Summertime is reading time in the Garman house. Even as a child I would devour library books by the stack during my summer vacation. Most of my choices are light fun reading selections. Last summer however I read remarkable true tale of a man named Louie Zamperini in the bestseller, Unbroken. This story has many themes weaving through it; one of the most resonating one being forgiveness. Louie spent many years in a Japanese POW Camp during World War 2. Later in his life Louie had a life changing encounter with Jesus Christ and because of that, he was able to forgive his Japanese tormentors.
Lewis Smeade says “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” We have all had our battles with forgiveness; from small little slights to larger conflicts and broken relationships. The Scriptures have a lot to say about forgiveness, both of God’s forgiveness of us and our forgiving each other. One of the most powerful stories of forgiveness in God’s Word is the story of Joseph found in Genesis 37-50.
Joseph is the first son born to Jacob and his beloved wife Rachel. Although he is the eleventh son in the family, he is Jacob’s favorite. When his mother dies giving birth to Benjamin, Jacob’s favoritism to Joseph becomes more apparent. He gifts Joseph with a robe of many colors. “But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him and could not speak peacefully to him.” (Genesis 37:4 ESV) Jacob’s partiality to Joseph caused great conflict and bitterness among his sons.
Joseph did not help matters at all by being a bit cocky and self-assured. He had no qualms about relaying a dream to his brothers that had them bowing down and serving him. All this bitterness, envy, jealousy, and testosterone boils over and Joseph’s brothers capture him, throw him into a deep pit, and then sell him into slavery to a group of men traveling to Egypt.
Twenty years later, Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt to buy food for their families and unbeknownst to them, Joseph is the one man who oversees the food supply. Joseph and the brothers come face to face with the past. Repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation take place among the family. Joseph recognized that though his brothers did great evil to him, it was God who ultimately sent Joseph to Egypt in order to be able to provide for the Israelites during the time of famine.
Genesis 50:20 “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.”
Joseph forgives his brothers of the terrible offences they did to him just a Louie Zamperini would extend forgiveness to his captors thousands of years later. How were these two men able to forgive their tormentors? Joseph gives us the answer in Genesis 50:19. When the brothers ask Joseph if he is going to take revenge on them once their father dies Joseph answers, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? “
Joseph recognizes that only God has the authority to sit in judgment of man, and to refuse to forgive someone is akin to sitting in God’s chair. When someone does evil to us or wrongs us we often think we know what they deserve, that payback should be ours. But only God has the right or the authority to sit in judgment of someone. He alone has all the knowledge of the situation. We do not know all the circumstances nor do we know the motives of the person’s heart. Only God can sit in judgment without becoming evil himself. Punishment or judgment left to us will cause us to sin or to become bitter. When we don’t forgive we are on the edge of becoming evil ourselves. When we nurse our anger or when we want or seek the power to payback, we become like those who have harmed us. If we don’t forgive someone we become hard, cold, self-centered, and self-focused. By paying evil with evil you become evil.
There are many places in Scripture which admonishes us to forgive others and leave the judgment to God.
“Dear friends, never take revenge. Leave that to the righteous anger of God. For the Scriptures say, “I will take revenge; I will pay them back,” says the LORD.” Romans 12:19
When we decide what is right or wrong, rather than looking to God and His Word for answers we put ourselves in the place of God. We sit in His chair. When we refuse to forgive and hold grudges we sit in God’s chair. When we say we have forgiven yet secretly wish others harm and not God’s blessing, we sit in God’s chair. When we continue day after day, year after year, to play the DVD tape in our head of all the hurt, slights, conflicts, and wrongdoings of others against us, we sit in God’s chair. Joseph understood this and he refused to sit in the place of God.
Joseph also took God’s view of the situation. He knew that God could see from eternity past to eternity future. God sees the “bigger” picture and He will right all things in the end.
Last year my husband and I traveled to visit our missionaries in Palawan Philippines. We flew a small plane from Puerta Princessa into the coastal village where Danny & Philippa Brooks serve. I loved the flight and took many aerial pictures of the village and the beautiful beach. When I showed them to Philippa her comment was. “So that is what my wee beach looks like from the air. “ She had never seen it from that view point.
When we are able to see the hardship, trials, and sufferings of our life from God’s view, we can see that He is indeed working all things out for His good. Often in the midst of hardship we cannot see past our own pain. It is then we must remember that God directs our path and we must place our trust in Him.
Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. Psalm 119:105
You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Psalm 139:3
When my spirit faints within me, you know my way! Psalm 142:3
Your way was through the sea, your path through the great waters; yet your footprints were unseen. Psalm 77:19
Even Job in his darkest days, after losing everything but his own life acknowledges that it has all happened by the hand of God and yet he resoundingly declares in Job 19 “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon theearth.”
Romans 12: 17 “Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”
After Louie Zamperini met Jesus his life was completely changed. He returned to Japan in 1952 to tell his former Japanese guards about the love and forgiveness of Jesus Christ. Louie also visited the infamous prison where he was tortured and brutalized. He was told that the guard who tortured him endlessly had committed suicide.
“as he was told of Watanabe’s fate, all Louie saw was a lost person, a life now beyond redemption. He felt something that he had never felt for his captor before. With a shiver of amazement, he realized that it was compassion. At that moment, something shifted sweetly inside him. It was forgiveness, beautiful and effortless and complete. For Louie Zamperini, the war was over.” 1
In 1998 Louie learned that “The Bird” was actually still alive and he penned this letter to him.
“The post-war nightmares caused my life to crumble, but thanks to a confrontation with God through the evangelist Billy Graham, I committed my life to Christ. Love replaced the hate I had for you. Christ said, ‘Forgive your enemies and pray for them.’ I also forgave you and now would hope that you would also become a Christian. ‘“2
Where does this ability to forgive come from? Not from our strength but only from the strength of Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit. Because we are a forgiven people, we forgive and set the prisoner free.
1 Hillenbrand, Laura (2010-11-16). Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption (Kindle Locations 6804-6806). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.