I’ve personally experienced a master lesson in heartache and forgiveness over the past few years. While I’m still working to fully forgive certain people in my life, the process of breaking chains and freeing my heart from bitterness has accelerated. At times it is challenging to loosen the grip and focus our eyes heavenward again, which we desperately need because true forgiveness is found in letting go and releasing it to God. Sometimes we need to let go and release a thousand times a day, and other times it is less of a “catch and release” process. In the wake of significant heartache requiring forgiveness, we often find that healthy boundaries are necessary. The talk of boundaries seems like a more recent development in mental health, but even the Bible offers insight into wise boundary setting.
The story of Joseph, found in Genesis 37-50, and his life story is quite applicable here. Joseph experienced a significant number of trials in his life and had much he needed to forgive. From his brothers that sold him to slavery, to the people that lied and wrongly accused him, to the fellow prisoners that forgot about him, he was consistently wronged, overlooked, and tossed aside. Somehow in all this life experience, he found God in a real way. That’s the thing about our hard; it’s what brings us to the feet of God and really opens our eyes to actually “see” God (Job 42:5). And with God by his side, Joseph managed to forgive the abundant hurt and wrongs of his past.
When we open chapter 41 of Genesis, we see that Joseph has settled into life and found peace. He names his children: Manasseh, meaning God has made me forget all of my hardship and my whole family, and Ephriam, meaning God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction. Joseph appears to have found peace from the loss and heartache in his life and appears grateful for the blessings God gave him, even in his affliction. Then in chapter 42, his brothers reappear. The scars from his old wounds rubbed raw as people from past pain show back up in Joseph’s life. And this is where I want us to dig deep and pay attention to the story that unfolds.
Joseph had forgiven his brothers, but he did not immediately reveal who he was and invite them back into his life. We see that he tested his brothers multiple times, each time attempting to determine if they had changed, more specifically, if their hearts had changed. This process unfolds over time, and multiple journeys to their home and back to Egypt occur. Joseph weeps at various times throughout this process, and we see Judah, the brother that spearheaded selling him into slavery, fight for Benjamin, the baby brother.
In chapter 45, Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers. “Now don’t be grieved or angry with yourselves for selling me here, because God sent me ahead of you to preserve life…therefore it was not you who sent me here, but God.” Genesis 45:5, 8. Joseph offered grace and forgiveness, and the brothers wept, kissed, hugged, and chatted.
Later, after Joseph’s father has passed away and his brothers are nervous that he would repay the suffering they caused him, Joseph once again offered kindness and grace. “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You planned evil against me; God planned it for good to bring about the present result – the survival of many people.” Genesis 50:19-20. And He comforts them and speaks kindly to them.
The grace and kindness offered by Joseph reveal his true heart’s posture, and God had worked in his heart to truly forgive those who wronged him. But sometimes, as Christians, we can get a little gummed up when applying grace, forgiveness, and repentance to situations. What is easy to overlook when seeing the beauty of the grace we read about in this story is the process of welcoming the brothers back into his life.
He forgives but still wisely guards and protects himself until he is sure of their heart posture. We forgive because it frees us from the bondage of bitterness and anger, because Jesus commands us to do so, and because God forgave us. Our hearts need that freedom, and it allows God to fill the voids and heal the pain caused by the wrongdoing of others. But that doesn’t always mean the person(s) who wronged us should be a part of our lives.
Repentance is significant when another’s behavior or choices have caused damage, and there is wisdom in testing their heart to see if repentance is real or false. Sometimes forgiveness alone is the end of our involvement with people. Other times, repentance is authentic, and working towards welcoming them back into our life is appropriate.
But the story of Joseph offers a guidebook on forgiveness, repentance, and boundaries. Forgiveness is not mutually exclusive with the excusing of the wrong done. We can forgive and set boundaries that do not allow harmful individuals into our orbit if they are unsafe or unrepentant. There is peace to be found when we allow our hearts to let go and forgive, yet also set boundaries that protect our hearts from inevitable future suffering from those we know cause harm.
Sometimes this is very dramatic when the damage is significant. Other times it may be many small experiences that eventually add up to something big in our life. No matter how, we have the power to forgive and wisely determine their place in our lives.
This is an updated edition of a post originally published on Rachel Rae Anderson
Featured Image by Aleksandra Sapozhnikova on Unsplash
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