The youths were arrested and declared guilty before a judge. But the student, who had given testimony at the trial, asked the judge if he could serve the sentence that had been handed down to the young men. When asked why he would want to do such a thing, the student said, “I’ve forgiven them.” The judge refused to allow him his wish but, over the months his assailants were in jail, the student visited them regularly and several of them came to faith in Christ as a result.
Other than that of Christ, probably the best known example of extreme forgiveness in the face of injustice is found in the Old Testament story of Joseph found in Genesis 37 - 50. Though Joseph’s story covers more than ten chapters we are still left with very little information as to how Joseph felt during his roller coaster ride from favoured status to abject misery and back again, all because of the unjust treatment he received from others.
But what we do know about is how Joseph responded to the evil that was done to him.
Let’s review his story.
1. Favoured by his father (Genesis 37:3, 4)
Certainly neither Joseph nor his father might have been aware of the injustice here, but Joseph’s other brothers were feeling badly treated by Jacob when he lavished special treatment and special privileges on the son given to him by his favourite wife—yet another example of Jacob’s injustice responses. In a way Jacob bears at least some responsibility for what would subsequently happen to Joseph. His favouritism contributed to the many other injustices Joseph would suffer.
2. Dreams of leadership (Genesis 37:5-11)
Perhaps it was the security that his father’s special affection gave him that caused Joseph to be so free about sharing the dreams that he had. The brothers were incensed when this young upstart told then that he had seen them bowing down to him. Even Jacob was somewhat annoyed to discover that he too would one day bend the knee to his youngest child. On the other hand, it might have been those dreams that kept Joseph’s spirit up during all his trials. He trusted God to deliver on what had been shown to him in his dreams.
3. Brothers conspire to kill him (Genesis 37:18-24)
But rather than shrug off their father’s favouritism and Joseph’s brashness, the brothers allowed their anger, resentment and bitterness to grow. When Joseph appeared on the horizon while they were tending Jacob’s sheep, they quickly hatched a plan to get rid of him. The one spark of humanity turned up in Ruben who had planned to rescue his younger brother from the dry well. Unfortunately he came too late and the others sold Joseph to Midianite traders. They believed that he, a pampered son, would not survive life as a slave. Certainly they never expected to see him again. Deceiving their father with a story of Joseph’s death was cruel, and in its own way, unjust.
4. Sold as a slave (Genesis 37:25-28)
And so Joseph came to Egypt where he was sold into Potipher’s household as a slave. Of all the people the Midianites could have sold Joseph to he falls into the hands of someone connected to the court of the Pharaoh. We begin to see a few more threads in the tapestry of God’s design that will bring Joseph to the attention of the king and place him in a position to help his people—even those who betrayed him.
5. Put in charge of Potipher’s household (Genesis 39:1-6)
The text doesn’t dwell on how Joseph might have been treated in Potipher’s household, but we are told that his exemplary conduct brought him to the attention of the master who, as a result, put him in charge of his household. The text tells us that this was because God was with Joseph and brought about this change in status on his behalf.
6. Falsely accused and imprisoned (Genesis 39:7-20)
Despite his favoured status in Potipher’s household, Joseph’s story continues to be characterized by injustice. The master’s wife, her advances toward Joseph spurned, turns on him and falsely accuses him of trying to rape her. Even if Potipher knew differently, he could hardly turn against his own wife in favour of a slave, so he sends Joseph to prison as punishment for his “crime.”
7. Made head over the prisoners (Genesis 39:21-23)
What did Joseph think and feel? He did what was right and it turned out so wrong! We are not told what might have gone through Joseph’s head and heart. But the text tells us that he didn’t change his behaviour. He continued to do what was right. That in itself gives us a pretty strong clue that he continued to trust that God was working out a plan even through the injustice that he was suffering. Because God was with him, the head jailor saw the value in making Joseph his right hand man and putting him in charge of the prisoners.
8. Interpreted the dreams of two prisoners (Genesis 40:1-22)
It turned out that God brought to the prison a man who would be instrumental in bringing Joseph to the attention of the Pharaoh—eventually. Pharaoh’s butler and baker got themselves into hot water with the king and ended up in prison. While there God sent them dreams that foretold their fate. Joseph was able to interpret those dreams. The only time we hear any kind of plea for justice from Joseph comes as he asked the pardoned butler to bring his case to the attention of the Pharaoh. But the time was not yet right and so the butler forgot.
9. Forgotten for two more years (Genesis 41:1-13)
Two years passed. It seems like another injustice. How could the butler's memory be so bad considering the circumstances under which he had met Joseph? The tangled threads on the underside of Joseph’s tapestry do not reveal what God is doing on the upper side.
10. Interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams (Genesis 41:14-36)
Dreams torment the king. Even his most skilled advisers can’t come up with answers to the questions that those dreams generate. The butler remembers and shares his prison experiences with the Pharaoh and Joseph is sent for. It is noteworthy that Joseph makes no claims of his own in order to ingratiate himself with the king. He acknowledges that it is God who interprets what He has sent by way of the Pharaoh’s nightmares. The scene is being set. Bad years are coming, following on the heels of the good years.
11. Made responsible for food production and distribution in Egypt (Genesis 41:37-49)
Surely Pharaoh had lots of men who could have done what Joseph was tasked to do. But it was the time and place and person that God had foreordained to be in Egypt to prepare for the famine to come and to rescue Jacob and his family from starvation. Joseph was chosen, having already been prepared in Potipher’s household and in the king’s prison to “look after” things. We are not quite at an “aha” moment in the story; an explanation for all the evil that has happened to Joseph, but we are getting close.
12. Reveals himself to his brothers (Genesis 45:1-6)
Eventually Jacob is forced to send his sons to Egypt to buy food. The famine has been extensive—famine was generally considered to be a sign of God’s judgment. Their encounter with Pharaoh’s second-in-command, whom they do not recognize as their brother, does not go well. The first time Joseph does not reveal his identity to his brothers, but rather he tests their character. Has anything changed in their attitude while he has been away? Will they betray another favoured son as they had betrayed the first? On the brothers second trip to Egypt, Joseph meets his younger brother, Benjamin, for the first time. Overwhelmed by joy, and with a heart full of forgiveness, he tells his brothers who he is and how God has taken their evil and turned it into good for their sakes.
13. Reunited with his father (Genesis 46:29-34)
The family is reunited, setting the stage for the growth of a nation whose foundation will be built on miracles delivered from the hand of God Almighty. Joseph could have demanded justice. No one would have condemned him for making his brothers pay for their treatment of him. It is almost as though they got away with the evil they had done. But Joseph doesn’t care about retribution or vindication because Joseph sees the upper side of the tapestry and understands that even injustice serves God’s purposes.
“…do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you…to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God” (Genesis 45:5, 7, 8)
Joseph broke the chain of hate, jealousy, fear and injustice when he forgave his brothers. He understood that it was God’s business to set things straight as He chose, and Joseph’s business to believe that God works out His purposes as He chooses.
“Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:19).
The New Testament parallel to this thought is easily identified in Romans 8:28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
And what is God’s purpose for His children? “…to be conformed to the likeness of his Son” (Romans 8:29).
When we refuse to break the chains that have resulted from the injustices perpetrated against us by forgiving those responsible, we continue the cycle of evil and never grow in our likeness to Christ who forgave far worse injustice than any of us could ever suffer. We short-circuit the purposes of God—the purpose He has for our lives and for those who have sinned against us.
To be able to face with joy and peace the injustices committed against us, we have to believe, as Joseph did, that God is in absolute control of our lives and everything that affects our lives, and that He is working through these events to make us all that He wants us to be as we respond to Him in faith and complete obedience.