Our God

Last night, one of my favorite shows depicted a heroic character preparing for battle. That character had been resurrected from the dead earlier in the season. At one point, he approaches a priest to discuss his uncertainty about whether he will win the battle, and he asks what kind of God would resurrect him only to have him die again. The priest responds, “The God we have.”

Earlier this week I read Genesis 39 and 40, and prepared to address the prevalent problem of what happens when we try to fit God into our own parameters rather than learning about the God we have in the Bible.

You can read the full text here, but this is a summary of Genesis 39: Pharaoh’s chief officer, Potiphar, buys Joseph from the slavers who took him in chapter 37. Joseph lives in the officer’s house and behaves so well that the officer eventually gives him command over almost every element of the home (Gen. 39:1-6). Potiphar’s wife then propositions Joseph, and when Joseph chooses the honorable route and denies the wife, she then finds another way to trap him and remove his garment. When Joseph runs out of the house naked, the wife accuses him of pursuing her (v. 7-18). The officer throws Joseph in prison, where Joseph again behaves very well and eventually takes over almost every element of the institution (v. 19-23).

So we have a rich kid-turned-slave who enters a house and chooses to act honorably. His faithfulness then pays off for a short while, as he gains some authority and respect within the household. And then we watch it all fall apart. 

Joseph ends up in prison, and all we know is that “While he was in jail, the Lord was with Joseph and remained loyal to him. He caused the jail’s commander to think highly of Joseph” (v. 20-21). That’s it.

This is Jacob’s most beloved son, the one who had already been humbled for having grandiose dreams; it seems like his situation is improving, and then he ends up in prison after doing his best to act honorably. In these situations, it’s easy to ask, “What sort of God would allow this?”

I have heard many different pastoral responses to those “Why?” questions. In the religious world, we call them questions of “theodicy.”

When I worked as a hospital chaplain, many patients watched their TVs as pastors in the Prosperity Movement encouraged them to pray in a certain way for health and wealth. They suggested that if people only read their Bible enough, prayed correctly, and gave of their finances, then God would heal their suffering. 

But Joseph was righteous. He was faithful and honorable in his work, and we know that God was already with him. God didn’t send him to prison; Potiphar did. God made no requests for Joseph to change, and he also didn’t keep him out of prison or get him out of there promptly. God simply dwelt with Joseph and influenced the jail’s commander.

I have heard other, more progressive pastors reflect on suffering, and draw the conclusion that we cannot pray The Lord’s Prayer’s, “Give us this day our daily bread” if there are still people in our world who only eat every three days. Instead, we should move away from texts and prayers that don’t fix all of the suffering that we see in the world.

But God never promised to fix all of our suffering. He desires a more complex relationship than that, which means that bad things can happen, and He stays with us through them, and works with us to find a way to make things better. If praying, “Give us this day our daily bread” inspires us to find a way to get food to people abroad, or even to help a local ministry get food to underfunded families on weekends, that prayer was not in vain. And in the situations of the worst and most heartbreaking suffering, such as those who starve and never find the nourishment they need, there is no “best possible outcome.” Things simply end horribly and we are left grieving, but we know that God sits there and grieves alongside us.

The God who Christians have, the One we see in the Old Testament and the New, is a God who does not keep people from facing suffering. Rather, He promises to stay with us, and to “work all things together for good” (Rom. 8:28) in the midst of suffering. 

This is the God who heard the cries of Israel in the wilderness, and chose to offer manna, rather than scoop them up and drop them into the Promised Land (Exodus 16). This is also the God who was with Paul and Silas as men beat and imprisoned them, and then used their circumstances to save the jailer, rather than preventing them from suffering in the first place (Acts 16).

The lesson we learn from Joseph in Genesis 39 and 40 isn’t difficult to follow, and yet we can miss it when we try to make sense of suffering without looking at the Bible. In Joseph’s case, God doesn’t cause suffering, but He stays with him in it, and tries to work out the best possible outcome alongside him. 

At the end of Genesis, after Joseph endures a number of trials and receives the honor he originally envisioned, his brothers approach him to repent for their actions against him. Joseph responds, “You planned something bad for me, but God produced something good from it, in order to save the lives of many people, just as he’s doing today” (Gen. 50:20). God takes the difficult circumstances that Joseph faces, and manages to save the lives of the surrounding Gentile world through him.

May we feel encouraged today that God stays with us in the midst of suffering. May we turn to the Bible, where we most clearly learn about the God we worship, in order to find perspective on the roles He plays throughout our lives, and specifically during our most difficult moments. And may we honor the questions we ask about suffering, and at the end of the day, know that the God we have will stay faithfully at our side throughout every season of weeping and every season of joy.

On Grief, Justice, and Hope

I have been reeling and grieving over the past week. The Brock Turner rape case, the burning of Pakistani women, the shooting of Christina Grimmie, and the shooting of fifty LGBTQ people has weighed on my mind and shoulders and heart.

In the midst of grieving, I also read the story of Tamar last week, and felt a familiar sense of loss, but also some liberation.

Take a moment to think about Tamar. What do you recall about her? Before I studied for this post, I honestly knew more about Onan, a man who appears in only three verses of Tamar’s story, than I knew about her. I remember hearing pastors use the story of Tamar and Onan (the one who “spills his seed on the ground” in Gen. 38:9) to discuss Christian sexual ethics. Other than that, Tamar pretty much went by the wayside.

If you want to read Tamar’s full story, you can click here; otherwise, this is a summary of the incredible life she lived:  

Tamar married Judah’s eldest son Er, who died early and never impregnated Tamar (Gen. 38:1-7). That was a big issue in her cultural context, because sons provided what we now call insurance, social security, savings, and retirement. To protect childless widows, a cultural norm existed that instructed the brothers of the deceased man to impregnate the widow. The family and culture understood any of the children she then birthed to be the deceased brother’s children, rather than the brother who stepped in to create them.

So Judah instructed Onan, another of his sons, to have sex with Tamar in an effort to give her a son. Onan recognized that the children she would birth would not be his (which creates implications for the distribution of inheritance), and he therefore “spilled his seed on the ground” (v. 8-9). God watched him deny Tamar an heir, which angered God to the point that he killed Onan (v. 10).

That is literally the end of Onan’s story, and yet if we keep reading, we see the true import of Tamar’s:

After Onan’s death, Judah promised Tamar that she would marry his son Shelah when he was old enough. Over time, Tamar watched Shelah grow up, and realized that Judah wasn’t giving her to Shelah, and that she still had no heirs to offer the protection and security she needed (v. 11-12). So she took matters into her own hands.

She dressed as a prostitute and met Judah while he was shearing sheep. He propositioned her, and as payment she requested his signet ring, cord, and staff. In that time, those items were like his driver’s license, ATM card, Social Security card — she held the markers of his identity in her hands. When she returned home, she re-adorned her widow’s garb, and Judah’s servant couldn’t find the “prostitute” who had Judah’s ring, cord, and staff (v. 13-23).

After 3 months, people realized that Tamar was pregnant, and Judah suggested that they burn her because of her dishonorable pregnancy (a similar practice happened just this past week in Pakistan). In that moment, she carried out the ring, cord, and signet, and declared, “It was the owner of these who made me pregnant” (v. 25). Judah acknowledged that the items were his, and admitted, “She is more in the righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah” (v. 26).

Tamar then birthed twin sons, thereby overcoming social and familial obstacles, and gaining the protection and security she required from the beginning. 

Tamar’s story is one of liberation and strength within her social context. She stands up to power, both within her family and within her society. She not only calls Judah out for not offering her the protection that he should have provided her, but also proves that she is the righteous one in the face of her culture trying to kill her. And ultimately, Judah humbles himself and accepts his part in Tamar’s subjection, and the society backs down from their intended punishment. In fact, they acknowledge that she is more righteous than the leader Judah who had proposed the punishment.

In light of the violence that our world has witnessed this week, and in light of the grief that all of us will continue to feel, perhaps we can see Tamar as one small light of hope: that even the stories that don’t get told often enough, the stories that get silenced, can offer strength and encouragement; that those who have gone before us, even in the ancient world, found ways to protect themselves and to stand up to power.

Genesis 38 offers us a perspective on how God feels about marginalization and accountability, and in this narrative we find justice. We find liberation for a childless widow, whose gender and lack of reproduction made her one of the most vulnerable individuals within society. And while we may not see justice today, while we may still feel the weight of violence and subjection, perhaps we can look to Tamar to find hope for a more just, empowered, and peaceful tomorrow.

The Cost Of Calling

Over the past week I had the privilege to attend the Great Plains Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. I met so many pastors and learned about the amazing ministry they’re doing within and beyond their communities.

Before I arrived at the conference I read Genesis 37, where we meet Joseph. We learn that he is Jacob’s favored son, and that Joseph’s brothers are jealous of him. Joseph then has some grandiose dreams in which his family bows down to him, and he chooses to tell his siblings about those dreams (v. 1-11).

As I read the passage, I thought, “Why did he tell them?!” He seems extremely braggadocios and haughty, and exacerbates his siblings’ jealousy. 

As we continue reading Genesis 37, we watch Joseph’s siblings turn against him. They sell him into slavery in reaction to Joseph’s boastfulness and their jealousy (v. 12-28). Joseph then moves from a place of favor with his father, and community in his family, to a place of servitude among strangers. I struggled to reconcile why God gave Joseph a vision of his calling, only to have him given into the hands of strangers and humbled as a servant.

Then I witnessed the ordination service at the Great Plains Annual Conference. During the service, a renowned bishop of the United Methodist Church offered the sermon. Before he began his homily, he asked one of the newly ordained ministers to come up on stage. The elder bishop proceeded to kneel down and wash the feet of the young ordinand.

The image of the distinguished bishop holding the feet of the young clergy reminded me that in our moments of greatest calling and vision, we often find ourselves bowing down in service.

At the beginning of Genesis 37, Joseph receives his calling. He sees the vision that God intends to fulfill in him. So he brags about it to his brothers, never imagining that in order to actualize God’s vision, he will have to submit to estrangement and servitude.

God shows us through Joseph’s story that all of us have a calling, and regardless of what that calling entails, we must first, foremost, and always find ourselves in a place of service in order to attain the vision God has given us. 

Knowing the trajectory of Joseph’s story heightens how we understand Jesus’ ministry as well. Before Jesus was betrayed, he gathered his disciples together and knelt down before them to wash their feet (John 13:1-17). They didn’t feel worthy, yet he took the posture of a servant in order to show what true calling and discipleship means.

When we kneel down to wash the feet of others, to humble ourselves and to give of ourselves in service, we follow in the footsteps of Joseph, Jesus, and so many of our ancestors. Because our God is a God who honors humility, and tells us through his Son that blessed are the meek, blessed are the merciful, and blessed are the peacemakers (Matthew 5:2-11)

So may we feel challenged by the story of Joseph today. May we know the calling that God has given us, and may we also willingly accept the servanthood that His calling requires. And at the end of the day, as we have served and worked and knelt, may we find ourselves faithfully embodying the vision to which God has called us.