Forgiving Those Who Hurt Others

What can we teach our kids and students about forgiveness in this atmosphere of conflict that seems worse than ever?  Anyone who has been married for more than an hour, or is the parent of a teenager, understands there will be disagreements and hurt feelings in life because we all want our way.  What can be even more destructive is the pull to get even with the person or group who hurt us.  In his poem, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” Robert Fulghum notes one lesson to teach children is to, “Say you’re sorry when you have hurt somebody.”  True, but he only cites half the process when pain has resulted between two parties.  We need to apologize, but the victim must also agree to forgive.  That is not human nature.

Recall the story of Joseph in the final chapters of the Book of Genesis.  When Jacob died, the older brothers of Joseph panicked that he would now take revenge on them, since their father was gone.  Years earlier, they had sold him as a slave to Midianite traders when he was only a teenager.  Joseph was then purchased by the Egyptians like a piece of merchandise.  He suffered through many other miserable days too.  For example, he had been thrown into prison when falsely accused of a crime by the wife of a politically powerful man who worked for the Pharaoh himself.  

A few years later, and through miraculous circumstances, Joseph was elevated to second in command in all of Egypt, which brought him wealth, power and the ability to save his family and others from the ravages of a famine.  By the end of the story, Joseph had reunited with his father and brothers, who then settled in Egypt too.

But once their father was dead, the brothers asked each other, “What if Joseph bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong which we did to him?” (Genesis 50:15)  They even approached Joseph with a likely fabricated story that their father’s deathbed wish was that Joseph would not seek retribution for the wrongs against him.  Obviously, Jacob did not want Joseph to kill his brothers, but they were desperately attempting to manipulate Joseph so he would not harm them and their families.  This wasn’t necessary.  Joseph responded to their fear with forgiveness.  He understood his role in a bigger story when he declared, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive” (Genesis 50:20).  Joseph had the authority to execute his sheep-herding brothers for whatever reason he decided and nobody would have questioned it.  He chose forgiveness.

Joseph had been enslaved and falsely imprisoned, yet he not only forgave the individuals directly responsible, but promised to take care of their families too.  This act of love led to the birth of a nation.  It can seem simple for us in the 21stcentury to read this biblical account and applaud Joseph for his act of forgiveness, and to teach our students at school and children at home this virtue.  However, it is extremely difficult to forgive others who have hurt us deeply.  As C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, “Everyone thinks forgiveness is a lovely idea until they have something to forgive.”  Quite right.

In the New Testament, Jesus taught about forgiveness too, and he presented the rather sobering truth that if we do not forgive those who have sinned against us, then our Father in heaven will not forgive us either (Matthew 6:14-15).  The world teaches that those who have been wronged deserve retributive “justice.”  True reconciliation begins when someone says “I am sorry,” and makes amends.  But the conflict will not truly subside until the one who was victimized agrees to forgive as well.  Why does Jesus expect us to respond this way?  Because every one of us is a sinner, who hurt and offended God’s divine justice, yet Jesus died for those sins, even though we did not deserve it and before we asked for it (Romans 5:8).

Guiding our students in the challenging process of forgiveness will bring them peace with God and peace with others too. And even more important is to instill in them Joseph’s understanding that God will bring good in the midst of circumstances that others meant for evil.  Hopefully, we as parents, teachers and leaders can model this truth about forgiveness in our own lives.

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