotten the bitterness out of his heart (forgiveness) toward his brothers but he didn’t trust them until he had tested them. Until he had seen them demonstrate what kind of men they were now. He saw that they would sacrifice themselves to prevent their father from suffering more grief in his old age.
I finally came to the conclusion, using the story of Joseph as an example, that “forgiveness” doesn’t mean that we must instantly restore trust to someone even if they issue us what seems like a sincere apology until we see from their behaviour that they are trustworthy, that they have changed. Forgiveness to me means to get the bitterness out of my own heart, not for the other person, but for myself. Restoring trust to that individual may or may not ever happen and depends on if that person repents and proves to me that they are trustworthy, but just like Joseph’s brothers, it isn’t going to be easy to restore broken trust with me. Not that I’m holding a grudge, just that I don’t intend to be re-injured if I don’t have to be.
Being raised in an environment were I was required to “forgive/restore trust” no matter what someone did to me (repeatedly), and told I would be condemned to everlasting burning hell if I didn’t, had me terrified of God by the time I was in second grade. Then as a young adult when this concept didn’t “sit right” with me, but I couldn’t quite understand why, it kept me from complete belief in a god who would require such a thing. Once I started to read the Bible with less prejudiced eyes, to read it for myself and to realize that when people proved untrustworthy I could distance myself from them and still forgive them without having to trust them, my views of the forgiveness God gives us are for our benefit, and it is for our benefit to not have that bitterness inside us.
Jesus, in Matthew 18:15:-17, instructs us how to deal with those who abuse us without remorse.
“If thy brother trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother, but if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church; but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican” KJV
Joyce Alexander, RNP retired