This article is one post in a series entitled “When Talking about Forgiveness.”
Parables are simpler than narratives. Parables are fictitious stories created to make a point. Narratives are the lived experiences of real people. Biblical narratives are the lived experiences of real people told to highlight an aspect of redemptive history (we’ll come back to this italicized phrase). In the previous reflection, we talked about using parables well. Now we need consider how biblical narratives about forgiveness well.
Let’s consider one of the most well-known biblical narratives about forgiveness as we think through this question: Joseph forgiving his brothers (Genesis 37-50). It involves great offenses: physical violence, lying, and human trafficking. It involves unexpected plot twists: favored son becomes slave becomes vice president of Egypt. It culminates with tears, embraces, and a memorable statement, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive” (Genesis 50:20).
“That’ll preach!”… as my country roots want to shout when we come to a crescendo statement like this. It is easy to land a sermon on Joseph’s life with:
- If Joseph can forgive his brothers for all they did, what can’t you forgive? And
- If God saved Israel through Joseph’s forgiveness, what might God do through yours?
“Amen! Good job! Preacher, you stepped all over my toes today!” Why do I keep alluding to my country roots in this reflection? Hopefully it makes you smile just a bit as we discuss the weighty subject of forgiveness. But more importantly, I want you to feel the weight of someone wanting to ask an honest question about biblical narratives about forgiveness. Our “amen” declarations stifle their “oh my” questions.
But there are real, important questions to be discussed if we want to be good ambassadors of how God intends forgiveness to be healing balm. We need to invite those questions. Our friend might want to ask:
- Would Joseph have responded to his brothers the same way if the power differentials between them, which allowed his brothers to abuse him, had not been balanced?
- How much did Joseph being able to immediately see God’s redemptive hand saving his family from the famine impact his response? How would Joseph’s response have been different if his brothers came to him before the famine and him becoming second in command to Pharaoh?
- Joseph had 20 years to process his brothers’ request for forgiveness. What if this interaction had occurred much closer to their original ambush of Joseph?
- How often are we able to see clear redemptive elements in the fallout of other people’s offenses? Does God always do that?
- Joseph’s brothers were repentant and owned their sin. What if they still excused their actions based on their dad’s preferential treatment or the offensiveness of Joseph’s teenage ego? Would Joseph have fed them (grace) but not given them the restored rights of family members (reconciliation)?
- Joseph had a chance to test the character of his brothers before forgiving them (Genesis 44). What if he did not have this information when they asked his forgiveness?
I’ll be honest with you. I don’t know the answer to these questions. If we are going to be good ambassadors of the gospel, we must have the courage to engage questions we don’t know the answer to. If we are only willing to consider questions that have certain answers, we will abandon those wrestling with the hardest situations. So, let’s reflect on how to best use biblical narratives in light of these questions.If we are only willing to consider questions that have certain answers, we will abandon those wrestling with the hardest situations. Click To Tweet
First, we should celebrate the main point of the narrative and its place in redemptive history. Joseph’s forgiveness is a beautiful picture of God’s character. Joseph’s words echo the coming words of Jesus, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,” (Luke 23:34) who would be born from the family line preserved by Joseph’s painful journey to Egypt. We see God orchestrating history in powerful ways through the worst of events.
These things should be highlighted and celebrated when discussing this narrative. When done so in harmony with the next three points, these truths are nourishing for everyone’s soul – even those presently experiencing deep relational pain. When celebrated without awareness of these next three points, these truths can make God seem aloof and the gospel seem dangerous for the offended.
Second, we should consider the human person in a larger divine narrative. Often, we only use the experience of human characters in the Bible to emotionalize a story. We talk about pain, fear, despair, etc. But, when we get to the point, we talk as if the redemptive elements (in this case, forgiveness) resolve all the emotional tensions.
We know our most biblical and gospel-rooted actions, like forgiveness, don’t result in “happily ever after lives.” The world is too broken and relationships are too complicated for that. If it’s true now, it was true then (in biblical times). We need to teach and talk about the Bible as if we know this.We know our most biblical and gospel-rooted actions, like forgiveness, don’t result in “happily ever after lives.” We need to teach and talk about the Bible as if we know this. Click To Tweet
Joseph’s brothers were probably jerks again. Joseph likely still had nightmares about being beaten, thrown in a well, and sold as a slave. Joseph was a public figure during a famine; there had to be hard times, tough decisions, and people who disagreed with how Joseph cared for his family with Egyptian grain.
Asking questions like those in the bulleted list above allows people to grapple with the hard things in their life in light of the biblical narrative. All the details in Joseph’s life may not line up with the details in their life. Applying the Bible well is not a matching quiz of biblical narrative and our current life events. It requires discernment to determine what principles are present or absent from a biblical narrative in order to arrive at how to apply the point of the text in our lives.
Third, we should remember that biblical narratives are written with hindsight. Moses wrote the Genesis account where we learn about Joseph. This means there was a full generation’s worth of perspective included in the divine editorializing around Joseph’s words in Genesis 50:20. We read the book of Genesis knowing the genealogy from Joseph saving his brothers led to Jesus (Matthew 1:1-17).
We don’t make our decisions about forgiveness with hindsight. We try to make application of these narratives mid-story in our own lives. The book of the Bible that best captures our lived experience is Psalms, where the author is frequently writing with angst from the middle of a situation with an unknown outcome.
When we talk about Proverbs, we often (rightly) make the point – these are wisdom principles, not promises. God does not guarantee that a gentle answer will always turn away wrath (Proverbs 15:1), but it is wiser to be gentle than to make a volatile situation more explosive by responding in kind.
We should be willing to make a similar statement about biblical narratives – these are histories, not prescriptions. These are the real stories of real people who were a part of God’s plan to bring a remedy to the problem of sin. These are not role plays, where we memorize lines of the characters we most identify with and are guaranteed a comparable outcome.
Fourth, we should be prophetic on the main point and pastoral on the surrounding details. The point of this reflection is not hermeneutics (i.e., principles of Bible interpretation), it’s effective care for a friend. Effective care for a friend does require that we interpret the Bible well. But our first point needs to be harmonized with our second and third point, if we are going to care well for a friend.
The main point of a narrative about forgiveness tells us about God’s ultimate agenda. It does not tell us the timetable in which that agenda will play out in our lives. The Bible tells the stories that were central to redemptive history. We learn about them with hindsight and divine commentary. We can say with the confident voice of a prophet, “See what God had done and trust his character,” about the main points.
Our friend, and us as well, makes choices about forgiveness mid story. We don’t get hindsight and divine commentary on our lives. We learn God’s agenda of restoration and power to restore from these stories. We don’t get a pacing guide, nor do we get an assessment of the repentance/safety of the person who harmed us. These are things we assess in order to make wise application of the teaching of Scripture and represent the character of God.
Questions for Reflection
- What principle for understanding and applying biblical narratives stood out to you most from this reflection? What would be an example from a sermon, Bible study, or conversation with a friend where it would have made a big difference?
- How does the reality that biblical narratives were written with hindsight and we seek to apply them mid-story impact how you apply these kinds of passages to your life?
 For more on the role of power differentials in this biblical narrative see bradhambrick.com/the-story-of-joseph-abuse-forgiveness-power-differentials-and-wisdom.
 As we’ll emphasize in the next reflection, it is important to note that in Genesis 37 Joseph’s brothers were not just “jerks” but criminally abusive, human traffickers. At the stage in their life being discussed here, where Joseph was second in command to Pharaoh, “rude” was as bad as his brothers could be without losing their heads.