[The following is an excerpt from A Walk Thru the Life of Joseph: The Power of Forgiveness, a small group study guide from Walk Thru the Bible and Baker Books.
© 2009 by Walk Thru the Bible]
Identity is a complicated thing. Our self-awareness is profoundly shaped by who our family is, by where we come from, and by the work we do, among other factors. So when a person is raised in a dysfunctional family, is removed from his or her own culture, and has to work in a dead-end job, self-identity takes a triple hit. Such trauma could have lasting impact on the person and ripple effects into future generations.
Joseph could have checked "all of the above"—a background of abuse, social disadvantages, and hopeless situations—and resigned himself to an obscure, tedious life. Apparently he didn't. He probably couldn't allow himself to. He was driven by a high calling and a firm belief that God was worthy of his obedience and loyalty, regardless of apparent setbacks.
If anyone ever had a right to be eaten away by bitterness, Joseph certainly did. Most of his brothers wanted him dead, especially after he told them of the dreams of glory God had given him. They settled for sending him away to a distant land in chains—sold him to some traders who took him to Egypt. Anything, as long as they didn't have to deal with him. And their venomous attitude toward him resulted in long, painful years as an outsider of extremely low means.
Some people wear their offenses on their sleeves for the rest of their lives. They were betrayed or slighted in the past, and they never quite get over it. Their zeal for vindication, for vengeance, or even for simple justice consumes them. They may say they believe in God's sovereignty, but they blame the people who hurt them as if God had abandoned them in their circumstances. They are firm believers in the adage that "a leopard can't change its spots." And their lack of mercy does nothing to help them heal from their wounds. In fact, it only deepens them.
That could have been how Joseph's story turned out. He could have lived the rest of his days in bitterness or with an I-told-you-so feeling of superiority. When his brothers found their way to Egypt in search of food years after they betrayed him, Joseph could have sought vengeance and assumed that his brothers were unreformable. But that's not how the story of God's people goes. God was painting a picture of grace and patience. It's hard to imagine God wanting to favor and vindicate Joseph if Joseph were only going to turn around and be unmerciful to his brothers. That's wouldn't have fit the picture.
No, Joseph wasn't vengeful. He would put them through a series of test, but he was pulling for them to do the right thing. He understood the character and the power of God. People can change. God can give them a new heart. His glory has the remarkable ability to grow in the soil of tragic, devastating events.
That's a truth that needs to settle deep in our hearts. Many us of have never been through events quite as traumatic as Joseph's, but disappointments and delays are part of every human life. Joseph may well have asked the hard questions of suffering: How does someone highly favored by his father and his God end up as a falsely imprisoned slave? Where's God's favor in that? Why did a life destined for greatness include years of seeming futility? Why did God take so long to vindicate him? In the middle of the story, the story didn't make sense.
We could ask the same questions. How do children of God, members of a royal priesthood who are seated with Christ in heavenly places, become victimized by unscrupulous people? Why does God often take so long to let his plan unfold in our lives? Why does he let us linger in our trials? We're promised mountain-moving faith and answers to all our prayers in Jesus' name. Yet we suffer, frequently at the hands of godless deeds. Far too often, the wicked seem to prosper and the righteous seem to miss out on the prosperity. The meek don't seem to be inheriting very much. Something is wrong with that picture.
But that's not how God sees things. He uses our worst predicaments to accomplish his purposes, both for our good and for the sake of his kingdom. He somehow factors human messiness into his best equations. And while he already sees the outcome of our story, we only see the obvious implications for the moment. And sometimes, as they did with Joseph, those implications appear devastating.
They aren't, of course. The beauty of God's plan is often apparent only in retrospect, but it's always there. That was true for Joseph—he said so in his landmark statement that while his brothers had evil purposes, "God meant it for good" (Genesis 50:20)—and it's true for all who are called according to God's purposes. He is always at work in our lives, and his works are always good.
Joseph's example is encouraging. A more fruitful life for the kingdom of God has rarely been lived. His was a life of remarkable integrity, honor, faithfulness, stewardship, and humility. And look at the fruit of such a life: through Joseph, God preserved the race through whom he would send his Son to save humanity from its rebellion. What began in the tumultuous lives of Jacob's twelve sons led to a chosen nation, a miracle-filled history, a royal priesthood, an eternal inheritance, and the blessing and favor of God on all who love him. That kind of blessing—in Joseph's life and in ours—is always worth the pain of the process.
Adapted from A Walk Thru the Life of Joseph: The Power of Forgiveness, a small group study guide from Walk Thru the Bible and Baker Books
© 2009 by Walk Thru the Bible
This small group study and others can be found at www.walkthruguides.org.