Robert Griffith | 6 April 2024
Robert Griffith
6 April 2024


I have preached and written about forgiveness many times over the last forty years in ministry and I have had thousands of conversations with fellow pilgrims about this central issue in our lives. But inevitable questions about biblical forgiveness always arise. Does forgiveness imply we ignore issues of justice and restitution? Does forgiveness absolve the guilt of the perpetrator? Does forgiveness imply reconciliation?

It’s important for us to understand what is demanded of us in forgiveness. Forgiveness is not the same thing as reconciliation, which requires two parties to be willing to come together.

Consider the story of Joseph. For a long time, when I read the narrative in Genesis, I could never understand why Joseph, as prime minister, put his brothers through what often seems a cruel series of tests. If, as he says in Genesis 50:20, he held no bitterness against them, why make them go through the paces of going back and forth from Egypt to Canaan? Why hide the cup in the brother’s bag? Why hold one of the brothers back as collateral? What is going on here?

In this example, I think we see in Joseph the difference between forgiveness – which releases our own souls from bitterness – and reconciliation. Before Joseph could truly be reconciled with his brothers, he had to see that they had shed the petty jealousies and rage that had motivated them to commit their heinous acts of violence in the first place.

Were his brothers remorseful for their treatment? Listen to the way they talk amongst themselves, with Joseph overhearing:

Genesis 42:21-23  They said to one another, “Surely we are being punished because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that’s why this distress has come on us.” Reuben replied, “Didn’t I tell you not to sin against the boy? But you wouldn’t listen! Now we must give an accounting for his blood.” They did not realize that Joseph could understand them, since he was using an interpreter.”

Clearly, the guilt they had carried for decades, the dirty secret that had hung over their hearts like a weighted blanket, was now being exposed in the light of day. They understood that God was forcing them to confront their sin and appeal for forgiveness and grace. Here are the seeds of reconciliation.

And yet Joseph had to continue to test them, to see if their remorse would lead to repentance and new patterns. Clearly it did. Instead of being brothers who cared only for their welfare, these men now plead on behalf of their youngest brother Benjamin. These were changed men to whom Joseph could trust his heart.

It’s important for us to understand there are levels of engagement when we’ve been seriously hurt, not all of which are possible to achieve in this life. Forgiveness is the first and most basic. Forgiveness is the act of being released from the bitterness of our pain and entrusting payback and vengeance to the one who fights for us.

“Vengeance is mine” God tells us (Deuteronomy 32:25; Romans 12:17-19). James reminds us that the “wrath of man doesn’t bring about the righteousness God desires” (James 1:20).

Forgiveness means we refuse to let that other person live in our heads rent-free. Forgiveness means we refuse to work our hurt into every single conversation. Forgiveness means we don’t let bitterness cloud our judgement. This is why my friend Rich told me I had to forgive. He was telling me this for my own spiritual and physical health.

I’ve seen too many people destroyed by bitterness. And here’s the thing: unforgiveness not only affects our own souls, but its acid also splashes onto our families, our friends, and our co-workers. I’ve been up close and personal with too many leaders – powerful, gifted, brilliant leaders – who never got over their hurts. It hamstrung their leadership, making them fearful, isolated, and untrusting. Then they unwittingly inflicted it on others. I was one of those leaders once and it was not a good place to be.

And yet, forgiveness is only the first level of engagement with those who have hurt us. The next level, I believe, is reconciliation. But this is often more complicated and sometimes it is just not possible. In Joseph’s case, it happened because his brothers also engaged and were willing to embrace repentance and restitution. This is not always possible. Romans 12:18 says, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” If it is possible, as far as it depends on you.

Sometimes, many times, reconciliation is not available. I’ve had relationships where I’ve forgiven and there is a measure of peace that God has brought to my heart and soul over time, but full reconciliation was not yet possible because there was not a reciprocal effort to make peace or the person has died.

There are times when forgiveness is used as a weapon, for instance, to force victims to drop criminal charges against their abusers. But this isn’t what forgiveness is at all. Forgiveness doesn’t erase the demands of justice, it merely takes the instruments of vengeance out of our hands and releases our perpetrators to “the judge of the earth who deals justly.” (Genesis 18:25).

I also believe there is a third level of engagement beyond reconciliation that is even harder to achieve. This is trust. You can forgive and even be reconciled in the relationship, but it takes a lot to re-establish trust.

Consider when Joseph’s brothers addressed him in Genesis 50. This was decades after he’d forgiven them, after they were reconciled and living side-by-side in Egypt. Yet they still wondered if, after their father Jacob died, he was just waiting to enact his vengeance on them. They repeated their father’s deathbed wish, that Joseph would forgive them of their sins against him.  In response, Joseph not only promised he would not take action against them, he also pledged to take care of them financially and materially. He even entrusted them to carry out his dying wish: to take his bones back to the land of his father.

This level of trust, beyond forgiveness, beyond reconciliation, is the fruit of years of faithful actions by both parties to restore confidence. Too often we collapse these three concepts into one. But while forgiveness can happen in any situation, we can’t force reconciliation where it’s not possible, and we should be wise with whom we place our trust.

If the church treasurer steals money from the church coffers, the church should forgive him or her.  That doesn’t mean that person should be restored to their former position when they haven’t yet earned the trust to handle the people’s money again. Forgiveness also doesn’t mean people who have abused authority or committed moral failures should automatically be restored to their former positions. Sometimes, after years of restitution, people can have a second chance. But we should be careful who we put in positions of power again. Again, God’s grace is free and unlimited for our failures, but God never guarantees a return to the stage.

So, forgiveness is not a one step process and nor it is ever easy. But it is possible and it is really important. God knows that and so He is always standing ready to help us through the process and set us free from the chains of bitterness and resentment which so often confine us and prevent us from moving on and becoming all that God desires. Our ultimate trust must always be in God first. He will take us the rest of the way.