Good from evil
There are times when life feels like it is out of control. A shooting is reported on the news. One more person has cancer. Someone we love is diagnosed with a debilitating disease. A long-term relationship crumbles. Someone we love dies suddenly. We lose our job. Our finances suffer a setback. We are falsely accused. Or we have one of those periods where nothing seems to go as planned. At these times, life seems unpredictable and arbitrary.
That’s how life must have felt for Joseph (Genesis 45:1-28). He enjoyed being his father’s favourite son. He enjoyed the gifts that his father lavished on him. But while he was enjoying all this, his brothers were seething with hatred. Life suddenly took a turn for the worst. His brothers threw him into a well, and then sold him as a slave to passing slave-traders. He ended up in a strange country – Egypt; far away from his home.
As the young Joseph sat in the muck at the bottom of the well, he must have wondered, "What have I done to deserve this?" As he is tied together with the other slaves and begins the journey across the hot desert sands on the way to Egypt, I’m sure his reaction to such a reversal in his life was much the same as ours would be. More than likely, he prayed that God would rescue him. He asked God why he deserved such treatment. He feared for his life and asked God to free him in some miraculous way. But God didn’t answer his prayers. He wasn’t rescued. He was forced to make the journey all the way to a foreign country and be sold as a slave. God did nothing to reverse the uninvited evil that had come into his life.
But look how things turned out. After a mixture of ups and downs, he was finally appointed as a governor over Egypt, responsible for preparing for the years of drought that would soon come. And as governor, he was able to save his father Jacob, his brothers, their wives and children from the famine that devastated their country. As much as Joseph would have wanted God to rescue him from the well, he didn’t because God could see the big picture. He could see that Joseph would be the saviour of his family. But there was an even bigger picture – Joseph was the saviour of the descendants of Jacob – the people of Israel from whom would come the Saviour of all people – Jesus the long-awaited Messiah.
Garth Brooks sings a song that contains the line, "Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers". The song tells the story of the writer meeting up with an old high school flame at a football game. Back in high school, he had thought that this was person with whom he would spend the rest of his life. Each night he prayed that if God would make her his wife, he would never ask for another thing. Now after talking with his old girlfriend for a while, he realised they had so little in common. The song goes on,
And as she walked away, and I looked at my wife.
And then and there I thanked the Good Lord
For the gifts in my life. …
Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers. (1)
The writer is saying that if God had answered his prayers at the time, he would never have met his wife. Joseph would agree and say that if God had answered his prayers spoken from the bottom of the well, he would never have been able to rescue his family from certain death. When Joseph met his brothers again many years down the track at the time, they came looking for help in the face of the famine, Joseph explained to them how God used their wickedness to carry out his plans. (Genesis 45:5-8a). The author of the song and the writer of Genesis both want to tell us that the hand of God had been at work in the lives of these people bringing good in the lives of people somewhere down the track.
Joseph says to his brothers, Now do not be upset or blame yourselves because you sold me here. It was really God who sent me ahead of you to save people's lives. … There will be five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor reaping. God sent me ahead of you to rescue you in this amazing way and to make sure that you and your descendants survive. So it was not really you who sent me here, but God.
As Joseph looked back over the events that had brought him to Egypt, he could see that even though his brothers intended evil and wanted to hurt him, God took their evil intentions and used them for good. Sometimes we wonder why God allows so much evil in our world. He allows it because he can see the bigger picture. He can see that out of this evil will come blessings to us, to others or to future generations. Joseph says, "God sent me ahead of you to rescue you in this amazing way and to make sure that you and your descendants survive. So it was not really you who sent me here, but God."
As Joseph looked back over everything that had happened, he recalled what is was like to be all alone, to be a slave, to be bought and sold at the whim of your owner, to be falsely accused of rape, to experience the indignity of imprisonment. But look at how the writer tells us again and again throughout this story that "the Lord was with Joseph". If we are looking for a central theme in this wonderful story in Genesis it is just this – in the good times and the bad "the Lord was with Joseph and blessed him".
As Joseph looked back, he could see God working behind the scenes even though he couldn’t understand what was going on at the time. In the heat of the moment, all he could see, and feel was the trouble, the hurt, the loneliness, the danger. He must have asked the question "why" so many times.
Likewise, we ask the same questions, why did my spouse die? why do I have cancer? why is my relationship such a mess? why does everyone else seem to prosper while I struggle?
During all those times when it seemed God wasn’t around to help him through all the tough times, Joseph realised that God was there all the time and had brought about so much good. God does bring good out of the bad.
But the problem is that this is all right for those who are blessed with the gift of hindsight and can see how the misfortunes of life have turned out for the better. But what about those events that have happened in the past that we can’t see any rhyme or reason why they happened? And what about those events that are happening right now? How are can we cope when the intensity of all our woes simply blocks out any thought that God could possibly bring any good out of it all?
There are several things that we need to remember.
Firstly, God is never indifferent, unsympathetic, or uncaring about our suffering. Sometimes it feels that God is far away. I know. I've felt that way. There are times when we feel that we pray but nothing happens. We believe but see nothing change. We cry out to God, and nothing seems to happen. It might seem that one disaster after another is being piled on us – perhaps more than we are able to cope with.
Rest assured. He knows what your suffering is all about. He knows about your anguish. God is closer to you than you think. Moses assured the people of Israel, "Your God, the Lord himself, will be with you. He will not fail you or abandon you… so do not lose courage or be afraid" (Deut 31:6,8).
Secondly, God is in control. Even though Joseph was on a roller coaster ride of good and bad fortune, the writer of the Genesis story wants us to realise that God was in control, in fact, God had a plan to use all that happened to Joseph to save Jacob’s family; the family from which the Messiah would one day be born.
Even though things are going haywire in our lives, God uses these things to bring about some good. Be assured he doesn’t cause the evil that is happening in our lives, but he does use it for some purpose.
In 1956, Nate Saint led four other missionaries to South America and set up camp on a little sandbar in the hope of making contact with the primitive Aucas, known for their ferocity and hatred of outsiders. Their first contact was their last contact. They were speared to death. This seemed such a senseless waste of human life. Why would God lead them to this place only to be massacred and leave five young women as widows and nine children fatherless? In fact, this troubled the Indians as well and they talked about it often. What is more, the men had guns but had refused to use them to kill any of the Indians.
Less than three years after the massacre, Rachel Saint (Nate’s sister) and one of the widows were living with the tribe. They practiced basic medicine and began to write out their language in the hope of someday translating the Bible. Why the change of heart by the Indians? The killers had to know why the outsiders let themselves be killed rather than kill, as any normal Auca would have done. They had to know what caused these men to sacrifice their lives in the way they did.
Can you see how God brought good out of evil? God had not wanted these men to die the way they did, but he used their death to open the way others to follow.
Thirdly, Paul says, "We know that in all things God works for good with those who love him, those whom he has called according to his purpose" (Rom 8:28). But how do we know that God is working out good things through the bad that is happening in our lives? We know it because God promises it.
The one area that Satan attacks again and again is God's Word. Satan wants to distract us from trusting the promises of God. Things were going along fine in the Garden of Eden until the snake says, "Did God really say…?" Satan does his best to sow seeds of doubt in our minds and to ask the same question, "Did God really say …?"
Even though we don't understand, even though what is happening is painful, even though it is not the course we desire, even though we can't imagine what good could come from these things, we can trust God’s love for us, especially the promise of love he made at our baptism. We can trust him because his wisdom and power are far greater than ours. He is able to bring blessings from our adversities.
And finally, we can trust his grace and forgiveness. There will those times when we will throw up our hands in horror and question "why". There will be times when our faith will be tested, in fact we might fail that test. There will be times when we will doubt the love and the wisdom of God, and at times we will do that more than trusting him.
When people don’t trust us, we react negatively. But when we don’t trust God, he reacts with an even greater love. He forgives us through his Son and encourages us with his Word of promise. Thank God that he doesn’t leave us to simply work things out ourselves. He is there to help us. And even though we may not know how we will get through a difficult time . . . we know that with God’s love embracing us we will get through it.
(1) Unanswered Prayers, P Alger, LB Bastain, G Brooks © 1989 by Bait and Beer Music/Forerunner Music Inc/ Major Bob Music Co. Inc./Midsummer Music Inc.
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