The story of Joseph is a fascinating story of hope amidst disappointment and difficulty. He was tossed into a pit by his brothers, sold into slavery, wrongfully imprisoned and yet what was intended for evil God intended for good. In this post we will wrestle a little with God’s Sovereignty as we look from a perspective of hope at the story of Joseph which is recorded for us in Genesis 37-50. Our privilege is to look down over the story but remember that Joseph did not have the luxury of hindsight!
The Principle explained
When I think of Joseph I am immediately drawn to some verses from the end of his life. Firstly just after Joseph revealed his identity to his brothers he says that it was not them who had sent him there but God;
“And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no ploughing and reaping. 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.” Genesis 45:5-8a
Secondly just after the death of Joseph’s father Jacob and his brothers become very fearful of Joseph. They come to him and throw themselves down before him saying “we are your slaves”. In response Joseph says;
“But Joseph said to them, “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.” Genesis 50:19-21
Now those verses are quite the commentary on Joseph’s life aren’t they? It is quite something to look back and see the hand of God at work in your life even amidst the most difficult of circumstances. Joseph is saying that though his brothers had intended to do him harm, God had intended it for good. If Joseph had not been sold off into slavery he would never have found his way to his position as Pharoah’s second in command. Then he would never have been in a position to save many lives during the years of famine.
Joseph’s brothers hated him (37:4) and that was before he shared his dream (about them bowing down before him) which made them “hate him all the more” (37:8). They were also jealous of him because he was Jacob’s favourite son (37:11). So Joseph’s brothers plotted to kill him (37:19) but Reuben convinced them not to kill him but to throw him into a cistern. Judah then persuaded them (in Reuben’s absence) not to kill Joseph but to sell him off to passing merchants. This they did (much to Reuben’s subsequent horror) but they pretended to their Father Jacob that Joseph had been killed. Joseph was 17 years old when his brothers abandoned him but he was at least 37 years old when he saw them again.
Despite their worst of intentions Joseph testifies that God intended it for good. Now that doesn’t mean that every problem we face will necessarily have a happy ending but it does mean that ultimately God is working for our good and His glory. We do not have the full picture or the big perspective on all that is going on around us. Paul also affirms this truth;
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” Romans 8:28
Notice that while this verse speaks about “all things” that does not necessarily mean “each thing.” The ultimate culmination will be for our good but that will involve a mixture of things that are both good and evil. Only with hindsight (which we will not necessarily have in this life) can we truly see how God’s hand has been at work in these things.
Living with the tension
Like Joseph we do not have the benefit of such hindsight! So we have to live with the tension of trusting God even when we do not understand what He is doing. Just imagine the roller-coaster ride that Joseph went through. Even when things started to look up when was serving in Potiphar’s house things soon started to go wrong. He honoured God by resisting the temptations put before him by Potiphar’s wife but as a result of his refusal to lie with her (or even to be with her) she accused him of trying to make sport of her and Potiphar had him thrown into prison.
Even from prison however things are soon on the up and we read that “God was with Him and granted him favour in the eyes of the prison warder” (39:22) and so Joseph was put in charge of all those held in the prison. During that time Pharaoh imprisoned his cup-bearer and his baker and they both had dreams which Joseph was able to interpret. The cup-bearer was restored to his position (as predicted) but the baker was hanged. The cup-bearer did not remember Joseph and mention him to Pharaoh as he’d agreed. So it wasn’t until Pharaoh’s dreams of the 7 years of plenty and famine that Joseph was brought out of prison. From there we know that he was promoted to Prime Minister and then set about storing up grain during the plentiful years so that they would be able to not just survive but thrive during the subsequent years of famine.
God is Sovereign over all and is working in our lives through the good, the bad and the ugly. As I see it the key therefore to living and thriving within this tension is ‘hope’. When I say ‘hope’ I mean the confident, trusting and certain hope in a Sovereign God. This is a hope that trusts that God is working for His glory and our good even when it doesn’t feel like it. This is a hope focused on the character of God and rooted in His promises. This is a hope that prevails even when we are facing difficulties and finding it hard to trust God. This is the kind of hope that transformed the life of Joseph and eventually led him to fulfil the great plans and purposes that God has for his life. This is the kind of hope that allowed Joseph to trust God to use him to play his part in the working out of God’s promises to Israel.
Enrolled in life’s school of development
Where as we might see trouble, suffering and difficulty as ‘problems to be worked through’ God sees these things as ‘opportunities for growth in maturity’. Joseph did not learn to trust in God by being kept in a comfortable vacuum but by being exposed to the trials that life brings. While we might like to think that entering into the Christian life will bring us an easy life the reality is that we are promised anything of the sort. The late Jerry Bridges (who died this week aged 86) in his book ‘Trusting God’ wrote…
“The good that God works for in our lives is conformity to the likeness of His Son. It is not necessarily comfort or happiness but conformity to Christ in ever-increasing measure in this life and in its fullness in eternity…God in His infinite wisdom knows exactly what adversity we need to grow more and more into the likeness of His Son. He not only knows what we need but when we need it and how best to bring it to pass in our lives.”
God will use anything and everything in our lives to train us, test us and develop us for all that He has for us in the future. The life of Jacob is an excellent illustration for us about how God turns our mess on its head and uses it for our good, how He transforms a prison into a school of learning, how He uses famine to relocate his people and how ultimately all of this brings glory to Himself.
As I look back on the past few years, I see much that I did not and still do not understand. I might presume to question what God has been doing but the truth is that I do not have even a fraction of the perspective God has. I can see ways in which we are stronger. I can see lessons that God has taught us. I might even go so far to say that I am beginning to see how all these things might be preparing us for future ministry. I don’t however know that I am in a position to fully comprehend (and probably won’t ever be this side of glory) how God ultimately intended the difficulties we have faced for our good. What I do know is that God is still on this throne and wants me to hope in Him.
The Sovereignty of God is not an easy doctrine to get our heads around so I want to finish with a quote from Pastor John about the dangers of trying to water it down to make it feel more palatable.
“We might be tempted to walk away from the idea of the Sovereignty of God. We might be tempted to try and diminish God, tempted to try and get Him off the hook for the awkward and nasty things in our lives. Here is a great lesson in life for us. It is precisely at those moments when life seems most uncertain and most fragile that we need to cling hardest to the doctrine of the Sovereignty of God…What do you want really, when life is tough? Do you want a mighty God even though you can’t understand Him or do you want a cut down little God who can’t really help and who is no bigger than your own capacity to imagine? I want the mighty God, the Sovereign God. This is the bedrock for our souls. This is our comfort and the source of our strength…the Sovereignty of God.” John Risbridger Sermon