And so we come to the story of Joseph. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob have come and gone; Joseph is the latest patriarch to take centre-stage. Joseph is one of my favourite Biblical characters because I can relate to him as a fellow dreamer. I admire what he exemplifies in patience, endurance, forgiveness and excellent leadership. These are just some of the reasons why he fore-echoes Jesus more clearly than any other Old Testament figure apart from David, and why I am proud to have used this name for my son.
You could write a whole book on Joseph, but I will just focus on a few points over the coming weeks, the things that really struck me. There’s a song by Matt Redman, quite old now, called When I Needed a Saviour. When I first heard it I didn’t get it, and now it’s largely forgotten, except for one beautiful lyric which has stuck with me. “You made me fruitful in the land of my suffering”. He’s using words first spoken by Joseph when naming his second son, Ephraim:
“God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering.” (Genesis 41:52)
That’s Joseph whole life there, in one vivid sentence. There’s a reason he enshrined it in the name of one of the tribes of Israel: it captures one of the great truths of life, a truth that is at once beautiful and difficult. Life is hard, but God is good. Even those who know God – often especially those who know God – will have to endure suffering, but God blesses them in the midst of it.
Just ask Joseph. He narrowly avoided death at the hands of his brothers only to be sold into slavery by them just for being an arrogant little wotsit. He was falsely accused of raping his employer’s wife and ended up in prison. He was forgotten by those whom he had blessed and once he became rule of Egypt he had to make some tough decisions during an extended time of famine.
But…he didn’t just survive these crises, he flourished during them. He had not been a slave for long before he ‘found favour’ in the eyes of his master and was given responsibility as a steward. When he sank even lower than before he didn’t just languish in prison but experienced the Lord’s kindness and was again promoted to a position of responsibility. The chief cupbearer might have forgotten Joseph for a while, lengthening his prison-sentence, but God jogged his memory. Joseph’s God-given ability to interpret dreams landed him the top job in the land, together with many perks.
Everywhere he went, people noticed that the hand and blessing of God was upon him. Every situation he found himself in, no matter how adverse or unglamorous, he was enabled by God to succeed. God’s special blessing was upon Joseph’s family, and upon Joseph himself especially. More than any of his ancestors, Joseph lived up to this blessing by being ready to honour God in whatever circumstances he found himself.
Joseph suffered, but he was fruitful. He was shown extraordinary favour by God, and ended life far better off than anyone would have predicted back in Genesis 37 when his brothers sold him. He was exceedingly wealthy, had a happy family, enjoyed universal respect and died in the knowledge that he had secured the survival of God’s chosen covenant family. He had been very fruitful. As well as these material gains and achievements, he also exhibited many of the fruits of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5:22-23, showing he had been fruitful spiritually as well, which in many ways is far more important.
None of us will escape suffering and hardship in life. Some will suffer far worse than Joseph did. But there’s no amount of adversity that can cut us off from God. Paul goes to great lengths in Romans 8:35-39 to list the things that cannot separate us from the love of God, and earlier in that same chapter he penned some of the famous and wonderful words of all time:
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)
Every follower of Jesus can claim this for their own life. Don’t get bogged down in worries about predestination – if you love God then this promise is for you. You can’t love God unless you’ve been called by Him. God can turn bad things into good things. He can bring blessing out of deprivation. He can turn weeping into laughing and despair into uncontrollable joy. The suffering and hardship in this world stem from human sin, but God is bigger than our sins and able to outmanoeuvre our mistakes. You never know what is just around the corner. The path may twist, it may lead through the muck and leave you exposed at times, but God makes it all turn out all right in the end.
I don’t know why He allows the suffering in the first place. I have some ideas, but they’re mostly for another blog-post some day. For now I’ll just say this: would we be as fruitful if we didn’t suffer? Would we understand our need of God if all were only ever plain sailing? Would we appreciate God’s blessings if we always had everything we wanted? Would we know how to value the good if the bad didn’t exist? One thing is for sure. Those who are in Christ never suffer without reward, nor toil without fruit.