Today’s message is about forgiveness and how the lack of it can limit us, blind us, maybe even make us sick. How grievances, large and small, held and nourished maybe silently in our hearts, keep us from growing closer to God and to one another. The good news is that God has provided, does provide, and is always providing the antidote for grievance. But the choice is ours to make.
In our Old Testament reading today, we heard the beginning of the story of Joseph, the youngest son of Jacob, who also happened to be his favorite because he was born so late in Jacob’s life. They had a special bond. From the opening verses we heard, we can hear right off the bat the jealousy his brothers have for him. And when Joseph gave his father a bad report of what his brothers were doing when they were supposed to be tending the flocks, they hated him even more. To make matters even worse, Joseph had a dream in which he ruled over his brothers and he—perhaps innocently, perhaps not—told them about it. And they were livid. They began wondering how to get rid of him.
The way this story is usually told, the brothers are of course the bad guys. We can hear from the start the grievance they are holding on to, and over time they let the jealousy and anger in their hearts fester until they come up with a dangerous and potentially deadly plot that seems reasonable to them. No conscience, no good impulse is blocking the spread of the grievance they’ve been holding on to for so long. It has now metastasized. So they want to get rid of this horrid little brother, and when an opportunity presented itself—when Jacob sends Joseph to check on his brothers who were grazing the flocks far away from home—they see him coming toward them over the grasslands, and they come up with a plan to kill him. The oldest brother Rueben had a heart that was not quite as blinded by hatred as his brothers, and he suggested they spare Joseph’s life and simply put him into an empty cistern and leave him for the wild animals instead. The brothers agreed. But when a traveling caravan of Ishmaelites came along, another brother, Judah, suggested they sell Joseph as a slave instead and be rid of him with no shedding of blood. So for 20 shekels of silver—a very low amount which is considered practically worthless–Joseph was sold to the group of travelers, who took him to Egypt. When the brothers told their father of Joseph’s supposed death, they covered their terrible act with more deceit, by smearing the blood of an animal on Joseph’s torn coat and showing it to their father as proof. Seeing this, Jacob’s heart was broken; tore his clothes in mourning and would not be consoled.
So we can hear how the seeds of grievance, nurtured over time, grew into a toxic plant that spread throughout the hearts and minds of the jealous and competitive brothers. But as the story unfolds, it is obvious to us that if anyone had a legitimate grievance here, it was Joseph. Brothers who hated him, who plotted to separate him from his home and favored position, who sold him into slavery and told his father he was dead. So much heartache! And teachery. And violence. We would understand if Joseph—if he survived—would hate these men for the whole rest of his life. Refuse to ever see or speak to them again. Cut them completely off; consider them strangers—or worse, enemies—if he ever saw them again.
And in fact, the whole rest of Joseph’s life completely changed because of the grievance his brothers held and nurtured in their hearts. It’s hard to imagine brothers having such hatred in their hearts. We might think people who are capable of doing something like that are irredeemable, just monsters, unable to care about anything except their own power and position. We’d stay as far as we could from someone with a heart that hard, someone capable of something so evil. We would understand that because that’s the normal human way of recoiling and responding to hurts and trespasses and the bad behavior of others.
But there’s a problem with that kind of thinking, and if we’re not careful, those small judgments—deciding someone is bad or beyond help—can plants seeds of grievance in our own hearts too. When we focus on the bad, the wrong, the shocking, we forget for a time that there is “that of God” in everyone. When we leave God completely out of the picture, and we overlook the reality that where there is life there is possibility for change. And because God’s love is limitless, unending, and always reaching out to us in a thousand different ways, we can’t know how God might be working in that person’s life—or ours—through this very circumstance. Over time we’ll see it, if we’re paying attention and if we have the hearts and minds and inner quiet to know.
In Joseph’s case, God had a long-range plan for this whole family, and it was eventually a happy outcome for all. But eventually is a key word here. Because it’s good for us to remember that Joseph’s story unfolded over decades; and similarly, opening to and learning from God’s light is something we do our best to do daily, but we see the results cumulatively, over time. We learn bit by bit and recognize God’s leading step by step. It’s an uneven process, but it is a process, and our relationship with and trust in God grows deep along the way. In my experience, God’s leadings are gentle and healing and always loving, even when they point out things I’d rather not see in myself. The support is there. The understanding is deep. And God gives us the grace to understand ourselves better and keep moving forward, even when we’re dealing with difficult things.
In his book, Truth of the Heart: An Anthology of George Fox,” British Quaker Rex Ambler pulls together many of Fox’s most powerful sayings. He wanted to create the big picture Fox’s insights and leadings. Ambler says that based on his earlier readings of Fox, he thought the writings would show how Fox lined up with traditionally Protestant views. But to his surprise, he discovered that,
“Fox had a distinctive approach of his own, which was not consciously drawing on any of the traditions he inherited. He was not, for example, presenting a teaching that people were expected to believe and follow, whether mystical, biblical, or whatever. He was telling them rather to do something, because what they needed to make them free and fulfilled as human beings, ‘perfect,’ was in them, and it was in them already without their having to imbibe it from a church or teaching outside. It was an inner awareness which would enable them initially ‘to see themselves’ as they were, in reality, beyond the deceptions of ‘the self’, but then also to see what they and others could become, and should become. It was a powerful and transforming ‘light’, and it worked its magic in people by showing them ‘the truth’.”
Ambler offers this passage, from an epistle Fox wrote in 1652, as an example of the writings in which Fox gives people a process for recognizing and learning from God’s light within them:
“Stand still in that which is pure, after ye see yourselves; and then mercy comes in. After thou seest thy thoughts, and the temptations, do not think, submit; and then power comes in.”
Fox offered this as a kind of experiment for people to try, because when they do, “they would discover for themselves the validity of what he and other Friends said. They would know the truth ‘experimentally’.”
The New Testament reading we have for today echoes this deep intention and process in George Fox’s approach. Jesus is saying this very thing: Before you criticize and attack something in another person, get the board out of your own eye. See where your heart is hard, where the seeds of grievance have taken root and turned you away from mercy. We need God’s Light to see that—and even more, to heal it.
“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” Jesus asks. “How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”
Have you ever heard the saying that when you point at someone else, there are three fingers pointing back at you? It’s a good visual reminder of what Jesus is saying here. Before we accuse someone else of being, doing, saying, or thinking something we don’t like, Jesus says we need to be honest with ourselves and take a good long look at our own hearts. Where do we have those same tendencies that we are criticizing in others? That may feel like a hard thing to consider, but it’s important and needed if we want to grow in our faith.
Psychology tells us that projection is an as-far-as-we-know uniquely human tendency to see in other people the flaws and unsavory characteristics we don’t want to see in ourselves. Freud suggested back in the early 1900s that our projections aren’t random—that in order to see (and judge) a negative trait in others, we must have at least some measure of it too; otherwise we wouldn’t recognize it in them. I think this is what Jesus is getting at when he uses the example of the speck and the plank. The obstruction in our own eye is much more blinding to us than the one we point out in our neighbor’s eye. Why did he make the two things so dramatically different? After all, he could have said, “You can’t get a speck out of your neighbor’s eye while you’ve got a speck in your own,” and that would be true enough. But he used the word plank, something impossibly huge, to call our attention to something. Until we become willing to let God show us where our hearts are hard, Love can’t do its perfect work in us. It may be only a speck in our eye, but until we become willing to see it, it might as well be a plank.
But all that’s needed is a little willingness, some self-honesty, and God does the rest. And one by one as we let our grievances go, our hearts get softer, and we feel more able to forgive those we still blame and judge. God brings more and more peace, a feeling of lightness and freedom, and eventually a new understanding of those people who once caused us pain. We no longer feel that hard, dark spot in our hearts when we think of them. We can let them be and even wish them well. We can hope that their relationship with God is growing like ours is. We may even feel led to pray for them from time to time, maybe daily.
As we saw in Joseph’s situation, holding a grievance is a dangerous and potentially deadly practice, where unrecognized jealousies, angers, and resentments draw us into ever-more-negative thoughts and actions, and further and further away from God. You may remember the outcome of Joseph’s story, however—he was valued in the kingdom and rose to a position of prominence, so when a famine hit the land, he was able to save his family, the very brothers who had so wronged him. He provided the food they needed to sustain themselves and their families and flocks. The family was healed. The grievances gone, exposed for the lie—the cancer, really—they’d always been.
That’s what awaits us, too, on the other side of grievance: Healing, freedom, unity, connection, acceptance. Light. In closing I share Rex Ambler’s slightly modernized version of a powerful quote from George Fox:
“Keeping your mind on the light you will all be a source of refreshment to one another, both individually and together. So may the God of power and love maintain you all in power and love so that, instead of finding fault with one another, you will refresh one another in the unlimited love of God. For it is this love that enables you to be truly aware of one another, to read one another’s hearts. So being held together in this love you cannot be separated from it or divided among yourselves.”
When we are held together in the love of God there is no room for grievance of any kind because we can see God’s love everywhere, busily at work creating the kingdom through us and with us and for us. When we let go of the grievances that block God’s Light in us, we move from the noisy circumference of the outer world toward the quiet center of our hearts. Once we find it, it’s a path to joy we’ll gladly travel over and over again, because each time, we find God waiting, and feel embraced and held and cherished in perfect peace and pure and lasting love.
- OT Genesis 37: 1-8
- NT Luke 6: 41-42
- Ambler, Rex. Truth of the Heart: An Anthology of George Fox. https://bookstore.friendsunitedmeeting.org/products/truth-of-the-heart-an-anthology-of-george-fox