How easy it is to read someone’s story from the other side and think it’s simple to see God’s hand at work. But when we’re going through the hard times, we can’t see the other side.
We can only choose how to respond.
Joseph (eleventh son of Jacob) responded to his life situations the way I’d like to respond.
We don’t know much about Joseph’s childhood. We do know that his mother died when he was young and that his older half-brothers didn’t like him very much. The reason for their animosity toward Joseph could be because he touted them with his dreams of superiority over them in future years. Maybe it was because he and his brother were sons of another mother. Perhaps it was because he was, indeed, a favorite of his father.
If you’re not familiar with this story, you can read it here.
God had given Joseph a dream, but that dream seemed to die when his brothers, in a moment of anger, put him into a pit. When a band of foreign merchants “happen” to pass by on their way to Egypt, the brothers decide to sell him as a slave, rather than kill him.
That’s a hard pill to swallow: from favorite son to unknown slave.
When things go wrong for Joseph, he does some things right. In Egypt, Joseph is sold to Potiphar, the captain of the guard. He finds favor in Potiphar’s eyes (because the Lord was with him) and is put in charge of everything in Potiphar’s house. When Potiphar is gone from home, he trusts Joseph with everything.
Potiphar’s wife has a crush on Joseph. He’s good looking, and she wants him in her bed. He refuses. He has the opportunity to commit fornication, but he refuses. The rejected wife of Potiphar seeks revenge and she gets it.
Joseph ended up in prison because he did the right thing. Had he sinned and the relationship remained secret, he would have stayed in the same position as Potiphar’s steward. (I happen to think that Potiphar did believe Joseph and knew his wife was lying; why else did he merely put Joseph in prison instead of killing him?)
If I had been Joseph, I would have been asking God: “Are You really going to finish the dream you gave me?!”
In prison, the warden places Joseph in charge of all the inmates. Everything is left to Joseph’s care – because the Lord was with him.
After some time has passed, Joseph has an opportunity to interpret the dream of Pharoah’s cup bearer and baker who have both been imprisoned.
He tells the cupbearer, “When you see that my interpretation of your dream comes to pass, please remember me to Pharaoh, for I was unjustly charged.”
In Joseph’s heart, there has to be a flicker of the flame of hope. Maybe, just maybe, the interpretation of this dream is his ticket out of prison.
It isn’t. After the cupbearer is restored to his position in Pharoah’s court, he forgets Joseph. Again, Joseph experiences the death of a dream.
Joseph remains in prison even though he did the right thing.
He could have refused to interpret the dream for the cup bearer. He could have said, “Well, I could help you, but I won’t. Life hasn’t been fair to me and I’m not helping anybody else.”
Interpreting the dream didn’t change a thing about Joseph’s circumstances; not then, anyhow.
From the pit to slavery to Potiphar’s house and then to prison, Joseph did some things right. He kept trusting God to work out the plan He had for him.
He allowed the rejection of his brothers, the lies of Potiphar’s wife and the unfulfilled promise of the cupbearer to make him better instead of bitter.
Perhaps God chose to use those events to strip him of any pride or self-inflation he had. Maybe God was using those events to chip away the rough edges of his character because He had something big for Joseph to do. God didn’t need a man who was conceited and so full of himself that he would not listen to Him.
Finally, after two more years, the day comes when Joseph is released. In less than 24 hours, he becomes the 2nd highest in command in Egypt. Just like that. Joseph is now thirty years of age. It’s been thirteen long years since he was sold into slavery.
The ultimate test for Joseph comes more than seven years later when his brothers arrive in Egypt from their home in Canaan. They come to buy grain for their cattle and families due to the widespread famine. They have no idea that the government official they will need to negotiate with is their long-lost brother whom they sold into slavery.
Joseph finally has the opportunity to avenge himself of his brothers. He has every “right’ and every power to make them pay. They have it coming to them; they deserve it.
What makes Joseph stand out to me is that although he recognized that the things which happened to him were intended for evil (by his brothers and also by Satan), he also believed that God was in control. God would use all of these experiences for his ultimate good.
“You meant it for evil,” he said. “But God meant it for good.”
Even when Joseph didn’t know the outcome, he recognized that God could use his pain for good.
Even when Joseph had the opportunity to harbor a grudge and make others pay, he recognized that God could use this – if he cooperated – for good.
When we experience the death of a dream, a vision, or our hopes and plans, there are some things we must do if we want to come out of the experience victorious. Joseph gives us a wonderful example.
It’s easy to read this story and forget the emotional pain Joseph endured those twenty years. He was rejected by his family and sold as a slave. He thought he would never see his father again. He didn’t have a home, and he didn’t belong.
When we are faced with rejection and denial, when we find ourselves as strangers, we can choose to respond in the natural way scripted by our human nature; or we can respond like Joseph did.
We can say, “God can use this for good.”
There are three ways to respond when life gives us pain.
Here is how:
Embrace your pain.
Recognize that it is a part of you. Don’t deny the pain or your anger. Ignoring or denying pain only causes us to bury it. Down underneath, it is simmering as a root of bitterness begins to grow. Thank God for the pain – not because it feels good, but because He will use this to enhance His kingdom. Ask Him to use it. Allow Him to be God!
Taste your pain.
We taste the pain by leaning into it. When a woman is in labor, fighting the pain only delays the birth of her child. To lean forward, bear down and push, she is leaning into the pain. She tastes the salty sweat of her labor as she delivers the child of her travail.
Lean into the pain if you want to experience deliverance. By leaning into the pain, we are acknowledging the unfairness, the injustice, the rending, and the travail that happens when we fight to sweat out the horror and remain sweet. Rather than claiming the pain as ours to hold and harbor, we need to push through it.
When we refuse to taste the pain, we are stuffing it deep inside. Someday that pain will erupt and others will experience the taste of what we refused. If we are willing to taste the pain, we will come out on the other side a better person.
Don’t waste the pain.
It is our choice to allow the pain and turmoil of events and years to harden us or to make us better. From our own pain, we can learn how not to treat others; how to respond when others are broken; how to acknowledge that God is God, even when life is unfair. When things don’t make sense and when “the wrong seems oft so strong”, God is still the ruler!
Joseph embraced his pain. Had he not, he would not have been able to respond to being a slave as he did. He would have been lax instead of becoming the best slave he could become.
Joseph tasted his pain. He waited for years to be avenged of his situation. He endured thirteen years in Potiphar’s house as a slave and then as a prisoner. By leaning into his pain, he was willing to interpret the dream of his cell mates and remain trusted as the highest ranking prisoner.
Joseph didn’t waste his pain. He chose to allow the pain of betrayal and denial of his brothers, separation from his father, the lies of his employer’s wife, and being forgotten in prison, to make him stronger spiritually.
So committed was he to “doing the right thing”, when the ultimate test of forgiving his brothers came, he was able to say to them, “Come near. I am your brother. You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.”
Joseph recognized that even when life wasn’t fair, but God could use it for good. He chose to cooperate with God and His plan.
We need to do the same.