Sunday, July 9, 2017

The Freedom of God’s Sovereign Goodness

The following is a response to a video message on the topic of forgiveness that drew my concern because of the teaching that God wants us to forgive everyone of everything all the time.[1] The belief is that this kind of all-encompassing forgiveness is the only way we can avoid bitterness. And, since God clearly commands us to, “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice”,[2] people conclude that forgiving unrepentant people must be required by God as the only means of doing his will.

I listened to the message because it came up as part of a discussion in which I had already shared how God never tells us to forgive unrepentant people, but does give us freedom from bitterness by a different means, which is our personal faith in God’s sovereign goodness.

This is a serious matter for me partly because so many preachers assume forgiveness where God has not stated it, and because teaching traumatized people that the only means of being free of bitterness is to forgive unrepentant abusers is adding trauma to trauma. The real liberation from bitterness, including the healing of the trauma, comes by knowing God as sovereign and good. When we know him like that, we can find the healing and freedom we long for even if no one ever comes to us in repentance.

The rest of this is what I had tried to post in response to the video but could not do so because of the length of my response. However, for those who have been hurt by the unbiblical demand to forgive unrepentant people, and yet truly want freedom from the bitterness their wounds have caused, here is encouragement to take a closer look at what God’s word really does say (rather than what is added), and see how your freedom is within reach because it is all about what you do in relationship with your heavenly Father, not what you do in relationship to anyone who has wronged you.[3]

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Because this is such an important issue, whether the Bible teaches us to forgive everyone of everything all the time, or to forgive those who repent and trust God’s sovereign goodness for the rest, and because the video is by a prominent pastor who makes it sound like the Bible clearly teaches forgiving everyone of everything all the time, here are some points of clarification that I make very cautiously. I do not make these as though I would challenge a respected pastor about anything at all, but only because this issue of forgiveness is consistently presented by many preachers with unbiblical and unwarranted interpretations that hide the better thing God’s word teaches. These “beyond what is written”[4] interpretations make it sound like the Bible says something it does not, putting many wounded brothers and sisters into unnecessary difficulty by suggesting only two choices when there are really three.

1.  Nowhere in Genesis 45, or the rest of the Bible, does it say that Joseph was expressing forgiveness to his brothers in this encounter. Whether or not he did, that is never stated, so it is unfair to say that this is an expression of forgiveness when the Bible never once says so. I’m not saying Joseph didn’t forgive his brothers, again, because it isn’t stated. I’m only saying that making the issue of Genesis 45 about forgiveness when it is never stated that way in the Bible is an unfair addition that makes it appear that those who disagree that this is about forgiveness are against forgiveness itself. No, we’re only against using such texts as this to teach on forgiveness when that isn’t ever stated as the topic. There is something better here than making this about forgiveness.

Sadly, by setting up the dominoes so the audience is convinced the first one is about forgiveness gives the appearance that all the dominoes fall down on the side of forgiving everyone of everything all the time. Once we see that forgiveness is not even mentioned in the text, or in any Scriptural references to this time and event, we can step back and ask ourselves what it is Joseph was really doing, and what example does that set for us today in light of what else we are taught about dealing with the harmful things people have done to us.

2.  The real issue of Genesis 45 is Joseph’s belief in God’s sovereign goodness. What Joseph did state, which we can all agree on, is that his brothers were not to “be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life.”[5] Without calling this forgiveness (never stated), we should be able to agree that Joseph’s declaration to his brothers was that he knew that the harm they had perpetrated against him was used by God to send him ahead of them on a life-saving mission. That Joseph could do this is nothing short of merciful, but it is still an issue of what he believed about God and his sovereign goodness.

I just want to make clear that Joseph was not consoling his brothers by telling them he forgave them. He was consoling them by directing their hearts to the same understanding of God’s sovereign and gracious goodness that he had learned himself somewhere along the way (we are never told when Joseph learned this lesson). If it was they who had sent him there, Joseph was in a position to carry out justice against their crime. If it was God who sent him there, and it was for the purpose of, “to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors,”[6] the thing that had already consoled Joseph, and was now to console his brothers (in view of their sudden discovery that their brother had the very authority over them he had once spoken of in relation to his dreams), was that God had a much greater intention in good than everything that had planned against him.

Since these are the stated words of Scripture, that this was about Joseph telling his brothers that it was God who sent him to Egypt, not them in their wrong-doing, the lesson we must give to ourselves has to be the same. When we are dealing with harm done to us by others, the thing we must learn is that God has purposes in his sovereign goodness that far exceed whatever harm anyone inflicts against us, and we will find our freedom when we get to know our Father in his sovereign goodness over every harmful thing we have ever experienced. When we know him in this way, we will have freedom to love our enemies, pray for our abusers, bless our persecutors, and return good for whatever evils are done against us, even while leaving forgiveness in God’s hands as he determines whether that is going to be part of the picture.

3.  It is in chapter 50 of Genesis that we come to the wonderful and gracious and merciful and liberating expression of Joseph that, “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.”[7] This is very important for the simple reason that this is not in chapter 45! Something else was happening at this time, and so we must receive this in context.

Joseph’s point was that what his brothers intended for harm, God intended for good, for the saving of many people. This is clearly what gave him his freedom, the belief that God worked all things together for good. It is also a reiteration of what he had told them at the very beginning (chapter 45), but was now required again because of a significant change of circumstances. It is my contention that it is this belief in the sovereign goodness of God that is the issue, believing that God takes what people intend for harm and turns them all into things that are for our good. Since those are the words Joseph spoke, and Paul expressed as a universal truth in Romans 8:28-30, we can tell all Christians that we will be liberated from the bitterness of all the harmful things people have done to us when we are able to relate to God our Father as taking whatever people intended for harm and turning it for good. As we look for that good instead of carrying the grudge we will find freedom in Christ.

Now, since this declaration is in Genesis 50 instead of 45, what has changed in both the circumstances and the context to lead Joseph to declare himself so succinctly? After the interaction of chapter 45, enough time has passed that Joseph’s brothers had gone to bring their father and household to Egypt, specifically to the land of Goshen. More time had passed for them all to settle into their new home under the blessing and provision of Pharaoh. Jacob’s age caught up with him, he knew it was his time to die, so he blessed his sons and prepared for his death. After his death, and after the couple of months of time passed for embalming and mourning, and the journey to bury Jacob in the same cave as his ancestors, we now come to how Joseph’s brothers felt about Dad being out of the way and Joseph Prime Minister of their land.

The significant thing to what prepares the way for Joseph’s expression of mercy, and his reminder that he believed in God’s sovereign goodness in what had happened to him, was the brothers sending a letter in which they plead for Joseph to forgive them their transgression and their sin. This is so important that we add this to the context. Even if we think this was Joseph forgiving his brothers, for that certainly is the sense of what takes place here, we are dealing with men who are pleading for forgiveness. There is no doubt that, if this is Joseph forgiving his brothers, he is forgiving brothers who are in a state of repentance, confessing that they had sinned, and done evil, and transgressed. In other words, Joseph said what he said because his brothers did what they did.

So, when Joseph declares what he did, that the evil they meant for his harm God intended it for good, it reiterates what he had said quite some time earlier, that his view of everything was what God meant for the situation, not what they meant for it.

From this I would say that, chapter 45 shows Joseph’s relationship with God (not just his doctrine). He related to God as his Lord and King who worked all things together for good, specifically the saving of many people through the terrible famine, including his own family. This was something necessary since the Messiah promised in Genesis 3 had to necessarily come through Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, so one of Jacob’s sons (we now know was referring to Judah) had to be kept alive through the famine in order for the lineage to stay alive. The example to us is that we also view all our life-experiences, including the harm people inflict on us, as fully woven into the sovereign goodness of God in which he now has an even greater life-saving work going on than what we saw during that seven years of famine. When we can believe that the harm done to us could become a testimony that would be used by God to save people out of the domain of darkness and transfer them into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son,[8] we will then be able to rejoice in the sufferings we endure rather than live in constant bitterness and grief that life has been so hard on us.[9]

We can also see how chapter 50 shows us men who were overcome with the circumstances they were then facing, that the father of the family was gone and fears of repercussions from little brother were rising in their hearts, and the one they had abused and mistreated was now comforting them and speaking kindly to them.[10] The lesson for us is that, for us to do the same, sometimes seen in loving our enemies, or blessing our persecutors, or doing good to those who wrong us, we must have this all-encompassing knowledge of God that he is always working our life-experiences for good. It is this faith in God’s sovereign goodness that gives us freedom, including the freedom to forgive when required to do so.

4.  It is false to state that it is a myth that we can wait to forgive people until they repent since the Bible clearly shows God waiting for repentance in order for him to forgive, and teaching the church the same. While we can get stuck in an “always” or “never” focus that may be too difficult to prove either way, there are clear indications that God’s response to unrepentant people is not to forgive them, and his teaching to the church in relation to unrepentant people is also never met by a call to forgiveness, but with other things that we must do for our freedom. If we do the things that are taught, we will find freedom in Christ even while never forgiving someone who is living in unrepentant sin towards us.

In Matthew 18, when Jesus addresses the specific issue of what to do if a brother has sinned against us and does not repent, he never once says that we are to forgive the person. In each case that there is no repentance, Jesus describes the next level of confronting the sin, all the way to treating the person as an outsider.[11] When people who know that fellow believers are continuing in their sin, and are protected by other churches that will not address the wrong-doing, the biblical answer for our freedom is not that we suddenly just give in and forgive them because we don’t want to be bitter against the injustice. Rather, we hide our hearts in the love of God and seek to know his goodness in what we are going through so that we have the same peace and rest as Joseph. As we look and pray for how God is going to work even such injustices for good, we will find freedom in God’s sovereign goodness even though we are not choosing between bitterness and forgiveness. Faith in God’s sovereign goodness is what gives the freedom we need in such cases.

When Paul confronted the sinful man of I Corinthians 5, he never once told the church to just forgive him.[12] Instead, he called for church discipline. In fact, he was offended that they would treat the man as if he was forgiven instead of holding him accountable for his sin. In his second letter, when the man showed godly sorrow over what he had done, the church was then taught to fully welcome him back into the fellowship of the church.[13]

When Peter told about handling unjust suffering,[14] he again never mentioned forgiving the people causing the suffering, but stated, “Therefore let those who suffer according to God's will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.”[15] This is the way we find our freedom even when suffering unjustly. We entrust our souls to God as our faithful Creator, and continue doing good, even to those who are doing us harm. These are wonderful things we can do even when it would be wrong to declare someone’s forgiveness because they are still walking in their sin.

5.  It is wrong to take Jesus’ words, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,”[16] as proof that Jesus forgave unrepentant people since Jesus did not say he forgave them (read it again if you need to). Instead, Jesus taught us to pray for people who wronged us,[17] and that is what he was doing. His words are not a declaration of forgiveness, but a prayer for his enemies. When we come to the place of trusting Jesus with what people have done to us, even to the point of praying that he would forgive them, we can have peace because we know that we are trusting Father with the situation, and God will only answer that prayer in ways that line up with his perfect justice, mercy, and faithfulness.

6.  It is false to say that our only choices are bitterness or forgiveness. Again, since the Bible never once tells us to forgive unrepentant people, and it also tells us to put off all bitterness, rage, and anger, its solution to bitterness in every instance is faith in God’s sovereign goodness. This is why Paul writes, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’”[18] When believers feel there is something that needs to be avenged, Paul did not tell them to forgive, but to “leave it to the wrath of God”.

This is the real problem, not that we won’t forgive, but that we have not trusted God enough to leave it to his wrath to decide what happens. It is not because we can’t forgive that we keep harboring vengeance and judgement and grudges, but because we don’t trust that God will carry out his vengeance however he sees fit. Again, since this goes back to Joseph’s example, we leave things to the wrath of God because we know that he takes everything that happens to us and works it for good. When seeing God glorified in doing good is greater than our fleshly desire to get immediate justice according to our limited view of our situations we will know that we will always have what we desire since God always works all things together for good.

7.  The real issue with our bitterness towards people who have harmed us is not that we haven’t forgiven them, but that we haven’t trusted God to work all things in our lives together for good. It is not what we are holding against wrongful people that is our bondage, but what we are holding against God. As soon as our justice-issues with God are settled, and we can trust him to take every instance of harm and turn it for good (the thing Joseph really did say), we will find our hearts experiencing rest because someone greater than ourselves is handling the situation and we are now free to love our enemies, pray for our abusers, bless our persecutors, return evil with good, even asking God to please forgive the people who have wronged us. It is trusting God to do what is right while we entrust ourselves to him and continue to do good that gives us freedom from carrying grudges that are based solely on the thoughts of the flesh and nothing on the mind of the Spirit.

How do we apply this to discipling people who struggle with bitterness over the harmful things that have happened to them? We direct their attention to prayerful interaction with God in his word focusing on the transforming faith that knows God is taking those hurtful and harmful circumstances and working them for good. As we unite in our congregations to help people get to know God like this, helping them hear God’s word on the matter and pray through whatever wounds need healing, their coming to know God in his sovereign goodness will free them from the old wounds so they can share their testimony of healing with others, perhaps even including some who did them harm.

© 2017 Monte Vigh ~ Box 517, Merritt, BC, V1K 1B8 ~
Unless otherwise noted, Scriptures are from the English Standard Version (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.)

[2] Ephesians 4:31
[3] I just want to note that this is specifically addressing the false notion that we are to forgive unrepentant people. Everything the Bible teaches about forgiveness towards repentant people must be carried out even when our wounds would still cry against it. I am not endorsing the idea that we can hold off forgiving a repentant person until our wounds no longer hurt us. We may need a miraculous dose of God’s grace to obey him in faith (I think all grace is miraculous, by the way), but my contention that the Bible nowhere tells us to forgive unrepentant people is partnered with my belief that we must always forgive repentant people as taught in God’s word.
[4] I Corinthians 4:6
[5] Genesis 45:5
[6] Genesis 45:7
[7] Genesis 50:20
[8] Colossians 1:13-14
[9] Romans 5:1-5
[10] Genesis 50:21
[11] Matthew 18:15-20
[12] I Corinthians 5:1-13
[13] II Corinthians 2:1-11
[14] I Peter 3:13-17; 4:12-19
[15] I Peter 4:19
[16] Luke 23:34
[17] Matthew 5:44
[18] Romans 12:19

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