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Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Evil That Men Do

Some time ago I acquired a cat. Or she acquired me.

She came through my window, crawled onto my shoulders, head-butted me and began to purr like a broken air conditioner. She had an obvious upper respiratory infection and one bad eye, but seemed energetic and very sociable. Once she found the dog’s dish and began to chow down, she obdurately refused to leave.

Initially I thought she was an outdoor kitty belonging to a neighbour, but from her trusting nature and complete absence of interest in going anywhere near the door, I concluded that being outdoors was not normal for her (something that was confirmed when her former owner admitted she had been outside for only two weeks of her life).

Still, whether the original owner (who declined to take her back) lost his cat intentionally or otherwise, her untroubled, sunny disposition suggests that he must have treated her reasonably well.

Backstabbing, Lies and Betrayal

My sister, on the other hand, has a feline schizoid, a personality condition we attribute to a three-and-a-half week quarantine spent almost entirely in a small cage.

Like cats, human personalities are frequently shaped by the treatment they receive. The abused often become abusers, or at least lose their ability to trust, love or display affection.

Joseph was the exception:
“When he summoned a famine on the land and broke all supply of bread, he had sent a man ahead of them, Joseph, who was sold as a slave. His feet were hurt with fetters; his neck was put in a collar of iron; until what he had said came to pass, the word of the Lord tested him.”
In a previous post I had a little bit to say about the sovereignty of God in connection with the short-sighted, cowardly or generally unwise decisions his servants tend to make from time to time. But what do the scriptures teach about God’s sovereignty when the difficult circumstances in which his servants find themselves have nothing to do with their own sin or stupidity, and everything to do with the actions of others?

With, for instance, unsolicited hatred, backstabbing, lies or betrayal?

Sovereignty on Display

There’s a lot of sovereignty on display in Psalm 105. The psalm’s writer does not see the normal course of events simply taking place, effect following cause, but rather, he points out the ways in which God has historically managed, timed, used and overridden otherwise-natural events to accomplish his purposes and keep his promises throughout the history of his people. Much of the details of God’s workings are found in these few verses concerning Joseph’s experience: God “summoned a famine”; God “broke all supply of bread”; God “sent a man ahead of them”; and finally, “the word of the Lord tested him”.

Such “big picture” explanations of God’s superintending care (in this case, for his people Israel) can be a great encouragement to us, but I wonder how this all appeared to Joseph, the man in the middle of these events. We read that the “word of the Lord tested him”, and it surely did.

It tested him in a major way. Could Joseph cling in faith to what God had promised him, even though years had passed and his life experience continued to provide him with no evidence of its coming fulfillment — and every indication he had somehow misunderstood God’s plan?

A Word of Hope and Confidence

Where Abraham, in our previous post, failed to recall the words of God or to apply them to the difficulties he was experiencing, it seems that perhaps Joseph remembered. Because Joseph too had a promise, a “word” upon which he fixed his hope and confidence. Joseph’s dreams were a little less explicit and personal than Abraham’s direct promise from God, but no more open to misinterpretation, and no less significant to his life. In one dream, the sun, the moon and eleven stars bowed before him. In another, he and his brothers bound sheaves of grain in a field, and the sheaves of his eleven brothers bowed to his sheaf.

We do not have any indication that Joseph became haughty or unpleasant because of his dreams, but it is clear that his brothers and his father understood exactly what the dreams signified when they were told about them. “Are you indeed to reign over us?” his siblings asked, and hated him “even more”.

If you’ve ever heard a preacher find fault with Joseph’s behavior as recorded in scripture, then you know that one has to work pretty hard to do so. The speaker probably did a fair bit of extrapolating and conjecturing because, well — it isn’t there. There’s nothing in the record to suggest that Joseph was responsible for much of anything that happened to him.

And happen it did.

From Bad to Worse

It should not escape our notice that it was the very dreams that God gave Joseph — the very promises that God was at work in his life in a significant way — that provoked what followed. Joseph didn’t ask for his dreams, and we have no hard evidence that he deliberately instigated trouble with his brothers. Unlike Abraham, he was not the author of his own subsequent problems.

His brothers took the first opportunity to sell him into slavery behind his father’s back. If not for the intervention of the eldest they would have killed him outright. But since that would have made God’s promises slightly more complicated to fulfill, Reuben, who had gone this far without apparent qualms, became stricken with guilt about what killing Joseph would do to their father and persuaded his brothers to throw Joseph into a pit instead of murdering him. So they sold him to Ishmaelite slavers for twenty shekels of silver and he was taken to Egypt.

It is noteworthy that they did so in open defiance of the sovereignty of God, saying “We will see what will become of his dreams”.

How did this appear to Joseph? What was his state of mind? We’re not told, but it cannot — at least as it was happening — have been all stoicism or uninterrupted, peaceful faith, can it? He must surely have wondered, as we often do, Why on earth is this happening? Where is God in this situation? Or most frequently, perhaps, Did I do something wrong that I don’t know about?

So Joseph wore fetters and a collar of iron instead of the robe of many colours given to him by his father.

Punished for Doing Good

Not only was Joseph punished for doing nothing, he was punished for doing good. He was sold to Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s guard, where he so excelled at his job that Potiphar left everything of importance to Joseph’s care. And his “reward” for excellence, loyalty and duty, if you remember, was that he was falsely accused of sexual assault by Potiphar’s wife and thrown in prison, where he excelled some more and was given a position of responsibility.

In all of this, the writer of Genesis keeps repeating “The Lord was with Joseph” and even “and showed his steadfast love”.

But one has to wonder how this all seemed to Joseph at the time. Did he remain resolute every moment in his confidence in the word of God to him, or did he sometimes wonder how bad things could get?

So how bad can it get when you are faithful in the service of God? Pretty bad, I suspect. Which is what the psalmist seeks to remind us.

But he goes on to declare this: “What [God] had said came to pass”.

The Hand of God at Work

When Joseph’s brothers hated him, God worked it for his good (and theirs). When they sold him into slavery, he wound up exactly where, years later, he was most needed to preserve his family, the nation of Israel, and the promises of God. When he was lied about and jailed, God used it to lead him to the second-highest place in Egypt.

Whatever degradations his family, circumstances and his enemies would heap on him, the hand of God protected him from the worst, made him a testimony to the power of the God of the Hebrews in Egypt, and exalted him at the end of it all. And Joseph was able not just to forgive his brothers but to embrace them and to explicitly acknowledge the workings of God’s sovereignty in his life, saying, “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today”.

It’s a great deal more difficult to work hard, trust or love unconditionally when you encounter mistreatment, hatred and abuse. But it is not only possible as a follower of Christ, it is his expectation and desire for those who would be his disciples.

Watching Sovereignty in Action

After all that he had endured, how could Joseph brush off the evil his brothers had done? Was he just an exceptionally decent human being who refused to carry grudges? Possibly so.

Or maybe a lifetime of watching sovereignty in action; of worshiping a God who works “all things ... together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” gave him the confidence to open himself up even to those with a confirmed track record of stabbing him in the back.

Because his confidence was neither in circumstances nor in his ability to predict or manage the conduct of others, but in a God who is able to re-order the circumstances no matter what their intention.

Doesn’t that sound like a more desirable way to live?

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