At a recent retreat I was at, the topic of forgiveness was discussed and various aspects of it. As I pondered more on what I heard and learned there I began to wonder what would true forgiveness look like? How could we recognize it. Is it simply a matter of saying "I'm sorry, please forgive me" and then forget about it or is there more too it? The following are some of my initial thoughts on this.
What Does It Mean To Forgive?
To understand what it means to forgive we need to understand what justice is from a biblical perspective as well as what true peace is.
Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it.--Psalm 34:14 NRSV
In the Hebrew the word for peace is shalom and is rich in meaning. It is a comprehensive concept that means: wholeness, peace, joy, freedom, reconciliation, community, harmony of all creation - both physical as well as spiritual - righteousness, truth, justice, communication and humanity. So as we can see shalom covers a lot of territory. It is holistic embracing all persons and all creation in reconciliation and harmony leaving out nothing. As we shall see in a bit when Jesus taught about being peacemakers in the Beatitudes he was saying "Blessed are the shalom makers..." Here Jesus uses the word shalom in all its richness. When the New Testament was written in Greek the word eirene was used in place of the Hebrew shalom.
Having defined peace then what is justice? Warning is not what most Westerners think it is.
Justice and only justice, you shall pursue...--Deuteronomy 16:20 NRSV
One of the Hebrew words for justice is zedakah. It is not the concept that most Westerners have derived from Greek-Western views of this concept. Instead in Hebrew culture it is not about retribution, revenge, punishment, or distrbution i.e. fair shares for all. Instead it is more about what human living should be like. It is about restoring a person back to where they would have been had they never fallen or to a better place than they had before. This is where I believe true forgiveness begins. It is not enough to say "I am sorry, please forgive me" and leave it at that. It is more than just ignoring someone who has hurt and offended us. It is also equally more than just plotting revenge and finding a way to either get even with a person for what they did or seeking to punish them. That is not to say their may not be consequences for the acts they or we committ or penalties or punishment. However our ultimate desire should be that whenever possible the person be restored to where they would have been if they had never fallen or to a better place.
So how does this work? Is it even a plausible idea? Can it work? I would like to in the following chapters take a look at both Bible people and scriptures which I believe show what I am talking about and give us a starting point to consider forgiveness and what it actually means and looks like when embraced and put into practice fully.
True Forgiveness Displayed in Genesis
As we begin this chapter I would like to look at a man from the book of Genesis that I feel reflect what true forgiveness is. His name is Joseph. His story can be found in Genesis chapters 37-50. I will offer a summation here.
Joseph was the 11th son of his father and his father's favorite. His father showers special favors and gifts on Joseph including a coat of many colors. This causes jealousy and friction with his other brothers. Then Joseph has two dreams which foretell of his ruling over his brothers and which he tells them of. This is the final straw and so infuriates his brothers that they plot to get rid of him by selling him into slavery in Egypt. There over a course of 20 years he is a slave to a master who has him imprisoned on false charges of adultery, serves in prison and then is finally raised to the position of prime minister of Egypt. He is second in command only the Pharoah is greater than he in Egypt. He predicts seven years of famine and devices a plan to make sure there will be plenty of food during the coming famine. When it does hit only Egypt has food while everyone else is starving.
Meanwhile in Cannan (where Joseph is from and his family stilled lived) Joseph's family is suffering from the famine. Hearing there is food in Egypt his brothers come to Joseph (they dont recognize him) bow to him (fulfilling Joseph's dreams) and request food. Through a series of events Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and ultimately invites them to come live in Egypt where he will take care of them. This they, their father, their families all do. Why did Joseph do this? Was he plotting to get revenge on them? Did he plan to punish them for all they had done to him maybe even make them his slaves? Was Joseph angry or bitter over what had happened to him and was just waiting for the right moment to express it at them? Lets take a look and see what Joseph actually does.
In Genesis 45:1-13 we find Joseph reaction. He tells his brothers not to be angry at themselves for having sold him into slavery. Instead he says it was all in the plan of God for the saving of lives that he was sent ahead. He also tells them to go back home get their father, their families and everything they own and return to the land of Egypt where he will provide for them. Doesn't seem to be any animosity or unforgiveness here. Perhaps this is only temporary or a trick to get them to Egypt where he then can execute his plan of revenge. Lets look at another scripture and see if that actually happens.
When Joseph's brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, "Perhaps Joseph will hate us, and may actually repay us for all the evil which we did to him." So they sent messengers to Joseph, saying, "Before your father died he commanded, saying, Thus you shall say to Joseph: "I beg you, please forgive the trespass of your brothers and their sin; for they did evil to you." ' Now, please, forgive the trespass of the servants of the God of your father." And Joseph wept when they spoke to him. Then his brothers also went and fell down before his face, and they said, "Behold, we are your servants." Joseph said to them, "Do not be afraid, for am I in the place of God? But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive. Now therefore, do not be afraid; I will provide for you and your little ones." And he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.
Joseph brother's thought he was being nice to them only as long as their father lived and for his sake. Once their father dies they expect full retribution from Joseph for all the evil they had done to him. So fearful are they that this is going to happen that they go him begging for mercy and forgiveness and even offering to become his slaves. Techinally Joseph would have had every right and reason to do exactly what his brothers feared. They had wronged him and no one would have blamed him if he sought revenge on them. However Joseph doesn't do that. Instead he truly forgives them completely without any malice, grudge or resentment. Instead he gives them shalom.
Remember earlier I said the idea was restoring one to a place where they would have been had they never fallen or too a better place. Lets see how Joseph exemplifies this principle.
First as we see in in the latter half of Genesis 45 he gives food to his brothers, sends food enough to last until they get back to Egypt and sends enough wagons so they can easily move their families and belongings to Egypt. No refusing to help because of what they had done to him. No charging for the food or wagons. Nothing but come so I can take care of you and provide for you so you don't starve to death. So how did he do this did he just give them the left overs, the waste that no one else wanted?
"And Joseph situated his father and his brothers, and gave them a possession in the land of Egypt, in the best of the land, in the land of Rameses, as Pharaoh had commanded."(Genesis 47:11)
We see here that Joseph gave them the best land. Nothing second best or leftovers for his family. So they went from starving and having to beg for food, to having the best that Egypt could afford. They went from being nobodys to being related to and taken care of by the second most powerful man in Egypt. Definitely better off than they were before and much better than they deserved for all they had done. Why did this happen? Certainly not because of the righteousness of the brothers. They had been nothing but scoundrels who deserved to be punished and made to suffer. It happened because of their brother and the attitude he chose to take towards them. Joseph chose to love rather than hate. He chose to forgive rather than hold a grudge or seek revenge. Because of that they were able to live in perfect and full shalom all the days of their lives as they accepted and took the shalom offered them by Joseph.
This is what true forgiveness is about. Not punishment but restoration. Not what they might have deserved, their just desserts we might think, but what they didn't deserve. Not leaving them in the dust or with second best but with the best Joseph could give them. Another example of this is found in the book of Exodus.
God Shows True Forgiveness
As we begin in the first chapters of Exodus we see that things have been totally reversed for the children of Israel. In our last chapter they were well off and being taken care of. Then after a few generations a new king arises who has no regard for Joseph or what he did. So 430 years later the children of Israel find themselves enslaved and in hard bondage to their Egyptian masters. Life is not easy and no fun. Instead it is a lot of hard work, misery, suffering to the point they cry out to God for deliverance.
God hears their cry and raises up a deliverer for them named Moses. Moses though born to Hebrew slaves, was adopted by the Pharoah's daughter and was in line to become the next king of Egypt when the Pharoah died. Rather than wait for God's timing Moses decides to try and free the Hebrews on his own. He goes out to visit his people and when he sees an Egptian abusing a Hebrew slave he kills the Egyptian and buries him in the sand. Then tries to bring peace between two fighting Hebrew men. However that only results in his being rejected and when the news of his killing of the Egyptian becomes known he is forced to flee Egypt in order to save his own life.
Forty years later all dreams of becoming the savior or deliverer of his people long forgotten God calls him to go back and deliver His people from Egypt. Moses is not at all keen on this idea and tries to God out of it. He insists God is mistaken and has no idea what idea what he is talking about or asking Moses to do. However in the end God prevails and Moses goes back to Egypt. Through a series of miracles/signs the people are delivered from Egypt and ultimately 40 years later given their own land where in they would lack for nothing. Why did he do this and why did it take so long?
First lets look at why God did this. Were they such a wonderful, righteous, God fearing people that God just had to bless them? Were they so obedient that God gave them the land as a reward? What were the reasons God did what He did?
" And because He loved your fathers, therefore He chose their descendants after them; and He brought you out of Egypt with His Presence, with His mighty power..." (Deuteronomy 4:11)
Here we see God did it because of love. It wasn't because they were great, holy, righteous and had it all together. If we would read the entire history of the Exodus they were anything but. Instead they were rebellious, stubborn, stiff necked, determined to do it their way instead of God's way causing God to almost want to kill them in anger. The land was certainly not a reward for good behavior or obedience. Instead it was simply a gift of love. One may wonder if God truly loved them and wanted to give them shalom why did He wait for forty years to give it to them? Couldn't God have given it to them as soon as they came out of Egypt? Yes He could have. So why then didn't He? Because the children of Israel refused God's offer of shalom and pardon choosing instead to die in the wilderness. Let me explain.
Deuteronomy 1:2 says it is an 11 day journey from Mt. Horeb (Sianai) to the promed land. This means that they could have been there in about a week and a half and yet took 40 years to get there? Why? Numbers 14th chapter gives us the answer. There we find the 12 spies returning from their trip to spy out the land that God was giving them. They all agreed it was everything God said it was and was more than enough to meet all their needs. Had they stopped there all might have turned out ok. However instead 10 of the spies bring back an evil report saying it was impossible to take the land due to giants being their. They said they would all be killed. The people begin to fear, lose heart and refuse to go in and take the land i.e the shalom God offered them. Instead they choose to remain in the wilderness and die. Joshua and Caleb try to the people to believe God and do what He wants. They remind the people that with God on their side there is no way they can lose and His protection and blessing will be with them. However the people reject that idea and want to stone Joshua and Caleb to death. Why did they do this?
In Numbers 14:11 says the people refused to believe God. As used throughout the scriptures the word believe can mean to trust in something or somone solely for salvation. In this case had they taken the shalom offered them by God they would have completely trusted Him to save them. They would have believed He could do all that He said he could and give them the land promised them without any problems. However they feared instead and therefore missed the shalom of God.
Fear is the opposite of trust. It will stop us dead in our tracks and not allow us to advance any further than we are at the moment. It will cause us to look at our own circumstances, problems and our meager resources to meet them with. It turns our eyes from the God who can overcome all our circumstances and problems, giving us perfect and full shalom. Instead it causes us to look at ourselves for the answers. When that happens we fail and are not able to take of the shalom God offers us. He may provide tidbits and pieces for us, a little blessing perhaps here and there, as God did for the children of Israel in the wilderness even though they rebelled against Him and refused to believe Him. God still provided Manna for them each day, quail when they demanded it, brought them water out of a rock when they were thirsty. However God never brought them into the full shalom He had for them. Instead He allowed them to die in the wilderness. After 40 years a new generation rises up, who will believe and obey God who then go in and take the land and the proffered shalom offered to them by God.
So what does this all have to do with restoration and forgiveness we began this book with. Lets see.
First God takes the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt into their own land where they can be the masters of their own fate. No longer will they have some hard taskmaster telling them what to do. No more will they have someone whipping them, forcing them to work with rigour and bitterness. No longer will their destiny be in some one elses hands. Instead they will get to choose their own fate, follow their own destiny and serve God freely and unmolested. But that is not all.
Secondly God gives them a land which the Bible says flows with milk and honey. A land which He would watch over and which would provide for all their needs. Not only that God says he would give them houses, vineyards and lands that wouldn't have to work for. All they would have to do is go in and take them. This was shalom in its fullest. Full pardon, deliverance from slavery, a land of their own, possessions they dont have to work for, and all their needs meant. Again not because they deserved it. They were a rebellious and stubborn people fully deserving of the full wrath of God. However because of the love of God for them, they are forgiven and given shalom.
In both these cases that we have looked at thus far I believe we can see parallels between those we looked at and ourselves. Like them we have all rebelled, been stubborn and refused to heed God's voice. Roman 3:23 says we have all sinned and fallen short of God's glory. We all deserve the wrath of God visited upon us and yet we like Joseph's brothers, and the children of Israel find something else. Just like them we find forgiveness and shalom being offered to us. We find God through the shed blood of Christ cleansing us and restoring us as if we had never sinned. Christ promises to meet all our needs here, take care of us, and then also to make us kings and priests with Him. (See Revelation 1:6, 5:10) He has given us the earth for our inheritance. In Genesis 1:26 it says God created man to have dominion or rule over the earth. Here in the end times we see God once again giving man authority over the earth to do what He intended for us to do all along.
With that thought is there something we can or should be doing now to help true forgiveness and shalom come to us, our families, and our world? I believe there is. Although there may be many ways to accomplish this I believe there is one way that needs to be seriously considered and looked at. I believe it needs to be embraced and not let go off. I believe without doing it shalom will never come. Vice versa by doing it we can begin the process of forgiveness, healing and the bringing of shalom to ourselves, our neighbors and friends, our families, our nation and finally our world. I will deal with it in the next chapter.