Joseph’s story, as told in the Bible, is a beautiful illustration of how God’s purpose can be found in our pain. If we could understand that there is always a reason why God allows pain in our lives, we would be able to endure anything. Before we deal with that though, I want to give you a different perspective of Joseph’s story (You can read that amazing story retold in this book). Let us approach it from his viewpoint: without the knowledge of the purpose God had for him.
Joseph was an ordinary person with an ordinary life. Long before the dreams, he had witnessed the death of his mother Rachel as a little boy and it made him even closer to his father. By the time he was seventeen, life was somewhat better. Somewhat I say, because although he was the favorite child of Jacob, his brothers did not get along with him. Most of them were half-brothers and had grown up seeing their father show special affection to Joseph. They initially disliked him but soon that dislike turned to hatred.
Joseph felt more isolated every day; his brothers avoided him, whispered when they saw him and often ridiculed his honesty and integrity. He really did not do anything to warrant that treatment but he at least had the love and support of his father. Jacob knew that his sons did not like Joseph but had no idea just how much they detested him.
Having to live with ten elder brothers most of whom were hostile to him was not easy. He endured it but around this time he had the dreams. These dreams reaffirmed him. Jacob had already given his son a special coat that made him feel like a prince, and now God seemed to say, I see how they treat you and I see how you try to do what is right; I will make you great. Of course his brothers only hated him more when he shared the dreams, but his father considered what he said.
Some days later, Joseph was at the edge of a dry well in the wilderness, far away from his father and in the hands of his brothers. They threw him into the well and he landed on its damp base. This was the beginning of the tremendous pain he would experience. He was now at the bottom of a deep pit knowing that in all likelihood, he would be abandoned and die slowly and painfully. He begged his brothers not to leave him but they walked away from the opening of the well. At this young age he felt what is was like to stare death in the face. The dreams could not help him at this time; he was terrified and desperate.
When he started to despair, what seemed like deliverance arrived. Perhaps his brothers had a change of heart; they helped him out of the well. Once he was out, he saw a caravan of merchants but suddenly the brothers held him, tied him up and dragged him to the Ishmaelites. It was devastating. There was so much in it: his renewed hope was crushed, he felt betrayed, he was becoming a slave, and they were separating him from everything good in his life. Nothing that anyone told Joseph at this time could make sense of what was happening. He begged and pleaded with his brothers but they would not listen. He saw them take silver as payment for him.
Off he was carried and after several days he arrived in Egypt. Joseph was only seventeen and came to a land and culture that was strange to him. The language was different, the people looked and dressed differently and it was sweltering. He would feel the brunt of this heat when he worked in the fields of his new master Potiphar. The Egyptians always used taskmasters and Joseph in all probability labored under one on a daily basis. He was as far from any deliverance as he could possibly be, separated from the love of his father and now the property of an Egyptian who could decide to keep him for the rest of his life.
Year after year he toiled and although he still had hope in God, his life almost lost all meaning. He sometimes wept when he remembered the terrible day he was sold. Every day was an extension of the cruelty of that day. All his suffering was initiated by his brothers. He missed his homeland but most especially his father. Would he ever see him again? Jacob was quite elderly by the time Joseph was sold. He continued to labor but one day, things changed for the better.
Impressed with his honesty, diligence and hard work, Potiphar set him as chief of the servants. Joseph’s life got easier and as time passed, he became even closer to the master. Potiphar eventually left all management of his house in Joseph’s hands. It was not long after this that the master’s wife made advances towards him. Being the person he was, Joseph rejected them all. But it was the final rejection that got him in trouble. Potiphar’s wife accused him of attempting to take advantage of her and he was thrown in the dungeon at his master’s house.
All hope seemed to slam shut with the prison door. This was aggregated pain; it brought back all the difficult experiences of his past. Again the dreams seemed far off at this time. He was not only a slave but now a prisoner as well.
Just as it had been when he worked under Potiphar, Joseph excelled and the prison keeper set him over the rest of the prisoners. Another window of hope soon opened. Two of Pharaoh’s servants found themselves in the prison and after Joseph interpreted their dreams he asked one of them to speak to the king when he was released. The man agreed but once he was released, he did not keep his word: he forgot about Joseph. Many days went by and nothing happened. Joseph’s hope was once again shattered. What was the sense in all of it? At this point Joseph seemed worse off than when he came to Egypt because at least then he had hope of being set free by his master.
God’s perspective on Joseph’s life as well as ours
As circumstances went in seemingly senseless directions, God was doing something; he was fulfilling his purpose for Joseph’s life.
Let’s start from the beginning: Joseph had his dreams. At this point, God’s plan for his life was made known to him in part. He recognized that he was going to be a great leader but that was it. The dreams were meant to be his anchor when times got difficult. They would not take away the pain but they would keep his hope alive. In the same way, God gives us promises through his Word or by speaking to us directly. These things will anchor us because there will be times when we need to revisit them to sustain our hope. When we know deep inside that God gave us a promise, it will carry us through the challenges.
After Joseph received the dreams, it was time to set the plan in motion. God knew the character of his brothers and that Joseph would want to reveal his dreams to them. After all, he was cast in a favorable light in both. In the first dream, the brothers were portrayed bowing down to him as servants and when they heard it, their hatred went up a level. They began to consider taking Joseph’s life. God used this as the trigger to get him into the well and on his way to Egypt. This was God’s intention when they threw him in the pit and he was so frightened. It was also God’s focus when Joseph pleaded with his brothers not to sell him to the Ishmaelites. He had to go to Egypt and this was the best way to take him. Why did it have to be so painful? There are many reasons why God allows what he allows. For Joseph, his life was to be a testament of God’s saving power which would not be apparent if his path to leadership in Egypt was pleasant. We just cannot appreciate God’s power if everything always goes well. My strength is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). Every time God allows challenges into our lives, there is a good reason even when it seems senseless.
When Joseph arrived in Egypt it was difficult for him, just as it would be for any seventeen year old stolen away from his family and in a foreign territory. And why did it have to be Egypt? One reason is that Egypt of that time was one of the most organized civilizations. They would be able to carry out God’s plan of preserving many lives of the different peoples during the famine. Secondly, God wanted to exalt Joseph and demonstrate his power to Jacob’s family (which would become Israel) and ultimately to us. The initial labor that Joseph endured in Egypt was there to strengthen him (Genesis 49:24) and help him understand the Egyptian people and language. He would need these later on. Like it was for Joseph, there may be environments that God puts us in that we do not like. We should remember that if he keeps us there, he is doing something in us. It is preparation and though we may not understand we should trust him.
At the right time, God gave Joseph his first promotion. At this point in time there was more to be learned. Joseph became cupbearer to Potiphar and head of his home. He handled the master’s trading, oversaw the work in the fields and very likely learned to write. All these would be invaluable when he became a great leader but more importantly this position would take him closer to God’s deliverance. The next step towards this deliverance came through the false accusations of the master’s wife. Yes, God does work in mysterious ways (Isaiah 55:8). Joseph found himself out of favor with his master and in a dungeon. Have you ever been on the verge of something good and it all suddenly turned sour? Why did God do that? The answer is to take you a step forward. What may look like a step back can be a big step forward from God’s perspective.
So Joseph is in the dungeon trying to stay positive and excel in his work but more disappointment comes his way. He interprets the dreams of the closest man to Pharaoh and asks him to use his influence to get him out of prison. The man agrees but once he resumes his office, he forgets about Joseph. It looked like God was mocking him. Every time there was some hope, it soon got extinguished. But there was a seed planted. This cupbearer of Pharaoh would ultimately recommend Joseph as a dream interpreter not out of courtesy, but to protect himself as one of the king’s advisors. Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams and was promoted to second in charge of Egypt. What had looked like God frustrating him was actually a good thing. It eventually led to his promotion and more importantly made Joseph realize that God could deliver him—even when men let him down. This is a message for us as well.
In hindsight, Joseph could see it all: he preserved the lives of people from several territories including those from his own family. He managed Egypt with the language and skills he had acquired and was reconciled with his brothers. If he had remained in his homeland they would have suffered hunger and ultimately perished. There was a price to be paid; it was not easy but it was worth it in the end. While God is leading us to the fulfillment of his purpose a lot may not make sense but in hindsight you can be sure it will. Joseph said to his brothers, “What you meant for evil, God devised for good” (Genesis 50:20). If we remain faithful, the appointed time will come and God will lift us up just like he did Joseph.
Image courtesy of Free Bible Images
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