Hurricane Florence’s march towards the Carolinas caused me to reminisce on some of the hurricanes we dealt with when I was growing up in south Alabama. There’s one incident that I think about every hurricane season. It happened a few months after I came to know Jesus during my sophomore year of college.
Hurricane Danny hit south Alabama on a Saturday morning. At one point, its winds drove most of the water out of Mobile Bay. Then the storm stalled, dropping over 30 inches of rain on coastal towns.
I was working in the drug store in my hometown at the time. We were only 90 miles north of the storm’s eye but barely saw any rain. A man came into the pharmacy that afternoon and my boss started making small talk with him. “You think that storm is going to come our way?” The man responded, “No, I think it’s going to stay over Mobile. The Lord is going to be good to us.”
I was a young Christian at the time and perplexed at the idea that God was being good to us by keeping the storm over another city. Was he being bad to them? Was he showing kindness to us and wrath to them? Why is it that we only think God is being good to us when things are going well?
When we turn to the life of Joseph in Genesis 37-50, we begin to see how the Lord can show his goodness and kindness to us even when our circumstances seem to be falling apart. In particular, Joseph’s story shows us four important truths we must remember about the relationship between God’s providence and his goodness.
God Allows us to Go through Difficulty
Joseph’s story begins with his dreams of greatness. Through two dreams, which he foolishly communicated to his family, he saw that they will all come bow before him. Combine this with his father’s obvious favoritism towards him and his brothers began to despise him.
They wanted to kill him, but instead sold him into slavery and told their father that he was killed by an animal. He ended up in Egypt working for a man named Potiphar. He proved himself to be a faithful servant to Potiphar until Potiphar’s wife attempted to seduce Joseph and then accused him of attempted rape. Her bogus allegations landed Joseph in prison.
Then in prison, Joseph interpreted dreams for a baker and the cupbearer to the Pharaoh. The cupbearer said that he would remember Joseph and mention him before Pharaoh, but he forgot his promise. His broken word kept Joseph in prison.
When you read the text, you realize that Joseph did nothing that would make him “deserve” being sold into slavery or thrown in prison. His only “crime” was being arrogant. Instead, he ended up where he was by the good hand of the sovereign God who loved him.
One time I was walking through a particularly difficult time and told a friend of mine, “I think this is going to kill me.” I will never forget his response. He told me that this wouldn’t crush me because I was in the hand of a God who was both strong enough to carry me through and loved me enough to work through my troubles for my good. This didn’t make my trial go away, but it sustained me through it. The sovereignty of God is great news because he is a sovereign God who loves his people.
God Remains with us in Our Times of Suffering
When Joseph found himself serving Potiphar in Egypt, we could imagine how far he felt he had fallen. He went from the favored son among a dozen brothers in the house of his father to a servant in a land that was not his own. However, the text says, “And the Lord was with Joseph.” (Genesis 39:2)
Then, after the false accusation from Potiphar’s wife, he was in prison. How horrible must it have been to move from favored son to slave to prisoner? Yet, Joseph never fell so far that he was beyond the reach of God’s providential hand. For the second time, the writer of Genesis said, “But the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison.” (Genesis 39:21)
Those two simple sentences from Genesis 39:2 and Genesis 39:21 have always been an encouragement to me. No matter how far down we sink, the Lord is with us. Not only that, he shows us his “steadfast love.” This is the love of God that David says is “better than life” (Psalm 63:3) and “will follow me all the days of my life.” (Psalm 23:6)
God Uses our Difficulties for the Good of Others
The Joseph narrative does not end with him in prison. The cupbearer of the King remembered Joseph when Pharaoh had been upset by a set of dreams. He dreamt there were seven plump cows who were eaten by seven skinny cows and seven plump ears of wheat eaten by seven thin ears of wheat.
Joseph interpreted the dream for him, telling him that the plump cows and plump ears of grain represented seven years of plenty and the skinny ones seven years of famine. He said there would be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. Pharaoh rewarded Joseph by not only plucking him out of prison but by elevating him to a position that put him in charge of overseeing the storing of excess grain during the years of plenty.
When the seven years of plenty ended, famine set in and Joseph’s brothers heard there was grain in Egypt. Then traveled to Egypt to purchase grain and did not recognize their brother when they met him. He told them to bring his younger brother with them the next time they came to buy grain. When they returned to buy more grain, Joseph, in a moving scene, revealed his identity to his brothers.
When Joseph told them who he was, he told them not to be angry with themselves. He said he had no interest in revenge because “God sent me here before you to preserve life.” (Genesis 45:4-7) He saw that the difficult strokes inflicted by the providence of God turned out for the good of others.
We don’t often think about our own difficulties and afflictions like this. When we walk through troubles, we should ask how God wants to impact the lives of other people through them. Paul hints at this in 2 Corinthians 1 when he says that God comforts us in our afflictions so that we might comfort others walking through affliction. We don’t know comfort without walking through affliction and we cannot comfort others unless we have walked through painful moments as well.
The heart of the Christian message is redemptive suffering for the good of others. Christ died in our place to bring us back to God, so it should not surprise us that God uses our suffering for the good of others. We don’t suffer for other people’s ultimate redemption, but we do walk through trials for the proclamation of the Gospel and to encourage others.
God Works All Things for Our Good
Tragedies brought Jacob to Egypt with his family. His son Joseph was in Egypt because he had been sold into slavery and Jacob moved to Egypt because of a famine. Yet, when you read the end of Genesis in light of the promises God made to Abraham, you realize what God was doing all along.
God told Abraham, an old man with a barren wife, that he would be the father of many nations and that his children would be as numerous as the stars in heaven. He also promised him that his descendants would be slaves in a land not their own, but that he would lead them out. (Genesis 15:1-16) Three generations later, Abraham’s seventy descendants are living in a land not their own. The Lord worked to keep his promises.
After Jacob died, Joseph’s brothers approached him with a made-up story about their father in hopes that he would not punish them. In one of the more startling statements in Genesis, Joseph told his brothers he would not seek revenge because what they meant for evil, God meant for good. (Genesis 50:15-20) Instead of nursing his grudge, he looked to the providence and goodness of God, seeing God’s kindness at work in his most difficult circumstances.
When we walk through trials, whatever they may be, we do so remembering that God works all things together for good. This is not some coffee cup slogan that we use to make ourselves feel better, but rather a promise from God anchored in his sovereign plan which he authored before the world began. (Romans 8:28-30) We hold fast to him because he is holding fast to us. Whatever he takes us through, it will draw us nearer to Christ and bring him glory.
“How to Fight against Consistent Discouragement“
For Further Reading:
The Providence of God by Paul Helm
The Mystery of Providence by John Flavel