This is part of a series: I’m taking a moment in the lives of people in the Bible to see how it might be relevant to our lives, today. That moment may be just part of their story, or it may be all we’re told about them. Either way, you should read it directly from the source. This week’s story comes from Genesis 37, 39-41.
I want to clarify something I said in my last post about having “to choose between ‘a good life’ and a God life.” Though that is the choice as I saw it then, it’s also a false dichotomy. The “God life” is a very good life, and a good life can be a very hard one. Hitching your wagon to His star will not keep you from suffering anymore than hot-tailing it in the opposite direction will. And I think this is important because, as I get older and see more and more of my friends choosing other lives than the God one, the number one deciding factor is always disappointment. It’s sickness, failure, bankruptcy, loneliness . . . In short, they expected something better from God than what I got.
I’m not talking about presumption. I’m talking about justifiable, even biblical, expectations. The kind of things we teach our children, and preach from our pulpits. If I wait upon the Lord, He will show me His will for my life. If I steward my business well, God will make it profitable. If I save myself for marriage, God will bring me a worthy husband. If I marry the one God tells me to, we won’t have any trouble having kids. If the Lord has promised, He will fulfill. If I delight myself in Him, He will give me the desires of my heart . . .
It’s different for every person what will test their faith to the breaking point, but I believe we all get there. The five thousand were disappointed when Jesus refused to give them more to eat. The rich young ruler turned away after God didn’t “meet him where he was at.” And even John the Baptist was offended when the kingdom he’d heralded didn’t keep him from being imprisoned . . . or beheaded. Ouch.
In the face of personal failure and unfulfilled promises in my own life, my faith survived. I got up, I dusted off the ashes, and I continued to follow. But something else in me died: my ability to dream. I could still believe, but I could no longer hope. I knew that God was wholly good, but I doubted that he was fully powerful. Otherwise, why had He failed to come through?
When God began to encourage me to dream again, I asked Him to tell me about Joseph. Why, if God was going to give Joseph dreams, did He show him reigning? Why didn’t He warn him about the years in slavery, about his life as a prison warden? Not only did God not warn him about that, He gave him a dream calculated (strategically, I’d say) to aggravate his brothers’ resentment of him. Next thing he knows, he’s pleading for his life from his own family, he’s facing the prospect of starving to death at the bottom of a pit, and then his identity is stripped off his back and his life is sold for petty cash.
I was talking with some friends about this series the other day and joked that, though Ezekiel is one of my favorite bible characters, I’d have to call a post about his life “God is Mean Sometimes (Ezekiel).” I’m not usually one to skim over hard verses. I kind of enjoy reading Revelation, I actually love the God of Job. But the God of Ezekiel baffles me.
The way God treats Joseph baffles me, too. Take for example his second dream: “Listen,” he said, “I had another dream, and this time the sun and moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” Jacob scolds him for this. “What is this dream you had? Will your mother and I and your brothers actually come and bow down to the ground before you?”
Will they? When does that happen? Like the sheaves of grain in the first dream, Joseph’s brothers bow down to him as ruler of Egypt. But by then, his mother is already dead. In fact, she was probably already dead when Joseph had the dream. So it’s possible Jacob is talking about Leah here. But based on where she was buried, it’s likely she was also dead long before Joseph was released from prison.
And Joseph himself also baffles me. What was it about him that let God know he could gamble on Joseph’s faith and win? What do we even know about Joseph before his young life is in ruins? (My only answer is this must be the greatest testament to the buoyancy of children who are deeply loved by their fathers!)
During those years, through betrayal after betrayal, how did Joseph keep up faith that God had not betrayed him as well? In a way, God had betrayed him. Joseph himself says that it was God who arranged for him to be sold into slavery. It took 25 years for him to know why. Maybe during that time he just thought, “Well, I got it wrong. God doesn’t speak through dreams after all.” But we know he didn’t because it was eventually his faith in God’s interpretation of dreams that got him out of prison — as simply as it had gotten him in. What if somewhere in all that time he had just given up on dreams? Where would we be?
We can’t know what was going on in Joseph’s heart or head. We don’t have eighteen chapters of him ranting, like Job. All we know is that at the very end of everything his answer is, “Am I in the place of God? . . . God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”
And all I know is my faith would not have withstood that test. Sitting there amidst the ruins of my hope, I’d tell God this. “I’m not him. I’m not like that. You gambled wrong.” I wasn’t a phoenix who would rise from the ashes.
Jesus told John’s disciples to tell him, “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” When thousands turned away from him, Jesus turned to the Twelve and asked, “Are you also going to leave?” And Peter answered, “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words that give eternal life.”
So this is the part of the post where I’m meant to solve the riddle. But I don’t know the answer yet, I’m still learning to dream again. I know it’s there, somewhere just out of my reach. I know it has something to do with Peter’s answer to Jesus (I’m going to talk about Peter and the other reason we turn away from God in another post). And I know it has something to do with that second dream, the unfulfilled one, the impossible one, where they were not sheaves on the earth, but stars in heaven.