Chapter 4 The Choice for Obedience: The Life of Joseph
(Note: This is the fourth installment of a book I’m writing called The Choices God Makes. You can read the beginning chapters in the previous posts of this blog.)
Joseph is one of the classic “deep selects” from the biblical account. So many brothers ahead of him in the pecking order, such an unlikely candidate to receive favor from the God of the universe. But as with all of the biblical characters we’re looking at, Joseph’s strength was his agreement with God’s plan, as unlikely as it seemed. In fact, it was this initial agreement that got him in trouble with his family. Genesis 37:5-11 recounts:
Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him all the more. He said to them, “Listen to this dream I had: We were binding sheaves of grain out in the field when suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright, while your sheaves gathered around mine and bowed down to it.” His brothers said to him, “Do you intend to reign over us? Will you actually rule us?” And they hated him all the more because of his dream and what he had said. Then he had another dream, and he told it to his brothers. “Listen,” he said, “I had another dream, and this time the sun and moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” When he told his father as well as his brothers, his father rebuked him and said, “What is this dream you had? Will your mother and I and your brothers actually come and bow down to the ground before you?” His brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.
Many have said that Joseph was full of pride when he told his family about the dreams he had in which they were worshipping him, but I don’t believe pride was the issue. I don’t believe pride was ever an issue with Joseph. In fact, Joseph is one of my heroes precisely because his obedience was so pure and so enduring. I believe that when Joseph retold his dreams, he was simply agreeing with what God had shown him, though almost certainly not understanding the full implications of his agreement.
One of the greatest tests of obedience we see in Scripture is the faithful retelling of God’s revelation by His prophets, primarily because it usually meant trouble for the teller. This was an early test for Joseph, who in adulthood would be called on to relay hard words to people. From the beginning, there was a fidelity to Joseph’s faith, a commitment to truth, a fundamental agreement with God’s purposes. His father Jacob, who as a younger man had a dream about a ladder extending to heaven with angels ascending and descending on it, culturally felt obligated to rebuke Joseph after hearing about his dreams, but spiritually held onto the mystery as a potential clue to his son’s own chosen-ness. For Joseph’s part, it is unlikely that he understood everything of what the dream meant, but he knew it was from God and that it was intended for him.
Before I ever came to Ukraine as a missionary, God had to prepare me – calling me, cleaning me out, filling me up with His presence. During that time of preparation, He gave me a very special verse, which was just for me. It is Isaiah 55:5: “Surely you will summon nations you know not, and nations that do not know you will hasten to you, because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has endowed you with splendor.” I received this verse as God’s promise to me, but because it came before my calling to Ukraine, I had no idea of the significance of it for my life. A year or so later, I was already living in Ukraine and I was preaching to a room full of people from the different countries of the former Soviet Union. In that moment the Isaiah verse flashed across my mind, and I realized I was seeing the fulfillment of God’s promise to me. This kind of dream is something that can keep us going even in the darkest hour of trial and temptation.
One reason Joseph could choose to obey and remain faithful in his obedience was the depth of his character. We do not simply choose one day to obey God and suddenly find that we are full of faith, perseverance and hope. It is true that character is borne out of suffering, as Paul says in Romans 5, but it is also true that there must be some foundation of character for obedience to take root. Though the basis for God’s choices are not always obvious, I would venture to say that most of the time it has to do with character and the capacity for obedience. How do we know that Joseph was a man of integrity, even prior to his trials? I would note that the sharing of the dreams God had given him with his entire family took place when he was only seventeen years old.
The narrative of Joseph’s life contained in the Book of Genesis is sweeping and takes up many chapters. But let’s focus on three principles of obedience that resulted from godly character as we find them in Genesis chapter 39.
Principle 1 — Joseph stood firm, whether the test was as a result of prosperity or adversity. Genesis 39:1-10 tells us:
Now Joseph had been taken down to Egypt. Potiphar, an Egyptian who was one of Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had taken him there. The Lord was with Joseph so that he prospered, and he lived in the house of his Egyptian master. When his master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord gave him success in everything he did, Joseph found favor in his eyes and became his attendant. Potiphar put him in charge of his household, and he entrusted to his care everything he owned. From the time he put him in charge of his household and of all that he owned, the Lord blessed the household of the Egyptian because of Joseph. The blessing of the Lord was on everything Potiphar had, both in the house and in the field. So Potiphar left everything he had in Joseph’s care; with Joseph in charge, he did not concern himself with anything except the food he ate. Now Joseph was well-built and handsome, and after a while his master’s wife took notice of Joseph and said, “Come to bed with me!” But he refused. “With me in charge,” he told her, “my master does not concern himself with anything in the house; everything he owns he has entrusted to my care. No one is greater in this house than I am. My master has withheld nothing from me except you, because you are his wife. How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?” And though she spoke to Joseph day after day, he refused to go to bed with her or even be with her.
The Apostle Paul frames Joseph’s perspective this way in Philippians 4:11-13, “…I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” Despite Joseph growing up as Jacob’s favorite son, wearing the coat of many colors that announced to everyone his favored status, Joseph never took advantage of that position. And that pattern of living continued in Egypt. Joseph was apparently not swayed by possessions or people’s esteem of him. Further, he knew the limit of his authority, and he determined not to overstep that authority. We often take our chosen-ness too far; we presume on God and His beneficence. For many, it is like winning the lottery. We have nothing of our own, we become rich, and then we spend our wealth until it is gone. Joseph, on the other hand, when he was blessed, took great care to cultivate that blessing. He measured out the faithfulness and obedience needed for the situation, being ever-mindful of the limit of his anointing. Galatians 6:3-5 says, “If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves. Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else, for each one should carry their own load.” This way of living is rare in our day, even among Christians, and I believe it needs to be recaptured by people of faith.
Principle 2 — Joseph did what was right even when no one was looking. The story continues in Genesis 39:11-18:
One day he went into the house to attend to his duties, and none of the household servants was inside. She caught him by his cloak and said, “Come to bed with me!” But he left his cloak in her hand and ran out of the house. When she saw that he had left his cloak in her hand and had run out of the house, she called her household servants. “Look,” she said to them, “this Hebrew has been brought to us to make sport of us! He came in here to sleep with me, but I screamed. When he heard me scream for help, he left his cloak beside me and ran out of the house.” She kept his cloak beside her until his master came home. Then she told him this story: “That Hebrew slave you brought us came to me to make sport of me. But as soon as I screamed for help, he left his cloak beside me and ran out of the house.”
Jesus had a lot to say about this particular aspect of obedience. It is not obedience for obedience’ sake, or obedience for my own sake, but obedience for God’s sake. Jesus’ primary counter-example of this principle was the Pharisees: “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:5-6). Joseph understood that the reward standing in front of him, Potiphar’s wife, could hardly compare with the reward of the authority and respect he commanded under Potiphar. Yet, this was not the end of the comparisons. Joseph also had his dreams in his back pocket, something God had placed in him at a young age to help him weather exactly these kinds of storms. His calling was “out there” in the future, and nothing would deter him from seeing its fulfillment. He had chosen a level of obedience that few believers do: the understanding and the lived-reality that the right thing, done in secret, is seen and rewarded by the One who matters most. We might say that at this point his obedience was almost “mindless.” Not that it was automatic, but rather that his soul (mind, will and emotions) was not the obstacle it so often is for us. This kind of obedience is only possible when we are Spirit-led, and in particular, when our own spirit, which agrees with the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:16), takes the lead in our life. Of course, it is completely counter-cultural to deny ourselves anything in this modern age of ours. We are constantly encouraged to feed our bodies, our minds, our emotions. But do we feed our spirits? If we do not, we shouldn’t be surprised that our capacity for obedience, especially when no one is looking, is different from that of Joseph’s.
Principle 3 — Joseph’s character was best displayed through times of crisis. Joseph’s trifecta of tribulation concludes with Genesis 39:19-23:
When his master heard the story his wife told him, saying, “This is how your slave treated me,” he burned with anger.Joseph’s master took him and put him in prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined. But while Joseph was there in the prison, the Lord was with him; he showed him kindness and granted him favor in the eyes of the prison warden. So the warden put Joseph in charge of all those held in the prison, and he was made responsible for all that was done there. The warden paid no attention to anything under Joseph’s care, because the Lord was with Joseph and gave him success in whatever he did.
It’s hard to keep a good person down, yet, it’s hard to be that good person. It’s easy when you know the end of the story, but difficult when you’re in the midst of it. Joseph was convinced that his own lack of understanding of what was happening said absolutely nothing about either God’s care or concern for him. He understood that the crisis wasn’t the most important thing, as we often think, but rather his response to the crisis. Call it a test, call it whatever you want. Our lives are full of these moments when we have a choice for or against obedience, for or against God’s purpose. Is our main goal to relieve the suffering, or to find where the suffering is leading? Do we have sufficient character to fall back on in difficult circumstances, or does our character collapse like a two-legged stool?
Joseph endured a remarkable series of negative circumstances in his life that was completely out of his control: being thrown into a pit and left for dead by his brothers, being sold into slavery and sent to another country, being wrongly imprisoned in that country, being forgotten in prison for two years by a man Joseph had helped. But somehow God used these horrible circumstances to save an entire region of the world from starvation. As Joseph said to his brothers at the end of the story, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Gen. 50:20). The greatest disappointments can be transformed by God into blessing, but we must follow the model of Joseph: he never complained and he never blamed God for his circumstances. He simply believed that the promises he had already received would come true. And he maintained this belief through his time in slavery and through two years of being wrongly imprisoned. The title of a Eugene Peterson book, taken from a Nietzsche quote, refers to “a long obedience in the same direction.” I believe it is this kind of perseverance in trial that brings maximum glory to God. It’s the very reason why He chooses us in the first place.