One of the greatest (but most painful) of mysteries is that of suffering and evil in the world. I was meditating with my Sunday school parents this past weekend on the Old Testament patriarch Joseph. His story is rich with lessons about family struggles, envy, jealousy, pride, mercy, and forgiveness. But it also has a lot to say about suffering and the way that God can use it to bring blessings.
While there are many layers to Joseph’s story, both personal and communal, it is clear that God often allows great injustice and suffering only to produce great glory and healing on account of it. Let’s weave the story together with some basic teachings about suffering.
A. Structures of sin bring suffering – The story of Joseph begins with a dysfunctional household. Joseph’s father, Jacob, had two wives (Leah and Rachel) and twelve sons with his wives and their maids (Zilpah and Bilhah). Polygamy and adultery are not part of God’s plan! To be outside of God’s will is always to ask for trouble. Having sons by four different women produces no end of internecine conflicts. Sure enough, Jacob’s sons all vie for power and have divided loyalties because they have different mothers.
And in this matter we see that much suffering is ushered in by human sinfulness. When we are outside of God’s will we invite trouble. Sadly, the trouble affects not only the sinners, but many others as well.
Thus the sons of Jacob have been born into a mess, and into what moralists describe as the “structures of sin.” In these broken situations of structural sin, sin and suffering multiply.
And it is often the children who suffer. Having inherited a mess, the children begin to act badly and disdainfully. Suffering and evil grow rapidly in these settings.
In the world today, it is probably not an exaggeration to say that 80% of our suffering would go away if we all just kept the commandments. But, sadly, we do not repent, either individually or collectively.
And thus the first answer to why there is suffering is sin. Original Sin ended paradise. Individual sin brings dysfunction and a host of social ills. And while this does not explain all suffering (e.g., natural disasters) it does explain a lot of it.
Joseph is about to suffer on account of a structurally sinful situation brought about by Jacob, his wives, and his mistresses, and contributed to by all the members of the household. It’s not his fault but he will suffer.
B. Suffering can bring purification and humility – Though Joseph’s brothers all fought among themselves, they did agree on one thing: Jacob’s youngest son, Joseph, just had to go. Jacob’s favorite wife was Rachel, and when she finally bore a son (Joseph) he became Jacob’s favorite. Jacob doted on him, praised him, and even gave him a beautiful coat that inflamed his brothers with jealousy. They were also enraged and envious because Joseph had many gifts: he was a natural leader; he was able to interpret dreams. Joseph had the kind of self-esteem that perhaps celebrated his gifts too boldly. Among the dreams that he had (and related) was that he would one day rule over his brothers. This was altogether too much for them. Even Jacob had to rebuke Joseph for speaking in this manner.
Here we see a possible flaw or character defect in Joseph. It is hard to know if Joseph actually crossed the line. After all, his dreams were true. He was a gifted young man and would one day rule over his brothers. Someone once said, “It’s not boasting if it’s true.”
And while this has some validity, it is possible for us to conclude that Joseph was awfully self-assured and may have lacked humility, something that required purification.
Surely, as a young man he had a lot to learn. Suffering has a way of both purifying us and granting us humility and wisdom. If Joseph was going to be a great leader, he, like Moses before him, needed some time in the desert of suffering. And thus we sense that God permitted trials for him in order to prepare him for wise, effective, and compassionate leadership.
And so, too, for us. Trials and sufferings prepare us for greater things and purify us of pride and self-reliance. Woe to the man who has not suffered, who is unbroken. God permits us trials and difficulties in order to help us hone our skills, know our limits, grow in wisdom, and develop compassion and trust.
C. Suffering opens doors – On account of all of this, Joseph’s brothers plot to kill him. But, figuring that they can make some money, they instead sell him to the Ishmaelites as a slave. Joseph ends up in Egypt, in the house of the wealthy Potiphar. His natural leadership skills earn him quick promotions and he soon comes to manage Potiphar’s extensive household.
It is true that Joseph had a disaster befall him: he was sold into slavery. It is hard to imagine a worse fate. Yet strangely God permitted that in order to open a door. When Joseph was being carted off to Egypt in chains, it would have been hard to convince him that his life was anything but a disaster. Yet God was up to something good.
Within months Joseph is in a good spot, working for a wealthy man as a trusted adviser and manager. As we shall see, more still will be required in order for Joseph to be prepared for his ultimate work.
But at this point in the story, the lesson is clear enough: God permits some sufferings in order to get us to move to the next stage. He closes one door but opens another. There is pain in the closing of the door to the familiar, but there is greater joy beyond in the door He opens.
How about for you? What doors has God closed in your life, only to open something better? At the time a door closes we may suffer and wonder if God cares. But later we see what God was doing, for the new door opens to things far greater.
D. Suffering helps summon courage – In a tragic way, sorrow comes again to Joseph. Potiphar’s wife takes a liking to Joseph and tries to seduce him. Joseph refuses her advances out of fear of God and respect for Potiphar. But in her scorn she falsely accuses Joseph of having made advances on her and Joseph is thrown in jail! More misery, more suffering, on account of the sins of others, not his own! Joseph was suffering for doing the right thing!
One of the great virtues that we must all develop is that of courage. In a world steeped in sin it takes great courage to resist the tide.
But courage, like any virtue cannot simply be developed in the abstract. Rather, it must be developed. It must quite often be refined in the crucible of opposition and persecution.
And thus we see how God helps Joseph to develop his courage and trust by permitting this trial. Many centuries later, Jesus would say, In this world you shall have tribulation, but have confidence, I have overcome the world (Jn 16:33). He also said, Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs (Matt 5:10).
As for Joseph, so also for us. If we are going to make it through this sinful world with our soul intact, we are going to need a lot of courage. The Lord often develops courage via the crucible, asking us to trust Him that we will be vindicated, whether in this world or the next.
E. Suffering builds trust – While in prison, Joseph meets two other prisoners from Pharaoh’s household: the cup-bearer, and the baker. In prison, they witness Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams and observe his natural leadership skills. In accordance with a prophecy given by Joseph, the cup-bearer is restored to Pharaoh’s service. He reports Joseph’s dream-interpretation skills to Pharaoh, who is having troubling dreams.
God humbles us only to exalt us. As Joseph has learned, God can make a way out of no way. He can do anything but fail, and He writes straight with crooked lines.
In jail Joseph, has his trust in God confirmed. Through his connections in jail, of all places, he will rise to become the prime minister of all Egypt. Having come through the crucible, Joseph is now ready for the main work that God has in store for him.
Consider how God’s providence has prepared you for something that you wouldn’t have been able to handle at an earlier stage in your life. Surely he prepared you in many ways, but among them was through humility and suffering. Setbacks or failures have a way of teaching us and preparing us for some of the greatest things that we enjoy. In our struggles we learn the essential truth. We come to trust and depend on God, who knows what we need, what is best for us, and how to prepare us for the work He expects from us.
F. Suffering produces wisdom – Joseph is brought to Pharaoh, and not only does he powerfully interpret Pharaoh’s dreams, but also presents a 14-year plan that will lead them through a looming crisis. Pharaoh is impressed and appoints Joseph as the equivalent of prime minister of all Egypt.
Joseph is able to interpret Pharaoh’s dream. But he doesn’t simply interpret what it means, he also sets forth a wise plan. He explains to Pharaoh that the next 14 years will have their ups and downs. And where might Joseph have learned this truth? In the crucible of his own life, of course.
There is great wisdom in grasping that what is seen and experienced in this world is transitory. We do well to listen to the Lord’s wisdom, which is eternal.
Centuries later, the Lord related a parable of a wealthy man who had a great harvest and thought he was set forever. Lord called him a fool for thinking this way. Our abundance is not meant to be hoarded for ourselves. Excess food is not to be stored away for ourselves, but rather “stored” in the stomachs of the hungry.
And thus Joseph has been prepared for this moment by God. Joseph is no fool; he has learned God’s wisdom and direction. Whatever abundance occurs in the next seven years must be set aside for those who will be hungry in the years that follow.
Joseph’s wisdom is no accident, no mere hunch; it has come from the crucible of suffering. Suffering does that. It helps us to become wise, to get our priorities straight. In this case it helps us to understand that our wealth depends on the “commonwealth.” We cannot live merely for ourselves; that is foolishness. We are called to live for others.
What wisdom has God taught you through suffering? How has suffering helped you to get your priorities straight? How has it helped you to see the passing quality of life in this world and to set your sights on the world to come and on the judgment that awaits you? On the Day of Judgment will God call you foolish or wise? If you are wise, how did you get there?
G. In our suffering, we learn that our lives are not about us – Joseph predicted seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. Under Joseph’s direction, grain was stored in abundance during the years of plenty. So plentiful were the harvests during those years that the stored grain saved Egypt and many neighboring lands saved from famine. In a plot twist, Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt seeking food during those lean years. His anxious brothers recognize him and fear for their lives. Joseph reassures them by remarking that though their actions were intended for evil, God intended them for good. Joseph saves the very brothers who wanted to kill him.
In our suffering, we learn that our lives are not about us. Joseph was not purified and prepared for this moment simply for his own sake, but for the sake of others as well (or maybe even more). God has led Joseph, often through terrible suffering, in order to prepare him to help save others.
God did not simply prepare him to be a big cheese. God did not prepare him for glorious leadership for his own sake, but for the sake of others.
One of the lessons that we learn in Joseph’s story is that our life is interconnected with that of many other members of the Body of Christ, all of whom are precious and important to God.
God had to put Joseph through a lot in order to prepare him for his role of helping others. We are not called to live only for our own self. God loves us individually, but he also loves others through us. And he loves them enough that sometimes he is willing to make us wait for their sake, or to cause us to suffer in order to groom us to help them. The same is true of them toward us. All of us have benefited from the sacrifices of others and are called to make sacrifices for others.
It is a hard truth that God sometimes asks us to accept suffering for the sake of others, and we are blessed by the sufferings of others who made many sacrifices for the things that we enjoy.
This is the communal dimension of suffering. How has God prepared you, through sufferings today, to be able to help others?
Biblical stories have a wonderful way of teaching truth and of teaching us about our own life. And thus the Patriarch Joseph speaks to us from antiquity, from the pages of God’s holy Word. Somehow, I can hear Joseph saying that God can make a way out of no way. Somehow, I can hear him calling us to courage in our sufferings, and to perspective. Somehow, I can hear him singing the words of an old gospel hymn: “God never fails. He abides in me, give me the victory for God never fails!”