Do you ever find yourself asking these types of questions? It’s so easy to fall into this type of thinking. It can happen to me in an instant. It’s at these moments in our lives when we need to remember the lessons from the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis.
He was born into a very dysfunctional family. His father Jacob, who later became known as Israel, had 12 sons to 4 different women. Israel also had daughters to them. His favorite son was Joseph. Since he loved him more than any of his other children, Israel spoiled Joseph. He made him a richly ornamented robe. He allowed Joseph to give bad reports about what the rest of his brothers were doing. Needless to say, his brothers hated him.
Eventually they took Joseph captive and sold him to slave traders who were going to Egypt. Once there, they in turn sold him to a man named Potiphar, an Egyptian who was one of Pharaoh’s officials. The Lord was with Joseph and blessed him with success in everything he did. Potiphar was so impressed he put Joseph in charge of everything he owned.
Joseph soon ran into a problem. He was well-built and handsome. Potiphar’s wife noticed this and tried to entice him into an affair with her. Joseph refused. This made her so angry that she accused Joseph of trying to rape her. When she told Potiphar, he had Joseph thrown into prison.
The Lord continued to bless Joseph while he was in prison. The warden noticed this and put him in charge of everything that happened there. After some time had passed, Pharaoh became angry with his cupbearer and baker. They were thrown in prison and Joseph attended to them. After they had been in custody for a while, both men had dreams they didn’t understand. They told their dreams to Joseph and he interpreted them correctly.
Two years later, Pharaoh had dreams he couldn’t understand. The cup bearer told him that perhaps Joseph could interpret his dreams for him. Joseph told Pharoah that God was speaking to him through his dreams. Egypt would have 7 years of great abundance followed by 7 years of severe famine. Someone needed to be in charge of storing the extra grain during the first seven years so they could have something to eat during the last seven years. At that moment, Pharaoh released Joseph from prison and put him in charge of everything that happened in Egypt. Joseph did his job and collected grain during the years of plenty. When the famine hit, Egypt was ready. Joseph began selling grain back to those who were needed it.
The famine also struck the land where Israel’s family was living. He sent his sons, Joseph’s brothers, to Egypt to buy grain. Joseph recognized them when they arrived but they didn’t recognize him. After all, they never thought they would see him again.
Joseph put them through some tests to see if they had changed. They had so he revealed his identity to them. He told them not to be angry with themselves for their actions. God had blessed him and was using him to help others. Joseph then invited his whole family to move to Egypt where he could care for them during the last 5 years of the famine. They accepted his invitation. The family was reunited.
The stages of Joseph’s life went from being good to horrible to great. He went from being a shepherd’s spoiled son to being a prisoner. Then he became the second most important man in a world superpower. There are some important points from Joseph’s walk with God that apply to us as well.
1) We must learn how to walk with God. Joseph was spoiled, arrogant and proud as a young man. There was no way he could have led a nation with that attitude. God had to teach him how to let go, how to serve and how to forgive before God could use him. Joseph learned a lot about life when he became a slave and prisoner. His privileged background and haughty attitude didn’t mean a thing to him then. He was a different person by the time he became an important official with wealth and prestige. But, even then, he continued to learn.
God uses a lot of things to teach us how to walk with him. One thing he uses are life experiences, whether they are bad or good. They teach us we don’t have near as much control over our lives as we wish we did. And, if we allow them to, they teach us to submit to God.
2) Even though God is with us, unfair things happen in life. Yes, Joseph was a jerk when he was young. But he still hadn’t done anything to deserve being sold as a slave and later thrown into prison. Once he was sold to Potiphar, the Lord blessed him. Yet, he still got falsely accused of rape and was thrown into prison. While in prison, the Lord was with him but he still remained there years longer than he should have. There may have been times when Joseph when he looked up to heaven and asked, “Why did this happen to me, Lord?”
Everyone asks these questions sometime in their lives. On August 9, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan. The epicenter of the bomb blast was right in the heart of a large Catholic area in the city. At the time of the blast, a group of believers were in a cathedral worshipping and praying. They were destroyed.
In his article, The Catholic Holocaust of Nagasaki—“Why, Lord?”, Brother Anthony Josemaria writes, “The destruction … of Catholic Nagasaki—have led many to ask: ‘Why, Lord? Why, did you permit the horrendous bombing of this illustrious Catholic epicenter in Japan, which, after the war, would have been central to the Catholic evangelization of Asia?’ Of course, the same “why” may be asked regarding any number of difficult circumstances that seem, at first glance, opposed to God’s good providence.”
They too asked “Why?” questions about the unfair suffering they were experiencing. Br. Josemaria concluded his article with stories of how the suffering of Christians in Nagasaki helped bring a quick end to the war. They also served as personal witnesses to the healing power of Jesus Christ to other people who were also suffering.
As the third-century North African theologian, Tertullian, said: “The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians.” The simple truth is God has much more freedom to work in our suffering than he does when times are good. He worked in the suffering of Joseph. He worked through the sufferings of the Christians in Nagasaki. He works though ours as well.
There’s one more important point from Joseph’s life that we have to come to terms with if we want to be true disciples of Jesus. We see it played out when his father, Israel, died. Genesis 50:15-21 says, “When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?” 16 So they sent word to Joseph, saying, “Your father left these instructions before he died: 17 ‘This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.” When their message came to him, Joseph wept.
18 His brothers then came and threw themselves down before him. “We are your slaves,” they said.
19 But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? 20 You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. 21 So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.”
By this point in his life, Joseph wasn’t asking, “Why did this happen to me?” or “Why did God let this happen?” He knew the answer. God had used his life experiences, including slavery and prison, to make him into a person who was doing great things for God and for others.
Asking “Why?” questions keeps us looking backward. Many people, including Christians, become focused on these types of questions. They want to know why they suffered through something they didn’t deserve. Many times, they relive the painful emotions associated with whatever happened. If they don’t change, they run the risk of becoming bitter, angry people who constantly live in the past.
Joseph knew God used the things his brothers intended for evil to accomplish the good God wanted to do. Rather than focusing on the “Why?” questions, Joseph was focusing on the “How?” questions. He was asking, “How is God going to use this for good? For my good? For the good of others?”
Asking “Why?” questions keeps us looking to the past. This often brings depression and hopelessness. Asking “How?” questions keeps us looking to the future. This brings hope.
I often give us a few things to work on as we apply the sermon to our everyday lives. Today I’m only giving us one thing to do. Ask “How?” questions instead of “Why” questions.
Your initial reaction may be, “I can’t do this.” Yes, you can. The power of Jesus and the Holy Spirit living in you makes this possible. You don’t have to be a victim of your past. You don’t have to live in depression and anger. You can face the future with hope.
Earlier I asked four “Why?” questions about circumstances life may throw at us. Perhaps the outcome would be different if we asked questions about those same situations but from a different perspective. What if we approached life this way:
*Something’s obviously bothering my spouse. How can I make things better?
*How is God using my illness for my own good and for the good of others?
*God obviously didn’t allow me to get the promotion even though I thought I deserved. How is God going to use this?
*I don’t like what happened to me. How is God using this for good?