Have you ever heard the mealtime prayer often taught to children?
“God is good; God is great, let us thank him for our food.”
Children typically view God as the good and great One they can pray to when in need or when times are tough. With child-like faith, they believe that God will make things better. But what happens when things don’t get better? What if life doesn’t turn out to be good or great? What if life takes a tragic turn for the worse? Is God still good? Is he great? Should he be thanked?
Sometimes the prelude to a heart that turns away from God is a heart that is confused about how God relates to the difficult and painful “misfortunes” of life. How do you respond when your life is significantly and negatively affected by the actions of others? What should we do when evil committed against us or against those we love seems to hide the good hand of God? You had no control over what happened and there is little you can do to change things. What was done was wrong but the wrong seems to have prevailed and has changed your life in a big way. You are now in a very vulnerable place. You have some choices to make and once made they will not only affect you, others will be profoundly affected by your reaction.
Our faith becomes fragile and threatened when simplistic notions about how life should turn out– especially for those who belong to God— are crushed by things beyond our control.
Life is hard because evil is real. It hurts to live in this world. If we’re not hurt by our own stupidity and evil, the evil committed against us can be deeply painful. Our hearts become vulnerable when we become victims of the misguided or evil actions of others and it appears that they are in control instead of God. We equally suffer from the way those we love are hurt by others or hurt themselves. In all of this painful mess, the question of how God relates seems only to intensify our confusion.
Honest admission: A reality check
A lot of bad stuff happens to us in this world that we cannot directly control and that prayer will not change in the immediate sense. Yet in deep dark nights of the soul, we wrestle with the relationship of God to the hardships of life. This is exactly where the recipients of the New Testament book of Hebrews found themselves.
“Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. 4 In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. 5 And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons: ‘My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, 6 because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.’7 Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons” (Hebrews 12:4-7, emphasis mine).
When hurt badly enough by life’s uncontrollable turns, we must immediately guard our hearts from dangerous conclusions about God. The temptation to become disillusioned and bitter is real. The possibility of developing “a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God” or of being “hardened by sin’s deceitfulness” is a legitimate concern (see: Hebrews 3:12-13). We must watch out for one another and encourage one another—daily if necessary.
Consider Joseph: One man’s story
A man named Joseph suffered a series of “misfortunes” beyond his control. There was little Joseph could have done to stop the abrupt and sad change of life-direction he experienced. As is often the case, it all began for Joseph with a dysfunctional family situation. Joseph came from a large family. He had many brothers but his father loved him more than any of them. Joseph was the victim of parental favoritism that made him the victim of a hatred born of jealousy (see: Genesis 37:11). When only seventeen years old, “his brothers hated Joseph because their father loved him more than the rest of them. They couldn’t say a kind word to him” (Genesis 37:4). As the object of two opposite responses (parental favoritism and jealous hatred), Joseph became a victim of unimaginable circumstances.
But to make matters worse, Joseph had a couple of dreams that portrayed his brothers as his future servants. Later these dreams proved to be divine revelation. Perhaps with youthful naïveté he shared his dreams with his brothers and they said to him, “‘Do you intend to reign over us? Will you actually rule us?’ And they hated him all the more because of his dream and what he had said” (Genesis 37:8).
One day, without worrying about Joseph’s well being, his father Jacob sent him to check on his brothers. When his brothers saw Joseph coming from a distance, “they plotted to kill him.” “‘Here comes that dreamer!’ they said to each other. ‘Come now, let’s kill him and throw him into one of these wells and say that a ferocious animal devoured him. Then we’ll see what comes of his dreams.’” (Genesis 37:18-20).
But instead of killing him, “When Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe—the richly ornamented robe he was wearing- and they took him and threw him into a well.” But “the well was empty; there was no water in it” (Genesis 37:23-24).
Another brother said, “‘Come, let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites and not lay our hands on him; after all, he is our brother, our own flesh and blood.” His brothers agreed. “So when the Midianite merchants came by, his brothers pulled Joseph up out of the well and sold him for twenty shekels of silver to the Ishmaelites, who took him to Egypt” (Genesis 37:27-28).
This act of hatred (inspired by jealousy) changed the direction of Joseph’s life for a very long time (at least 15 year until he sees his father again). We can be sure that slavery to the Ishmaelites was no picnic. Separated from his home and parents at a young age, Joseph was thrown into a life of uncertainty, loneliness and severe hardship. An occasion for resentment and bitterness? Yes! How would Joseph resolve this bizarre twist of circumstances? How would he protect his heart from bitterness and hatred? How would he trace the hand of God in the painful mess of life?
Joseph’s brothers came home and lied to their father about his disappearance. With deceitful hearts, “They got Joseph’s robe, slaughtered a goat and dipped the robe in the blood. They took the ornamented robe back to their father and said, ‘We found this. Examine it to see whether it is your son’s robe.’ He recognized it and said, ‘It is my son’s robe! Some ferocious animal has devoured him. Joseph has surely been torn to pieces.’ Then Jacob tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and mourned for his son many days. All his sons and daughters came to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted. ‘No,’ he said, ‘in mourning will I go down to the grave to my son.’ So his father wept for him. Meanwhile, the Midianites sold Joseph in Egypt to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard” (Genesis 37:31-36).
It seems like a casual stroke of the historian’s pen: “Meanwhile the Midianites sold Joseph in Egypt to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard” From one human owner to another, Joseph’s life continues to be defined by the evil actions of his jealous brothers. During these dark days of life do you think he missed his home and his father and mother? Did he pray for release and opportunity to go home? As the years passed, so many experiences would be lost and never regained.
When the story of Joseph picks up in Genesis 39, we learn that the Lord was with Joseph and blessed what he did. Even Joseph’s Egyptian master “saw that the Lord was with Joseph and gave him success in all he did” (Genesis 39:2). The text reveals just how Joseph handled matters. His master, “… put him in charge of his household, and he entrusted to his care everything he owned. From the time he put him in charge of his household and of all that he owned, the Lord blessed the household of the Egyptian because of Joseph. The blessing of the Lord was on everything Potiphar had, both in the house and in the field. So he left in Joseph’s care everything he had; with Joseph in charge, he did not concern himself with anything except the food he ate” (Genesis 39:4-6).
From this we learn that Joseph did not allow self-pity and despair or resentment and bitterness to consume him. I suspect that through a series of deep dark nights of the soul, Joseph reached important conclusions about God and life (we will visit these conclusions shortly). If Joseph had recoiled in self-pity and bitterness, the Lord’s blessing could not have rested on him and his story would have been much different.
But there is a matter for pause. All the emphasis about God’s blessing on Joseph and success given to him did not add up to a trip home. Did Joseph stop praying this? What did he do with his desire to see his family again? Did he say, “Oh well, nothing I can do to change things, might as well make the best of a bad situation”? Did he resign to a destiny controlled by fate? Or,was his conclusion much stronger and deeper? (More on this in a moment.) First notice that Joseph’s trials are far from over.
Another abrupt change for Joseph:
Another abrupt change of circumstances beyond his control occurred and it wasn’t good. Joseph had the “misfortune” of being “well-built and handsome.” This made him the object of lust and false accusation. “After a while his master’s wife took notice of Joseph and said, ‘Come to bed with me!’” (Genesis 39:6b-7). This was a very real and dangerous test for Joseph. But he handled it with principled integrity. Joseph did what was right and he paid a severe price. Read closely the line of reasoning he used for refusing to succumb to sexual temptation.
“With me in charge,” he told her, “my master does not concern himself with anything in the house; everything he owns he has entrusted to my care. No one is greater in this house than I am. My master has withheld nothing from me except you, because you are his wife. How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?” (Genesis 39:8-9). Guided by the great principles of trust, reputation and ownership, Joseph stood firm against temptation. Did God bless him for his obedience? Should we expect obedience to bring blessing? Did it for Jesus?
Joseph stood his ground even as things intensified from sexual temptation to sexual harassment. “And though she spoke to Joseph day after day, he refused to go to bed with her or even be with her” (Genesis 39:10). But the persistence of this evil woman would not be deterred and Joseph could not do anything to change what would happen as a result.
“One day he (Joseph) went into the house to attend to his duties, and none of the household servants was inside. She caught him by his cloak and said, “Come to bed with me!” But he left his cloak in her hand and ran out of the house. When she saw that he had left his cloak in her hand and had run out of the house, she called her household servants. “Look,” she said to them, “this Hebrew has been brought to us to make sport of us! He came in here to sleep with me, but I screamed. When he heard me scream for help, he left his cloak beside me and ran out of the house.” She kept his cloak beside her until his master came home. Then she told him this story: “That Hebrew slave you brought us came to me to make sport of me. But as soon as I screamed for help, he left his cloak beside me and ran out of the house.” (Genesis 39:11-18).
Have you ever been falsely accused? It is a painful experience. It cuts deeply and painfully into a person’s heart when he does the right thing only to be misrepresented, slandered and wrongly charged. How did things turn out for Joseph?
“When his master heard the story his wife told him, saying, ‘This is how your slave treated me,’ he burned with anger. Joseph’s master took him and put him in prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined” (Genesis 39:19-20).
How would Joseph respond to this abrupt and undeserved turn in his life? Would he be confused? Would you have been? “Dear God how could this happen to me?” “Haven’t I suffered enough?” “How much can one man take?” “I tried to do the right thing and look where it landed me!” We don’t read much about Joseph’s struggles but we must not treat him as if he didn’t.
Shortly we will discover that Joseph did not take lightly or forget the wrongs committed against him. Joseph was human and battled feelings common to all people. But, again, I suspect that through a series of deep dark nights of the soul, Joseph had to reaffirm his conclusions about God and life (we will see these soon). Once again, he faced options. He needed something to lift him from the temptation to self-pity, despair or resentment and bitterness. If he had chosen these responses, the story would not be the same. Take note of how things went for Joseph in prison:
“But while Joseph was there in the prison, the Lord was with him; he showed him kindness and granted him favor in the eyes of the prison warden. So the warden put Joseph in charge of all those held in the prison, and he was made responsible for all that was done there. The warden paid no attention to anything under Joseph’s care, because the Lord was with Joseph and gave him success in whatever he did” (Genesis 39:21-23).
The Lord was with Joseph, showed him kindness and gave him good success. Yet none of this translated into immediate release from prison. What did God’s kindness look like? How did Joseph experience it? Did he question whether God cared? Did Joseph pray for release? We know his desire for release and memory of his suffering never left him. Some time later he would interpret a dream for a new prisoner that indicated this prisoner would soon be released. Then he said to the prisoner, “But when all goes well with you, remember me and show me kindness; mention me to Pharaoh and get me out of this prison. For I was forcibly carried off from the land of the Hebrews, and even here I have done nothing to deserve being put in a dungeon” (Genesis 40:14-15, emphasis mine).
This prisoner was released just as Joseph said. Perhaps this inspired hope in Joseph. “Surely he will remember me and I will soon be released.” Yet to Joseph’s trial was added the pain of being forgotten. With simple stroke of the pen, the historian noted that “The chief cupbearer (the prisoner who had been released), did not remember Joseph; he forgot him” (Genesis 40:23). It hurts to be forgotten. “Please God, cause him to mention me.” “Don’t let me be forgotten in this place.” I have had so much evil committed against me, I am not sure I can take much more.”
Again, with simple stroke of the historian’s pen: “When two full years had passed…” (Genesis 41:1). Have you ever had to wait two years for something? Why two full years? How did Joseph guard his heart against discouragement and despair? Was God not good and great enough to lift him from this dungeon? At the risk of being repetitive, let me again emphasize that through a series of deep dark nights of the soul, Joseph had to reaffirm his conclusions about God and life. He needed something to lift him from the temptation of self-pity, resentment and bitterness. Ultimately he resisted the very real temptation to resign to fate. There was something stronger that held and guided Joseph through his many abrupt changes and dark years of doubt and discouragement? It also protected Joseph from a darker prison—the prison of anger, resentment and bitterness. More than that, Joseph’s chosen perspective blessed many people and preserved a remnant for Israel (Genesis 45:8; 50:21).
Another abrupt change for Joseph:
After two long years, Pharaoh had a disturbing dream and he wanted an interpretation for it. The cupbearer told him about Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams. Joseph was called out of prison to interpret pharaoh’s dream. It revealed a dangerous famine coming over the entire area. Joseph was chosen by Pharaoh to prepare and lead Egypt through this time of trial. Follow the amazing turn of events:
“Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘Since God has made all this known to you, there is no one so discerning and wise as you. You shall be in charge of my palace, and all my people are to submit to your orders. Only with respect to the throne will I be greater than you.’ So Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘I hereby put you in charge of the whole land of Egypt.’ Then Pharaoh took his signet ring from his finger and put it on Joseph’s finger. He dressed him in robes of fine linen and put a gold chain around his neck. He had him ride in a chariot as his second-in-command, and men shouted before him, ‘Make way!’ Thus he put him in charge of the whole land of Egypt. Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘I am Pharaoh, but without your word no one will lift hand or foot in all Egypt’” (Genesis 41:39-44).
Family Reunion for Joseph:
These events set the stage for Joseph’s reunion with his family. Again, with simple stroke of the historical pen we learn that “Joseph was thirty years old when he entered the service of Pharaoh king of Egypt” (Genesis 41:46). Joseph was a seventeen–year-old boy when it all began. Thirteen long, lonely, confusing and difficult years had passed. Joseph missed his family but didn’t even know if they were alive.
Through providential circumstances (see: Genesis 41:56-57), Joseph’s brothers had to come to Joseph for food. Joseph recognized them immediately but concealed his own identity. “As soon as Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them, but he pretended to be a stranger and spoke harshly to them. ‘Where do you come from?’ he asked” (Genesis 42:7).
Through a series of interesting encounters with Joseph, we learn that his brothers had not forgotten the wrong they had done to him. Although perhaps not intentional, Joseph seems to lead them to a place of repentance. Those who think Joseph was getting even with them should pause to reflect on what he could have done as second in command in Egypt. The matter of forgiveness had been settled years before this encounter. If it had not, the good hand of God could not have rested on Joseph.
Joseph reveals himself to his brothers:
“Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone leave my presence!” So there was no one with Joseph when he made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard him, and Pharaoh’s household heard about it. Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph! Is my father still living?” But his brothers were not able to answer him, because they were terrified at his presence. Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come close to me.” When they had done so, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! 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 not be plowing 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.
These words reveal the stronger and deeper commitment that held Joseph through all the dark, confusing and painful years. By faith, Joseph embraced a deep commitment to the providential goodness of God over the evil intentions of people. We see the same emphasis again after Jacob died.
“When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?” So they sent word to Joseph, saying, “Your father left these instructions before he died: ‘This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.” When their message came to him, Joseph wept. His brothers then came and threw themselves down before him. “We are your slaves,” they said. 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 50:15-21, emphasis mine).
What Joseph teaches us about forgiveness:
Joseph had forgiven his brothers long before they confessed their wrongs. Joseph forgave his brothers in the context of his relationship with God apart from his offenders. If he had not forgiven them, he would have allowed bitterness to destroy his effectiveness for God (cf. Hebrews 12:15). Joseph’s forgiveness was based on three truths:
1) God’s authority as the Judge
Joseph’s brothers were fearful that he would want retaliation for the wrong they had done to him. But Joseph said to them: “Do not be afraid, am I in the place of God?” Again, Romans 12:19 says, “Do not take revenge my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: It is mine to avenge; I will repay says the Lord.” (See also: Gen. 45). Those who forgive must relinquish their desire to play judge and executioner toward their offenders. They do this– not by inducing themselves into a state of moral neutrality about the wrong committed— but by releasing the wrongs (and the ones who did them) to the Judge of all the earth.
2) God’s control of His life
Joseph said to his brothers, “You intended to harm me but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” (Gen. 50:20)
Here Joseph confessed that God (not his offenders) is Lord of his circumstances. His brothers were clearly responsible for their evil deeds (and he acknowledged this truth) but he recognized that God was sovereign over their evil actions (see Acts 2:22-24; 4:27-28). In Romans 8:28 we are reminded that, “….in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to His purpose.” Those who forgive must confess that God is Lord of their circumstances, not their offenders (Relate: Hebrews 12:7).
3) God’s forgiveness of our sins
An added motive for forgiveness emphasized explicitly in the New Testament is God’s forgiveness of our sins. “Forgive each other just as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). When offended, we must surrender attitudes of revenge in recognition of God’s authority, control and forgiveness of our sins. As with Joseph, all of this can take place in the context of our relationship with God. So forgiveness can occur apart from the confession and repentance of an offender. Reconciliation must occur in the context of our relationship with our offender. But reconciliation will not even begin apart from forgiveness (see: https://thinkpoint.wordpress.com/2007/07/28/forgiveness-is-one-thing-reconciliation-is-another/ )
Two primary questions I must ask related to forgiveness:
1. Who has been in control? God? or My offender?
2. Who will take control? God? or Me?
Yielding to God’s control: When we yield to God’s sovereign control (Daniel 3:16-18; 4:34-35; Proverbs 3:11-12; Hebrews 12:5-7,11-12), it liberates us. It frees us to follow Jesus in radical kingdom obedience: “But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27-28).
Like Joseph, we are free under God from being poisoned with bitterness and consumed with revenge. We are also free from participating in the multiplication of evil. We can choose to absorb the loss and return a blessing instead (see: I Peter 3:9). If we do choose to require restitution or other measures of accountability, we are free to do this without a vindictive or vengeful motive. Most importantly, we are free to open the door to reconciliation with our offender.