We’re starting this morning with perhaps not only a big question, but perhaps the biggest question - for many people, the only question that matters. Where is God in the face of evil and human suffering. Or as our upcoming Dig and Delve apologetics conference theme puts it this year: Life Hurts. God?
The problem is set in both emotional terms and philosophical terms. Emotional terms are what people faced this weekend. When you lose house or health or loved ones, you are not thinking in philosophical terms, you just want to know God, What’s up? Where are you? Why are you dong this? Just leave me alone! I hate you! That’s the emotional terms. To be honest, there is no good answer to the emotional terms. Time and healing are a start.
Then these are the philosophical terms: In the face of human suffering God cannot be present, good, and loving and all-powerful. If he is all-powerful, he cannot be loving or good, for he is not intervening to stop the hurt. If he loves us, then he must not be powerful enough to stop the hurt, or is not truly good. If he is good and powerful, than either he does not care enough to stop the hurt, or he is simply not there. To be honest, most modern Evangelical Christian answers do not address this question adequately, and we often give an answer that limits God’s power. Now we would never say that God is not all-powerful, for that would be explicitly against the faith that we have received. But we might say things like, God’s greatest desire is to love and be loved by his creatures, and so he submits or limits the working of his power and his divine will to preserve the freedom of our wills. This means that he will not, in fact cannot, override all the evil that occurs in the world. In other words, God is let off the hook in regards to the evil and suffering in the world because he desires human freedom over all things. This is the most common answer given in the Western church today - perhaps this is not surprising as our Western culture exalts radical individualism and human freedom over all things. Yet I do not believe that answer is particularly Biblical or helpful. I do not believe it to be Biblical, which I intend to demonstrate through this story of Joseph today. And I do not believe it to be particularly helpful. Imagine if that i the answer you have to cling to when your world falls apart and a tornado runs through your neighbourhood, or you are sexually assaulted, or you are accused of a crime you did not do. Does it help you to be told that since God desires to be loved by humans freely he lets us suffer as he does? God respects your autonomy enough to let your life be destroyed and the tears flow from your bed?
I believe that there is another answer to the problem of pain, and the answer is not that God is helpless in the face of human suffering, but that God actually providentially transforms our suffering to bring about our ultimate deliverance, to his own Glory and the magnification of his goodness, power, love and presence.
What do I mean by God’s providence? God’s meticulous care and directing of every atom and action in the universe, in exhaustive knowledge of and cooperation with the nature and personality of every thing and person he has made, in order to bring about his intended purposes to the praise of his own glorious grace. Hebrews 1:3 declares that Jesus “upholds the universe by the word of his power” and Ephesians 1:11 that God has guaranteed for us “an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.” Yet God’s providential care and directing everything in the universe toward his purposes includes the choices and designs we make as we are directing our lives, as it says in Proverbs 16:9 “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.” Now this is confusing to us and difficult to understand, yet the truth of God’s providence runs all through the story of Joseph
We Often Only See God’s Providence As We Look Back Upon Our Lives
Gen. 39:1 Now Joseph had been brought down to Egypt, and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard, an Egyptian, had bought him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him down there.
When we last heard of Joseph, he had been described as the favoured son; a diligent, responsible young man, favoured above his brothers by his father and, seemingly, if we are to interpret the teams that he had been having correctly, God. His brothers were jealous, violent men, and conspiring to kill him, his brother Judah persuaded them to sell him into slavery instead - that way they could get rid of him, and make a profit off of it as well. Joseph was therefore not a free man, willing to go down to Egypt, like Abraham or Isaac before him. He was bound and taken down by the Ismaelite slide traders. Yet Joseph was bond by more than the bonds of the Ishmaelites. Again, I’m not too concerned for offering a spoiler alert here, but look at how Joseph later in his life reflects on how exactly he was brought to Egypt:
Gen. 45:4 So Joseph said to his brothers, “Come near to me, please.” And they came near. And he said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. 5 And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. 6 For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. 7 And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. 8 So it was not you who sent me here, but God.
Joseph has had over a decade to reflect on his life and has come to recognize the truth of God’s providence - that it was not his brothers who sent him to Egypt, it was not the Ishmaelite traders that brought him to Egypt - it was God who had brought him to Egypt, for a purpose that Joseph never could have seen from the beginning. Joseph did not know when he was sold into slavery that this episode in his life was going to fulfill God’s prophesy to Abraham in Genesis 15 that his descendants would sojourn in a foreign country. Joseph did not know when Potiphar purchased him on the slave market that it God would rescue his brothers and indeed all of Egypt through him. Yet all these events were meticulously directed by God in exhaustive knowledge of and cooperation with the nature and personality of every thing and person he has made, in order to bring about his intended purposes to the praise of his own glorious grace. Imagine that God cooperated with the Ishmealites own wills, indeed even their own sinful purposes, to purchase Joseph from the brothers, to travel along their own set course of action, to stop in the city of Potiphar on that fateful day. And God cooperated with Potaphar’s ow n sinful will to go to the market that day, and come across the Ishmaleites tent, and look favourably upon Joseph, and think - that’s the slave I want, and make the payment to them - this Potaphar who happened to be the captain of Pharoah’s guard so that late in the story he happened to have access to a prison he could throw Joseph in without trial, in which Joseph would happen to meet and minister to other prisoners who happened to be sent into the prison by Pharaoh, and they happened to be in the same cell, and one of whom happened to be the person who later would bring Joseph to Pharoah. In none of these actions or events did God override the nature or decisions of the people who who were acting according to their own wills, desires and purposes. Yet God’s providence cooperated with their personalities and meticulously directed every minute detail to bring about his purpose.
However, we generally only appreciate God’s providence after we look back upon our lives and see how his hand has led. It is a great spiritual discipline to be able to appreciate God’s providence in the moment of our pain. This story testifies about that, as we have a witness of Joseph’s anguish as he sat in the pit while his brothers debated what to do with him,
Genesis 42:21 Then they said to one another, “In truth we are guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the distress of his soul, when he begged us and we did not listen.
So yes, Joseph experienced anguish of soul as he went through hardship, yet later in his life he understood that all the hardships he faced were a part of God’s unfolding plan in his life. Yet here’s the thing - for many of the twists and turns in our lives, you may never see it, or at least, you may never see if until you can ask Jesus in his kingdom about it. And so we are given glimpses of how God providentially works all things together for the good of those who love him, in the scriptures and in the lives of others. You might say, yeah, but I’m in anguish of soul now - what good does it do me that God has revealed to others his purpose in their pain if not mine? Because you serve the same God, the same meticulous God who is bringing about his purposes through your pain.
God’s Providence guides our lives through ascents and descents
Lest we think that the story of Joseph is entirely a tragedy, there were periods of blessing, when it was apparent to all that God was with Joseph, in a personal way. Chapter 39 is bookended by God’s blessing of Joseph. See how the chapter begins, with Joseph’s rise as a slave in Potaphar’s house:
2 The LORD was with Joseph, and he became a successful man, and he was in the house of his Egyptian master. 3 His master saw that the LORD was with him and that the LORD caused all that he did to succeed in his hands. 4 So Joseph found favor in his sight and attended him, and he made him overseer of his house and put him in charge of all that he had. 5 From the time that he made him overseer in his house and over all that he had, the LORD blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; the blessing of the LORD was on all that he had, in house and field. 6 So he left all that he had in Joseph’s charge, and because of him he had no concern about anything but the food he ate.
Similarly, after Joseph is thrown into prison on the basis of a false accusation against him, again the text underscores the presence and blessing of the Lord in prison.
21 But the LORD was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison. 22 And the keeper of the prison put Joseph in charge of all the prisoners who were in the prison. Whatever was done there, he was the one who did it. 23 The keeper of the prison paid no attention to anything that was in Joseph’s charge, because the LORD was with him. And whatever he did, the LORD made it succeed.
Moses uses a literary devise called inclusio here, by recorded a similar theme at the begging and ending of the chapter, he is pointing out the fact that God’s presence and blessing of Joseph remained throughout the entire chapter, all through Joseph’s suffering and trials. And so even as Joseph’s circumstances went from bad to worse, God was with Joseph and blessed him and gave him periods of blessing and success even as his situation deteriorated.
Now, concerning the case of Joseph, we see in this chapter God working out the particular promise made to Joseph’s ancestors and that we have seen play out in the family line of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Remember, Abraham had been promise that his descendents would be bless and that through them blessing would come to the nations around them, and so Moses is reminding us of that specific promise as Joseph, even in slavery and in prison, is both blessed in the form of being granted success and prosperity as he served his masters, and is a blessing to his master and the keeper of the prison, as they both experience prosperity and peace through Joseph’s management of their affairs, of both house and prison. It’s one of the most confusing things about these chapter, as these chapters both document the descent of Joseph from favoured son to forgotten prisoner, and at the same time these chapters record for us Joseph’s continual ascent at the hand of God and on account of God’s blessing of him.
This leads us into the heart of the mystery of God’s providence: that the events and episodes of our lives can both be interpreted as ascents and descents at the same time, depending on our perspective. Or as Joseph says later in the book, “What you meant for evil, God intended for good.” Nowhere is this truth brought out as clearly as in the death of Jesus Christ himself. The account of the death of Jesus Christ, is on the one hand and from one perspective, the greatest act of human evil and rebellion that the universe has ever known. In the person of Jesus Christ, God himself entered into his own creation, and dwelt among us. He showed us nothing but compassion as he preached nothing but truth to us. No sin or deceit was found in his mouth, and even among non-believers he is regarded as one of the greatest men who have ever lived. And though he was an innocent man, people plotted against him, tortured him and killed him, rebelling against their own creator and blaspheming God and man. They nailed him to a cross, the most excruciating form of execution and mocked him as he died, and celebrated his death. It was an act of pure evil. Yet we call it Good Friday. For God had, in his providence, ordained that only through the sacrificial death of a pure, innocent, holy substitute could forgiveness of sins be offered to the nations, uphold the justice and holiness of God, and be the full expression of God’s sacrificial love. And so that one act, Christ’s death on the cross, was both the ultimate expression of the wickedness of man, and the ultimate expression of the love of God.
We Must Not Use God’s Providence as an Excuse For Our Sloth and Sin
Finally, there is in these chapters a focus on the exemplary character, diligence and kindness of Joseph, that he maintains and deepens even as it would seem that he would have every excuse to give up and give in. Both as a slave and as a prisoner, Joseph was found trustworthy. He worked hard, as it says repeatedly,
39:3 His master saw that the LORD was with him and that the LORD caused all that he did to succeed in his hands.
God’s providence is not an excuse to sloth.
God’s providence is also not an excuse to sin.
Day after day Joseph was being propositioned by his master’s wife, yet Joseph withstood her advances. While many may have become bitter at God for ruining his life and making him a slave, Joseph yet revered the Lord, turning away her advances
8 But he refused and said to his master’s wife, “Behold, because of me my master has no concern about anything in the house, and he has put everything that he has in my charge. 9 He is not greater in this house than I am, nor has he kept back anything from me except you, because you are his wife. How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” 10 And as she spoke to Joseph day after day, he would not listen to her, to lie beside her or to be with her.
And what did he receive for his stand? Did God then immediately reward him for his faithfulness? No! Joseph was slandered and falsely accused, found guilty in the eyes of the public who did not investigate into the facts, and sentenced without trial to prison.
And again Joseph demonstrates that God’s providence is not an excuse to sloth
39:22 And the keeper of the prison put Joseph in charge of all the prisoners who were in the prison. Whatever was done there, he was the one who did it. 23 The keeper of the prison paid no attention to anything that was in Joseph’s charge, because the LORD was with him. And whatever he did, the LORD made it succeed.
And again Joseph uses the opportunities presented him to testify of God’s power and give aid and assistance to the other prisoners, so when the two Pharoah’s officers come to him with their dreams,
40:8 They said to him, “We have had dreams, and there is no one to interpret them.” And Joseph said to them, “Do not interpretations belong to God? Please tell them to me.”
Joseph testified and trusted the Lord even as his life descended from favoured son to forgotten prisoner. And that is where the chapter ends, with Joseph at his lowest point, forgotten, toiling away years of his life in prison. Yet at the same time, God was working behind the scenes through his loving, careful providence, setting in motion the plan that would not only deliver Joseph from prison, but also through him, save his brothers and all of the ancient world.
Our lives our filled with twists and turns yet a mature understanding of God’s providence trains us that we might, as the Heidelberg Confession teaches, “be patient in adversity, thankful in prosperity, and for what is future have good confidence in our faithful God and Father that no creature shall separate us from his love, since all creatures are so in his hand that without his will they can not so much as move.”