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The Joy of Forgiveness

With forgiveness, there is a healing of a rift that divides two parties in a relationship. The restoration of this relationship is a reason to be joyful.
Read Time: 8 minutes

While growing up, I remember a time when my grandfather wasn’t on speaking terms with his older brother. Decades later, I learned that there was a time when he and his younger brother weren’t talking either. It baffled me. While I was occasionally miffed by my little sister, it never seemed to matter a few hours later. However, these were two grown men, and my grandfather was one of the nicest people I knew—and this was in my cultural context of “Minnesota nice!” How could he be upset with his brother for so long?

Now, as I near the age my grandfather was at that time, I have seen more of life and more examples of loving people having been separated by offenses between one another. Even loving people I respect greatly in the community of believers aren’t immune to this. We all sin and fall short of the glory of God. So, it should not be surprising that friction between brothers goes back to the beginning.

It led to murder just outside the Garden. Problems between siblings were present in early Genesis, and they are a big part of the storyline of the patriarchs at the end as well. Joseph’s older brothers stopped just short of killing him! Problems like these, then and now, rob people of joy and peace in their relationships, peace in the Hebraic sense of shalom, and the wholeness and health of the relationship.

In the epistles of the New Testament, we have warnings about unresolved conflict and how it negatively impacts us as we hold onto grievances. The writer to the Hebrews speaks of a root of bitterness that grows in our lives and robs us of joy: 

Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.  See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many. (Hebrews 12:14-15).1

Similarly, Paul exhorts us to:

Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.  Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (Ephesians 4:31-32 ESV).

When we forgive, bitterness gets weeded out, and joy can bloom in our hearts instead.

If Joseph, in slavery and prison, could have dwelt on the wrong his brothers had done to him and let bitterness grow over the many years of separation he could have easily acted in a vengeful way. We don’t know how much he wrestled with hurt and anger towards his brethren, but at some point, he let go of the offense and had the wisdom to recognize God’s hand in the events to bring about salvation. 

He told his brothers, “And now, 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.” (Genesis 45:5 ESV). His forgiving attitude set the stage for his joyful reunion with brothers who previously were so filled with jealousy and contempt that they “hated him and could not speak peacefully to him.”  (Genesis 37:4). Now, as a result of Joseph’s forgiveness and grace towards his brothers, their relationship has a new start amidst tears of joy. “And he kissed all his brothers and wept over them.” (Genesis 45:15). Notice that “afterward his brothers talked with him.” (v. 15). The text, in compact language, draws a contrast to the previous dysfunction in their relationship.

The emotive language helps us visualize the tearful embrace of brothers reconciled. It mirrors the joyful embrace of their father Jacob and his brother Esau, another beautiful image of reconciliation and healing coming to a relationship. “But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him.  And they wept.” (Genesis 33:4). So too, joy can come with forgiveness on the horizontal plane in our lives, brother to brother, sister to sister, or brother to sister. With forgiveness, there is a healing of a rift that divides two parties in a relationship. The restoration of this relationship is a reason to be joyful.

Not only does joy come on the horizontal plane with our siblings in Jesus, but we also feel the joy with reconciliation on the vertical plane with forgiveness from God. This joy comes because repentance and forgiveness bring us back into connection with God after sin had driven a wedge between us and God. Adam and Eve were banished from the garden due to their sin, and Cain’s sin led him to go “out from the LORD’s presence… in the land of Nod, east of Eden.” Similarly, our sin drives us further and further from God. But God’s grace and forgiveness draw us back to the joy of fellowship with Him.

David, in Psalm 51, expresses the joy felt by the repentant sinner,

Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice. (Psalm 51:7-8).

David describes feeling crushed at the core of his being by the weight of his sin. Guilt, shame, and regret result from our sins. He longed for and prayed for the cleansing and forgiveness that brought joy and gladness to replace the feeling of brokenness.

Shortly thereafter, David continues, 

Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me. (Psalm 51:10-12).

David recognized that his sin could have led to him being driven from God’s presence but prayed instead for the joy of being restored.

In addition to the receiver of forgiveness, the one granting forgiveness also feels joy as the relationship is mended. The Scriptures reveal to us God’s joy as the giver of forgiveness. This truth about the joy in heaven was revealed to us by our Master in three ways in the three parables of Luke 15. These lessons were given by Jesus in response to the muttering by the “righteous” about the “sinners” that Jesus was welcoming and eating with. (v. 2).

The rich imagery of the masterful storyteller gives us a glimpse of the rejoicing and celebration that occurs when we, as sinners, turn and seek forgiveness. When the lost sheep was found, the diligently searching shepherd “joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home.  Then he calls his friends and neighbors and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’” (v. 5-6). Jesus continues, “I tell you that in the same way, there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” (v. 7).

In the second parable, the woman who searched for the lost coin in the house finds it and “calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ (v. 9). Jesus comments, “In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (v. 10).

Jesus paints another picture of this joy in the third parable, where the Father is watching for the lost son, hoping for his return, and sees him approaching from a distance. “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.” (v. 20).

Interrupting his son’s planned message, the father says, “‘Quick!  Bring the best robe and put it on him.  Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.  Bring the fattened calf and kill it.  Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.” (v. 22-24). This celebration included music and dancing with joy.

Consider how much of this imagery mirrors the story of Joseph.2 Jesus, who immersed his mind in the Hebrew Scriptures, is activating links to remind us how much joy the father Jacob experienced when reunited with his lost son. It’s one of the most deeply moving moments in Genesis.  Joseph, the son previously dead in Jacob’s mind, was now alive again, and he and his son joyfully embraced and kissed. “As soon as Joseph appeared before him, he threw his arms around his father and wept for a long time.” (Genesis 46:29).

Consider the contrast that Jesus paints. Joseph was not separated from his father by his own doing. The prodigal, however, left of his own volition and made some pretty bad choices. He foolishly wasted resources while Joseph wisely stored them up and so was able to save numerous lives, including those of his father and brothers. Joseph was morally upright, fleeing from an adulterous approach. The prodigal engaged in “wild living.” Jesus, by drawing this contrast—yet linking the welcoming arms of the two fathers—invites us to feel awe at seeing God is willing to forgive. And that He has great joy and affection towards us when we return to Him after we have become lost, even if we were lost by our own foolishness.

It is worth considering the two additional powerful links Jesus makes to Joseph’s story when the elder brother speaks of prostitutes and jealously mentions that he never received a young goat. These elements bring us to the story of Judah, who sought out a prostitute, and Tamar, who never received the young goat as payment in Genesis 38. The narrative contrasts Joseph and Judah. Jesus is clearly using the echoes to reach the hearts of his audience.

Jesus wants them to recognize that their attitude toward repentant sinners is just as improper as Judah’s condemnatory, judgmental attitude toward Tamar. They, like Judah, should recognize that the other is “more righteous than I.”  They, and we, must try to see from God’s perspective when people are turning because of the call of Jesus. These are repentant sinners whom the Father welcomes with joyful arms; they and we should share in that joy.  The religious leaders needed to see they were just as sinful and should be seeking mercy from God and not be so quick to condemn their brother.

Returning to my grandfather and great uncle, if I, a couple of generations beyond the conflicting brothers, felt sorrow about the strained relationship, then I can imagine how much more anguish would have been felt by my great grandfather had he lived to see his children divided from one another in this way.

Jacob did live to see the great conflict between his sons. But he also was blessed to see the joy of their reconciliation. Think about how our heavenly Father feels sorrow, witnessing the conflict between His children and how our sins separate us from one another. But also how great the joy He feels when His children forgive and reconcile!

For the joy set before him, Jesus endured the cross. He saw the joy of forgiveness coming to lost people like us when reconciled to His Father. He knew the joy His Father and the angels would experience when we repent and return to Him. Jesus shares this joy as he sees the shalom in our relationship with God due to his sacrifice. With joyfulness, thankfulness, awe, and humility, let us always remember what God and Jesus have done to bring about this peace.  So, let us seek the shalom and healing in our relationships and share the joy of forgiveness, bringing joy to our Father in heaven as He sees His children reconciled.

Bryan Lloyd,
Boston Ecclesia, MA

  1. All Scriptural citations are taken from the New International Version, unless specifically noted.
  2. Examining the many connections between this parable and the story of Joseph warrants another entire study; in the course of preparing this article, I have seen twelve thematic allusions and language connections that Jesus uses in the twenty-two verses of this parable to the Joseph story at the close of Genesis.
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