Keeping a Clean Conscience

Genesis 45:1-15; 50:15-21

July 13, 2003 | Brian Bill

Over 20 years ago an 11-year old boy named Timothy Jordon stole some cassettes from a 17-year old named Lawrenz Pillow.   In order to teach him a lesson, Lawrenz told Timothy’s parents what happened and he got in big trouble.  Timothy was so mad that, 8 years later, he tracked Lawrenz down and shot him in the face, leaving him with a glass eye and a bullet lodged in his head.  Timothy Jordon served 18 months for assault.

Several years ago, at a chance reunion in a Detroit barbershop, Lawrenz Pillow returned the favor by shooting Timothy Jordon in the head.  Jordon is now dead and Pillow is serving time in prison.  When his wife was asked for her reaction, she said, “The boy never forgave him.”

Someone has said that a clear conscience makes a soft pillow.  As we conclude our series today called, “Characteristics of the Conscience,” we’ve been learning that a clear conscience can give us a good night’s sleep.  In Acts 24:16, the Apostle Paul reminds us that he worked hard to keep his conscience clean: “So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man.”  In 1 Timothy 1:19, he challenged a young pastor named Timothy to hold “on to faith and a good conscience.”

Much of what I’m going to say this morning comes from two sources.  One is a sermon series preached by my friend Ray Pritchard  and the other is perhaps the best book I’ve ever read on this subject called, “Total Forgiveness” by R.T. Kendall.  I also recommend “The Art of Forgiving” by Lewis Smedes.

The Bible is filled with references about how completely God forgives our sins:

Isaiah 43:25: “I–yes, I alone–am the one who blots out your sins for my own sake and will never think of them again”

Micah 7:19: “You will trample our sins under your feet and throw them into the depths of the ocean!”  (NLT)

Ephesians 1:7: “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins according to the riches of his grace.”

Scripture also has a lot to say about our forgiveness of others.  Here are just two examples:

Mark 11:26: “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.” 

Ephesians 4:32: “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” 

Several points can be made regarding these twin towers of forgiveness:

  • Christianity is supremely a religion of forgiveness.
  • God has only one solution to the problem of human sin: the act of forgiveness.
  • We are to forgive others because God has forgiven us.
  • There is a direct connection between our spiritual health and our willingness to seek forgiveness and grant grace to those who have sinned against us.  As Hebrews 12:15 says, we’re to “See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.”

The Bible uses a number of different Hebrew and Greek words to convey the concept of forgiveness.  Here are a few:

“To blot out” God erases the record of the sins we commit.

“To lift and carry away” The complete removal of sins.

“To release from debt” The punishment has been canceled.

“To show grace” We don’t deserve the gift of forgiveness.

In their book, “Forgive and Love Again,” John Nieder and Thomas Thompson point out that the Bible uses at least 75 word pictures for forgiveness (pages 62-63).  They conclude by saying, “When we forgive, we consciously, before God, cancel the debt.  We discard the note.  We pardon the prisoner.  We release the offender.”

Friends, listen carefully.  The most important thing to remember about forgiveness is that it is a choice, not a feeling.  Ray Pritchard puts it this way: “God never says, ‘Forgive them if you feel like it.’  Forgiveness is not about your feelings.  If you have been deeply hurt, you will probably never ‘feel’ like forgiving someone…it is a choice to release others from their sins against you.  That’s why 1 Corinthians 13:5 tells us that love keeps no record of wrongs.  Forgiveness means letting go of the anger and the desire for revenge.” 

Is it possible to totally forgive people?  R.T. Kendall tells of a time when someone very near and dear to him hurt him greatly.  The anger that he felt overwhelmed him.  At length he talked it over with a faithful friend.  After he poured out all the sordid details of what had been done to him, he paused, waiting for his friend to say, “R. T., you are right to feel so angry.  What happened to you was awful.”  But he didn’t.  After listening to all the details, he simply said, “You must totally forgive them.”  Kendall was dumbfounded.  So he started to tell the story all over again, this time adding more details.  He was interrupted with words that would change his life, “You must totally forgive them.  Release them, and you will be set free.”  

Can you and I release those who have hurt us and set them free?   Lewis Smedes writes: “The ability to remember becomes an inability to forget when our memory is clogged with pain inflicted by people who did us wrong.”  Perhaps these following statements reflect where you’re at today:

“But you don’t know what he did to me!”

“They lied about me over and over again.”

“They deserve to suffer like they made me suffer.”

“I was abused.  How do I forgive that?”

“You can’t imagine what I’ve been through.”

I can’t imagine the pain and brokenness and hurt and betrayal some of you have experienced.  But I do know that the only way to be free is to release people from ever having to pay you back for the wrong they did to you.  Forgiveness is not just one of many options.  It’s the only remedy available to us.  R.T. Kendall suggests that the greater the hurt, the greater the blessings that will come with forgiveness.  I think C.S. Lewis was right when he said, “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea until they have something to forgive.”  

If it’s possible to totally forgive people, how do we know when we’ve really released them?  For some help with this, let’s look at how Joseph set his siblings free in Genesis 45 and 50.  

Let me set the stage.  Twenty-two years earlier, Joseph’s brothers were extremely jealous of him because of all the attention he received from their father.  They really fumed when daddy’s boy strutted around in his multi-colored robe, which was a present from papa.  And then, unbelievably, in Genesis 37, Joseph boasted about a dream he had in which his eleven brothers would one day come begging and bow down before him.  They couldn’t take it anymore.  

They wanted to kill him but instead of doing that, they sold him as a slave and concocted a clever cover-up so that their father would think Joseph was dead.  They dipped his coat in some goat’s blood and took it to Jacob, saying, “We found this.  Examine it to see whether it is your son’s robe” (Genesis 37:32).  Their father mourned for Joseph many days and the Bible says that he refused to be comforted (37:35).

Things didn’t look too good for Joseph, but God guided him to work in the house of Potiphar, an Egyptian officer.  He was eventually put in charge of the entire household because he was such a good worker.  But, Potiphar’s wife began to flirt with him and after he refused her advances, she accused him of rape.  Joseph is then thrown in prison where he begins a time of preparation.  He had much to be bitter about:

  • His own brothers had sold him out.
  • He was falsely accused by a woman.  He had done what was right and was still being punished.
  • God let all this happen.

He had at least three offenders to forgive: his brothers, Potiphar’s wife, and God because He allowed it all to take place.  Eventually, after many long months, Joseph is given an opportunity to interpret the Pharaoh’s dreams and offer him some advice regarding the impending famine.  Pharaoh is so impressed with Joseph that he made him the prime minister of Egypt right on the spot.  

Then, during the time of famine, guess who comes to Egypt begging for food?  Joseph’s brothers.  He knew who they were right away but they didn’t have a clue who he was.  He’s twenty-two years older, he looks Egyptian, and he’s speaking through an interpreter.  What would Joseph do?   This was his opportunity for revenge!  This was better than a chance meeting in a barbershop!  He could finally punish them for what they had done to him.

But instead of blasting them, he blesses them.  Instead of forcing them to pay him back, he forgives them for everything they’ve done wrong.  Let’s see how Joseph’s example can help us embrace forgiveness.

1. Keep things private (45:1). 

To ensure privacy, Joseph cries out in verse 1: “Have everyone leave my presence!  So there was no one with Joseph when he made himself known to his brothers.”  Why did Joseph do this?  Because he didn’t want anyone in Egypt to know what his brothers had done to him.  He knew if word leaked out the Egyptians would hate his brothers and maybe even harm them.  Likewise, you and I must resist the urge to tell others about the wrongs that someone else has done to us.  Smedes suggests that “forgiving is an affair strictly between a victim and a victimizer.  Everyone else should step aside” (page 39).

Our sins are gone and God doesn’t broadcast them for everyone to see

I’m thankful that God doesn’t put our sins up on this screen for everyone to see.  Psalm 103:12 says that God has removed our sins from us, as far as the east is from the west.  Acts 3:19 declares that our sins are “wiped out.”   Our sins are gone and God doesn’t broadcast them for everyone to see.  Why is it that we like to tell on other people?  In many cases, it’s because we want to punish them.  Kendall writes, “We tell everyone else … in order to make our offender look bad!  We blab…as a way to of getting even.” 

When someone wrongs you, do you go to him or her, or do you tell everyone else what was done to you?  Work at keeping things private.  You wouldn’t want someone to tell everyone else what you’ve done, would you?

2. Express your emotions (45:2). 

During this unannounced and unexpected family reunion, the first thing Joseph does is to keep things private.  Secondly, he expresses his emotions.  Look at verse 2: “Then Joseph could no longer control himself…He wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard him!”  He didn’t try to hold back.  After two decades of pain, he let his feelings fly.  It was important for Joseph to let his emotions out because to ignore them would short-circuit the forgiveness process.

Friends, don’t be afraid to express the hurt, the pain, and the anger you feel.  It’s unhealthy to act like things are OK when you’re really hurting inside.  If you’re angry, admit it.  If you’re hurt, express it. 

3. Resist the urge to intimidate (45:3). 

Since Joseph was in a position to punish his brothers, he wanted to make sure they weren’t afraid of him.  In verse 3, he reveals himself and he enquires about his father: “I am Joseph!  Is my father still living?  But his brothers were not able to answer him, because they were terrified at his presence.”  This word “terrified” means that that they were “trembling inwardly.”  Sometimes it gives us some strange pleasure to know that people are filled with anxiety when they see us.  We want them to grovel and feel uncomfortable.  It’s really another way to punish them. 

When Joseph sees the fear in his brothers, he’s passing through what Lewis Smedes calls the stage of “rediscovering the humanity” of the person who hurt us.”  He sees his brothers as people who share his faulty frailty, as ones who are bruised just like he is. 

4. Meet face-to-face (45:4a).

After Joseph keeps things private, expresses his emotions, and resists the urge to intimidate, he says to his brothers in verse 4: “Come close to me.”  He didn’t want them to be afraid and he longed to embrace each one of them.  He could have had them bow at his feet, or send them off to prison.  Instead, he invited them to come right into his presence.  Paul said a similar thing about how we can approach God in Romans 8:15: “For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship.  And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’”  We don’t have to fear when we’ve been forgiven.  The word “Abba” is equivalent to the word “Daddy.”  God wants us to come close.

Another reason Joseph had them come close was because he knew that he had to meet his brothers face-to-face in order to fully forgive them.  This step may be the hardest of all.  Most of us would rather just avoid, accuse, or intimidate the person who has hurt us.  Jesus reinforces the importance of meeting face-to-face, whether we’ve wronged someone or an individual has offended us.  We’re covered both ways.  Matthew 5:24: “If your brother has something against you…go and be reconciled to your brother.”  In Matthew 18:15, Jesus tells us what to do if someone has sinned against us: “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you.  If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.”

If you’ve messed up and hurt someone, Jesus says to you: “Go, meet face-to-face, and ask for forgiveness.”  If someone has wronged you, Jesus says, “Go, meet face-to-face, and extend forgiveness.”  The goal, in either case is reconciliation.  If you take what Jesus says to heart, you can’t just wait for the other person to make the first move.  It’s always your move.

5. State the offense (45:4b). 

In working toward reconciliation with someone, it is important to verbalize the offense.  Joseph didn’t beat around the bush when he met with his brothers in verse 4: “I am your brother Joseph who you sold into slavery!”

In order to fully forgive, its important to verbalize what the offense is.  Joseph reminds them of what they did to him.  If you have something against your employer, meet with him or her and state the offense.  If your friend has hurt you, tell him exactly what he did that offended you.  If your spouse has made you angry, put it into words.

6. Release the debt (45:5). 

Joseph now releases them from the debt by telling them in verse 5: “Do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here.”   This is Joseph’s way of saying the past is over.  This is now the present.  I forgive you and we are now reconciled.  Don’t worry or be angry with yourselves.  I release you from ever having to pay me back.

The act of forgiveness means that we forgive the debt that someone owes us by taking them off our repayment list

That’s exactly what the word “forgive” means.  It literally means, “to give” to someone by releasing or setting them free.  You see, to not forgive means to hold someone in debt to us.  We expect repayment and if we can’t get it, we either shut down or explode.  We keep our list and add people to it everyday.  The act of forgiveness means that we forgive the debt that someone owes us by taking them off our repayment list.  It’s like saying, “You did something that really hurt me.  I care enough about you to meet you face-to-face and verbalize the offense.  And now, I release you from all obligations to ever pay me back.  I forgive you.”

It doesn’t always work this way in relationships.  It’s like the cranky old man who was on his deathbed.  As he was lying there, he felt really bad about the hatred that he had harbored for years toward one of his former friends.  He called his old buddy and asked him to stop by.  They talked and got everything out in the open.  They shook hands in friendship.  As the visitor left the room, the man sat up in bed and said, “Remember, if I get better, the old quarrel still stands!”

When we refuse to forgive others, we are in essence holding them hostage.  We do this all the time, don’t we?  It’s as if we’re saying, “Until I feel you have repaid me for the wrong you did to me, until I sense that you have been punished enough, I will not set you free.”    Lewis Smedes puts it this way: “We want the satisfaction of watching him turn and burn…on the rotisserie of remorse.”  To forgive is the process of giving up.  In forgiving we give up demands for perfect behavior, perfect justice, perfect resolution, and perfect retribution… and we begin to experience the truth that we are all fallible people in need of being forgiven.  Someone has said, “He who cannot forgive others breaks the bridge over which he must pass himself.”  Have you surrendered the right to get even and are you ready to release those who have wronged you?

7. Give grace (45:6-13). 

After we release people, the next step is to look for ways to grant them grace so that they can move on.  One of the most magnanimous, gracious and emancipating statements Joseph makes can be summarized this way: “You didn’t do this to me; God did.”  Look at verses 7-8: “But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.   So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God.”  He is helping them to save face as he draws them to God’s eternal purposes.  As bad as this was, it was God’s way of getting Joseph to Egypt first so the Israelites could be preserved during a time of drought.

When Joseph expressed his forgiveness his brothers were thrilled.  But now they’re faced with the prospect of telling their father the truth of what they did.  This was their worst nightmare.  Again, Joseph gave them grace by telling them what to say to their father.  His direction was worded carefully so as not to shame or blame the brothers.  We see this in verses 9-13: “Now hurry back to my father and say to him, ‘This is what your son Joseph says: God has made me lord of all Egypt.  Come down to me; don’t delay…Tell my father about all the honor accorded me in Egypt and about everything you have seen.”

Are you willing to give grace to those who have wronged you by helping them save face?

8. Get ready to forgive again (50:16-21). 

If you’re serious about keeping a clean conscience, then it’s important to make a lifelong commitment to total forgiveness.  You and I are going to have to forgive again and again and again.  When Peter asked Jesus how many times he had to forgive, Jesus gave a stunning reply in Matthew 18:22: “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”  And guess what?  We’re going to need forgiveness again and again and again.

Seventeen years after Joseph forgave his brothers, their father Jacob died.  The brothers freaked out because they were worried that Joseph’s forgiveness would last only as long as their father was alive.  They wondered if he would take revenge on them.  They put their fears into words in Genesis 50:15: “…What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?”  Once again, the brothers concoct a story in order to protect themselves in verses 16-17: “So they sent word to Joseph, saying, ‘Your father left these instructions before he died: This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly. Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.’  When their message came to him, Joseph wept.’” 

Joseph wept because his brothers doubted his forgiveness.  They needed some assurance that they were in fact forgiven.  With some of the most gracious words ever spoken, Joseph replied in verses 19-21: “Don’t be afraid.  Am I in the place of God?  You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.  So then, don’t be afraid.  I will provide for you and your children.  And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.”  

Friends, total forgiveness means that you and I must make a covenant to forgive, and that we’ll have to renew that commitment tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day.  Forgiveness is a lifetime obligation.

Action Steps

I want to close with three questions.

1. Who do you need to forgive? 

Is there someone you’ve been holding hostage?  It’s time to set them free.  Are you ready to do that?  Lewis Smedes offers some insight: “We forgive when we feel a strong wish to be free from the pain that glues us to a bruised moment of the past.  We forgive when we want to overcome the resentment that separates us from the person who wounded us.  We forgive when we feel God’s spirit nudging us with an impulse to pull ourselves out of the sludge of our disabling resentment.  We forgive when we are ready to move toward a future unshackled from a painful past we cannot undo” (page 45).

Friend, it’s time to forgive by following the example of Joseph.

  • Keep things private  
  • Express your emotions
  • Resist the urge to intimidate
  • Meet face-to-face
  • State the offense
  • Release the debt
  • Give grace
  • Get ready to forgive again

2. Who needs to forgive you? 

Have you wronged someone and have never asked for forgiveness?  If you want a clean conscience, it’s time to make things right.  Meet with that individual today.  Don’t delay. 

3. Are you ready to ask God for forgiveness? 

Have you ever confessed your sins to a holy God?  Because of your offenses, your relationship with Him has been severed.  Receive the forgiveness that only Jesus can give you.  Don’t put this decision off.  Do it today.  Right now.  You’ll never be the same.  You’ll experience freedom like you’ve never had before.

For many months a young man followed the path of sin wherever it led him.  He committed every sin in the book and broke all the Ten Commandments.  He blew off his parents and they didn’t know if he was dead or alive.

When he finally came to his senses, and heard the screams of his conscience, he knew he needed to be forgiven.  He sat down and wrote a letter to his father, saying, “Dad, if you’ll take me back, I’m ready to come home but I’m afraid you won’t let me.  I’ll be on the train next Tuesday.  If you’re willing to forgive me, when the train passes by the house, tie a piece of white cloth on the oak tree in the front yard.  When I see the white cloth, I’ll know you are willing to take me back.  If I don’t see it, I’ll stay on the train and keep going.”  The father wrote back, “Come on home, Son.  I’ll be waiting for you.”  But the son didn’t believe him.

When Tuesday came, he boarded the train, filled with fear, wondering what his father would do.  As the train drew near, he said to the man sitting next to him, “I can’t bear to look out the window.  When we go by the white house around the next curve, tell me if you see a piece of white cloth in the oak tree.”  The son put his head down and waited.  When the train went past the house, the son raised his head and said, “Mister, what did you see?  Was there a piece of white cloth in the tree?”  The man replied, “I couldn’t see the tree because it was completely covered with a white sheet.”

Some of us live for years in broken relationships because we don’t believe that forgiveness is possible.  The hardest thing you’ll ever do is to go to someone and say, “I was wrong.  Will you forgive me?”

I close with a word of good news.  Your greatest need is for God’s forgiveness.  I’m happy to tell you that the trees of heaven are covered with white cloth.  God says, “If you are ready, you can come home.  If you are tired of sin, you can be forgiven.  If you are tired of eating the Devil’s leftovers, there’s a place for you at my dinner table.”

Are you willing to be forgiven?  Until the answer is yes, you will stay chained to the past.  But when you are ready to forgive and to be forgiven, the healing can begin.  And only the Beautiful Savior can help you do that.

Do you want your sins forgiven and your conscience cleansed?  The only way for that to happen is by receiving Jesus Christ into your life.  Are you ready to believe in the beautiful Savior?  If so, pray this prayer with me:

“Lord Jesus, I’m too scared to forgive and I’m too guilty to be forgiven.  But I don’t want to stay that way any longer.  I confess that I am a sinner.  I have wronged you and I’ve offended others.   Forgive me for choosing to live chained to my past.  I’ve kept you out of my life for way too long.   I repent of my sins by changing my mind about the way I’ve been living.  No longer will I close the door when I hear you knocking.  By faith I gratefully receive your gift of grace and your full forgiveness.  Thank you, Lord Jesus, for coming to earth.  With all my heart I believe you are the Son of God who died on the cross for my sins and rose from the dead on the third day.  Thank you for bearing my sins and giving me eternal life.  I believe your words are true.  I receive you into my life.   Be my Savior and Lord, my Forgiver and Leader.  I surrender to your leadership in my life.  Make me into the person you want me to be and since I’m now forgiven help me to forgive others.  Amen.”

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?