Why do bad things happen to good people? This is a common question, and even Christians sometimes subscribe to this idea that if we do good, bad things won't happen to us. But then we grow up and realise that that is not how the world functions. In fact, the Bible warns us and prepares us for suffering. As Christians, we should not be surprised by suffering! In such times, how are we to carry on? Is God incompetent with handling suffering, or is he unwilling? Through the life of Joseph, we will learn more about God's plan and purposes for difficult times in our lives.
(A) Potiphar's Wife: false accusations of an adulteress (Gen 39:11-18)
From Gen 39:1-10, Joseph is now working as a slave away from his family, in Egypt. But God was with him and caused him to succeed at his workplace as he worked for Potiphar. However, he has gained the unwanted attention of Potiphar's wife, who repeatedly demands that he lies with her. Verse 10 tells us that it was a daily temptation. Remember also that as a slave, Joseph had no prospect of marriage and no freedom to dream of. To a young man in the prime of his life, this naturally means a lifetime of celibacy. This was a real temptation that Joseph had to fight daily. Verses 11-12 finds Joseph trapped, literally, as Potiphar's wife corners him. Joseph did the best he could do in the situation -- he fled, but left his garment behind.
At this turn of events and rejection, Potiphar's wife reports her story to two groups of people -- the men of the houshold (v.14-15) and her husband (v.16-18). There are slight differences in emphasis in her stories. To the men of the household, she highlights Joseph's ethnicity and plays on the ethnic divide between Egyptian and Hebrew. To her husband, she carefully chose her words to kindle anger through appealing to a hurt pride. In both these cases, however, she carefully arranges the burden of guilt away from her. She sets herself up as a poor, helpless victim.
(B) Potiphar: swift miscarriage of justice (Gen 39:19-20)
Potiphar heard her words, reacted swiftly and immediately throws Joseph in prison, together with the king's prisoners (v.20). Notice how Joseph is not mentioned throughout this narrative. He was completely silent and powerless, with no advocate and no one to hear him out, completely alone and a victim of great injustice. Verse 20, like verse 1, shows us the low points in Joseph's life. In verse 1, he is a slave without freedom. In verse 20, he becomes a prisoner. Both times, he was betrayed and abused, without any power. Gen 39 shows us how realistic the Bible is about the Christian life! Joseph lived a life consistent with his faith and sought to obey God in Egypt. Yet, he was a victim of false accusations and was even thrown into prison! This passage reminds us how broken life can be, how powerless we might feel, and how sometimes we are just trapped without any way out. Being a Christian does not guarantee a smooth passage through life.
(C) The LORD: His own presence amidst the fire of refinement (Gen 39:21-23)
But, thankfully, the passage does not end with verse 20! Verse 21 starts with "But", and this signals a change in focus. It speaks of "the Lord" helping Joseph. Not just "God" in a generic sense, but specifically "the Lord"' -- the personal God who made a covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Now, it is this Lord that is with Joseph at the bottom of his life. When the world plunged him in its deepest pit, he found his Savior there.
This God did 3 things for him:
- The Lord was with Him
- The Lord showed him steadfast love
- The Lord gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison.
Verse 21 shows God's character clearly. God provided him presence and love, but it was not restricted to mere subjective feelings and an abstract, intangible experience. God's provisions also came in a practical sense! Verses 2-4 and 22-23 help us see that Joseph rose to the top because God was with him. Good that happened to him was clearly attributed to God. God's presence is not abstractly mediated in some peaceful feelings, but constantly through human sources. We marvel at the timeliness of his invervening presence indicated by verses 2 and 21! God is never late and always appears at the right time. He is like a kind, tender parent, who is always there, always watchful and knows when to manifest himself. He does not forget his people. And through this narrative, we can echo the words of Nahum 1:7 -- "The LORD is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble; he knows those who take refuge in him."
But, how is God good to us? Do we struggle sometimes to see how He is with us even today? This same God continues to show us his goodness in practical ways. It could be in things like safe travels. It could be through the provision of encouragement through another Christian. It could even be this gathering of people every Wednesday! God continues to provide graciously, and we need to continue to see His practical blessings in our lives! These are signs of his presence!
Notice also too that Joseph still remains in prison at the end of verse 21! The Bible tells us that God does not guarantee that his people will be rescued from pain and suffering. More than that for the Christian, we are promised a firm foundation. To the Christian, God says:
Fear not, I am with thee, O be not dismayed,
For I am thy God and will still give thee aid;
I’ll strengthen and help thee, and cause thee to stand
Upheld by My righteous, omnipotent hand.
This is the timeless anthem of the Christian that undergoes suffering. Paul says it too in 2 Tim 4:16-17.We are promised the presence of God, no matter the circumstances and no matter what people say. Why doesn't God whisk Joseph out of prison? We know that it was not because God was unable to. Clearly God did not think that Joseph needed his freedom at that point. In the same way, in our lives today, the thing we need now may not be immediate freedom and deliverance. In fact, it could mean and extension of his circumstances, but with the presence of the Lord.
In Matthew 5:1-11, we read something rather shocking about those that will be blessed in the kingdom of God. If we compare the words of Jesus, and Joseph's experience, we notice some similarities!
According to the Beatitudes, “blessed are....
the poor in spirit - for theirs is the kingdom of heaven
utterly without home or hope in the world
those who mourn - for they should be comforted
betrayed by family and victimized by circumstance
the meek (not merely humble, but the downtrodden) - for they shall inherit the earth.
accused yet not responding, no voice as a slave
those who hunger and thirst for righteousness - for they shall be satisfied
seeking to honor employer, marriage and God
the merciful - for they shall receive mercy
not returning hatred and vengeance to his brothers, slavetraders or Potiphar's wife (c.f. Isa 53)
the pure in heart (singleminded) - for they shall see God
sexually tempted yet not giving in (and also not even be in a position and situation of temptation)
the peacemakers - for they shall be called sons of God
not contesting claims or dividing Potiphar's marriage
those who are persecuted for righteousness 'sake - for theirs is the kingdom of heaven
for his purity and integrity, Joseph was imprisoned
you when others revile you and persecute you - for your reward is great in heaven
ethnically despised as a Hebrew, slandered for his integrity
Matt 5 is strange, and completely different from what we are used to! We realise that God's priorities are very different from what we think Joseph should have, and what we think our lives are about. God clearly has no interest in making us feel empowered or good about ourselves, or providing an easy life. He is looking to give us a kingdom not on this earth, but something far, far better! He seeks to give us comfort not of this world, a peace that the world does not understand. Matt 5 makes us realise that God has a completely different purpose for all of our lives! Through sufferings and hardship on earth, we are being refined, and taught to long for and desire after him, until that day when we receive what we are made for, what we truly want!
"What if your blessings come through raindrops? What if your healing comes through tears? What if a thousand sleepless nights are what it takes to know you're near? What if trials of this life are your mercies in disguise?... What if my greatest disappointments or if the achings of this life is the revealing of a greater thirst this world can't satisfy?"
(Laura Story, Blessings)
What if God, through this difficulty in your life right now, is stripping away your joy for any worldly things, to teach you to long for something not of this world, and to finally realise that only He can satisfy?
That is not all!
The beauty of the Christian message is that God himself enters into our suffering. He does not stand at a distance to dish out peace and advice, to cheer us on, unaffected and insensitive to our struggles. Jesus came down,born in a squalid stable, worked as a carpenter, died in shame on the cross, died in a borrowed tomb. Jesus was the only one who was truly poor in spirit. The Bible never records for us Jesus laughing, but in John, we learn of his weeping, because He saw the brokenness and death in the world. Jesus was meek, loving even the lowliest in society. Jesus was merciful, forgiving his perpetrators on the cross. Jesus was truly pure In heart who was tempted in every way but yet without sin. Jesus was the ultimate peacemaker, allowing us to be reconciled to God. Jesus came to be persecuted so that we can be brought to heaven.
Are you suffering today? If life is good, remember these truths, for suffering will come. If you are, take heart, because God promises to strengthen us with His presence and provisions, because He also walked through suffering himself. Tim Keller puts it brilliantly in his book, "Walking with God through Pain and Suffering":
“…it means to see with the eyes of your heart how Jesus was plunged into the fire for you when he went to the cross. This is what you need to know so you will trust him, stick with him, and thus turn into purer gold in the heat. If you remember with grateful amazement that Jesus was thrown into the ultimate furnace for you, you can begin to sense him in your smaller furnaces with you. This means remembering the gospel.”
Gen 39 is amazing, because it points us ultimately to the greater Joseph, Jesus, who suffered the greatest suffering and judgment for us, so we will not have to face the eternal wrath and separation from God. And because he did this, we can sing:
Through present sufferings, future's fear,
He whispers "Courage" in my ear.
For I am safe in everlasting arms,
And they will lead me home.