Beyond the Obvious
Often times we tend to see difficulties or trials in life as punishment, discipline, or the Lord teaching us specific lessons. It’s not that the Lord doesn’t teach in these manners but in my observation Christians generally view them as punishment or lesson teaching. This reality, I believe, manifests itself in the questions or comments we counsel ourselves with when trying times come, “What am I supposed to learn through this?” or “This trial is a result of my sin” or perhaps, “The Lord is teaching me a lesson.”
I would argue if these are our primary perspectives on trials then we spend much of
our time trying to interpret what the goal of the lesson may be (which can often be a very vague and frustrating experience) while the whole time missing the Lord’s regular, tender, intentional, redemptive help. In addition, the number of trials we face in life can cause us to see God as harsh, demanding, critical, and nearly impossible to please; always working on us and rarely, if ever, relating to us. Now, while many of us might not articulate these thoughts out loud, we believe these characteristics to be true of the Lord. We often live out these theological realties in our lives, personal relationship, and even our devotional life.
Several years ago I had a truck I couldn’t sell, I can still remember thinking this was a result of my foolish choices and that God was teaching me a lesson. So, I set out to learn from the lesson, make application, and resolve to not make similar choices. But as the trial lingered longer than expected I began to doubt, “Did I interpret the lesson correctly? Did I not learn the intended lesson or get the point? Did I not apply my findings well enough? Is there something I am missing? Why is God still disciplining me if I got the point?” Now, was there a lesson to be learned? Absolutely, but in my myopic focus I missed the full lessons available.
More significantly I was at a conference about 11 years ago with my mother. She had been having significant health difficulties and as a result was experiencing a nauseating migraine headache. She mustered herself to get to the session that night because there was a physician in attendance and was hoping to get some help. Upon finding none, she decided to join Mary and I for the evening session. At one point during the opening singing I looked over to see if the volume level was too much for my mother, but what I saw amazed me; there was some evidence of her wincing in pain, but superseding that was quiet sincere singing, hands raised, and tears rolling down her cheeks. I was both humbled and angered simultaneously, “I wish I had that level of devotion and selflessness…. Seriously God, she gets it, enough already.”
Is this the primary way our heavenly Father works? As a general practice does God utilize His sovereign control to punish us for wrong, or teach us life lessons? Or, is the Lord exercising his sovereign control in other ways? Ways, which draw us closer to Him, not just to learn lessons about how to behave. Ways where we see his personal help in specific ways. Ways in which we sense His presence as we see Him redeeming the worst sins and consequences the world, the flesh, and the devil have to offer for our benefit and His glory.
As we sat around our lunch table a couple weeks ago reflecting on the life of Joseph, the conversation started when the comment was brought up, “The Lord’s treatment of Joseph seems a little over the top.” What my son was articulating was again reflective of many our own secret thoughts, “the punishment doesn’t seem to fit the crime.” Or, conversely we may even believe that the Lord is perfectly just, we only deserve death and separation from God. Therefore, anything God does to bring about punishment or discipline is more than “fair.” While there is truth in the latter statement and not in the former, if our meditations end there, it is evidence again that we have not truly absorbed the meaning of the gospel, indeed the reality that we are all deserving of death, separation from God’s eternal love, and present help is the place we need to start.
This indeed is where the story of Joseph must start. I have heard teaching that tries to make the case that Joseph’s selfishness and immaturity or even the favoritism showed by his father as the reason for his hardships. But to my sons point, it does seem “a little over the top” on one hand, and a little too easy to throw the “he deserves worse” blanket over it, on the other. Make no mistake, Joseph had lessons to learn, but were the lessons the primary focus of God’s sovereign involvement in his life? Are those lessons the primary purpose for the recording and our reading of the story of Joseph in Genesis 39 – 50? I would argue God is far more concerned with making a point about his gracious, kindness, mercy, and redemptive help toward Joseph (and all his family) and his power over peoples sinful choices or even their rejection of Him.
Joseph is part of a family (a fledgling nation) that was chosen by God (for no merit of their own) to receive his special fellowship, grace, and privilege of revealing his love to the world. But Joseph (and his brothers), like all of us, are like a sheep that constantly wander off in their own direction, with propensities to go their own way (Isaiah 53:6). And yet the LORD in his faithfulness continues to help and support and show faithfulness to Joseph and his family. Joseph seems to have this perspective on his trials much more than a spirit of “learning particular lessons.” This is evident in his statement of forgiveness to his brothers, “you meant evil things for me, but I have seen God’s redemptive hand applied to my life in times without number.”
In the Middle East at the time of Joseph, family members regularly treated each other with huge amounts of contempt and malice. It was very common at that time in history for family members to malign or even kill family members who got in their way of achievements, status, or thrones. The fact that Joseph was part of a “dysfunctional family” where sin and difficulty reigned was not unusual. What was unusual was in the midst of the world full of sin and pain that God would extend himself to someone so undeserving and provide his redemptive help. Again, this seemed to be Joseph’s focus, not the learning of particular lessons. Where would Joseph have been without the Lord’s continuous redemptive help? There were many prisoners in those days treated unfairly; Joseph was not unique in that way. Where would Joseph have been without the direction poured out on him through his heritage and family history, the Pentateuch, and the favor God was extending to him? Was God intent on teaching Joseph particular lessons? Was God being “over the top” with Joseph? Or was the Lord pouring out his loving faithfulness and help to one undeserving?
Many Godless unbelievers found themselves in similar situations as Joseph; the difference was that Joseph had a personal God lovingly helping him. Following Joseph’s undeserving imprisonment the Scripture says, “But the LORD was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love…”(Gen 39:21). Far more than teaching Joseph certain lessons, God was redeeming sin and overcoming evil by his sovereign power, by his goodness, kindness, and faithfulness. God had redeemed Joseph, was redeeming him, and would one day fully redeem him. If we understand the story of Joseph, we will find ourselves in the pages of Scripture. Despite our undeserving disposition God has chosen us, on no merit of our own, to receive his special fellowship, grace, and privilege of revealing his love to the world. Like Joseph, we are all like sheep that constantly wander off in our own direction, with propensities to go our own way. And yet the LORD in his faithfulness continues to help and support and show faithfulness to us.
My fear is that sometimes we get focused on God trying to teach us lessons that we forget that our growth and change is a bi-product of responding to His love and faithfulness toward us. It is my observation that we often view our difficulty as punishment for our sin, or “a lesson to learn” and in so doing we get so wrapped up in getting the point that we may miss the Lord’s regular, tender, intentional, redemptive help he is providing, and it is all around us. Not only has he redeemed us, He is redeeming us, and will one day redeem us fully!
Posted on January 5, 2013