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No one enjoys suffering. I certainly don’t. In reference to pain, C.S. Lewis confessed, “I am a great coward…If I knew of a way of escape I would crawl through sewers to find it.” Suffering is part of the human condition, though. It is inescapable and so, we humans must come to terms with it. On the topic of suffering, the story of Joseph is on a par with those of Job and Jesus. Unfortunately, these stories are commonly re-told in a way that romanticizes the suffering into oblivion.

We seem to always focus on the end of Joseph’s story, the part where it becomes clear that everyone is going to live happily ever after. The suffering is transparent. We see only the victory, immortalized in the words “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” Pray tell: when exactly did it occur to Joseph that what was happening to him was, as Paul put it millennia later, God “causing all things to work together for good?”

Imagine the 12 sons of Jacob sitting around the campfire at mid-day. Joseph, just seventeen years old, has known for some time that his brothers did not comprise a personal fan club. We see him roasting a bit of lamb on a stick. For reasons he can’t quite put his finger on, he is getting bad vibes from the lack of conversation and the nervous movements of his brothers. Then, they strike. Four brothers grab Joseph by the legs and arms. His struggling and yelling is futile. Escape is impossible. They carry him a short distance to an unused, dug, water well and drop him into the hole unceremoniously and then go back to the campfire for lunch.

Tell me, now: at the bottom of the well, is Joseph thinking to himself, “My brothers mean evil against me, but God means it for good?”

A caravan of merchants from a foreign country happens by and one of the brothers reasons that, rather than kill their brother, why not make a profit off him. So, they yank Joseph out of the dank hole and exchange him for a lump of silver. Six hours later, the caravan stops to hunker down for the night. A gruff old man tosses Joseph a lump of unidentifiable meat and a scrap of fabric that he can use for either a pillow or a cover, but not both. Joseph, famished, rips into his meager meal, then lays uncomfortably on the hard ground to sleep, missing his father, wondering what’s next.

Is this when Joseph thinks, “My brothers meant evil against me, but God means it for good?”

Three weeks and hundreds of miles later, Joseph is sold at auction to a military officer in Egypt. Reality sinks in, deeply. He will never see his father or his homeland again. He is not free. Like a dog, he is owned by another human being. Joseph does well in the house of Potiphar, but this development hardly makes up for the fact that, at the age of 17, he’s a slave in a foreign land. His whole life has gone down the drain. Then, all of a sudden, everything crashes down around Joseph when his owner’s wife accuses him of rape. Joseph is jailed. He’s in a foreign country. There is no embassy. There are no lawyers. There is no court. There is no hope.

Is this when Joseph thinks, “My brothers meant evil against me, but God means it for good?”

The details are few, but Joseph prospers in jail. The warden puts Joseph in charge of all the other prisoners. Life is hardly cushy. In charge or not, Joseph is confined to an Egyptian jail, not the Holiday Inn. Still, the question remains: When, exactly, does Joseph understand that, “My brothers meant evil against me, but God meant it for good?”

*   *   *   *   *

Because Joseph and I have our humanity in common, there is no possibility that Joseph could see God’s plan in any of these circumstances. There was no rhyme or reason to any them. Life went from bad to worse. “My brothers meant evil against me, but God meant it for good?” Really? Which part is good? The murderous hatred of his brothers? the makeshift prison shaped like a well? the caravan? the slavery? the rape charge? jail? The dream he had back in the homeland in which he would come to rule over his eleven brothers was pure fantasy at this point. Impossible.

The question is, how did Joseph survive during months/years of suffering, made worse by the fact that it was indirectly attributable to his own family? Joseph latched on to a promise from God, a dream, and would not let go, no matter how long it took. He knew that God was his ultimate good. I cannot underestimate this observation.

BUT

For my whole life, like most evangelicals, I thought that Joseph really believed that God would rescue him out of his sufferings. In fact, I thought that was the whole point of the story: when I suffer, God will rescue me. One can only draw this conclusion if Joseph’s sufferings are invisible, where the only truly important part of the story is the fairy-tale ending. To the contrary, Joseph truly suffered, and in my wildest imagination (and it can be pretty wild!), I cannot believe that Joseph had any idea how his life would turn out once he left Canaan with the Midianites, except badly.

What about his dream in Canaan? The dream “kept hope alive” during all that suffering.

I do not believe that for one second, and unless you suffer better than I do, you do not believe it, either. I am radically skeptical because I have a dream, as well, and that dream has not been of much help to me.

What dream are you talking about?

Well, let us start with the entire book of Revelation. Then, how about Matthew 28:19-20 or Ephesians 1:21-23? Or John 14:2? or…

You see, the dream did not make the difference for Joseph, just like the dream, by itself, does not make a difference for me. It is not the dream. It is the originator of the dream. Joseph didn’t believe a dream, as much as he believed the author of the dream.

What exactly did Joseph believe, then? He believed that God was committed to His own glory, not to Joseph’s. He believed that God was the center of the story and that his own comfort, even survival, were secondary. These did not matter; God’s glory mattered. “My food [my survival, my well-being] is to do the will of Him who sent me.” Joseph centered on God because God is the center. The dream told Joseph what God was going to do, not what was going to happen to Joseph. The dream was about God, not Joseph. The dream is about God, not me.

Life is about God, not me. And that is the only way to survive suffering.