This morning we continue our study of the life of Joseph as it is recorded in the book of Genesis. It is such a wonderful story because it speaks more to our hearts than to our heads. What I mean by that is that most of us can identify with Joseph in at least one picture from his life.
If you have not been with us since the beginning of the story (or in case your memory is a little fuzzy) let me review what we have seen so far. Joseph was the 12 th child in a family of 13. He was the son of Jacob and Rachel. In fact, until Benjamin came along, he was the only son of Jacob’s favored wife, Rachel. Because of this fact, Joseph was also favored. Jacob gave honors and privileges to Joseph that were not given to the other boys. This created some hard feelings. To be honest, Joseph didn’t help things when he recounted some dreams he had which obviously implied that he was going to rule over his brothers and that his very parents would bow before him.
Things got so bad that one day Joseph came to check on his brothers and they bound him and planned to kill him or to leave him to die. At the last minute they came up with another plan. As a group of foreign travelers came by they sold him as a slave. Eventually, Joseph ended up in Egypt working for a man named Potiphar. Because of his competence he kept getting promoted. So, he had a good job (for a slave) and was well-respected. That is until Joseph was set up by Potipher’s wife. She charged Joseph with attempted rape. Joseph was sent to prison.
While in prison, Joseph made the best of his situation and earned the respect of many. People could see that he was a man of integrity and that God blessed everything that he did. One day the men who had worked as Pharoah’s baker and his cup bearer (who had been sent to jail) had dreams that they did not understand. They asked Joseph what he thought and Joseph told them that God was giving them a picture of what was going to happen. The Cup bearer was going to be restored to the service of Pharaoh in three days. The baker was going to be executed in three days. And, things happened just as Joseph said.
Before the Cup Bearer returned to Pharaoh. Joseph asked him for a favor. And the Cup Bearer, eager to show kindness to this man who had helped him, was happy to help. Joseph asked him to put in a good word for him. Joseph explained his story and that he had been falsely accused. The Cup bearer promised to “see what he could do.”
We focus this morning on the postscript to this request at the end of chapter 40 and the beginnng of chapter
41.40:23 The chief cup bearer, however, did not remember Joseph; he forgot him. 41:1 When two full years had passed”
This is where I dwell this morning because I want to think about the disappointment Joseph must have experienced. For several days after the cup bearer was returned to his job, every time Joseph heard footsteps he must have secretly hoped that they were coming to free him from prison. Each of those first few weeks he went to bed at night, imagining a freedom he hoped would come the next day. As time when on, his hopes dimmed.
We don’t know how long Joseph had been imprisoned. All we know is that he was 17 when the problems started with his brothers. He was 30 when he was released from prison. So, it is not unreasonable to think that Joseph had been in jail for a number of years before the situation with the Cup Bearer. And now it must have seemed like he was going to spend the rest of his life in prison.
I think most of you understand what Joseph was feeling. We have had times when we felt the pang of discouragement. We have been in prisons of one sort or another.
- the person with a nagging illness
- the person who was picked on in school
- the one overlooked by a coach, teacher, or employer
- the couple who is unable to have children
- the spouse or child who was abused
- the marriage that was destroyed by infidelity
- the one who financially ruined because of someone else’s financial mis-management
- the hardworking person who can’t seem to make ends meet
- the eager and talented individual that can’t find a job
- the lonely widow or widower
The list goes on and on. So these words in Genesis 41 set our minds thinking about the times of struggle. And as we reflect on Joseph we can draw some valuable lessons for our lives.
WE SHOULD NOT BE SURPRISED BY TIMES OF DISAPPOINTMENT
The first thing this passage does is remind us that life is often filled with disappointment. If we place our trust in people . . . even the most well-meaning people, we will encounter disappointment. People fail. We all have forgotten something we agreed to do. We have all had times when we were so absorbed in our own life that we were unaware of what was going on with someone else. All of us have acted in anger rather than love. We may not like it, but it’s true. It should not surprise us when hard times arrive.
The Bible warns us clearly:
Peter writes, “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you.” (1 Peter 4:12)
Paul told Timothy, “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” 2 Tim. 3:12
Jesus said, “In the world you will have trouble, but take heart, for I have overcome the world.” Jn. 16:33
In fact, you can read through any book of the Bible and you will find the saints dealing with disappointment, frustration, and all kinds of hardships. Abraham had to wait for decades to have the son God promised. Moses spent 40 years leading Israel in circles before getting to the promised land and then God didn’t let him come in! David faced many enemies. Elijah battled depression. Jeremiah was thrown in jail. The disciples were martyred. Even the great apostle John, wrote his Revelation from a prison compound on the isle of Patmos. And let’s not forget, that our Lord was despised and rejected of men and was mercilessly crucified.
Disappointment comes into our life. Things don’t always go the way we expect them to. People we love die. We don’t always get the credit we deserve. Sometimes we are victims of injustice. Sometimes life is a struggle. And if we are honest, we will have to admit that it doesn’t appear that things are going to get any better.
So, the issue is not: how can I life a life free of struggle and discouragement? The issue is HOW will I respond in the times of struggle and discouragement.
WE CHOOSE HOW WE WILL RESPOND TO DIFFICULT TIMES
As I see it, Joseph had three choices on how he could respond to his disappointment. They are the same choices you and I face.
Retreat . . .or Renounce his faith
Joseph could have said, “O.K., forget it. There is absolutely nothing to be gained from trying to live a godly life. Integrity is overrated. Why should I keep putting out all this effort when it leads no where?” You’ve felt this way before, haven’t you? Like the time,
- You did all the work on a project and someone else got the credit
- You knocked yourself out to help someone and all they can do is complain that you didn’t give more
- You work hard ever day at work and you find out that you get paid the same as the people who do nothing
- You thought someone was your friend and they turned on you.
People in the world do not like those who try to live a holy life. It makes them look bad. If you stand for Christ, others will take shots at you. But If you retreat from standing with Christ, the world won’t bother you because you will be like them. So, why put up with the frustration? Who needs this grief?
The Bible tells us this that we must keep going.
- Because we are holding on for a future harvest. Galatians 6:9 “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”
- Because the world needs our influence. Jesus told us that we are to be lights in the darkness and salt in a decaying and tasteless society.
- Because we are called to change the world . . .not visa versa. Paul told us “do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”
Retreat is not an option for the believer.
Joseph could have sustained himself with thoughts of getting even. He could have rehearsed the hurts that he received from his brothers, Potipher’s wife, and even the Cup Bearer. He could have imagined scenarios where he would be proved innocent to the shame and disgrace of those who wronged him.
Be honest, we have all laid in bed at one time or another and done just this. We have nursed the grudges. In fact we have probably wearied our friends by going over the details again and again and again. And each time we tell the story the wound becomes deeper. Revenge is an attractive option towards our antagonists.
- We would love to inflict the pain we felt that we suffered due to their actions
- We would love for them to know the rejection we felt at their hand
- We would love to treat them a they treated us
- And we would love to pay them back . . . . with interest
But once again, the Bible says that to take this course is sin. And it is sin for a couple of reasons.
- First, it violates the law of love Lev. 19:18 “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.
- Second, it is contrary to the command to forgive as we have been forgiven.
- Third, it puts us in the position of God. The Bible says, vengeance is mine says the Lord. When we act in revenge . . . we take his position. Romans 12:17-19 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.
So, what is the answer? How do you handle the difficult, trying, and discouraging times of life. It seems to me that Joseph though he could have retreated, and could have retaliated, instead chose to see these circumstances as a time for renewal and growth. He continued to trust God. He got better instead of bitter.
Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. (James 1:2-4)
Do you understand what James is saying? When we retreat or strike out in revenge we are short circuiting God’s work in our lives. God’s purpose in the hard times is to refine us, to train, to develop us and yes, even to USE us (as we’ll see with Joseph). So, every time you and I are up against a frustrating, disappointing, aggravating situation, we need to remember and trust that we are in God’s laboratory. He is working on us and in us. If we short circuit the process. We miss the benefit.
Let me be more practical. Here are three things we need to do when we are in this time of discouragement.
first, focus on others
The great thing about hard times is that it makes you empathetic to those who struggle in similar ways. There is no one who cares more about the poor than someone who has been poor. There is no one who is more compassionate as you go through an illness, than one who has gone through an illness themselves. In the times of pain we should look for those we can minister to in new ways. Steve Brown when asked the question, “why do Christians get cancer?” answers, “so the world can see the difference in our response.”
There was a seminary professor who went into a depression because he felt he wasn’t accomplishing anything. Everything seemed hopeless.
One day a visiting friend urged him to think of people who had been of major help to him, and from that list to select one person to whom to write a letter expressing his gratitude.
The man thought about it for some time, and into his mind’s eye came the face of a schoolteacher he had had when he was a small boy. This teacher had instilled in him a love of literature, and he was grateful. So he decided to write her a letter telling her how she had inspired him.
He received a reply in the shaky handwriting of the elderly woman. The note said, “Dear William, when I read your letter I was blinded with tears, for I remember you as a little fellow in my class. You have warmed my old heart. I taught school for fifty years. Yours is the first letter of thanks I have received from a student, and I shall cherish it until I die.”
With that letter, a little sliver of light came into the dungeon of this professor’s life. He encourage to write another thank-you note to a significant person in his life, and then another and another until he had written five hundred notes of gratitude and was no longer in the depression.
This man used his situation to focus on the need to appreciate others. He gave of himself rather than protecting himself and the result was that he found himself.
second, see opportunities rather than liabilities
Charles Edison , the son of Thomas tells about a time in their life,
[One] December evening the cry of “Fire!” echoed through the plant. Spontaneous combustion had broken out in the film room. Within moments all the packing compounds, celluloid for records, film and other flammable goods had gone up with a whoosh. . . .
When I couldn’t find Father, I became concerned. Was he safe? With all his assets going up in smoke, would his spirit be broken? He was 67, no age to begin anew. Then I saw him in the plant yard, running toward me.
“Where’s Mom?” he shouted. “Go get her! Tell her to get her friends! They’ll never see a fire like this again!”
. . . At 5:30 the next morning, when the fire was barely under control, he called his employees together and announced, “We’re rebuilding!”
One man was told to lease all the machine shops in the area. Another, to obtain a wrecking crane from the Erie Railroad company. Then almost as an afterthought he added, “Oh, by the way. Anybody know where we can get some money?”
Later on he explained, “You can always make capital out of disaster. We’ve just cleared out a bunch of old rubbish! We’ll build bigger and better on these ruins.” With that he rolled up his coat for a pillow, curled up on a table and immediately fell asleep.
Edition saw opportunity, not tragedy. He saw a beginning, not an ending. We need to do likewise.
Third, rest in God’s timing and purpose rather than your ability to understand
Have you read the end of Hebrews 11 lately? Let me remind you of those great words that come after all the stories of earthly triumph,
Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them. (Hebrews 11:32-38)
The thing that characterized these great saints of old was a faith that focused not on the circumstances of their lives . . . but on the God who was using their circumstances to prepare them for glory and to use them as a witness to the world. Their focus was eternal, not temporal.
Faith becomes real in the times of frustration, encouragement, and disappointment. It is at these times when we must decide if we really do believe that all things work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose? We must decide if we really believe that God is Sovereign and that nothing happens without His knowledge?
In the times when we wonder, we have the greatest opportunities to grow. If we trust God in these times, many things happen. Cliches turn into convictions. Lackadaisical faith becomes fervent devotion. Anxiety gives way to peace. Resentment gives way to love. And yes, frustration, disappointment, and discouragement give way to the sweet confidence that is known as faith, and manifested as joy.
So what will you choose? How will you face the irritating times of life? I wish it was a simple one time decision . . .but it’s not. It’s a choice we have to make again and again and again. There will be times when it will be easier to give in. There will be times when it will give more immediate gratification to strike back in vengeance. The process of renewal is sometimes painful, usually difficult and always worth it.
I don’t know where you struggle today. But I would guess that somewhere you face a prison that makes you feel like God has forgotten you. In some area of your life, I’m sure you (like me) can learn the lessons that Joseph has to teach us.
May God help us to focus on
- the opportunities rather than the obstacles
- the growth rather than the pain
- the goal rather than the process
- and the skilled hands of God rather than clenched fists of the world.