An Unexpected Journey
Recently I released a new book entitled Conspiracy Theory: When God is seemingly against us. I wrote the book as a direct result of interacting with people who were dealing with deep disappointments and unanswered prayers. As a direct result of their experiences, they were convinced that God was conspiring against them.
The book takes you on a journey which explores the hidden depths of Psalm 139 and the life transforming principles the psalm contains are illustrated through the lives of several biblical characters who have also wrestled with challenging and complex circumstances.
If you have ever wondered why God would take you from the heights of intimacy with Him to the inevitable lows of dealing with significant disappointments, you are not alone.
Discerning God at Work
Why does it feel as if God sometimes conspires against us? As you seek to answer this question, immersing yourself in the life of Joseph (Genesis 37–50) is a good place to begin. Joseph journeyed from being his father’s favourite son to being viciously attacked by his brothers, sold into slavery, forcibly taken to Egypt, then arrested and imprisoned on false charges.
Although we are told several times “the Lord was with Joseph,” it did not always seem that way to Joseph.
When we initially meet Joseph in Genesis 37, he is 17 years old, on the verge of early adulthood. He is probably wrestling with his identity, looking for acceptance among his family and peers, beginning to recognize his own gifts and abilities, and asking big questions about his future. Genesis tells us that Joseph is his father’s favourite son, and the natural affection of a father is clear, especially when Jacob gave him “a richly ornamented robe” (Genesis 37:3). Sadly, Jacob’s affection and special treatment of Joseph resulted in his brothers disliking him intensely. “They hated him and could not speak a kind word to him” (Genesis 37:4).
Living in a hostile, dysfunctional family environment, where anger, jealousy, resentment, and hatred occur daily, creates a tense and volatile atmosphere. Yet it seems that Joseph is oblivious to all that was taking place, and with considerable insensitivity to his brothers, he flaunts not only his coat of many colours, but his father’s favouritism as well. Things are, however, about to change.
As we move further into the Genesis narrative, we are naturally tempted to think that the focal point of the story is Joseph and his brothers. Yet it is crucial to remember that the main character of the story is not Joseph, his brothers, or even their father. The main character is God.
Whenever you find yourself engaging with a passage of Scripture, it is always worth asking what God is doing amidst a developing narrative. Why is He orchestrating and engineering the circumstances of a person’s life? Discerning God at work is not always an easy task, but it is a richly rewarding one, especially for Joseph.
In Genesis 37:5, we read that “Joseph had a dream,” and we are introduced in the most innocuous terms to a series of events that would bring dramatic and catastrophic change to Joseph, his brothers, and his father.
Silently, unobtrusively, God was bringing to pass His purpose and will, yet Joseph and his family were oblivious to what God was doing. God was about to begin a refining, transforming process that would remove the privileged favouritism and domestic comforts Joseph had enjoyed.
For Joseph, God used a dream. For you, God may be working in and through the circumstances and decisions you are facing, or perhaps a situation that threatens to overwhelm you. God will use whatever it takes to bring you to a place of utter dependency on Him. When you reach that point, however, don’t be surprised if God is about to do something extra special.
What is God doing?
From His initial interaction with Joseph God has given him the ability to interpret dreams. Joseph’s first dream involves his brothers working in a field gathering sheaves of grain. His brothers’ sheaves bow down to Joseph’s sheaves. A second dream reveals the sun, moon, and stars bowing down to Joseph.
With unrestrained excitement, Joseph unwisely shares these dreams with his family, garnering intense hatred from his brothers. He is obviously telling his brothers what the future holds; they will bow down to him; he will rule over them. Joseph clearly has a remarkable gift from God. His gift is in good shape, but he—Joseph—is not. He needs significant preparation and polishing if he is ever to be the man God wants him to be.
Oblivious and insensitive to what is going on in the lives of those around him, Joseph is so enamoured with his gift that he imagines his brothers will excitedly rejoice with him. Neither does Joseph anticipate that his dreams will offend his father. Knowing his father delights in him, he expects Jacob to be pleased. His father, however, is unimpressed.
Clearly things are beginning to change. God has initiated the emancipation process that ultimately will lead to Joseph being cut off from his father and brothers and everything familiar to him yet it will also move him to a place of profound dependency on God and God alone.
At 17 years of age, Joseph has been called and chosen by God. He has been given an incredible gift that will enable him to eventually become the governor of Egypt, playing a formative part in preserving the purposes and plans of God for an entire nation. But at this point, Joseph lacks the maturity to use wisely the gift God has given him. He is so wrapped up in himself that he believes the gift is all about him and has little to do with the purposes of God.
We do not have to be perfect for God to begin to mould and fashion and use us for His own purposes.
One of the reassuring principles for us in this introduction to Joseph is the healthy reminder that we do not have to be perfect for God to begin to mould and fashion and use us for His own purposes. Joseph was at the centre of the plans of God, but he was not ready for what God was about to do. Joseph needed considerable refining. His relationship with God and his understanding of God needed a great deal of work. His appreciation of what he was being prepared for was non–existent, yet God had His hand upon Joseph.
You may be feeling that in your own life you have had a bad start: parents who did not love you as they should have; limited opportunities for education growing up; lack of self–esteem or self–confidence. You have been hurt or disappointed so badly that you still struggle with emotional wounds. The dreams you had at age 17 have not materialized the way you wished. Yet, as we have discovered, Joseph’s upbringing in a dysfunctional family was not a barrier for what God was about to do.
The New Testament book of Acts highlights for us the significant difficulties Joseph faced, yet tell us, “But God was with him” (Acts 7:9). This is a powerful reminder that if God is with you, no impediment, no personality difficulty, no family difficulty or lack of education or career opportunities can stand in the way of God’s refining and shaping you into the person He is calling you to be. When you are facing difficult challenges, the first question you need to ask is this: What is God doing in and through all that I am facing?
Facing the Unexpected
As the story of Joseph continues, the brothers’ ever–increasing dislike of Joseph manifests itself in hatred and violence as they plan to attack and kill him. It is difficult to imagine what might be going through Joseph’s mind when his older brothers turn violent, beat him, strip him of his clothes, and plan to take his life.
Yet amidst the chaos of personal and physical attack, God has other plans. Joseph’s life is spared; he is sold as a slave and taken to Egypt (Genesis 37:12–36). As a slave, he must adapt to a whole series of circumstances not of his choosing. The impact of such cataclysmic change could easily have crushed him. Yet God was continuing to prepare him in a way that he could never have imagined.
The monumental upheaval Joseph encounters is sudden, with no warning and no indication of what is to come. He certainly does not relish what had taken place, and as he journeys toward Egypt, we can imagine Joseph wrestling with the reality of his new circumstances and wondering if there will ever be a way back.
Your life may not be what you wanted. You had little choice; your circumstances were forced upon you. It may be the result of an illness or losing your job or relocating because of work. Perhaps you are in a marriage where there is ongoing tension you do not know how to resolve. Maybe you feel a little like Joseph, having experienced betrayal by a family member or a close friend. You feel certain that nothing will ever be the same again.
Yet when God calls and then begins to refine a person, He does it in a thorough, all–pervasive, radical manner. He never leaves anything to chance. The amazing thing, of course, is that we often do not realize what is going on while it is happening.
In Egypt, Joseph is sold as a slave into the household of Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s guard. In those early days, adjusting to his new circumstances, Joseph surely wished he was back home. Perhaps at night he would dream about his family, trying to remember the details of what his previous life had been, wondering if his father knew if he was alive or dead, speculating about what his brothers had said when they got back home.
Joseph undoubtedly asked the probing question, “Why would my brothers do this to me?” Readers of Genesis, however, know what Joseph did not know: God was actively at work. God had begun the emancipation process in the life of Joseph. God’s seeming rejection would turn out not only to be His redirection, but also His greatest blessing.