Sunday, January 26, 2014

Reversing the Pattern

…and five months later, I finally get back to this.

I’ve been grappling for a long time with Big Questions over what to do with disappointment and hope deferred. Months and years in which you pray for big things, hope for big things, and God just doesn’t seem to be paying attention.

And imperceptibly but slowly, as I’ve turned the tone of my questions from resentful to respectful, God has answered me by comparing my story to one from the Scriptures. I’m slightly embarrassed to say such things, but I see so many keen similarities between this story and mine that I’m pretty sure I know what he’s saying.

The story of Joseph rounds out the book of Genesis, the book of the patriarchs. Joseph is known primarily for his suffering, for the long stretch of his life in which he underwent trial after trial and God didn't bail him out. After being given a dream of dominion over his brothers, he’s separated from family and sold into slavery at seventeen; he spends thirteen years in various captivities and prisons, despite keeping his character and doing his best to serve God. And then, in what most people would consider a stunning turn of fortune, he is catapulted from imprisoned criminal to ruler of a powerful nation. And although Joseph goes yet another eight years before recovering his family and seeing his dreams fulfilled, God gives him the wisdom to deliver an entire region from a famine, including his people Israel.

The lesson with which most pulpits end this tale of cosmic ups-and-downs is that God’s purpose will all make sense in the end. And it will.

“But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God.” – Genesis 45:7-8

But I often wonder what Joseph was thinking while he was still in the trial.

This is a son of the patriarchs we’re talking about. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – these guys served as the latest word on God’s relationship with his people for thousands of years. Some of the greatest stories we have of God guiding his people, teaching them, delivering them, just talking to them…come from these fathers of Israel. Not that things were always easy – Abraham’s test with Isaac on Mount Moriah comes to mind – but they were stories of power, rescue, and constant closeness. Never did these men face challenge for very long, seemingly, before God stepped in.

Then Joseph gets his turn, and – whaaaaaaa?

The Bible doesn’t give us much of a glimpse into Joseph’s exact thoughts during this time, so I have to speculate here. But I know what I would have thought if I had experienced what Joseph did. “My fathers never went through anything like this. What cosmic bus did I miss? Why do I get this hand?” Joseph gets handed a dream at a young age, a brief glimpse of God’s involvement, then BAM.

And for twenty-one years, the dream fades from view and he’s left to the devices of the world. Slave trade, false accusations, foreign legal system, control by other people – those are seemingly the rules of life. 

From Joseph’s viewpoint, all he could see was a bum deal that God wasn’t rescuing him from. The real story would not emerge for a long time.

Now we do know that “the Lord was with Joseph and gave him success in whatever he did.” Genesis 39 begins and ends with those remarks, helping to soften the blow of the betrayals and injustices that Joseph experiences there. So it’s not as if Joseph was abandoned.

But again, it’s sometimes hard to distinguish God’s favor from you just scraping by. In moments of clarity, it’s easy to remember that only God can be credited for good things. But when I'm in the midst of waiting and godless people are accomplishing the same things (or greater) as you, sometimes it’s all I can do to hold onto the truth.

We don’t know whether God spoke to Joseph about his circumstance or his blocked dreams. We just know he didn’t rescue Joseph for a long, long time. This story stands out in the Old Testament for how little direct communication is recorded between God and follower. 

We get only one brief tidbit – Joseph entreats a fellow prisoner, “But when all goes well with you, remember me and show me kindness; mention me to Pharaoh and get me out of this prison. I was forcibly carried off from the land of the Hebrews, and even here I have done nothing to deserve being put in a dungeon” (Gen. 40:14-15). He’s not happy. Perhaps there’s even a touch of bitterness there. Has he heard any promise of deliverance?

Eventually, we will all face the possibility of resignation. Just going along with the narrative

How I wish we could get a glance into Joseph’s mind. At some point, whether languishing in prison or standing at Pharoah’s right hand, did he ever just give up on seeing his family again? What did he do with those dreams from his childhood? Did he ever just go, “Well, it’s been twenty years and God hasn’t done anything. I don’t know what to make of those dreams, but I’m starting to think that this is his story for me after all.”

Throw in whatever theological rationalizations. In this world we will have trouble. God appoints nations. He won’t interfere with free will. We have to sometimes share the sufferings of Christ. All of those are true.

But it's not the same as being tempted to lose great expectations of God. To just go along with the narrative.

Maybe it’s a family problem or relationship that just won’t resolve itself. An illness that clings for decades. The calling of evangelism, battling to open the way for others’ salvation and seeing little fruit. The fight against poverty, or unemployment, or loneliness, or insignificance. Years and years of disappointment, victory just out of reach, and eventually the dream God gave you feels so worn down that it’s completely abstract.

Instead, you’ve got the pattern in front of you, and it’s all the reality you can see.

I’m not making any claim on what God will do next in your life. I wish I could; it’s beyond my knowledge.

But I know what God did in Joseph’s life.

WHOOSH – restoration! Suddenly and impossibly, Joseph’s dreams and desires of two decades come true. He is reunited with his family. His father Jacob has not passed away during the twenty-one long years, although he’s wanted to. Not one of his brothers has been lost.

After being seemingly quiet for seemingly forever, God suddenly speaks.

After a staggering twenty-one years of deferred hope and close calls, God reverses the pattern.

And boy does he reverse it. Extravagantly, amazingly. In addition to a position of honor and power over a great empire, Joseph gets his entire family back, brings them into plenty and prosperity, and sees his father live to bless his sons. Talk about the best of both worlds!

This story stirs immense hope in me, and I hope it does for you. God is not bound by accumulated time, repeated setback, circumstance, our own errors, or the propaganda of the enemy (never to be ignored). He can show up in power at any time, even after years of silence have convinced you that he works differently. And I gotta make note of this - when he showed up for Joseph, his provision shows his deep concern and memory for the hearts of Joseph, his father Jacob, and his brothers – while wildly exceeding everyone’s expectations. He sees their longing for reunion, and says, "I'll do you one better."

Some of us have to wait longer than others to see our God-given dreams and purposes fulfilled. But God makes a huge statement against resignation and surrender here in the story of Joseph. He encourages hope, to consider God's greater works behind the scenes, and to remember that our hearts matter to him.

So much for an inattentive God.

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