Joseph at seventeen had it good. Favored son status, fancy coat from Dad, and a dream that indicated a positive future. The next thirteen years were downers: down to Egypt, down from son to servant to slave, down to the pits. How would you handle such a turn in events? He could have grown bitter at his brothers, his dad, his boss, Pharaoh, God. Joseph responded with anything but resentment. Looking at him can help us go through difficult times and not be overtaken by them. Struggles can turn us into skeptics and harden our hearts. Many destinies are buried around the corner of an injustice that causes hostility to stick in the soul. We’re all victimized at some point. How we respond determines whether we come out a winner or a whiner. Here are some truths that surface from the life of Joseph:
A VICTIM LOOKS OUT. A VICTOR LOOKS IN.
A victim’s problem is the other guy. If little children have a problem with someone, they often deal with the someone rather than the problem. Mature people look in and make the necessary adjustments; immature people look out–and swear or swing or swipe. Joseph’s brothers had a problem with Joseph, who was placed on favored son status. They should have talked with Dad, maybe guilty of elitism. Not Joseph’s fault. He was being neither proud nor self-indulgent. He might have been a bit naive to share two potentially volatile dreams, but he was not showing pride. His brothers took it out on him and sold him as a slave. Victims blame others for their misfortune, rather than checking their attitude and adjusting a childish response.
Meanwhile, Joseph is serving Potiphar, making the best of the worst. And Potiphar “left all he had in Joseph’s charge” (Genesis 39:6). When life turns sour, we can make excuses for our anger or laziness. Not our young friend. “The Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man…and his master saw that the Lord was with him, and that the Lord caused all that he did to prosper” (39:2,3). Sent down the river by brothers, he chose to be a victor. Victims often excuse their irresponsibility, making an argument out of their less than optimal performance. Meanwhile, victors go for it, breathing in the grace of heaven to accomplish what is before them. They have learned to do what Paul encouraged: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21).
A VICTIM SAYS, “YOU OWE IT TO YOURSELF.” A VICTOR SAYS, “YOU OWE IT TO GOD.”
Potiphar’s wife went after Joseph. He could have thought, “Hey, my dream has turned into a nightmare. I need some fun. Nobody will know.” Those who feel victimized can talk themselves into compromise, as if God will understand in this situation and adjust the standards. Those who have been cheated feel justified to cheat.
Not Joseph. He didn’t even have coffee with the lady: “He would not listen to her, to lie with her or to be with her” (39:10). His reason: “How could I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” (9). Not a little compromise–”great wickedness.” The Bible says to make no provision for the flesh. Can you hear someone going for it, then creating an alibi to excuse adultery, as if God didn’t mean what He said in the commandment. Victims do–Joseph didn’t.
It backfired. He chose purity and lost his position. Down to the dungeon. He could have complained. “I try to please you, God, and get thrown into this place. Is serving you worth it?” Not our friend. “The Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison. And the keeper of the prison committed to Joseph’s care all the prisoners” (21,22). De sha vu! From a house to a hole. “What’s wrong with the lighting down here?” I can hear people complaining. Not Joseph. He didn’t badmouth the prison guard or gripe about the dark. He made the best of a really bad situation–and God honored him.
A VICTIM ASKS “WHY”. A VICTOR ASKS “WHAT”.
“Why me? Why this? Why are you doing this, God? What did I do wrong? I am trying to serve you and this happens. Why are you picking on me?” Meanwhile, victors are asking “what.” What must I do in this difficulty? They do what they need to–and God makes up the difference. Same thing happened in the prison (that Joseph calls “the pit”–40:13) that happened in Potiphar’s house. He acted in a way that made people trust him. Before you complain about your bum deal, find out what your job is–and do it. “Why” questions paralyze us? They keep us from moving toward our goal. “What” questions keep us moving forward. “Why” puts the car in reverse!
My friend Johnny was losing his wife to cancer. She contracted it the first year they were married, and it was the fifth year. I said, “It must be hard to have looked forward to a life together and now look back on so much pain.” I’ll never forget his response: “God doesn’t owe me anything. I owe God everything.” No victim there. His wife died not long after our talk.
When Joe’s cellmates had dreams, he didn’t say, “I’ve had bad luck with dreams. I won’t touch them.” He did what he knew how to do, saying, “Do not interpretations belong to God? Please tell them to me” (Gen. 40:8). Then he added, “Make mention of me to Pharaoh” (40). Yeah, right! Did the cupbearer remember? Two years later. That’s 730 lousy days. Does Joe chalk it up to a waste? I suspect that many Christians would have. Prison was not easy for Joseph. He didn’t get three meals a day. Maybe one if people remembered. He probably got weak and skinny. Did he have a bed? Hard rock. Try sleeping on a rock with a collar of iron around your neck. Psalm 105:18 says that “his feet were hurt with fetters; his neck was put in a collar of iron.” Try that for two full years in the dark–after you had the promise of potential release. They probably threw him his food. It kept him alive. Did he pray? Often. “Don’t forget me, O Lord.”
He was in school. He had gotten a high school diploma in elementary sheepherding. He went to college and majored in business administration. He passed a difficult course called “Handling Egyptian Women.” He did graduate studies in prison management. His homework was preparing him. He didn’t know what for, but he was faithful. He got a PhD in integrity, and God promoted him to the prime minister position. He became the second most powerful person in the world. It’s a short distance from the prison to the palace, and God has no transportation problem. He can put you where He wants to–in a moment. But He is more interested in what He does in you, so He can then do something powerful through you. If His character is in you, being used for His purposes is a simple matter. Joseph graduated Summa Cum Laude. He kept his heart open and his dreams alive. He humbled himself and God exalted him. He will do the same for you if you don’t whine with the why. Don’t put it in reverse.
Peter wasn’t always good about humbling himself, especially in the face of difficulty. When he was implicated with the criminal Jesus, he chose to deny that he ever knew him. Really?! The Rock who said powerfully, “You are the Christ!” Years later, after he learned through the indwelling Holy Spirit how to respond in the face of fear and pain, he wrote, “Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time” (I Peter 4:6). Our job–stay low. God’s part–exalt us when the time is right. Not a good idea to exalt yourself. God knows how–and when. Go low, Christian! Once you acknowledge that life can be hard, it just got easier!
A VICTIM LIVES IN THE PAST. A VICTOR LIVES IN THE FUTURE.
Victims regret what could have been and isn’t. They look for people who will understand them and commiserate with them. A victor lives with what can be. Joseph got married and had children. He named his first child Manasseh (“forget”), because “God has made me forget all my hardship and all my father’s house” (Genesis 41:51). His second son was named Ephraim (“twice fruitful”), “for God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction” (52). A pastor friend of mine, Joe Johnson, says that you know you are healed when you can thank God for how He has used the pain of your past to bring fruitfulness. When something in us dies, the decay fertilizes the flowers that bloom right over the place of death. Joseph was instructed by the pain but not paralyzed by it.
He might have said, “If only my brothers had not done this…” or, “If only Potiphar had not believed his crummy wife.” “If only’s” say that God doesn’t hold our life–circumstances do. Victims who react this way are living in the past. They are being lived, not living, passive, not active. Their lives are programmed by a negative agenda. Victors live forward. Joseph had thirteen years of hardship, but he lived as if he had a future–and he walked into it. Victors learn to trust God in the midst of trying circumstances, while victims cave in under them. Victors don’t discount God’s presence in the midst of pain. They trust Him to be working, even while circumstances go south. He said regarding the dream he needed to interpret, “God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer” (41:16). When he introduced his family to his father, he said, “These are my sons, whom God has given me here” (48:9). God-centered, not self-centered.
Seasoned victims learn to fear the future and choose the past. They change their perception of the past, because the future appears daunting. The children of Israel had seen God do incredible miracles through Moses, finally leaving Egypt when God parted the waters, turning the Red Sea into a roadway. They had watched God provide daily food in a barren desert for four decades. Now on the edge of the Promised Land, they complain: “We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we are” (Numbers 13:31). They preferred the safety of the past to the challenge of the Promise–and they died short of their destiny. They preferred playing it safe–or so they thought.
A VICTIM IS BITTER. A VICTOR IS BROKEN.
“When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, ‘It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil that we did to him’” (Genesis 50:15), because that is the way they would have thought. They lied to Joseph, saying that their father had told them to ask Joseph to please forgive them. No desire for revenge in Joe’s heart. His response: he “wept when they spoke to him” (17). Then he said, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God?” (19). He knew that if there was any vengeance to take place, it would be God doing it, not Joseph. Then he put a divine spin on the pain that he encountered for most of the thirteen long years: “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. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones”(20,21). Let’s call that overcoming evil with good. He was willing to go through much suffering to provide for a family who hated him. Your attitude determines your altitude, and Joseph was soaring now, having spent a lot of time in the pit with shackles around his neck and feet. The psalmist wrote, “Until what he had said came to pass, the word of the Lord tested him” (Psalm 105:19). I would say that he passed his test!
Joseph’s focus was on God’s provision more than his pain. He continued to trust God in the presence of great disappointment. He looks clearly into the future as the director of resources during the years of plenty, then the famine. He is not crippled by his past, and he carries the nation through seven years of blessing and seven years of famine. What a leader, seasoned through sorrow. I dare you to let go of the “if only’s” and embrace the “what if’s” of the future rather than clinging to the past. Believe God to move you from criticism to confidence and take hold of your destiny, whatever your age. Let’s learn from the prime minister: grumblers don’t win–and winners don’t grumble! Thanks, Joe!