Excerpt from An online Course: Where God puts two hearts in a home.

The best biblical example of forgiveness is a boy whose brothers attacked him, threw him in a pit, and then sold him as a slave. This boy grows to manhood in a foreign land and spends at least twenty long years as a slave, two of which were in prison. Of course, you no doubt recognize by now that the boy is Joseph, Jacob‘s son. Refresh your memory of the story by skim reading Genesis 37:12-36.

Any normal man would have nursed a hefty grudge for every one of those lonely, tortured years and would have vowed that if he ever saw his attackers again, they would pay for taking away his freedom and his family. A normal man would delight in imagining how he would destroy. Revenge is the subject of many great plots in Western literature. We root for the hero to exact justice, as he returns to kill his adversaries and set things right. But Joseph does not do that. Joseph forgives.

By examining how Joseph offered forgiveness to his brothers, we can see the elements of forgiveness and how they can operate in marriage.

Forgiveness does not seek to ruin another’s opinion. In Genesis 45:1, Joseph cleared the room before revealing himself to his brothers. If what they had done to Joseph came out, his servants would feel obligated to hate or even kill them. This was a far cry from the tattletale that Joseph had started out to be (Gen 37:2). Instead he protects their secret and prepares the way for them to be heroes to the Egyptians.  When your spouse sins against you, do you often tell someone else so that person can join you in condemning your spouse and justifying you? ―Yes, that was terrible! Of course you‘re angry. You are a saint to put up with him! In a marriage, a husband‘s ruined reputation cannot help but damage the whole family. Scripture describes a foolish woman: Every wise woman builds her household, but a foolish woman tears it down with her own hands‖ (Prov 14:1). If you tear down your spouse‘s reputation to others, you tear down your own house.

Forgiveness is first an inward decision. It is clear that Joseph had forgiven his brothers long before he met them again. It wasn‘t a sudden decision based on his nostalgia at seeing them again, or a reaction to them pleading for it.  Similarly, when your spouse sins against you, your inner decision to forgive can take place long before you face your spouse again. In the Lord‘s Prayer (Lk 11:4), Jesus says that we ask for God‘s forgiveness based on the fact that we have forgiven everyone.

I used to think that I only had to forgive if the person asked me for forgiveness, otherwise I was free to nurse bitterness. If that were true, God would have every right to hang onto any sin that I had not remembered to confess to Him. But He forgives the many sins that I don‘t even notice that I have done. Similarly, I need to forgive my mate before he even asks. This does not mean, however, that he shouldn‘t ask if he realizes he has sinned against me. We are both commanded by God to seek forgiveness from each other. This is so that we might have the opportunity of humbling ourselves to each other (an important ingredient of Christian unity) and of laying a foundation for reconciliation.

Forgiveness seeks to eliminate fear of retribution. In Genesis 44:16, Judah, on behalf of all of Joseph‘s brothers, falls before Joseph in abject humility. The guilt of the brothers‘ crime against Joseph weighs heavy on them. For the past twenty years, they have been waiting for God to punish them for what they did. They view their imminent punishment by this nameless Egyptian leader as only their due (Gen 42:21- 22, 28; 44:16). They even have a hard time believing the genuineness of Joseph‘s forgiveness. How could he not be secretly harboring a grudge? (After all, they would if the shoe were on the other foot!) After Jacob dies, they think that Joseph will change his mind and finally settle the score. Joseph keeps reassuring them not to be afraid of him (Gen 43:23; 45:5; 50:19-21).

We may not be kings with the power to execute, but we have other forms of retribution that we demand from our spouses. Our retribution can take the form of a long memory. When we forgive our spouses for their wrongs against us, that means the next time we have a disagreement, we cannot haul this sin out of a hidden mental closet and heat it up like a red-hot weapon to use against them. ―This is just like the last time that you …

Forgiveness is optimistic about God’s dealings.

  • Please read Genesis 50:19-21. This is core to understanding forgiveness. Joseph tells his brothers, God works everything out for good. In marriage, you can trust God‘s goodness in your life. His plans for you will not be foiled by a mere person.

Forgiveness feels compassion. One of the things I love about Joseph is that he has the gift of tears.

  • In Genesis 42:24, Joseph weeps when he overhears his brothers arguing about who has the greater blame for selling him. They are waiting for God to punish them severely.
  • In Genesis 43:30 after he meets Benjamin, he has to excuse himself to go weep privately.
  • He weeps in Genesis 45:2, when he hears from Simeon how his loss has anguished his father, Jacob. This time he weeps so loudly that not only his own household but the household of Pharaoh hears it!
  • He weeps when he finally gets to embrace his brothers in Genesis 45:14-15.
  • And he weeps when he embraces his father in Genesis 46:29.
  • He weeps when Jacob dies in Genesis 50:1.
  • And he weeps when he realizes that his brothers are still frightened of him in Genesis 50:17.

We never see him weeping for feeling sorry for himself. He always cries tears of compassion. Similarly, Jesus weeps with compassion over Jerusalem who would face judgment for rejecting and crucifying Him (Lk 19:41). Jesus and Joseph were both moved by the terrible results of sin, no matter that the sin was against them.

If we can see our spouses through eyes of loving forgiveness, we will feel deeply sad about the consequences of their sin, especially if it is serious. They will answer to God for it, and they may incur His judgment or chastening. It may be detrimental to their health or damage relationships. When we forgive, we feel sadness, not bitterness.

Forgiveness wants to see God bless the perpetrator. Joseph blessed his brothers again and again, and he invited others to do the same by not telling Pharaoh or anyone else what they had done. Similarly, Jesus prayed forgiveness and blessings on the disciples who would abandon Him and on the Jews and Romans who would execute Him. He presented His blood in heaven to win them access to the Father  (Heb 9:12-14), and now He lives to make intercession for us (Heb 7:25). Stephen, the first martyr, echoed the words of Christ: Lord, do not hold this sin against them!‖ (Acts 7:60).

What is your spouse‘s sin against you? It may not be so small, but is it so great that it is beyond Christ‘s forgiveness? Then it cannot be beyond yours either.