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.

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.

The First Average Joe

Over the course of this study we have looked at the lives of some incredible biblical figures. They’re the heroes of the Bible, because they find favor with God, and they follow in the paths He shows them. After reading about their lives and all of the works they accomplish, it can be easy to forget that they start off as average people.

In the text for today, we watch as Leah, Rachel, and their two servants birth a lot of babies. Rachel’s womb remains closed for most of the text, and then at last she has a child, and names him Joseph. Genesis has foreshadowed for us that the children who are younger and who come from the most beloved wife often receive the birthright, rather than the eldest child (remember Isaac and Jacob), so we can predict that Rachel’s first child will play a big role in the story. However, if we look at the names that Leah and Rachel give their children, we see a bit of a different picture. Let’s look at the text:

In Gen. 29:32-35, Leah births Jacob’s first son and names him Reuben, meaning “behold a son,” and shortly thereafter births Simeon or “heard,” because God heard her affliction. She then births Levi, “joined to,” because she believes that Jacob will now be joined to her since she gave him three sons. Lastly, she births Judah, or “praise,” because she praises the Lord for the blessings of children.

After Leah births her first four sons, Rachel realizes that she’s barren, and decides to give Jacob her servant Bilhah to have children on her behalf (just as Sarai gave Abram Hagar in Gen. 16). In Gen. 30:6-8, Bilhah conceives and births Dan, or “judge,” because God judged Rachel and heard her voice; Bilhah births a second son whom Rachel names Naphtali, meaning “wrestling,” because Rachel wrestled with her sister and prevailed.

Leah then realizes that it’s been some time since she had her first four children, so she gives her servant Zilpah to Jacob to birth children on her behalf (Gen. 30:9-13). Leah names the first child that Zilpah bore Gad, or “troop,” because she predicted that a troop was coming. Zilpah births a second child, whom Leah names Asher, or “happy,” because she was happy that others would see her children and call her blessed.

At this point, Jacob has a lot of children, and Rachel didn’t birth any of them, yet he loved her the most. One day, the eldest son, Reuben, had some mandrakes, which Rachel believed helped with fertility. Rachel asked for the mandrakes, and in return, told Leah that she could be with Jacob for the night.

After striking this deal, Leah births three more children: Issachar, or “there is recompense,” Zebulun, or “exalted,” and the first daughter, Dinah, meaning “judgment” (v. 16-21).

At last, God remembers Rachel and opens her womb. There has been a lot of build up to this moment, because we know that Rachel is the beloved wife, and can predict that the child she bears will inherit the birthright. Many of the other children received incredible names — they’re Exalted, and Praise, and Wrestling, and Judgment. Their names carry a lot of weight and signify what they mean to their mothers.

So Rachel conceives and bears a son, and names him Joseph. We can imagine that Joseph would mean Faithful, or God who hears, or Saved, but it doesn’t. This long-anticipated child was named Joseph, meaning “another.”

After all of the excitement leading up to Rachel’s first birth, Joseph becomes merely Another son. We will watch in upcoming chapters as he lives an incredible life; yet for some reason at his birth, he simply seems like “another.”

Isn’t it easy for us to feel like simply “another”? Like one more in the long line of fellow parents, children, friends, and faithful believers who surround us everyday? When we get lost in the busyness of life, we can begin to focus on the value of what we do, rather than on the sacred identity that constitutes who we are. In the verses today, we see God create merely “another,” and if Joseph had confined his identity to his name, his story may have ended there.

Instead, though, God calls to “Another.” He uses Joseph in incredible ways, and ultimately gives him the birthright to carry the family forward. Joseph chose to follow God and to dream beyond the parameters of his name.

As we have those moments when we feel like simply another, when we feel humdrum and inconsequential, may we remember that God’s plan is bigger than how we view ourselves in the world. Joseph didn’t confine himself to his name or to his place in his family line; rather, he let God use him to do far more than he could have imagined. So may we remember today that regardless of how small we feel, God sees us, God loves us, and God can use all of us “anothers” to change the world for the good.