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On Faith: The pain of forgiveness

The congregations I serve in Finland and Lutsen recently read the story of Joseph together, a story many of us remember from childhood. Joseph is loved by his father more than his brothers, who are so angry that they sell him into slavery.

Through a series of events, Joseph grows up to be one of the most powerful men in Egypt.

When a famine engulfs the land, he is given the authority to manage stores of grain that have been set aside. His brothers come to Egypt to buy food not knowing, of course, that Joseph now holds the power of life and death over them. Yet, Joseph forgives them, and sends them home fed.

This story confronts our gut instincts about vengeance and retribution. As followers of Christ we are set apart by our calling to forgive others, and to live lives of charity and kindness. That being said, this is a daunting text to explore in light of our national conversation about women coming forward to share stories of sexual abuse. It is both malicious and destructive to tell anyone who has suffered abuse to "move on and not say anything, or just forgive and forget."

What this says is that they are not to be believed, that they are of lesser worth than their abuser, and that unless they live in silence their lives will be put on trial.

There are times and places where we are able to forgive as easily as Joseph, and there are times when offering forgiveness is simply too painful to endure; those moments that require re-living one's suffering, acknowledging one's helplessness, and accepting that the one's abuser will never repent. Joseph's story reminds us that God is with us in our fear, anger, disappointment and shame. Because God is with us, we believe that the promise of resurrection is always near.

The abundant life that follows in the wake of forgiveness is woven into the fabric of who we are as people of faith. Our model for this is Jesus, whose love is so deep and so enduring that even at the cross he prays that those who are taking his life be forgiven.

But let's not presume that forgiveness is always painless, and let's not pretend that we can't see where Joseph's well-spring of mercy comes from, which is a place of power and entitlement.

Joseph is the voice of Pharaoh. No one would dare challenge his memory, or ask why he waited so long, or insist that he hold his pain inside. No woman with the courage to confront her abuser ever does so from such a place of privilege.

Nowhere in the gospel does Jesus shame, mock, disrespect, or dismiss those struggling to get back on their feet after being slapped down. When asked how many times we are to forgive, Jesus says seventy times seven. In other words, forgive abundantly.

But forgiveness doesn't excuse abuse or allow it to go unchallenged. It acknowledges that even though our wounds are painful and our emotions raw, they don't define us.

God is with us in our suffering, empowering us to speak truth to power. God uses our brokenness to re-create this world, and that means God is using us even when we can't find the words to forgive. This gives comfort to those whose pain seems unbearable, and it convicts us for choosing to not listen to those whom we so casually disregard.

That's the power of the gospel at work right there folks; compelling us to live as disciples willing to step into the most broken places in our community, so that each and every child of God will know that they are loved, respected, valued and heard.

"On Faith" is a weekly column in the News-Chronicle written by area religious leaders.