A Tale Of Two Sufferings
I never saw this perspective before, but have you ever considered the difference between how Jacob handled his suffering, as compared to how his son Joseph handled what was arguably even worse suffering? I heard this last Sunday from a 20-something.
So Joseph’s seventeen, and he has it made. He’s his father’s favorite. He lives in a wealthy family. And he is given special revelation from God in the form of dreams, dreams of his brothers bowing down to him. But without warning, the rug is pulled out. His brothers put together a plan to kill Joseph out of envy. Then at the last moment one of the brothers comes up with the idea to sell him into slavery instead. So that’s what they do, they sell Joseph to a group of Ishmaelites. Then to cover their tracks Joseph’s brothers slaughter a goat and dip Joseph’s coat in its blood. And they present the coat to their father Jacob, and they sell the idea that Joseph’s been killed by a wild animal.
Can you imagine that? Can you imagine your own siblings planning your murder? And then doing you the favor of sparing your life but selling you into slavery instead? And then lying to your dad about it? That’s brutal stuff.
Joseph, A Slave
So Joseph, the one who had it made, suddenly finds himself betrayed and completely cut off from his family and everything familiar. Could it get any worse? It’s hard to imagine that it could. So what does Joseph do? Does he fall into a depression? That’s possible and would be very understandable. We don’t know if he fell into depression for sure. But we do know that ultimately Joseph decides to devote his time and energy to become the best slave he can for his master Potiphar. And it finally gets to the point where Potiphar is so impressed by Joseph, he gives him all responsibility for running his rather large household. Potiphar, the scriptures tell us, doesn’t give a thought to anything that’s Joseph’s responsibility.
Joseph A Target Of Seduction
The scriptures also tell us that Joseph was a good looking man and well built. So Potiphar’s wife takes notice and attempts to seduce Joseph. Joseph refuses but she’s persistent. She propositions him over and over again. Finally she tries to grab onto him, physically. But Joseph runs, leaving Potiphar’s wife with nothing but his coat in her hands. And here is Joseph’s reward for his outstanding and devoted service, and for his loyalty to his master: Potiphar’s wife, with Joseph’s coat in hand, falsely accuses the Jewish slave of rape. So they arrest him and they toss him into Pharaoh’s dungeon.
Joseph In The Dungeon
So surely by now he gives up and recognizes he’s just beating his head against the proverbial wall, right? But no, he doesn’t. Instead he does everything he can to help the guy in charge of the dungeon. Eventually he achieves the same result that he did when he worked for Potiphar. The dungeon master lets Joseph run the dungeon. He also trusts Joseph completely. The scriptures tell us the dungeon master “paid no attention to anything under Joseph’s care…”
Joseph And The Prisoners’ Dreams
While Joseph’s in prison, Pharaoh’s cupbearer and baker fall out of favor with Pharaoh, and they’re incarcerated. So Joseph becomes acquainted with them while they’re doing their time. One day they each have a prophetic dream, but neither of them can figure out what their dreams mean. So Joseph, under the inspiration of God’s Spirit, interprets each of their dreams: The cupbearer will return to once again serve Pharaoh, Joseph says, but the baker will be executed.
And both interpretations prove accurate.
So when the cupbearer is called back up to Pharaoh, Joseph asks the cupbearer to put in a request for Joseph to be freed. But, consistent with everything else that’s gone wrong in Joseph’s life, the cupbearer forgets.
Years pass, and at this point, Joseph has to have given up hope of ever living a life outside of that dungeon. But then one night Pharaoh has a couple of strange dreams. But no one can interpret them for Pharaoh. And it’s at that moment the cupbearer remembers he is supposed to plead Joseph’s case to Pharaoh. So he tells Pharaoh how Joseph had correctly interpreted the dreams of the cupbearer and the baker. And you know what happens next. Joseph is called up out of the dungeon to Pharaoh’s court. There he accurately interprets Pharaoh’s dreams to mean the coming of seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. Pharaoh, like Potiphar and the dungeon master before him, is so impressed with Joseph that he puts him in charge of Egypt. And Joseph goes on to manage the years of plenty in a way that saves the people from starvation during the years of famine.
Joseph’s Response To Suffering
And because the famine affects his family back in Canaan, Joseph’s brothers travel to Egypt for food. Joseph recognizes them, but they don’t recognize Joseph. Eventually Joseph reveals himself. And he moves his brothers, his father, and their families to Egypt and provides for their every need.
But then, after seventeen years in Egypt, their father dies. And Joseph’s brothers panic, because they think Joseph will now take revenge on them for when they threw him in the cistern and sold him into slavery. With great fear they approach Joseph and beg for his forgiveness. They bow down before him and say, “We are your slaves.” (Which was the fulfillment of the prophetic dreams Joseph had when he was a teenager.)
Then Joseph says these words:
“Am I in the place of God?”
And he reassures his brothers. And he forgives them.
Joseph’s Father’s Response To Suffering
Jacob, Joseph’s dad, on the other hand, while under the impression Joseph was dead, and that he might lose two more sons, said these words:
“Everything is against me!”
Suffering Is Inevitable But…
I’ve never been betrayed by my family the way Joseph was betrayed. And I’ve never served as a slave. Have you? And I’ve never been wrongly accused and thrown in a dungeon. But I sometimes respond to what comparatively little suffering I experience the way Joseph’s dad Jacob did. And when I do, I put myself in the place of God, which is the opposite of what Joseph did.
My nephew Alex and I recently visited Yosemite National Park. And you know what, late afternoon, when we were down in the valley, it was surprisingly dark down there. And you know what else, I couldn’t see much. There were trees all around, and boulders, and buildings blocking my view. But when we were up on Taft Point, the cliff in the photo featured in this post, it was light, and we could see everything. And that’s what Joseph did.
Joseph’s wisdom came at a great price. His wisdom was hard earned from years and years of suffering. But that suffering enabled Joseph to see from the highest perspective possible: from God’s perspective. Joseph didn’t put himself in God’s place. He didn’t presume to know what was best for his own life. When Joseph said, “Am I in the place of God?” He was saying, God is always working for good, even when I suffer. He was saying, God is always working for good even if I don’t find out how until years, or decades pass. He was saying, God is always working for good, even if I don’t find out how until after I pass over to the other side of death.
When we suffer we can change everything when we think about our suffering the way Joseph thought.
If you’ve read this far, you’re experiencing suffering right now. And as you endure it, let me encourage you to consider this:
Even when God’s one and only Son was murdered, God was working toward good. (Keller)
“And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” (Romans 8:28)
Genesis Chapters 37-50, NASB, Bible Gateway
Ben Courson is the 20-something I refer to at the beginning of this post. He tells it better than I ever could. To hear the original teaching go to A Bad Case Of The “So Loves”
Tim Keller is also referenced in this post. Primarily under the heading, Suffering Is Inevitable But… To hear his excellent teaching on Joseph and reconciliation go to podcast 65, Reconciliation