Given the choice, how would you run your life? And I’m not talking about the freedom you already have to make decisions and pursue goals—I’m talking about having the power to control what happens to you. Would you choose to receive a vast inheritance from some heretofore unknown and eccentric uncle? Would you catapult yourself into the limelight, basking in the adoration of a million admirers? Would you have your siblings ambush you and sell you into slavery and then have your new master’s wife falsely accuse you of attempting fornication with her only to result in your unjust incarceration for several years?
If that last option sounds a little less than palatable, then congratulations, your sanity is more or less intact. There is absolutely nothing enticing about that last scenario, and certainly it would be one of the farthest choices from our minds if we had the ability to control the happenings of our day-to-day lives—and yet, you may recognize that same unfortunate chain of events as belonging to the story of one of God’s most famous servants.
A series of unfortunate events
It’s not that Joseph asked for a life filled with servitude, false accusations, and time in the slammer. No one in their right mind asks for those kind of things—but a good portion of his story looks like a rollercoaster where every “up” teases the promise of stability and improvement right before plunging even deeper into a worrisome abyss of despair.
If you’re unfamiliar with Joseph’s story (Genesis 37-50), here’s the abridged version: Because of Joseph’s status as his father’s favorite son, along with a couple visions that cast his siblings in a less-than-favorable light, Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery and convince their father that Joseph was killed by a wild animal. Joseph prospers in his new home, quickly finding himself placed in charge of all his master’s goods, until his master’s wife tries to seduce him (repeatedly), fails (repeatedly), and then frames him as a would-be rapist. Joseph is thrown in prison where, again, he prospers and is placed in charge of essentially running the jail. While incarcerated, he interprets the dreams of two other prisoners, correctly predicting that one would be pardoned and the other, executed. Joseph asks the soon-to-be-pardoned cupbearer to put in a good word to Pharaoh on his behalf, and the cupbearer happily agrees.
Oh, and then forgets about that agreement. For two years.
Eventually the Pharaoh has two distressing dreams, and the cupbearer conveniently has an epiphany—he knows the perfect guy for the job! He’s not hard to find, on account of still being locked up in the royal jailhouse.
An important detail
There’s more to the story, but I want to stop here for a minute because I’ve left out a very important detail. It’s one of the most important details of Joseph’s entire story, and the Bible mentions it twice: namely, “the Lord was with Joseph” (Genesis 39:2, 21). The specific times this phrase is used are interesting as well—the first is during his time as a slave, and the second is during his time in prison. We don’t read, “and the Lord left Joseph in prison and decided to check on him in about two years,” because that isn’t how God works. He was there. Every step of Joseph’s misfortune-prone journey, God was there, helping Joseph to succeed wherever he found himself.
God didn’t abandon Joseph. He was with Joseph, most notably during the moments that made the least sense to him. I can only imagine how much time Joseph spent in deep personal reflection. Early on in life, God had shown him visions a future where his brothers would bow down to him. Did he ever start to question those visions? Did he ever start to question God? Because I think I would have a hard time not wondering whether or not God was still with me if I were in Joseph’s shoes.
Which is exactly why the Bible gives us an emphatic yes—even in the darkest, most perplexing hours of Joseph’s life, God was present.
…And He was working out a plan.
A purpose for pitfalls
The rest of Joseph’s story reveals that God was using these pitfalls in Joseph’s life to bring about something grander than anyone involved could have ever imagined. His brothers’ betrayal allowed him to become the slave of a high-ranking Egyptian official. His imprisonment allowed him to enter the prison where he would meet Pharaoh’s cupbearer. The cupbearer’s delay in pleading Joseph’s case allowed Joseph to emerge from prison at the perfect time to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams.
That dream was a warning from God about an impending famine in the land of Egypt, and after having this explained to him, Pharaoh installed Joseph as the second greatest authority in all the land. Through Joseph’s inspired planning, Egypt and surrounding nations were saved from a seven-year famine that would have otherwise decimated countless lives. Among those lives were those of his brothers, his father, and other family members—brothers who, incidentally, bowed to this strange Egyptian man they failed to recognize as the brother they sold all those years ago.
So now for the obvious question: why this way? Why all the hardship? Couldn’t God have just inspired Pharaoh to put Joseph in charge from the beginning?
Yeah, I suppose. But there would be a couple problems with that timeline. Who knows how Joseph would have handled all that power if he hadn’t spent time in charge of both Potiphar’s household and the royal prison? Those experiences taught him both humility and organization. Also, by the end of the story we see a marked change in Joseph’s brothers—Judah, who proposed selling Joseph, is now willing to become a slave himself to rescue young Benjamin. Would that character growth have occurred any other way, or would they have just hated Joseph even more than before?
It’s clear even at first glance that the way God organized things was to everyone’s benefit—to Joseph’s, his family’s, and even the surrounding nations’. God took what would have been an unfortunate situation and shaped it into a series of events that ultimately led to something incredible. Joseph himself recognized this by the end, telling his brothers, “But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive. Now therefore, do not be afraid; I will provide for you and your little ones” (Genesis 50:20-21).
The perfect perspective
The little snippets you and I glimpse of God’s plan in our lives so often don’t make sense to us because from our tiny human vantage point, we can’t see the bigger picture. We can’t see the future steps—we see the here and now. Joseph didn’t know why God allowed him to become a slave, or why God allowed him to be thrown into jail for a crime he didn’t even commit, but here’s the thing: God did. God knew why He was allowing each and every moment in Joseph’s life—like a master chess player, God had a goal in mind and was actively moving Joseph toward it. It’s probably not the path Joseph would have chosen for himself, given the choice. Who would have? As we noted earlier, there’s nothing appealing about all those hardships—but when we look at the bigger picture, it becomes apparent that although it wasn’t the path we might have chosen, it was in fact the best path.
How many times have you and I wondered why God is allowing something in our lives? How many times have we grown anxious that what He’s letting us go through isn’t what’s best for us? How many times have we looked at the path God has set us on and wished we could do some course-correcting?
One of the proverbs preserved in the pages of the Bible reminds us, “A man’s heart plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps” (Proverbs 16:9). We can plan our lives out all we like, but God is the one who ultimately decides what happens and what doesn’t. There’s nothing wrong with having plans, but those plans need to end with the contingency Christ gave to his prayer in the garden: “nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will” (Matthew 26:39).
If the story of Joseph teaches us anything, let it be this: let us understand that we can’t see as God sees. We can’t see the trillion different possibilities stemming from each step we take, but God can trace each one down to its finish line. We can’t see the end of our plans; God can see the end of His. No, not everything God allows to happen in our lives is going to make sense, but it is only because we lack His perfect vantage point. It is never a failure of planning on His end, but a failure to see ahead on ours. When we submit our lives to God’s will and refrain from fighting Him at every curve, we will find not only a life of fulfillment, but a life with a greater ending than you and I could ever comprehend. No matter how perplexing, no matter how dark the moment, God will be there to guide us every step of the way.
God shaped Joseph into a ruler of Egypt. He’s shaping us into kings and priests of the universe. Is any path to that destiny not worth taking?
Until next time,