Series: Lessons from the Old Testament. By Rosie Moore.
Have you ever been in a situation when you’ve wondered, “Can anything good come from this?” It’s tempting to conclude that God has forgotten us or lost control of his world. As I read the story of Joseph’s life (Genesis 30-50), I was struck by the ways in which Joseph suffered for thirteen long years. Yet, ultimately, he was a fruitful sufferer. Evil bowed before the sovereign plan of God. The horrific circumstances and cruel conspiracies that were intended for evil, God intended for good, “to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Gen 50:20).
Today let’s explore how the fruitful suffering of Joseph speaks to our own suffering as believers.
The story of Joseph bears no resemblance to the cheerful musical “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat.” Google describes it as “the humorous and endearing biblical tale of a young dreamer on a journey from his days as a shepherd boy in Canaan to becoming second in command in Egypt.” Nothing could be further from reality!
In contrast, the Bible never sanitizes suffering or trivializes sin. The deeds perpetrated against Joseph were real, not imagined offenses, and Joseph’s suffering was grotesque and evil to the core. The Bible tells it like it is. When the seventeen year old teenager obediently left his home to find his brothers, he left home for the last time. Joseph never returned to the promised land until his bones were brought back after the Exodus (Ex 13:19).
Joseph found himself violently assaulted and thrown in a dark empty cistern because his brothers detested and envied him so intensely (Gen 37:4,8). They plotted to kill him (Gen 37:11). It was Judah’s bright idea to sell Joseph, like a piece of meat, for twenty shekels of silver to some passing heathen slave traders (Gen 37:26-27). This is spiteful malevolence, not just life in a broken world.
The feature picture on this devotional is from a Bible that my dad used to read to me every evening in bed. Its details are still etched in my mind. As a little girl, I used to stare at this illustration and wonder, “How could Joseph’s brothers have heard his desperate pleas and looked him in the eye, then sold him anyway?” But they did.
I imagined my own sense of desolation if my two brothers threw me naked in a dark well, intending for me to starve to death, then at a whim, sell me to human traffickers. It was so personal. Joseph had no idea that they’d lied to his father, feigning his death by a wild animal. I pictured Joseph sobbing himself to sleep in slave quarters, frightened and alone, wondering if his father would send out a search party to bring him home. I wondered how many years it took before he came to a point of brave acceptance.
But Joseph’s suffering had only just begun. As a slave in Potiphar’s house, he was rewarded for his purity by being falsely accused and thrown in prison (Gen 39:19-20). In prison he was forgotten for two full years before the cupbearer remembered Joseph and told Pharoah about his ability to interpret dreams (Gen 41:9-13). While lying on a cold prison floor, how often did Joseph recall his own childhood dreams revealing a future when his own brothers would bow down to him? What had gone wrong with God’s plan?
But the most comforting words in every chapter of Joseph’s story are, “God was with Joseph.”
The Lord was with Joseph.
Over and over again we read that “the Lord was with him. And whatever he did, the Lord made it succeed” (Gen 39:23). In Potiphar’s house “The Lord was with Joseph so that he prospered, and the Lord gave him success in everything he did. God gave Joseph favour in the eyes of Potiphar so that he put him in charge of his household and everything he owned. The Lord blessed the household of Potiphar because of Joseph.” (Gen 39:3-6).
Likewise, in Pharoah’s prison, God was with Joseph, granting him favour in the eyes of the prison warden (Gen 39:22-23). He rose to be a trustworthy leader wherever he was placed.
Although Joseph suffered deep anguish and was a sinner like us, the text contains no hint of complaint, self-pity or bitterness in his response to his suffering. Quite the opposite, we hear Joseph speak with reverence and submission to God. This is a man who lived with faith, hope and moral courage, even when no one was looking. Even when temptation was intense, when betrayed, falsely accused and left for dead, Joseph lived before the face of God.
Living before the face of God—Coram Deo.
The Latin phrase Coram Deo summarises the idea of Christians living in this world as strangers, “in the presence of, under the authority of, and to the honour and glory of God.” This is how Joseph lived in the land of Egypt, far from the land of promise, far from home.
We see this attitude in his response to Potiphar’s wife’s seductions: “How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” (Gen 39:9). Because Joseph knew that God saw everything he did, he would not indulge in secret or socially acceptable sin.
When asked to interpret Pharoah’s dreams in prison, Joseph gave credit and glory to God, resisting the urge to elevate himself: “It is not in me; God will give Pharoah a favourable answer” (Gen 41:16).
Because Joseph lived before the face of God, he obeyed God’s clear commands and fulfilled his responsibilities, whilst also trusting that God was with him and at work in him, even in the land of his affliction. Joseph lived and worked out of his identity as a son of God, not a slave. He did not accuse God of abandoning him. He didn’t spend much time asking “Why?” Rather, God’s loving presence, his commands and promises shed light on each dark situation Joseph faced.
The chosen names of his children born in Egypt demonstrate that Joseph praised God for the work He was doing in his life, in and through his affliction:
“Joseph called the name of the firstborn Manasseh. “For,” he said, “God has made me forget all my hardship and all my father’s house.” The name of the second he called Ephraim, “For God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction” (Gen 41:50-52).
Joseph’s life has given me three perspectives on suffering as a believer:
Firstly, Joseph’s suffering was fruitful, not wasted, meaningless or barren. His brothers’ treachery; the humiliation of slavery; sexual temptation; the shame of prison, and a cupbearer’s forgetfulness could not thwart God’s purposes.
On a personal level, pain moulded a self-assured youngster into a wiser, godly leader who was a blessing to everyone he met. Joseph’s faith was proven genuine in the fire of suffering (1 Peter 1:6-9). Even Pharoah recognized this: “Can we find anyone like this man, one in whom is the spirit of God?” (Gen 41:38).
On a communal level, Joseph was used to provide a fruitful harvest for a world in famine. At thirty years old, he was delivered from prison and slavery, and exalted to Pharoah’s right hand, in charge of Pharoah’s palace and the whole land of Egypt. Through Joseph’s faithful obedience, God preserved His people and made them into a great nation, even though He had predicted great suffering ahead for them (Gen 15:13-14). Through Joseph’s suffering, God kept his promise to Abraham—a promise that extends from the nation of Israel to the whole world (Gen 15:14-21).
This promise was eventually fulfilled in Christ, the chosen heir who willingly handed himself over to suffer in a way that makes even Joseph’s pain pale into insignificance.
“Although [Christ] was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (Heb 5:8-9).
God’s sovereignty in suffering.
Secondly, Joseph shows us what it looks like to trust a sovereign God in all our circumstances.
In the Psalmist’s commentary on Joseph, we see that God actually summoned the famine, actively sent Joseph to Egypt, and subjected him to the test of suffering. God ordained it all for his good purposes (Ps 105:16-19).
Joseph believed this and it didn’t offend him! In Genesis 45, he repeats three times that God did not merely allow his suffering, but actually sent him to Egypt to preserve for Himself a people (Gen 45: 5, 7, 8). Joseph trusted in God’s power, wisdom and goodness without if’s, but’s or maybe’s. God’s sovereignty gave Joseph confidence and comfort in his suffering. He passed this comfort on to his brothers:
“I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt” (Gen 45:6-8).
Although Joseph acknowledged his brothers’ responsibility for their sin, he was able to conclude, “So it was not you who sent me here, but God” (Gen 45:7). Joseph saw that God was sovereign over all things, even the wickedness of man.
God’s providence in suffering.
Thirdly, Joseph shows us the effects of trusting in God’s providence in suffering.
Joseph actively trusted in the providence of God, even when life was painful and perplexing. Because he was confident of God’s tender provision, Joseph could extend grace, mercy and kindness to the brothers who had sinned against him, knowing that God would provide justice. He could do what God called him to do as a slave, prisoner and ruler, allowing the Lord to do what He alone can do.
To borrow the language of Romans 12, Joseph blessed those who persecuted him, was tender and compassionate, not proud, was committed to making peace, met his enemy’s needs, and overcame evil with good (Rom 12:14-20). It’s only because Joseph trusted in God’s providence that he was able to utter such words of grace and tenderness to those who had treated him so cruelly:
“Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them” (Gen 50:20-21).
God’s providence is working in our lives too. Whatever suffering or injustice you may have suffered in your life, evil doesn’t stand a chance against God’s grace. If you’re collateral damage in the cruel acts of others, continue to trust and obey the Lord in your situation, always willing to extend mercy as Joseph did.
Forgiveness, not revenge, is the way to reconciliation (Luke 17:3-4). We have all been called to peace (Matt 5:9, Rom 12:14-21), and to comfort others in their distress with the comfort we ourselves have received from God (2 Cor 1:3-7). These are the good fruits produced in us through suffering. And if you’ve sinned, do what the Bible says to seek forgiveness and make things right.
God has a plan and He knows what He’s doing! So, “do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear” (Matt 6:25). In time, and fully in eternity, you will see God turning what man intended for evil into a fruitful orchard. Our suffering will never be barren if we recognise God’s invisible hand in all our circumstances—good or bad (Rom 8:28-29). That’s what Joseph did.
But Joseph’s story is more than a template of how to respond to suffering in our lives. It is a powerful pointer to the coming Christ who would save his people through the evil and injustice of the cross. Everybody who turns to Jesus in repentance and faith is part of the great harvest of salvation reaped from His suffering.
Just as Joseph opened all the Egyptian storehouses of grain that he had laid up for seven years, Jesus fed the hungry, saying, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger” (John 6:35). To his followers, he said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy (Matt 5:7). More than Joseph, Jesus is the hope of a famished world. Those who come to Him are the fruit of His suffering.
Join us next week as we look at the striking resemblance between Joseph and the Christ.
Lord, thank you that before we were born, every day was recorded in your book before even one of them dawned. Help us to celebrate your providence in times of suffering and plenty, living before your face even when others can’t see. We praise you for accomplishing your work of salvation and being willing to suffer at the hands of evil men before you were glorified. Thank you, Jesus for facing rejection, humiliation and death in order to make us, your enemies, into your brothers and sisters. Help us to do what you have called us to do with a spirit of humble submission, and to let you to do what you alone can do, in a spirit of humble trust. In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.