Let’s reflect on four aspects of suffering that we see in the life of Joseph:
- Joseph’s family dynamic brought suffering down upon him. Joseph did not choose to be born into the dysfunctional and broken family system of Abraham’s generations, but that was the context of his birth and growth. The tensions between Joseph and his brothers reflected the tensions between their mothers, Leah and Rachel, as well as with their father, Jacob. These tensions went back a generation before into Jacob and Esau’s broken interactions, as well as that of their parents Isaac and Rebekah. There was a social and relational brokenness that brought suffering down upon Joseph. We see and experience this in our own lives, when the cycles of family sin and brokenness bring suffering down upon us, even if we were not the cause of them. Suffering as a result of social, relational dynamics is real.
- Joseph’s personal attitudes and decisions brought suffering down upon him. Clearly, Joseph made decisions himself that brought suffering down upon him. The way in which he swaggered around, wearing that the regal robe given by his father, did not endear him to his brothers. The dreams, although given by God, were freely shared in a way that did not add anything good to his prospects. When Joseph’s brothers reacted with anger in a plot to kill him, some of this came from beyond him while some parts of it were a result of Joseph’s personal decisions. We also see this in life. There are any number of people who wonder why ‘bad things happen to good people’, while all the while ignoring the ways in which their decisions and attitudes have led to some of their suffering. Suffering as a result of personal attitudes and decision is real.
- Joseph’s cultural context and systemic brokenness brought suffering down upon him. While it was the familial relationships and Joseph’s personal decisions that brought about the situation where he was thrown into a cistern by his brothers, it was the cultural context and systemic brokenness that brought rise to the slave trade route on which that cistern was located. As the Midianite traders passed by within the real systemic evil of slavery, Joseph suddenly found himself caught inside of suffering that was much bigger than his own sin and his family’s sin. The way in which sin, evil and brokenness worked their way into fallen systems that marked the culture of his day and time brought suffering down upon Joseph. Again, we encounter this in our own day were certain aspects of suffering come down upon us because we simply find ourselves caught in the midst of a web of cultural and systemic evil that we cannot avoid. Suffering as a result of our cultural context and systemic brokenness is real.
- Still, God was present and somehow at work in the midst of every level of Joseph’s suffering. While Joseph’s cultural context, familial dynamics, and personal decisions all brought suffering upon him, the account of his life in Genesis makes it clear that God was not imprisoned by these other aspects. Does God cause these things? No. Does God allow these things? Yes. There is no other way to be human in a broken world than to have the capacity to choose evil or good. The necessary result of this is the capacity for personal, relational, and systemic sin, brokenness, and evil to exist, even as truth, beauty, and goodness may also exist. Even when suffering comes down, God does not throw up His hands and say, “Well, I guess I cannot do anything about that now.” No, even in these different aspects of suffering, Joseph’s life tells us that God is somehow still present — “the Lord was with him” (Genesis 39:21) — and active — “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (50:20). God’s power and presence in the midst of our suffering is real.
We do well to learn from Joseph to pay attention to all of these aspects of suffering. Many times we ask why suffering happens, and we should ask that question. However, when we drop one of these aspects of suffering out of our equation we often come up with partial or simplistic answers.
[This post is drawn from my message “Descending,” the first part of our series The Life of Joseph: God’s Sovereignty in Our Suffering.]