I seldom read the story of Joseph in Genesis 37–50 without a tear welling up in my eye. To me, it's one of the most emotional stories in the Bible. As a 17-year-old, Joseph had dreams of grandeur, but his brothers seized him and sold him into slavery. For 13 years, he endured slavery, prison and heartbreaking disappointments. But at age 30, he was summoned to the palace to interpret a dream for Pharaoh, and subsequent events propelled Joseph to the leadership of the greatest empire on earth at the time. His oversight of Egypt saved multitudes from starvation, and at the end of the story, he saved his own family, including the brothers who had betrayed him. What he told them has reverberated through time: "You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many lives" (Gen. 50:20).
The Lord took the iron chains around Joseph's feet and refined them into golden chains around his neck. His purity of heart and perseverance of spirit provide a powerful motivation for us, and his amazing story helps us see how our problems can prepare us for God's purposes in our lives.
Refined, Not Defined, by Problems
Rather than our problems defining us, we should let God refine our hearts through our problems. Dr. J.I. Packer wrote: "We should not ... be too taken aback when unexpected and upsetting and discouraging things happen to us now. What do they mean? Simply that God in his wisdom means to make something of us which we have not attained yet."
Joseph's story is about a young man who was refined, not defined, by his problems. He illustrates a truth found throughout the Bible. The apostle Paul told us to boast "in tribulation, knowing that tribulation produces patience, patience produces character; and character produces hope" (Rom. 5:3-4). James repeats this truth in similar terms: "Count it all joy when you fall into diverse temptations, knowing that the trying of your faith develops patience. But let patience perfect its work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing" (James 1:2-4).
I don't know about you, but it helps me to know that my problems aren't random, meaningless or wasted. As we work through the difficulties of life, God is using them to refine us. Think of your biggest problem right now. I know you have several of them—at least, most of us do. But what is your most vexing problem on this day of your life? Doesn't it help to know God has determined to use that problem for your good, to refine your qualities of perseverance, character and hope?
In God's economy, nothing is wasted; and if He allows trials to beset us, it is because He means to turn them into occasions for refining our faith, resilience and hope. Psalm 66:10 (ESV) says, "For You, O God, have tested us; You have tried us as silver is refined."
Refined, Not Defined, by Persecution
Joseph also shows us how we are refined, not just by problems, but by persecution. His brothers sold him into slavery for a few coins, and they did it out of envy. They resented his goodness and the glory of God that rested on his life. Many years later, the apostle Peter wrote to those suffering persecution throughout the Roman Empire, saying, "In this you greatly rejoice, even though now, if for a little while, you have had to suffer various trials, in order that the genuineness of your faith, which is more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tried by fire, may be found to result in praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ" (1 Pet. 1:6-7, MEV).
Few of those reading this page will endure the persecution of imprisonment, physical abuse or martyrdom, although these evils are increasing every day, and numberless multitudes of believers are paying a high price to follow Christ. What's happening to Christians in oppressive countries is blood-chilling. But the Bible teaches that every follower of Jesus will face persecution on some level (2 Tim. 3:12); and if there's no pushback to our testimonies, perhaps we aren't doing or saying enough for Christ. Have you encountered ridicule, rejection or resistance for Christ's sake? That can be a refining experience!
William Carey, the great pioneer missionary to India, suffered many setbacks and disappointments, but he later wrote, "If I were deserted by all, and persecuted by all, yet my hope fixed on God's sure word, will rise superior to all obstructions. ... I shall come out of all trials as gold purified in the fire."
Refined, Not Defined, by People
We are also refined by people, even the negative ones who come into our lives. The book of Genesis is sparing in its descriptions of Joseph's suffering, but Psalm 105:18 says that his tormentors hurt his feet with fetters and put his neck in an iron ring. It's distressing to think of this young man stripped, chained, put in irons and marched mercilessly across the blazing desert sands toward the human auction blocks in Egypt.
But talk about forgiveness! It may have taken years for Joseph to process what happened to him, but in Genesis 45:4-8, he revealed his identity to those who had betrayed him. Struggling to hold back his tears, he said, "I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. Now do not be upset or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. ... God sent me ahead of you to preserve you as a remnant on the earth ... So now it was not you who sent me here, but God" (Gen. 45:4b-8a).
I would never minimize the sufferings we endure at the hands of others; sometimes the ones we most love hurt us the most deeply. Yet nothing is beyond the redemptive touch of God, and He can help us process our relationships over time. He empowers us to release bitterness as we put past offenses under the overflowing blood of Jesus Christ. He can help us better understand how the things that have happened to us have, over time, resulted in our good and in blessings to others.
Give Him your hurts, and in coming years, you'll look back and see how He used them to refine you into a vessel fit for the Master's use, just like Joseph.
Refined, Not Defined, by God's Purpose
God's ultimate purpose for our lives is to refine us into vessels reflecting the image of Jesus. One of the most remarkable aspects of Joseph's story involves the parallel between his story and that of the Lord Jesus Christ. Think of the elements of Joseph's history:
- He was a dearly loved son of his father, clothed with regal garments, who was rejected by his brothers, stripped and abused, sold for pieces of silver, bound and condemned unjustly.
- Though sorely tempted by Potiphar's wife, he did not sin; and nothing bad was said of him.
- Despite his flawless character, he became a servant.
- On one occasion, he found himself between two criminals—one who was lost and the other who was saved.
- At the age of 30, this man entered his life's great work of saving the world. He uttered the words, "Do not be afraid," and he knew how to forgive in a way that is almost unimaginable.
- Though he descended to the lowest place, he was exalted to the highest, a man to whom reverence and respect was given as he sat on the most powerful throne known to men.
Dr. W. A. Criswell once said that whenever he read the story of Joseph, he seemed to have the same feelings in his heart as when he read the story of Christ and of Calvary and of Easter. It almost seems to be a story of our Lord in miniature and in advance.
Everything that happens to us can become a refining stage toward Christlikeness. Isaiah 48:10 (NASB) says, "Behold, I have refined you ... I have tested you in the furnace of affliction." It's not an easy process, but it's a blessed one.
Instead of growing bitter, let's grow better. Instead of letting our problems define us, allow God to do as He promised in Zechariah 13:9 (MEV): "I will ... refine them as the refinement of silver, and will test them as the testing of gold. They will call on My name, and I will answer them. I will say, 'They are My people'; and they will say, 'The Lord is my God.'"
Dr. David Jeremiah is among the best-known Christian leaders in the world. He serves as senior pastor of Shadow Mountain Community Church in El Cajon, California and is the founder and host of "Turning Point." Turning Point's 30-minute radio program is heard on more than 2,200 radio stations daily. A New York Times' best-selling author and Gold Medallion winner, he has written more than 50 books.
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