Joseph: Discovering God’ Plan through Suffering

“You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” 

When we read that God intentionally permits—even plans—for His children to suffer, we struggle.

Jesus went about doing good, but suffered an excruciating death because God willed it. Jeremiah has been called the “weeping prophet” for a reason. 

I naturally want to protect my children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. I’m concerned when they are ill and would be angry if they were abused. So why would a good God—a loving Father—permit His children to suffer? Since God is all powerful and loving, why does He prescribe suffering? 

In last week’s post, I offered Joseph as an example of unjust suffering. He was the eleventh son of Jacob, but the first born of Rachael, the love of Jacob’s life.

The record of Joseph’s suffering began when he was 17. The favored son was hated by his half-brothers—and it certainly didn’t help when his parents honored him with a special robe. Was Joseph being arrogant—or just naïve—when he told his brothers about his dreams that they would someday bow down before him.? Whichever the case, his siblings began to plot his murder. 

I encourage you to read the story and try to experience it from Joseph’s perspective. He didn’t volunteer to be cast into a cistern to become a bleached skeleton. Nor did he suggest the alternative, being sold into slavery. In fact, he resisted and begged them not to sell him. Imagine his brothers’ guilt at every family gathering and knowing their father assumed that a wild animal had killed Joseph, but they were the predators.

Joseph would be sold again. Imagine him standing with shackles around his legs, waiting to be auctioned like an animal. Gone was the glory of his special robe. After being purchased by Potiphar, Joseph earned his favor and was eventually entrusted to manage Potiphar’s entire estate. Although young and handsome, he resisted Potiphar’s wife’s seductive invitations. Falsely accused, he was imprisoned. His integrity and diligence were rewarded, but he would remain a prisoner.

Joseph’s gift of interpretation provided a glimpse of hope that was dashed when Pharaoh’s cupbearer forgot about Joseph. Years passed until one morning, Pharaoh was troubled over dreams that seemed ominous. When none of Egypt’s elite could interpret the dreams, the cupbearer remembered Joseph. He was summoned before Pharoah where he credited God for his ability to interpret dreams.

Pharaoh’s dreams predicted seven years of severe famine. Joseph became Pharaoh’s right-hand man with all the fringe benefits. However, back home in Canaan, the famine had become so desperate that Joseph’s brothers were sent to buy grain in Egypt.

Imagine Joseph’s emotions when he saw his brothers standing in line to purchase grain. His brothers had prostrated themselves in fear before him, just like his childhood dreams. He remembered their crude laughter when he was sold as a slave. They spoke through an interpreter, but Joseph heard them claiming to be “honest men.” Their report about their younger brother’s tragic death rang hollow. 

When Joseph heard them admit, “We are guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the distress of his soul, when he begged us and we did not listen. That is why this distress has come upon us,” he turned away and wept. 

Later, when they discovered the money in their sacks, they trembled and said, “What is this that God has done to us?” Can you not hear the depth of their guilt? Simeon was imprisoned; the others returned to Canaan.

Back home, they reported about Simeon’s incarceration and the “harsh” Egyptian’s command to return with Benjamin.

When the food ran low again, Jacob finally relented to let them return to Egypt with Benjamin.

The second encounter between Joseph and his brothers is one of the most tender moments in Scripture. When Joseph entered the room, they bowed prostrate before him. 

After purchasing grain, they departed but were soon arrested and accused of stealing Joseph’s favorite silver cup. Once again, they “fell before him to the ground.” Joseph could no longer control his emotions. Weeping and struggling, Joseph—no longer through an interpreter, but in their mother tongue—said, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” 

Dead silence!

He invited them to come closer and said, “I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold to Egypt. And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt. Come down to me; do not tarry” (Genesis 45:5–9*, emphasis mine).

Notice the four strong statements about God’s sovereignty. They had sold Joseph, but God had sent him to preserve a remnant.

Years later, after Jacob’s death, Joseph’s brothers again feared that he would retaliate. Note Joseph’s response: “Joseph wept when they spoke to him and fell down before him and said “’Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? 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’” (Genesis 50:17–21*). 

If ever a person experienced undeserved suffering, it was Joseph. Trafficked by his brothers, and forced to live all but 17 years of his life in a foreign country. Falsely accused and imprisoned. Forgotten by the cupbearer. Year after year suffering pain and injustice for something he hadn’t done. Yet, there is no record of Joseph’s bitterness. No angry laments against God: “Why? How long!?” No attempt to seek revenge.

It was not the life that Joseph had anticipated as a teenager. Every painful day was the direct result of his brothers’ hatred. Yet he could say, “You meant it for evil against me, but God meant it for good…” 

I wonder, what if Joseph had remained at home as the favorite son with the colorful cloak? Would he have become a man of integrity? Would he be remembered for his deep faith in God? We don’t know, but we can be confident of this: Because Joseph was betrayed by his brothers, his family not only survived the famine in Canaan but multiplied into a great nation. Living in Goshen, they maintained their distinctive culture and religion. When I read the story, I am amazed how God used evil men and painful circumstances to accomplish something so profoundly good. 

So yes, God does love His children and has a wonderful plan for them. He forgives. Redeems. And one Day, He will welcome them into His glorious home forever!

That road to glory passes through the valley of suffering because it is in the valley of suffering that our faith in God grows, and we learn to trust Him and discover that our Father knows what is best. 

Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, wrote these comforting words: “For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not afflict from his heart or grieve the children of men” (Lamentations 3:31–33*) 

In a sermon about the potter’s wheel, I shared a line from a song: “When you can’t see Gods hands, trust His heart.”

Jacob could have written those lyrics from experience.

So can I.

My life has been saturated with God’s goodness and grace, but it has also been seasoned with suffering. It was through those darker times, when I wondered what God was doing, that I experienced the Father’s love most intimately.

Thank you for reading this post; if you found it helpful, please pass it on to your friends. Perhaps you have a story about discovering God’s heart when you couldn’t see His hand.

*All Scripture quotations are from the ESV.

Look Westley, It’s a Watermelon

The demise of Roe v Wade has not ended the public debate over abortion. In fact, it has motivated those who favor abortion. Millions of dollars have been invested to influence elections in several states. Some are trying to place “abortion on demand” as a guaranteed right into their state constitutions.

My concern is that the debate over the issue of abortion has been derailed. It seems that the most basic issue regarding abortion is no longer being debated in the public forum, or for that matter in the halls of justice: “When does an embryo or a fetus become a baby—another human being?” That is the question. Or should be.

The metaphor below is written by a great grandfather that has two great grandsons, Calin and Westley. Both are filled with life and curiosity. But great grandfather has used Westley in the story because his name begins with a W as does watermelon and because his mother is pregnant with Westley’s baby sister.

Imagine, my great grandson, helping me plant a watermelon seed asking, “Papa, what is that little black thing? Why are you putting it into the dirt?”

“Westley, it’s a watermelon seed.”

“But, it’s so little! It doesn’t look like a watermelon.”

“Just wait, you’ll see. Inside that little black seed is something that’s alive. It’s just waiting to grow into a watermelon.”

Several warm, sunny days pass. Westley and Papa go out to the garden.

“Papa, look. What is that little green thing?”

“Westley, remember when we put that little black seed into the ground? It was alive. Look at those little green leaves popping out of the ground. It is a watermelon plant. It will grow bigger and bigger and become a long, winding vine.”

Weeks pass. Westley comes to visit again.

“Papa, look! There’s a big yellow flower on the watermelon plant.”

“Yes, Westley. That flower will become a watermelon. Just wait, you’ll see.”

Weeks pass. Days filled with sunshine and plenty of water. “Westley, come look at our watermelon plant.”

“Papa, what is that little, round ball where the flower used to be?”

“Westley, that’s a watermelon.”

“Papa, you’re teasing me. It’s too small to be a water melon. It’s no bigger than a pea.”

“Yep. But, just wait. It’s a watermelon. It’s going to grow and grow, and one day it will be a delicious watermelon.”

The melon is now big and green. Ripe and ready to pick. Westley comes to visit again.

“Oh, Papa, look at that watermelon! It’s so big!”

“Yes, it is big, Westley. Remember that little, black seed that we put it in the ground and covered with dirt? Those first little green leaves pushing their way up out of the soil. Remember that first big, yellow flower on the vine and that tiny little pea-sized ball? Now, here it is a big, round watermelon. It was always a watermelon. Even when it was a little, black seed buried out of sight in the ground. Later, when it was a flower and then a little round ball it was always a watermelon.”

“Westley, this watermelon reminds me of what is happening in your mommy’s tummy. One day your daddy helped plant a seed inside your mommy’s tummy. In a very special way that God has planned, your little sister began to grow like that watermelon seed that we couldn’t see because it was in the ground. But it was alive and was growing until one day we saw the first leaf of the watermelon plant.

“Now your tiny baby sister is growing bigger and bigger inside your mommy. Her tummy will get bigger and bigger. One day your mommy and daddy will go to the hospital and when they return, they will bring your baby sister home with them. You’ll get to see your sister for the first time. She will finally be your little sister to hold and to love. But, Westley, remember she was always alive. She was always your little sister even inside your mommy’s tummy.”

Today, the debate over the issue of abortion has been derailed. We have changed the narrative to a woman’s right over her own body or reproductive health, but the question remains: is it ethical to ignore the plight of the innocent life within a womb? Is it right—not whether it is legal—to take the life of another human being?

That raises a greater question: If an embryo or fetus is a living person, or a potential person, can it be just or moral to premeditatively take another life? I realize that I will be accused of being crude and insensitive to use the word, murder. But isn’t that what our legal system calls the premeditative act of taking another person’s life?

So, the narrative ought to return to when is a baby really a baby? Does passing through the birth canal suddenly make it a baby? Does the first gasp for air make it a baby? The first cry?

Was it a baby at 26 weeks gestation when in some states, just three days ago it was legal to kill? Did something magical happen on the 182nd day to make it a person? A person deserving legal protection?

That’s the true narrative! Not “women’s health care” or the right of a woman over her own body while ignoring the plight of another little body—a living person.

That should be the debate.

The Enemy at Home

Must I be carried to the skies on flow’ry beds of ease?

…Is this vile world a friend to grace to help me on to God?

With a thank you and an apology to Isaac Watts, I have lifted two lines from his hymn, Am I Soldier of the Cross? I deliberately juxtaposed these two lines to make a point.

Last week I tried to pull back the curtains just a little to encourage each of us to be more aware of Christians around our world who face persecution. This week, let’s pull back the curtains again to consider another potential blind spot. Unlike persecution occurring in distant places, this threat is all around us—inundating us with propaganda 24/7.

I believe the term “blind spot” is appropriate because it’s difficult to be unaware of the problem. Graphic pictures of hungry children and epidemics around the world appear on television news and the appeal letters from relief organizations.

Even so, as deplorable as these circumstances are, I believe the words from Isaac Watts’ hymn reveals a deeper problem. Note that the lines are actually questions—questions as relevant today as in 1721 when the hymn was penned.

Here is my attempt to answer those two questions.

No, it is not fair or equitable if I bask in luxury in the presence of suffering and hunger. This world, our current culture, is no “friend of grace.” Not by a long shot.

I am troubled when I discover blind spots in some of peers of Isaac Watts. For example, while reading The Essential Jonathan Edwards, I discovered that this great theologian and biblical scholar credited with the Great Awakening, like most of his peers, owned slaves. Recently, I also discovered that George Whitefield—the most influential Christian evangelist in the 18th Century—after being given a plantation, “converted” from denouncing slavery to supporting slavery. His reasoning? He felt slaves were needed to manage the plantation and, after all, the plantation helped support his orphanage ministry. Whitefield is also credited for helping change Georgia’s original ban against slavery.

If renowned Christian leaders like Whitefield and Edwards were influenced by their culture, would it be such a stretch to say that we can also be influenced by today’s culture? Could it be that we’ve been conditioned to accept the status quo as “normal” and “fair,” when it really isn’t?

In response, I offer Paul’s instructions in 2 Corinthians 8:13-15 (esv):

For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness. As it is written, “Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack.” (emphasis mine)

Christians in Corinth were aware that the church in Jerusalem was facing famine-like conditions. Several churches in Asia Minor and Greece had stepped forward to send money to assist their hungry brothers and sisters. The Corinthian believers had also signed on to participate in the fundraising, but as time passed the sense of urgency faded. As a result, no offerings had been taken. Twice in the above passage, Paul uses a specific word to motivate the Corinthians to step up to the plate. The English Standard Version translates the word as fairness. Other translations use the term equality. Eugene Peterson in The Message summarizes the passage, “In the end you come out even.”

I prefer the word equitable.

Paul wasn’t the only biblical writer to call for fairness or justice. Several Old Testament prophets also called for equity. Perhaps Amos was the most outspoken. In his day wealthy Israelites enjoyed lavish homes and rich food while widows and orphans were neglected.

Times really haven’t changed all that much, have they?

So what is Paul asking the church in Corinth (and us) to do? Are we to give away everything to feed the hungry? Soon we would all be hungry. Are we to make certain every person in the world, especially other Christians, enjoy the same amenities we enjoy? Should my Ugandan friend Kato have the same balance in his savings account (if he had one) as me? Should I sell one of my vehicles so he can have a car? In other words, must everything be precisely equal?

Absurd! Kato make $40 a month as a teacher, assuming he gets paid each month. Depositing half of our savings account into an account for Kato or giving him a car would probably hurt him more than help him. The cultures in Bend, Oregon and western Uganda are worlds apart, and not just geographically. Trying to make everything absolutely equal would be global socialism; that hasn’t worked in Venezuela or anywhere else.

After having Kato as a student on my first trip to Uganda, we began to communicate via email. Yes, almost everyone has a cell phone and access to a computer today. I discovered Kato’s children were often forced to drop out of school for lack of funds since education is not free in Uganda. If his children have any hope of breaking out of poverty, they need to finish school. Mary and I began sending money via Western Union to cover their tuition.

Honestly, it hasn’t been that much of a burden. And no one can put a price tag on the joy we experience as we receive reports after each grading period. I could easily spend more money at Starbucks than the cost of tuition for each child. When Kato and his wife had a baby, they named him Sydney. Children in Uganda are traditionally named after relatives, not Americans.

On my second ministry trip, I visited Kato’s home where his wife had prepared dinner and invited relatives to celebrate our arrival. We discovered there were no doors on his home. When I mentioned this to Kato he affirmed that sometimes “unsafe serpents” entered the house at night. That shouts “Black Mamba” to me!

When a friend of ours heard this story she volunteered to provide doors for Kato’s home. She doesn’t even know Kato, but I suspect she has received as much satisfaction as Kato when he closes the doors each night to protect his family. His home has dirt floors with blankets as room dividers and will never be equal to our home in Bend. Should we sell our home and build a house out of handmade bricks with a dirt floor? It wouldn’t pass zoning! Our homes will never be equal, but we are striving for fairness and equality.

That being said, I don’t write to create a guilt trip on anybody. That’s not the purpose of our conversations on the Front Porch Swing. I am simply encouraging each one of us to pull back the curtain a little and catch a wider perspective. It’s way too easy for all of us to become comfortable with our status quo and assume this is norm.

I share a few thoughts for your consideration:

First: Pray. Pray for eyes to see those less fortunate. Pray for wisdom to know how to respond.

Second: Open the curtain. Subscribe to periodicals and electronic news releases from Christian ministries such as Open Doors, The Voice of the Martyrs or Samaritan’s Purse.

Third: Invest. That is a biblical term. Didn’t Jesus challenge us to lay up treasures in heaven, investing in eternal things? By any reading, the distinction between sheep and goats in the gospels is based on compassionate sharing with those in need.

Fourth: Establish relationships. If possible, establish a personal contact with the person or people you want to help. If it’s appropriate, try to visit your new friend in person. Some Christian ministries can be of assistance with this.

I close with this vision: Imagine a world where little children receive the inoculations and meds to prevent so many diseases carried by mosquitoes. Imagine the joy of people finally drinking clean water from a local well. Might it taste even better than a latte or mocha to us? Wouldn’t that be good?

It just seems fair, doesn’t it?



The Silence for the Lambs

No, that’s not a typo.

It’s a play on the title of a very intense movie starring Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins. But I wanted to grab your attention, because our topic today is truly a matter of life and death.

I write, first of all, as a confession that my voice on behalf of those without a voice has become very passive. Almost a half century has passed since Roe vs. Wade opened the door for legalized abortion in America. Back in the 70s and 80s, the issue of abortion was front burner in the Christian media and in many churches. Every January on the anniversary of that Supreme Court decision (at least in Christian periodicals), the issue of abortion is still revisited. Otherwise, with the exception of a few protests near Planned Parenthood facilities, there is little discussion about abortion in Evangelical churches.

In some cases, this silence may reflect surrender to a perceived lost cause, but I fear that more often it is a desire to be politically correct—or simple acquiescence to a corrupt status quo. One thing seems certain: the issue isn’t going away, and may very well have arrived at a tipping point.

First, the positive news: The number of reported abortions in America has been dropping consistently since 1996 when 1,225,937 abortions were reported. Today there are almost 25 percent fewer abortions being reported. I believe this significant drop is to the credit of those who have consistently and carefully stood in the gap defending those who have no voice. Pregnancy Resource Centers and the use of ultrasound have helped turn the tide by changing public awareness to the fact that fetus in the womb is not simply a mass of tissue. Everybody agrees that something alive will die in every abortion. And I would say someone, not “something.”

Even with a more conservative lineup in the current Supreme Court, we are witnessing a surge in efforts to preserve or even advance a woman’s “right to choose” if and when to abort. The line dividing those who recognize the life of the unborn as human, deserving protection, and those who display little or no concern for the innocent is becoming wider than ever before.

On January 22, 2019 (the 46th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade) New York State passed the Reproductive Health Act, allowing for late-term abortions, in specially defined situations, even up to the child’s birth. There are discrepancies over the details of what the law permits. It seems the national debate is now entirely about a woman’s right to choose to end a life. Where, I ask, is the debate over an innocent child’s right to live?

Regretfully (no, rather shamefully) Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Catholic, not only endorsed the bill but celebrated its passage by directing One World Trade Center to be lit in pink the day the bill passed!

Meanwhile, illustrating the chasm over abortion, conservative States such as Louisiana have passed laws severely restricting abortion only to have the laws struck down.  The volume and the vitriolic spirit of the debate over a woman’s right to abort will only increase. Many are shouting at each other; few are listening. Even fewer are speaking compassionately for the unborn.

We don’t need people screaming at each other while angrily waving signs. We don’t need divisive words like “murder” to win the debate. It is, after all, a simple question of justice. Everybody should want justice for the vulnerable, whether they have a voice or not. We value those like Martin Luther King Jr. who cried out against the injustice of segregation, even losing his life in the struggle. We write books and make movies of men like William Wilberforce who fought for justice on behalf of men and women trapped in the chains of slavery.

The dispute over abortion should not be a debate between liberal and conservative, or Christian and secularist. It really shouldn’t be a struggle between Democrat and Republican—but here I tread lightly because one party has made abortion part of its platform.  Abortion is a struggle between justice and injustice.

The challenge today is this: Who is crying out for justice on behalf of the innocent? Why this silence for the lambs in many of our churches?

I regret my silence. While it’s true that I no longer serve on the board of our local Pregnancy Resource Center, and no longer have a Sunday morning platform, I can still write and speak out in defense of the defenseless.

Let’s stop shouting at each other over the abortion crevasse. Perhaps our voices will be stronger and more effective when we gently but firmly pursue justice for those without a voice. Let us speak with integrity, compassion, and courage while offering support for the woman struggling with an unwanted pregnancy. Let every local church, like Foundry Church in Bend, have an adoption ministry that supports families seeking to adopt a child.

The truth is, no child is unwanted. Let’s volunteer to support efforts to place foster children in Christian homes. While seeking justice for the unborn, let’s continue to offer God’s grace and mercy for men and women who struggle with residual guilt and pain from an abortion.

It’s time to break out of our passivity, demonstrating through our deeds and words that we believe all human life bears God’s image. In place of silence, let’s use our voices to speak on behalf of the innocent, the silent lambs among us.

“I knew you before I formed you in your mother’s womb.

Before you were born I set you apart.”

(Jeremiah 1:5, nlt)

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What I am reading: The Essential Jonathan Edwards