The story of Joseph in Genesis 37-50 is remarkable on numerous fronts. More ink is devoted to Joseph’s story than any other character in the bible apart from Jesus. The intrigue and drama of the narrative trump any soap opera. The characters that dot the landscape of his life are unforgettable. I believe I could preach a year’s worth of sermons from these 14 chapters and not cover all the possibilities.
One of the best-known verses from the story comes near its conclusion. Their father has died, and Joseph’s brothers are afraid that, with Jacob off the scene, Joseph might finally extract revenge for all the vicious acts they inflicted upon him early in his life. They approach Joseph in Genesis 50:16 with much trepidation, expecting the worst. Instead, with everyone shedding tears, Joseph is magnanimous and gracious. His famous words are found in v. 20: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good…”
They certainly were guilty of intending to do him harm. Their original plan was to murder him and throw him into a dry well, or cistern. Plans changed, and they decided to throw him in the well and leave him to his own devices. Finally, they pulled him out and sold him into slavery, convinced that they had permanently disposed of their annoying younger brother. At every turn, their selfish intent was to do him harm.
Instead, God intervenes and those self-centered acts are used to propel Joseph to places and roles he would have never known had he stayed on the family farm. God uses the wicked behavior of Joseph’s brothers for the good of God’s people. In doing so, we hear in these infamous words a note of hope for all those who find themselves in a well not of their own choosing.
This is so relevant. I recently recounted this story for a pastor who had been victimized by a band of church bullies and forced out of his job. Not long afterward, in another city, I pointed to this life lesson as I sat in on a somber meeting of lay leaders who had been victimized by a dishonest ministerial staff member.
Across nearly four decades of ministry, I have had multiple personal experiences that have caused me to recite Exodus 50:20 in the hope that it still held true. It always has.
More times than I can remember, I have sat with colleagues or parishoners who were devastated by personal betrayal, dark forces, or actions by unscrupulous men and women that threatened to undo them. In some cases, we were able to see the good that was emerging out of the bad actions of others. In other cases, we had to confess that not enough time had passed for the full story to unfold. All we could do was hope.
I’m convinced that a large percentage of the people in our churches have spent time in a well that others threw them into. The circumstances of the stories vary, but the broad narrative is inevitably the same: self-absorbed, self-serving people will do anything to accomplish their agenda, even if it means harming others.
Reinhold Neibuhr was right: Pride is at the heart of all our sin.
Healthy churches and healthy Christians know that these words of Joseph are in fact a theme that runs through all of scripture, not just the first book. Eventually, turning a crucifixion into a resurrection becomes the defining act of God’s power and love for humanity. With every turn of the page, the Bible teaches us that what appears to be bad news can quickly become good news.
So, what lessons are here for us if we are trying to build a healthy church, organization or life?
• Some things are going to happen to us that feel very unfair.
• Sometimes those things are vicious and intentional. (Sometimes they are not.)
• When they are intentional, our first reaction is often to exact revenge or to respond in kind.
• Revenge only escalates the conflict. More people get hurt.
• Showing character and rising above the bad behavior of others is really, really hard.
• Healthy Christians willingly absorb the selfish behavior of others because they want to emulate Jesus.
• Everyone has limits. Bullies, low-integrity leaders, and abusive people deserve to be called out and disciplined.
• You don’t have to go it alone, there are other well-dwellers all around you.
• Refuse to be a victim. Vow that unjust suffering will become a gift as it spurs you toward the life God intended for you.
• You cannot do this without a real, alive prayer life.
People of the well, unite. There is much, much good yet to come.