It shouldn’t be that difficult for us to understand why Joseph’s brothers have a problem believing that he has forgiven them. After all, they were used to treating others in a manner that was much less than what they deserved (see Genesis 34 & 37), so they can’t relate to someone treating them better than they deserve.
I don’t think they’re an isolated case. Jacob had the same struggle (for the same reason), when Esau forgave him (Genesis 33). And aren’t we used to hearing things like, If it’s too good to be true, then it probably is? Now I understand (and believe) this principle in regard to economic matters (i.e., free Southwest Airlines tickets).
The problem is, for many people this attitude bleeds over into their thinking about others who act graciously toward them or even God’s forgiveness. Like Joseph’s brothers, they interpret gracious behavior as something that’s too good to be true and see it as a setup—some form of manipulation designed to get them to let their guard down so the hammer can be dropped on them. How sad that for 17 years the brothers of Joseph lived in this way, unable to enjoy Joseph’s forgiveness because they were convinced he was just biding his time until he could avenge their treatment of him (Genesis 50:15ff). How sad when people wear the name of Christ but are never convinced that there is no condemnation in Him (Romans 8:1ff).
For grace to be effective, there has to be trust (Ephesians 2:8). Sometimes people have so warped and twisted their lives (or suffered abuse from others), that trusting someone, even God, is very difficult. As we reach out to people with the good news of Jesus, I think it’s important for us to remember that someone failing to respond isn’t always a case of rejection—sometimes it’s an inability to relate to such glorious news. Grace is not too good to be true; it’s too good not to be true. But not everyone is able to appreciate that and we need to be sensitive to that.
What is to be done in such instances? I think a good place to start would be to do what Joseph did—he continued to show kindness and acceptance to his brothers. People who have been wounded in this way require time to lower their defenses and allow trust to take its place. I know a woman who was in a situation like this. She knew she needed to come to Christ but couldn’t bring herself to respond. She was so scared of dying in this state that she had worked herself into a fear of living. She slept with a gun under her pillow.
As I recall, there was no momentous event that turned her life around, just a steady stream of love and acceptance that over time helped her to do what in her heart of hearts she had wanted to do for a long time. One night, she responded to Christ and was baptized. We’re not told whether Joseph’s brothers were able to finally accept his forgiveness. We’d like to think that they did. And while it would be nice to know, what’s more important is to recognize that there are “siblings” of Joseph’s brothers in the world we live in who struggle to appropriate the love of Christ to their lives.