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Take my little test on genuine forgiveness: After you forgave the person, were you able to talk about the hurt in such a way that communicated you were no longer sinfully controlled by those hurts—whether you were talking with God, yourself, or the offender?
A sign of complete biblical forgiveness is when you can be hurt, grant forgiveness, and talk about what happened to you without being sinfully controlled by the actions of those who hurt you. Though granting forgiveness can be a better version of how our culture works through their relational problems, it can be no more effective if the forgiveness is not authentic.
A struggle to be authentic with the offender does not mean your forgiveness granting was not genuine, but it could mean your forgiveness is not complete if you cannot genuinely let it go.
“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” (Genesis 50:20).
The speaker in this verse is Joseph, the son of Jacob. He is talking to his brothers who initially tried to kill him but changed their collective minds and sold him to a ragtag group of slave traders.
Joseph spent thirteen mostly horrible years away from his family while being accused of a crime he did not commit, which landed him in jail. During jail time, he was betrayed by those who could help him. It’s hard to fully understand what all happened to Joseph. Any one of those incidents during his thirteen years would be enough to ruin his thoughts about God and life, for the rest of his life.
When you break into the story at Genesis 50:20, he finally has a chance to let his brothers know what he thought about their victimization of him. After thirteen astonishing years, Joseph has his first opportunity to face the original instigators of his hardships.
His response was forgiveness. Amazing grace. Joseph was ready for the moment. His heart was prepared by the Lord to grant the long overdue forgiveness to his persecutors.
What we don’t see in this story is the prerequisite heart work necessary for Joseph to be willing, gracious, and genuine to forgive his offenders. There is no question he had to do business with God before he could do business with his brothers.
Missing this essential step in the forgiveness process is to miss the opportunity of going the distance with someone who needs your forgiveness. What makes this step so important is that it gives you time to perceive the Lord’s thoughts—as much as His thoughts can be ascertained—about what happened to you (Isaiah 55:8–9).
You must reasonably establish a theologically precise understanding of God in your mind while convinced He is working good (Romans 8:28) in your life—even if it is in ways you did not expect or have not perceived up to this point in your narrative. This process to genuine forgiveness is the prerequisite work of pre-forgiveness.
When bad things happen to me, the only way I can process and accept them correctly is after I have gained sovereign clarity on my troubles. Joseph had sovereign clarity.
If you cannot trust God’s good work on your behalf, you will be a candidate for harboring such things as bitterness, anger, anxiety, discouragement, criticism, resentment, cynicism, and even hate toward those who have hurt you.
Not being anchored by God’s sovereign care of your life will make you like a kite in the wind. It is imperative that the Lord is your anchor point as sin angles to capture you. Here are a few of the ways sin tries to ensnare its prey after someone does a dastardly deed to you.
Leone’s husband committed adultery. It was the most devastating news of her life. It took many months of biblical care, among many friends, in the context of her local church to help her walk through the crushing anguish of her heart. She called it her nightmare from hell.
When Cal repented, he eventually came back to Leone to ask for her forgiveness. (His forgiveness was genuine; God changed Cal’s heart.) What he did not know was that Leone had already “done business with God.” She was ready to grant forgiveness. Her brand of forgiveness was more than her Christian duty. It was a God-centered, grace-empowered, gospel-motivated forgiveness.
Leone was like Joseph. When the time came for forgiveness, the hard work of pre-forgiveness was over, and she was willing to grant genuine forgiveness. It was the incredible power of the gospel that was working in her heart.
Leone had been praying for nearly fifteen years that God would make their marriage complete. They had sex while dating, and though she never felt right about marrying Cal, it seemed like a better option than staying single. She was lonely. After their marriage, she became lonelier.
Because of Cal’s ongoing bouts with anger, their three sons were living in rebellion toward God. Cal and Leone were also struggling financially. They professed to be Christians though their church commitment was nominal. In God’s autonomous and non-manipulatable timeframe, He answered Leone’s fifteen-year prayer request to fix her marriage. What did He do? He blew it up. God dropped a bomb in the middle of their marriage and blew it to smithereens.
It’s impossible to adequately describe the devastation on Leone and the children, especially if you have not lived it. From all perspectives, it made no sense. To find good or God in their mess was an incredible leap in human logic (1 Corinthians 1:25). As the numbness began to wear off, Leone began to seek God’s thoughts on what was happening in her life, marriage, and family. That was when she came to the story of Joseph.
Leone learned that God not only worked in the present, but He planned for the future. What Joseph and his family could not know was that there was going to be a famine in the land and the sovereign Lord needed someone in Egypt to set up things so that He could preserve the nation of Israel.
As you know, God was not just doing this for the nation of Israel or Joseph’s family. He was doing this because of His promise to Adam (Genesis 3:15) and to Abraham (Genesis 12:1–3). Humanity needed a Savior (Galatians 4:4), and that Savior was going to come through Jacob’s lineage.
The bomb the good Lord dropped in Jacob’s family flung Joseph to Egypt. According to God’s predetermined plan, He scripted bad things into Joseph’s life. Tossed in the crucible of suffering is what Joseph and Leone believed the Lord was up to with them, which motivated them to give up trying to control their respective stories while humbly stepping into God’s story. Joseph and Leone had sovereign clarity. It did not mitigate the pain or the dysfunction, but it did give them hope.
After they had come to that place in their understanding, they were ready to move forward with God’s new plans for their lives. The situation became less about what was happening to them and more about what God was doing through them.
There were three things that Joseph shared with his brothers:
Therefore, he was able to forgive his brothers for what they did to him.
How you answer those questions will determine the depth and quality of your forgiveness. If you cannot get to where Joseph was, you will not be able to release those who have sinned against you. One of the ways you can check your heart regarding your forgiveness of others for what they did to you is how you think about what they did to you and how you talk about them.
Right thinking about personal suffering is where the gospel must have a greater grip on you than what others have done to you. One of the ways you can practicalize the gospel is how you perceive the offenses of others in light of your offenses against the Lord.
The cross of Christ has a way of downsizing the offenses of others by giving me a proper perspective on my actions against God. If the same gospel that saved my soul cannot overcome the disappointment from others, the “gospelization” of my heart is not yet complete.
Forgiveness flows out of a softened heart. The longer you stand before the Holy Lord you offended, the better it will go for you when you stand before the one who offended you. If you have done this well, you are in a good place to forgive the person who hurt you. The power of the gospel makes forgiveness real and practical.
Pre-forgiveness will not come easy. Getting your thoughts straightened out and aligned with God’s ways is the hardest part. Forgiveness is typically not the most challenging aspect if you have wrestled through pre-forgiveness.
Note how Joseph was ready to forgive his brothers. He had thirteen years to figure this out with the Lord. I am not suggesting you need thirteen years to figure it out, but you must understand this concept—no matter how long it takes.
If you do the hard work of pre-forgiveness, when the time comes for forgiveness, it will not be as difficult. However, if it is hard, you need to spend more time before the Lord because some residual anger toward Him and others is more than likely operating in your heart.
We are all sovereigntists. Whether we consciously think about it or not, we all know there is a God and He is ultimately in control of all things. Therefore, if you cannot forgive others for what happened to you, there is an underlying issue that needs to be resolved between you and God first.
Once you have sovereign clarity and you can freely forgive the person who hurt you, then you will be able to go beyond the hurt by genuinely reconciling with the offender. Freedom to forgive is the good part, but it gets better.
When Lucia and I “make up” in the way I have described here, we begin talking about the sin that separated us. The sin that made us slaves is now serving us. The sin becomes a practical working illustration we can talk about to grow and mature to the point where we reduce the amount of future sinning against each other.
It should not be difficult to talk about sin if it has been neutralized by the power of the gospel. Killing it dead is vital because it is important to revisit our past sins in nonpunitive ways so that we can learn from our mistakes.
Note the Process:
Just as Joseph could talk to his brothers in a nonpunitive way about what they did to him, you should be able to have similar discussions with your friends who sin against you. God answered Leone’s prayer by blowing up her marriage, and she had enough sovereign clarity to accept and respond to her marital disappointment. That was seven years ago.
Those dark days have been swallowed up by the incredibly selfless and God-glorifying marriage she and Cal have today. Though she was the one who was offended, she had a significant role to play in the restoration of her marriage. It began with the preparatory work in her heart. She was ready to forgive.
(This chapter is about transactional forgiveness that you give to an offender who genuinely repents. There are times when all you can do is forgive attitudinally because the offender has not authentically repented.)
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).