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.