Joseph's brothers planned to murder him and throw his body into a dried up well. Instead of killing him, though, they decided to sell him to a group of passing Ishmaelite traders, who took him far from home and into a foreign country, where he was put up for sale on the slave market (Gen. 37).
Amazingly, many years later, Joseph was in a position of authority in Egypt. Not recognizing him, his brothers came to him making their life or death request for food. Struggling with his memories and taken aback by the surprise of facing them again, Joseph opted to help them, offering kindness though they had done so much to wrong him (Gen. 45:3-15).
Forgiving something that horrible takes courage; it takes humility; it takes a healthy sense of oneself. Such forgiveness is what Christ called us to when he said to forgive one another seventy-times-seven times (Matt. 18:22, NKJV).
What about the less hurtful yet nonetheless bothersome and often hurtful offenses we suffer? What about the neighbor you thought was your friend, who you found out has gossiped about you? Do we even have to forgive these people? What if they don't ask for forgiveness?
Many a secular counselor may tell us simply to learn to let things go. Perhaps this is also what Christ taught when he told us to "turn the other cheek?" (Matt. 5:39; Luke 6:29). Nevertheless, I believe letting go for Christian people is often, ironically, more difficult.
On the one hand, Christians are called to act without anger, so we feel guilty about our reactions and struggle with guiit when we react wrongly or find ourselves unable to act because our turbulent emotions don't match what our consciences are telling us. On the other hand, the New Testament suggests that when someone offends us, we are to go to that person first, and if this is not successful, we are then to go to a church elder and take a witness (Matt. 18:15-17).
Pulling all of the Biblical advice together and looking at the big picture, everything falls into place. We are to forgive, and we are called to let go.
According to Christian psychologist and author Melody Seattle, detachment is "releasing, or detaching from, a person or problem in love. We mentally, emotionally, and sometimes physically disengage our selves from unhealthy (and frequently painful) entanglements with another per son's life and responsibilities, and from problems we cannot solve. ... We trust that Someone greater than ourselves knows, has ordained, and cares about what is happening ... [and] can do much more to solve the problem than we can." 1
Christian psychologists Henry Cloud and John Townsend, authors of the Boundaries series of books, explain that when humans turned from God, we lost our freedom. "We became enslaved to sin, to self-centeredness, to other people, to guilt, and to a whole host of other dynamics."2 God gave us the freedom to respond, to make choices, to limit the ways other people's behavior affects us. We can choose not to be victims of other people.
In Galatians 5:1 Paul writes that it was "for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery" (NIV). We can have Christlike compassion for other people without going crazy!
But what about the New Testament plan to "deal with it"? What about taking the initiative and handling the situation that needs forgiveness? judging when doing so is necessary and important. It is also part and parcel of our power of choice, and we should pray for wisdom to know when to and how to make such important moves. If we feel we need to deal with someone because they are a constant part of our lives, for example, then the New Testament model is the appropriate answer. Taking this approach rather than, in contrast, talking behind the person's back is the straightforward, hon est, and constructive thing to do.
Joseph's story exemplifies a loving, constructive person whose compassion was not at his own expense. Joseph actually tested his brothers by placing a silver cup in Benjamin's sack (Gen. 44). When he knew he could trust his brothers, Joseph broke down with emotion. He then addressed the past wrong openly and they acknowledged it and asked forgiveness.
Most significantly, however, we know that Joseph was not vindictive, and that he was kind to them in their need and at a vulnerable moment in their lives. "Don't be afraid," he told them. "Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me," he said. "But God intended it for good ...the saving of many lives." He confronted them honestly. Then the Bible says that he "reassured them and spoke kindly to them" (Gen. 50:19-21, NIV).
Like Joseph, we are not only allowed but actually obligated to live in freedom, the freedom to work from a place of serenity and strength with the right to detach in Christian love from anyone who would keep us from inner peace. We are to honor God by honoring "the temples" ourselves He created. For without serenity, how can we feel God working within us? (1 Cor. 6:19, 20).
1 Melody Beattie, Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Othersand Start Caring for Yourself (New York: HarperCollins 1992), 23.
2 Henry Cloud and John Townsend, Boundaries in Marriage (Grand Rapids, Michigan Zondervan, 1991), 3.