How should we respond when other people cause us trouble? When family rejects us? When a good friend double-crosses us? When a colleague at work lies about us? A prime example of suffering from the troubles brought on by other people is Joseph of the Old Testament, whose story is told in Genesis 37-50.
Joseph was the second-youngest of twelve brothers. There was a lot of sibling rivalry in the family, and the older brothers began to get especially jealous of Joseph because of their father’s favoritism toward him. When the problem came to a head, the brothers threw Joseph into a pit and left him there to die. But some traveling merchants came by, and the brothers said, “Let’s just sell him instead of killing him.” So, Joseph’s older brothers sold him to these foreign merchants, who took him as a slave to Egypt.
So, Joseph found himself in a foreign country. He did not know anyone, he could not speak the language at first, and he was enslaved against his will. On top of that, his master’s wife decided to seduce him one day. After he refused, she falsely accused him of rape, and he was thrown into prison. He was lonely and hurting, and he had every right to ask, “Why me?”
But notice Joseph’s attitude as he talked with his brothers many years after these terrible things happened. Reflecting on those events, he said, “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). In other words, “You meant this for bad, but God turned it around and used it for good in my life, in your lives, and in the lives of many other people.”
Why was Joseph able to hang in there? Because of three important truths that he recognized in his life. These truths helped him endure tragic situations and overcome adversity. First, Joseph knew that God sees everything we go through, and he cares. This is very evident in Joseph’s life. He never doubted that God saw what was going on in his life and cared about it. There is an important phrase that is found five times in the story of Joseph, each time after a major crisis or defeat: “But the Lord was with Joseph” (for example, Gen. 39:21). Even when everything was going wrong, the Lord was still with Joseph.
The second thing Joseph recognized is that God has given everyone freedom of choice. You are not a puppet or a robot that says little prayers to God and is controlled by him. God gave all of us freedom of choice, and when we choose to ignore what is right, God does not force his will on us. It is often the case that when we bring a problem on ourselves, we blame God as if it were his fault. God gets blamed for many things he never causes. When we see a major accident or tragedy or problem or crisis, we try to sound spiritual by saying, “It must be God’s will” – as if God gets enjoyment out of planning mistakes and heartaches!
The fact of the matter is that God’s will is not always done. God has a will for our lives, but he has given us a free will too. When we choose to go our own way, he chooses to limit himself. He will allow us the freedom of choice to make mistakes and cause problems in our own lives. And because everyone else also has free choice, the mistakes and decisions other people make can hurt us. Joseph’s brothers willfully chose to plot against him. This was a sin, but God allowed it because he didn’t make people to be puppets.
The third truth Joseph recognized is that God is in ultimate control of the final outcome. He can take all our mistakes and all the sins that other people commit against us, then turn them around and bring good out of the bad. Even though we may lose a battle here and there, God has already won the war. God will take even very bad circumstances and turn them around for us. When we think everything is falling apart in our lives, God has the final say. He decides what is going to happen with the messes we face.
Consider Joseph. He was nearly killed, was sold into slavery, was accused of rape, and then was put into prison. His life was moving steadily downhill. But then God took these tragedies, turned them around, and out of them brought much good. While Joseph was in prison, he made friends with the right-hand man of Pharaoh. When this man was restored to power, he learned of Pharaoh’s dreams and remembered that Joseph could interpret dreams. Joseph was brought out of prison and invited to the Pharaoh’s palace to interpret the dream. He said, “Pharaoh, God is telling you that you are going to have seven years of good crops and then seven years of famine, so you need to prepare for this.”
Pharaoh was so impressed with Joseph that he made him second in command over all of Egypt. Joseph went from a foreign slave in prison to the second-greatest leader in Egypt, and by so doing he saved Egypt plus several other nations, including Israel, from starvation.
God sees what is going on, but he also has given us a free choice, and he does not intervene against our free will. He has limited himself. But he will use our bad choices, and even the bad things that happen to us, to turn things around and bring good out of them in the final outcome – if we let him. That is, if we trust in him no matter what our circumstances are. This is why Joseph could say at the end of his life, “You meant it for harm, but God meant it for good.” The only way God could bring good out of this was for Joseph to hang on, even when he did not understand it all.
Perhaps you are going through a trial right now. Maybe you are an innocent party and the victim of a situation that you didn’t cause. Consider Joseph’s reaction. The first thing he did not do was to give in to self-pity. If you are in a problem or trial right now, you cannot afford self-pity. That is one of the major causes of depression. Usually when we are in a serious problem and our self-esteem is already at a low ebb, we start condemning ourselves and putting ourselves down, and we end up holding a pity party for ourselves.
Joseph did not do that; he did not blame himself. The crisis he was in was not his fault, and he tried to look at the situation realistically. When a boat is facing a storm, the way to make it is to face the wind head-on. If you let the boat turn sideways, the storm will capsize it. When storms come into our lives, the best way to overcome them is to face them head-on – as Joseph did.
If you are in a period of discouragement because you are going through a trial and you are asking yourself, “Why is this happening to me?” consider this: Never make a major decision when you are depressed. Often, when we get discouraged, we are tempted to say, “I’m just going to quit” or “I’m going to move” or “I’m going to change jobs” or “I’m going to file for divorce.” Never make a major decision when you are depressed, because at that time your feelings are unreliable and you cannot exercise accurate judgment. Your focus is blurry, and your perspective is distorted. Instead, face the storm head-on and don’t get involved in self-pity.
There is another trait we see in Joseph’s life when all those things were going wrong: he didn’t give in to bitterness. After many years Joseph met his brothers again because they had to go to Egypt for grain. As they entered Joseph’s presence, bowing before the second in command over Egypt, they failed to recognize him as their younger brother.
When Joseph tried to tell them who he was, they were both shocked and scared. Here was a brother they had tried to kill years earlier, and now he was in a position to control them and do as he wished with them. But Joseph forgave them. Joseph knew that you cannot afford the excess baggage of bitterness in your life.
What should we do when we are tempted to be bitter? Turn it over to the Lord. That’s what Joseph did: he maintained his faith and hope in God, he believed that things would work out well in the end, and he kept on with his spiritual life.
When things go wrong, we may reject the Person we need the most – the Lord. When a problem comes into your life, you may say, “God, why did you allow this to happen?” You may rebel against God as if it were his fault. Instead, you should say, “Lord, take this problem.” God can take situations that are totally bad and turn them around. When people use situations to try to destroy you, God can use them to develop you. He loves to turn crucifixions into resurrections.
The Bible gives us not only answers to the reasons for suffering, but also some practical help and comfort when we are experiencing suffering. If we will apply the following sources of strength to our life, no situation can devastate us, and no crisis can tear us apart permanently.
The first source of strength that we see in Joseph’s life is the plan of God: “In all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). This verse does not say that everything is good; there is a lot of evil in this world, and God’s will is not always done. But it says that in the life of a Christian, God makes all things – even the bad things – work out for good.
God has not rejected you; he has your best interests at heart. He will take the situation you are going through, even if it is a terrible one, and use it for a good overall purpose in your life. He will bring out greater glory in the long run. God is greater than any problem you will ever face. Of course, it is difficult to see how God is working in a bad situation while you are in it. But later, as you look back, your perspective is better and you can see what God was doing and how he used this situation in a great and purposeful way in your life.
When you understand this truth, you can look back and say to people who give you a hard time, “You meant it for bad, but God meant it for good. You meant it to destroy me, but God used it to develop me. You meant it to tear me down, but God used it to make me a stronger and more mature person.” No matter what happens – even though you lose a battle – the war has been won and the final outcome is in God’s hand. He will turn failure around and bring good out of them if you give him the opportunity.
A second source of strength when we are going through a crisis is the promises of God. There are more than seven thousand promises of God in the Bible, and we need to start claiming them. They are like blank checks; they need to be used.
I suggest that you pick out a few verses, write them down on some little cards, carry them in your pocket, and memorize them. One man put verses on cards and stuck them on his car’s sun visor. At every stoplight he would flip the visor down and read a verse, and when the light turned green, he would flip it back up. He has memorized hundreds of verses just while idling at stoplights, never spending any extra time. You might put some verses on your bathroom mirror and memorize them while you are shaving your beard or blow-drying your hair. The promises of God give us hope, and they give us strength and comfort.
The Scriptures claim that they were written to encourage us and give us hope (Rom. 15:4). What we need to do is read God’s promises, memorize them, and then claim them in faith.
There is a third source of strength that should help us when we have to go through a crisis: the people of God. Every church ought to be a caring community of individuals where the people love each other, support each other, pray for each other, laugh together, cry together, and carry burdens together. We need one another; God meant for the church to be a strong support system as we encourage and help each other.
But it can’t be a support system if we don’t know each other. We need to get involved in some kind of small group Bible study in the church. We need to find a small group of people with whom we can meet on a regular basis and then share our lives with them and pray with them. As we do this, we will discover that there are other people who have the same problems we do and therefore can encourage us. There will be people who have had our same or similar problems and are now on the other end; they have been through the tunnel, so they can now reach in and help pull us through.
The Bible says that God often allows us to go through intense trials and problems and then comforts us so that we in turn may offer comfort to others in similar situations (2 Cor. 1:3-4). God uses us in that way; he usually works on people through other people.
The fourth source of strength in a crisis is the greatest of all: the presence of God in Jesus Christ The Bible says that Jesus Christ is God’s Son, that he is alive today, and that you can have a personal relationship with him. There are literally millions of people around the world who are living proof of this. The presence of Christ can help us through any situation.
Joseph was an example in the Old Testament of what Jesus did in the New Testament: they both suffered for the benefit of other people. Joseph suffered so that in the long run, when the famine came to the Middle East, his policies of food storage would save thousands of people from starvation. That is a picture of what Jesus Christ did. Even though he was perfect and blameless, Jesus died on the cross to save us from the terrible consequences of sin.
God has given each of us a free will, so he could not force his will on us without making us puppets or robots. We live in a world in which people sin and hurt each other. When we give our lives to Christ and trust him, he sees us through each situation and gives us the ability to see how he is going to bring it all together in the end. The cross is the ultimate example of people planning things for evil but God working them out for good and for the blessing of mankind.
Perhaps you have been hurt deeply by a family member, as Joseph was – perhaps a brother, sister, parent, husband, wife – or by a boyfriend or girlfriend. If so, do what Joseph did: Don’t give in to self-pity or bitterness. Instead, take all the pieces and turn them over to Jesus Christ. Let him bring something new and refreshing and beautiful out of that ugly situation.
But you may be thinking, “It’s just not fair. I don’t deserve this.” Or maybe you have a friend who is in trouble, and you say, “It’s just not fair that that happened.”
And I reply, you are exactly right. There are many unfair things happening in this world. And that is why one day at the end of time the Bible says God is going to settle the score. There will be a judgment day, when all of the hurt inflicted on innocent people will be corrected and justified. God is going to settle the score at the end of time. But for now, our duty is to keep on keeping on and see what God can do in our own lives for our development instead of letting the unfair things devastate us.
So, if you are going through a situation where you are tempted to ask, “Why is this happening to me?” realize that God is looking on and that wrong hurts him. He has also given you a free will and allows everyone the freedom to choose. So, turn to the plan of God and see that he will turn around even an ugly situation and use it for good if you will let him. Turn to the plan of God and take hope in what lies ahead. Turn to the promises of God and rely on them. Turn to the people of God and get involved in a warm church where you can have your needs met and can be used to meet the needs of others.
Most important, turn to the presence of Christ and let him into your life. Out of the worst, God can bring the best. That is the message of this story. Many Christians can look at their past and say, “That is so true. Everything had fallen apart in my life, and then I gave my life to Christ and he began to put it back together.” Turning your life over to Jesus Christ does not mean that he will always take you out of the storm, but it does mean that he will give you the courage and the strength to weather it. All things do not work together for good for everybody in this world. They will only work together for good if we give God the pieces and give him our lives, and then he works things out for good. But as long as you hold back, he doesn’t work things out for your good.
So, you need to believe in Christ; you need to be a Christian, what the Bible calls “born again.” What does that mean? You do two things, stated in two simple words. One word is repent, and the other word is “believe. “Repent means to change: change the way you think about God and your sin. It leads to turning away from darkness and turning to light, turning away from guilt to forgiveness, turning away from selfishness and turning toward God. And then you “believe”. You believe that God’s Son can forgive your sin, that he can make your life better, that he wants to work in your life; that he has a plan for you, and that he can take all the messes and bad situations – even your irritations – and turn them around and use them for good – if you will let him. If you do that, you will be able to say as you look back, “They meant it for bad when they were really sticking it to me, but God meant it for good. God used the bad things in my life. He used them to develop me and make me a better person, and I am thankful for it.”
Describe an incident in your life that, amid its tragic circumstances, resulted in some good, for you or for others.
Give some examples of how one or more of God’s sources of strength have been demonstrated in your life.