Human Suffering In Today's Society: God Meant It For Our Good
The question of suffering is not, "Why am I suffering?" but "Now that I have suffered, how can I make it work for me?" Of what benefit is suffering to me and to others?
Not long ago I read that in New York City the most magnificent carpet ever made was sold for the astounding sum of $250,000. It measured less than 25 by 16 feet, yet contained over 100 delicate shades and hues. Imported from Turkey, it was completed in 1921 after many people labored over it for years. Two things impressed me about the article: One is the fact that it was said that if one man had done the work alone and had started at the age of 15, it would have taken him until his 75th birthday to complete the task. The second was even more startling in that the article revealed that the masterpiece of beauty was made up of 11,877,000 knots.
What a parable this rug provides! You see, into the Christian's life have been woven a great variety of hues and colors which God has meaningfully thrown into the shuttle of their experience. Yet, that individual has judged the result to be only a series of interminable tangles, snarls and knots. However, unknown to him is the fact that God is at work in His wise providence producing a pattern of beauty which would last for an eternity.
"For I reckon that the suffering of this present world is not to be compared to the glory which shall be revealed in us" (Rom. 8:18). "And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them that are called according to his purpose" (Rom. 8:28).
Look at it: 11,877,000 knots! Does life appear that way most often in your burdened heart? Does the coil of life twist and turn in your hands until disappointment and apparent failure is all that meets your tearful gaze? Perhaps you are too close to the tapestry to see the lovely designs God is weaving. It will take a lifetime to complete the task, but as you remain in the center of God's will with a dedicated life, eternity will reveal that the untold knots in your life have produced a masterpiece ready for the eternal display case of heaven. If suffering in your life becomes an instrument of good, then you will say, "I have lived, seen God's hand through a lifetime, and all was for the best" (Robert Browning). Suffering is not evil in and of itself. It is either instrumentally good or instrumentally evil, depending on the use you make of it.
A Man Who Suffered
Let me tell you about a man that suffered. "Oh, nol" you say, "here we go with Job again." No, we have already talked about Job (see the first installment), so let's look at another man who is often overlooked in this connection. That man is Joseph, the dynamic Prime Minister of Egypt (Gen. 37-50).
Joseph's life was filled with adventure, mystery, drama, intrigue, emotion, love and passion. The Joseph-journal of the book of Genesis is one of the most brilliant pieces of literature in the world. "It is a narrative full of gems," says the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. His illustrious life brings to a peak the graphic book of beginnings. Joseph is a man whose sufferings are unparalleled (except for that of Job) and more space is devoted to him in the book of Genesis than is devoted to the life of Abraham. Following the promise made to Abraham in chapter twelve, a man comes along who had twelve sons (Jacob). One of the twelve sons was Joseph (Gen. 30:24).
A Chronicle of Joseph's Life
(1) Joseph's Boyhood And Dreams (Gen. 37). We are introduced to Joseph when he was seventeen years of age at a time that he was visiting his shepherd brethren. At this early stage in life he was charged with overseeing. and reporting on the conduct of his brothers (or, so it would seem from the context). Though Joseph was not a tale-bearer and in no sense conducted himself gratuitously, his position of authority is one of the things that his brothers resented about him. One can understand both the father's viewpoint and that of the brothers as we look at Joseph's "favorite son" position. You see, his mother died in giving birth to his next brother Benjamin, which means that this took place while Joseph was but a lad. Too, Joseph was a son of Jacob's old age (Gen. 37:3). And what made this more endearing is the fact that he was born of Rachel, the beloved wife for whom Jacob had worked for fourteen years. Joseph reminded his father of his beloved and deceased Rachel, for Joseph was "beautiful of form and appearance" even as was his mother (Gen. 35:16-19; 39:6; 29:17). Unlike his unscrupulous brothers Joseph was a good boy, "distinguished among his brothers" (Gen. 49:26). He was thus admired above the others.
This was a traumatic experience for Joseph in that it brought agony and hardship to him. To compound this situation he was given a special coat that was a long, ornamented garment with sleeves. This provoked envy on the part of the others (Gen. 37:3-4). It should also be observed that firstborn blessings were taken from Reuben and given to Joseph, thus bypassing Judah and Simeon (1 Chron. 5:1-2). Joseph's two sons each became heads of tribes in Israel (Manasseh and Ephraim, Gen. 48:1-22). There were other special privileges given to him such as an extra land portion (Gen. 48:22).
(It should be remarked at this point that. parents and grandparents do not realize how they actually mistreat a child when they show favoritism and-partiality. This constitutes a cardinal sin arising from selfishness that is always a detriment to the child himself. It creates selfish pride within the individual and causes other children to be filled with envy and jealously. Strife within a family circle is often traced to special privileges arising from favoritism (Gal. 5:20). The Bible teaching on fairness and equality is to be applied within the family circle too (Rom. 15:4; 1 Tim. 5:21). Parental partiality should not be practiced at all and certainly not among God's people.)
About the time that Jacob was showing this favoritism toward Joseph, he had dreams of his own greatness (37:5,19). Because of his youth, Joseph was vain and/or tactless enough that he related his dreams to his brothers. The consequence was that they hated him even more (Gen. 37:5). More problems are created for Joseph (Gen. 37:8,11). Try to picture the conflict: the boys were made to work harder than Joseph. They were sent far from the comforts of home to tend sheep in the hills of Shechem. Joseph certainly had some responsibility, but not like that of his brothers (Gen. 37:2).
Would you believe that in addition to all of this, Joseph, dressed in his psychedelic badge of favoritism (the coat), follows the instructions of his father and goes to check on his brothers who are about sixty miles from Hebron? Poor Joseph! Now his troubles really begin. Besides their hatred of him and their refusal to speak to him on a friendly basis, their resentment was only intensified when they saw him coming (Gen. 37:4, 18-19). Conscious of his superiority, they plot against his life to see what would become of his dreams. He was thrown into one of those many bottle-shaped, rockhewn cisterns with which Palestine still abounds. At this point the brothers are so hard-hearted and calloused that they close their ears to his anguish (Gen. 42:21).
The enviousness in their bosoms only needed an opportunity and it came in that form of a Ishmaelite caravan on their way from Midian to Egypt (there is no real inconsistency in Genesis 37:28, for the Ishmaelites were Midianites, Judges 8:24). The brothers sold Joseph for twenty pieces of silver and to complete their cruel deed, they dipped his coat in animal blood. They took the blood-dipped coat to Jacob and led him to believe that Joseph was slain by a wild animal (Gen. 37:31-35). How dastardly and cruel! And that even while they witness the anguish of their father.
Look at Joseph now: favored by daddy, hated by his brothers, his mother is dead, he is thrown into a cold, dry pit and now he is in chains on a hot, dusty road. What had he done to deserve this? Indeed, "Why me?"
(2) Joseph Tempted And Imprisoned (Gen. 39). Arriving in Egypt Joseph is sold to an officer of great responsibility by the name of Potiphar. While he began his career as a serf, God is with him in his slavery and Joseph is promoted to overseer of Potiphar's house. About ten years later a terrible trial crosses his life. Joseph is tempted by his mistress! Egyptian females, though married, were distinguished for their licentiousness and immorality. They were not condemned to live in seclusion. They were allowed to freely mix in a promiscuous society. This fits the pattern of Potiphar's wife sensually trying to seduce Joseph and devilishly coming to him again and again (Gen. 39:7-12). He was too honorable and his character too mature to yield to fleshly desire (Gen. 39:9).
Look at the conditions that are calculated to have an impact on him: a beautiful wife of a high officer intoxicating the heart of her slave by words and acts, each of which was designed to weaken a young man morally, convenience (master and domestics are often out of the way) and the advantage to be reaped from yielding to her pleasure. Too, he was away from home and away from the restraints of his father. A less robustly moral principled person would have yielded, but Joseph stood firm and then fled the intensified temptation (1 Thess. 5:22). Though archers of Satan bitterly shot at him, attacked him and harassed him, his bow remained strong (Gen. 49:22-24). Because he rejected temptation he was incarcerated on a false charge and placed back in leg irons. Poor Joseph! "Why me, Why me?"
(3) Joseph Is Promoted (Gen. 40). Joseph remained cheerful, faithful and courteous throughout the thirteen years of his life (between the ages of seventeen and thirty) that were years of slavery and imprisonment. But God was with him and he was promoted to a position of Prime Minister of Egypt. In fulfillment of the dream of Pharaoh that Joseph interpreted, he was placed in charge of a project of storage during the expected famine (Gen. 40:5-15; 41:40-43, 4650; 47:13-26). He was at this point in time thirty years old, married and living in splendor in Egypt (Gen. 41:45-46; 45:13).
(4) Joseph The Provider (Gen. 50:20; Psa. 105:16-24). The famine extended to all the land (Gen. 41:56-57). Jacob sends Joseph's ten brothers to Egypt to buy grain (Gen. 42:1-4). They do not recognize Joseph, but the Governor recognizes his brothers and puts them to a test (Gen. 42:8-20). The brothers are still feeling guilt over the past conduct concerning Joseph, though they do not know that the very man with whom they are dealing is their brother (Gen. 42:21-24). He first made them relate their family history, and then sternly shut them up, alleging that they had come on a hostile mission. The brothers had put him in a pit, and now he put them in a prison. Three days later, he changed his mind and let them all go but Simeon (whom he kept as a hostage). After the return trip from Hebron and when Benjamin was brought back, Simeon was freed.
What follows was perplexing to the brothers. They were invited to a banquet in which the seating arrangement was according to age. Afterwards, having completed their mission, they journey home and are scarcely out of the city when they are accused of stealing the Prime Minister's cup. When they returned to the palace Judah makes a touching plea for Benjamin who is now the pawn on the chess table of events (Gen. 44:18-34). Choking with emotion, Joseph orders the audience chamber to be cleared. Judah's plea had found a powerful ally in Joseph's love. He then confesses, "I (am) Joseph" as he discovers his brothers' penitence. Inviting them to come near, he extends lofty forgiveness. What a joy for the brothers to discover that their brother was the ruler of Egypt! They had sold him into slavery, but God set him upon a throne ("Man proposes, but God disposes"). Unintentionally they had been his benefactors. If only we could see God's providence working in second causes we would be kept from much bitterness and heartache. What allowed in the chronicle of Joseph's life was a tearful reunion with his father that lasted for seventeen years.
The Discovery of Joseph
After all the years had passed Joseph finally gets some answers to questions that he had been asking namely, Why me?" A career that began in deceit was closed in excellence. Without his suffering his race would not have been preserved (Gen. 45:5-11). The purity of the Patriarchal family was guarded until they developed into a great nation. Look at what he learned: "As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive" (Gen. 50:20). God meant it for good! Partly through the personal character of Joseph, partly through the evil passions of his brethren, partly through the apparently casual incidents of Egypt, partly through the spirit of righteousness working in the heart of Reuben, and partly through the weakness and fondness of Jacob, God wove a pattern into a whole that reveals thought and purpose. It is no small wonder that Joseph is mentioned in the hall of faith's fame (Heb. 11:20-22). Thank God for the Joseph of human history, and all other Josephs who suffer in great pain and endure with deep trust in God (Heb. 11:13-14).
We have the same God that Joseph had and it is He who makes all our suffering unto that which is good. Suffering is allowed so that it might be the instrument of good. This is the grand, golden key to the whole of life's history: God knows what is best and sometimes even the wicked are made to see that the ends they do not desire are obtained in spite of their opposition. Indeed, "man proposes, but God disposes." Joseph's brothers saw this and bowed their heads in reverence. Joseph saw all things working for his good. He saw that God strengthens us as we place our trust in Him (Psa. 31:24). So many of us despair of suffering because we look to strength within ourselves. We may not understand, but all the while there is purpose and meaning.
A gospel preacher and an afflicted disciple were walking down a road as the disciple was expressing his despair. At that moment a cow was noticed looking over a wall. The man was asked, "Do you know why that cow is looking over the wall?" "No," said the troubled Christian. "Well, the cow is looking over the wall because he cannot see through it! This is what you must do with your wall of trouble. Look over it and above it." God allows a certain amount of tension to keep us in tune with His will (Heb. 12:2; Col. 3:1-3). This is much like a guitarist who puts tension on a string, knowing that if the string has lost its tension it has also lost its music producing qualities. Too much tension and it snaps. So God keeps us in tune with heavenly melodies. See the principle in Deuteronomy 32:11-12 and understand that a stirred up nest is a token of God's love. We are not happy with what goes against us, but we must trust Jehovah. We will then find things better and easier to cope with in life. It is up to us to have the right attitude toward our troubles. We must not fret, grumble or complain. We cannot build character without some pain and discomfort. "For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory" (2 Cor. 4:17). The next time you complain, remember Joseph! Amen
Guardian of Truth XXVIII: 16, pp. 494-496