The Bible tells us that God controls everything in our lives and in our world. The problem is, however, that our lives and our world often seem so out of control. We all have a year full of examples of that, don’t we?
One of the most helpful places in Scripture to give us perspective on this is the life of Joseph. Here is a righteous man who experiences prolonged and intense suffering for no apparent reason. His life seems like a tangled mess of bad luck and unfair affliction.
And yet as Joseph reviewed his life with hindsight, he was able to say to his brothers who were the instigating cause of it all, ‘As for you, 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’ (Genesis 50:20).
We may not always see God’s purpose as clearly as Joseph did, with or without hindsight, but his example helps us believe that whether we can see it or not, God is in control and is working out his perfect plan.
Joseph’s life looked like total chaos as it lurched from one disaster to the next. To add insult to injury, all his hardships took place after God had promised that things would be very different for him. In two different dreams (which Joseph told Pharaoh later meant a ‘thing is fixed by God, and God will shortly bring it about’, Genesis 41:32) God promised Joseph incredible prestige, glory, and success. But nothing could be further from the reality that unfolded for Joseph. The next thirteen years of his life were a nightmare of disappointment and suffering from which he couldn’t wake up.
The brothers who were meant to revere Joseph so much that they would bow down to him threw him down a disused well to starve to death. Then they decided to make some money from him and sell him as a slave.
He was sold in Egypt, where he attracted the adulterous attentions of his master’s wife. As a reward for standing firm against temptation, he was slandered and thrown in prison, where he remained for perhaps ten years.
There was a glimmer of hope when he interpreted the dream of the cupbearer, who was released and restored to service in Pharaoh’s court, but any hope of his own release was extinguished when the cupbearer forgot him, and Joseph languished in prison for two more years.
Perhaps your own life bears a striking resemblance to Joseph’s. Have you suffered what seems like more than your fair share of disasters and disappointments? Nothing ever seems to turn out the way you thought or hoped it would? Just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse, the phone rings and it’s more bad news.
Maybe you have suffered for years from chronic pain, debilitating weakness, persecution in your workplace, school, or even your own home. Have you been slandered and unfairly blamed? What about the apparent chaos of 2020, with its lockdowns, restrictions, isolation, quarrels in society and even in the church?
What’s the answer? Trust in God. The essence of faith is trusting when we don’t see the whole picture, when we don’t have all the information and answers we’d like to have. If we knew all the answers, we wouldn’t need faith.
Faith is only needed when we don’t have all the facts in. Hebrews 11:1: ‘Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.’ Although there was so much Joseph didn’t know, he held on to what he did know – that God was in control and would keep all his promises at the right time.
There was a craze back in the 1990s for ‘magic eye’ pictures. They looked like a totally random collection of swirls, colours, and dots – no discernible pattern at all. But when you focused your gaze on a point ‘through’ the picture rather than on the picture, suddenly, as if by magic, a 3D image would emerge from the chaos: a shark jumping off the wall towards you (as there is supposedly in the picture I posted with this article!), or something similarly impressive.
I never had much success seeing these hidden images (and my failure to see the shark shows not much has changed!), but Joseph is doing something very like that here. He focuses his gaze on the Lord rather than on the tangled chaos of his life, and he sees order and beauty. As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good… God takes evil actions prompted by evil motives and uses them to bring blessing. As John Calvin memorably puts it, God turns poison into medicine.
Joseph’s brothers sold Joseph as a slave because ‘with malice aforethought’ they wanted to harm him; but God ordained that those exact actions would lead to good and blessing for the world. Potiphar’s wife slandered Joseph out of spite, to punish him for denying her what she wanted; God ordained it so that Joseph would meet Pharaoh’s cupbearer in prison, interpret his dream, and so eventually come into Pharaoh’s court, interpret his dreams, and save the nation.
Surely there must have been an easier way to get Joseph to Egypt and Pharaoh’s court? Of course there was – and God could have done it all in way that was much more comfortable for Joseph. But perhaps that wouldn’t have been good for Joseph. Perhaps this favoured and pampered son needed to be humbled before he could be safely entrusted with the second greatest position of power in the world of that time.
God’s wisdom means that he does the best possible thing in the best possible way. It means he takes the countless trillions of threads of circumstance and weaves them together into the most beautiful tapestry imaginable. In Joseph’s case, ‘the saving of many lives’. The lives of the Egyptians, yes, in God’s common grace; but above all, in his special grace, the lives of Joseph’s family – the family from which one day the Messiah, the Saviour of the world, would come.
How often we see this principle in Scripture! God overrules for good the very things the devil and our enemies try to use to harm us. He did it in the garden of Eden with Adam and Eve’s sin (Romans 5:15); he did it with the exile to Babylon (Jermiah 29:11); he did it with Job (Job 23:10) and with Paul’s thorn in the flesh (2 Corinthians 12:7-9).
Haven’t you seen the Lord do this in your own life too? The devil afflicts your body with pain or fills your mind with horrible doubts. He means it for evil – to harm you, to discourage you, to hamstring your effectiveness as a Christian. But your wise and loving Father takes these exact things and uses them to teach you lessons you couldn’t learn in any other way. And you say like the psalmist, ‘It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes’ (Psalm 119:71).
And he did it above all in the violent murder of Jesus on the cross – the ultimate beloved Son who suffered hardship and humiliation to save the lives of a great multitude, humbled but then exalted to the place of honour, before whom his former enemies bow down. Jesus’s enemies put him to death out of hatred, spite, and jealousy. But God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.
If God is able to take the murder of his own Son and use it for good, there is no situation in your life or mine too bleak for him to turn to good. In any and every situation we can always say, by faith if not by sight, ‘God is using even this for good.’ It doesn’t make the thing itself any less evil or painful, but it does give us a perspective that we desperately need to hold onto so that we are not overwhelmed by the apparent chaos all around us.