A little boy was sitting on a park bench in obvious pain. A man walking by asked him what was wrong. The young boy said, “I’m sitting on a bumblebee.”
The man urgently asked, “Then why don’t you get up?”
The boy replied, “Because I’m hurting him more than he hurt me!”
How many of us handle forgiveness like this little boy? For some reason, we prefer to endure pain and bitterness for the sadistic satisfaction of believing we are hurting our offender more than he is hurting us. It is only when we get off the bench of un-forgiveness that we can begin to heal from the sting of being wronged.
And the story of Joseph in Genesis can help us in this regard.
You recall that Joseph was Jacob’s favorite of twelve sons. One day Jacob sent Joseph to check on his brothers who were tending sheep. When Joseph found them, his brothers were not so thrilled to see their father’s favorite son because they were extremely jealous of him. They almost killed their brother but instead sold him into slavery to a caravan of traders heading to Egypt. Through a long series of amazing circumstances in Egypt, God elevated Joseph from slavery to become Pharaoh’s, right-hand man. Because a great famine struck the land of Canaan, Jacob sent his sons to Egypt to buy grain. And guess who was in charge of selling them the grain?
After all those years, Joseph finally had his brothers right where he wanted them; pay-back time, isn’t revenge sweet? Surely Joseph was savoring every moment. He has the power and surely he can’t wait to execute the judgment his brothers so rightfully deserve.
Just when we are ready to lick our lips with Joseph as he exacts revenge, the story takes an unexpected turn. Joseph, who has the power to bring the hammer down on those who terribly wronged him, chooses to forgive them.
How can we emulate Joseph? (I want to give credit to Robert Jeffress, Lewis Smedes and Dr. Frank Minnereth, all of whom prescribe the following three steps of forgiveness.)
Step # 1: we make sure that someone has wronged us by clarifying what was done.
Joseph understood the importance of assigning blame to his brothers. Joseph did not say, “Hey guys, I know you didn’t really mean to sell me, you were just having a bad day, so let’s just forget the whole thing.” No, instead, Joseph is painfully direct, “You guys meant this for evil.” In other words, “What you did to me was inexcusable. You alone are to blame for the unjust suffering that I endured.”
Before we can forgive someone, we must (1) identify who, and (2) clarify what was done to wrong us.
As it concerns the who, many of you may be thinking, ‘Are you kidding Randy, I know exactly who it was and can tell you all the details of how they wronged me.’
But some of you have been in situations in which it is not clear who to blame. How about the person who goes to their doctor with a stomach ache? The doctor advises cutting back on a certain medication. Six months later the problem persists and this time the doctor recommends a test that indicates this person has stomach cancer that has now spread to other organs and only has a year to live. Who does that person blame for the wrong? The insurance company who recommended the doctor? Or the doctor who failed to perform the test six months earlier? Or maybe the person is at fault for not seeking a second opinion? Or the owners of the manufacturing company near this person’s home that continually releases pollutants into the air’?
You see what I mean when I say that it’s not always easy to know who to blame.
Besides who to blame, we must also try our best to clarify what was done that caused us pain. In many cases that is crystal clear; in others, we need to be sure.
For example, there are probably some here today who are holding a grudge against someone, when for any number of reasons, we shouldn’t be. Perhaps we blindly accepted what someone else told us about that person we are holding a grudge against without checking out the truth for ourselves. Do you know how many people have held grudges against other people who supposedly said something about them, only to find out later, that the other person never said anything like that? If we are harboring unforgiveness in our hearts for something we have only heard and not verified for ourselves, then we owe it to ourselves to check it out. Or maybe we will someday discover that we have been living with the gall of bitterness for nothing!
Or perhaps we have misunderstood or misinterpreted the actions of another who we think wronged us. I can’t tell you how many times in my arrogance I have assumed certain things about why people treated me in negative ways only to find out later I couldn’t have been further from the truth. I don’t need to tell you what results when we ass/u/me certain things about others.
The first step toward forgiveness is to as clearly as possible assign blame for something that really happened. Lewis Smedes, in his great book, Forgive; Healing the Hurts We Don’t Deserve, “We do not excuse the person we forgive: we start by blaming the person we forgive.”
To be very practical, I want to encourage you to write down the name of the person who wronged you and just exactly what it was they did to hurt you. If you have trouble with this step, and many do, then you need to come see me or have a conversation with a trusted friend who will help you identify and clarify.
Step # 2: forgiveness acknowledges that a debt exists and calculates the value.
Joseph not only admitted that his brothers had wronged him, but that they owed him for what they had done. When Joseph said, “Do not be afraid,” he was implying that they had every reason to be afraid. They deserved a long jail sentence for what they had done and they were standing before the man who had the authority to carry it out!
Before we can properly forgive another person, we need to calculate the debt that they owe us for the wrong done. Remember a few weeks ago, we saw the word forgive means to release another person of their obligation toward us.
We need to be as severe as we think we need to be: ‘Because of your actions, I should prosecute you.’ ‘Because of your unfaithfulness, I should divorce you.’ ‘Because of your negligence, I should sue you.’
Because we live in such a litigious society, our minds almost immediately think in terms of monetary damages. So, if you can’t think of any other way to calculate the debt, assign a monetary value that you think would pay for the damages done.
I think one of the most common things we calculate people owe us is an apology. So and so said something that really hurt us. Obviously, we aren’t going to prosecute or sue but we can calculate that they owe us an apology.
Step 1, you’ve written down their name, you have clarified exactly what was done, now, step 2, calculate what you think they owe you. In other words, what are we demanding of them for hurting us? Only then can we continue to step 3
Step # 3: we release our offender from having to pay what we calculate they owe us.
That’s exactly what Joseph did. Instead of giving them the jail sentence they deserved, he released them from their debt.
Only after we have identified the offense and calculated the debt owed can we truly forgive the other person by releasing them from the obligation to pay us what we think they owe.
A few weeks ago, on our way to church, I was pulled over on Lafayette Road. The Medina Officer said, “Do you know why I pulled you over?”
“Not for sure.”
“You were doing 48 in a 35, I need your license and registration to cite you.”
I was wrong; wrongs create obligations/debts.
But just when I thought I was going to have to pay, the officer returned and said, “I am going to let you go.” He released me from my obligation to pay.
In his book, Forgiveness Makes Sense, Dr. Jeffress writes:
There needs to be a specific time when we release our offender from their obligation. Whether or not we choose to voice our forgiveness to our offender, we can express it to God. Admit to God that we have been hurt; deeply hurt by what he or she has done to you. Calculate what that person owes you for the offense: money, separation, divorce, jail, or maybe death. Finally, let me encourage you to pray something like this:
Dear God, what ________________ did to me was wrong, and he should pay for what he did. But, today, I’m releasing him of his obligation to me. Not because he deserves it, or even asked for my forgiveness, but because You, God, have released me from the debt I owe You. 2
Now don’t get me wrong; forgiveness is not as easy as 1, 2, 3. It’s a process. And like any process, it can take some time. If necessary, I invite you to use the above prayer every day. And over time, God will grant you the grace necessary to really forgive; to let go of anger and bitterness that have kept you a prisoner.
By the way, did you notice that last sentence of Jeffress’ prayer?
“not because he deserves it, or even asked for my forgiveness but because You, God, have released me from the debt I owe You.”
The greatest motivation to forgive is to recall that at one time all of us have stood guilty before a holy God with no way to pay the debt for our wrongdoing.
A Sunday School teacher had just concluded her lesson on forgiveness of sin and wanted to make sure she had made her point. She said, “Can anyone tell me what you must do before you can obtain forgiveness of sin?” There was a short pause and then, from the back of the room, a small boy spoke up; “Sin,” he said.
We have wronged God with our sin. The debt we owe is our life. But God paid the debt on our behalf.
“Be ye Kind, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:32).
1Jeffress, Robert. When Forgiveness Doesn’t Make Sense. Colorado Springs, Colorado: Waterbook Press, © 2000
2Minnereth, Frank. The Choosing to Forgive Workbook. Nashville: Thomas Neslon,
3Smedes. Lewis. Forgive and Forget. San Francisco: Harper Collins, © 1984.