When we talk about suffering, there’s one angle we tend to forget to talk about, and that’s the theme for today’s reading:
What, if anything, do we stand to gain from suffering?
It’s easy to look at suffering as an exclusively negative thing—so to answer that question, we’re going to need to draw on everything we’ve covered so far, both on this Journey and the one before it.
Let’s recap: Suffering is caused when humans step outside the boundaries of God’s law. God can’t directly stop that from happening without stripping away our free will, and He won’t do that because He is a loving God who is building a family and wants us all to be part of it. By the same token, He will not allow sin or sinful mind-sets into that family, which disqualifies all of us from joining it.
So here we are in a world shaped by thousands of years of poor decision making and a general rejection of God’s law, plagued by a cunning spiritual enemy who takes pleasure in convincing us to dig ourselves in even deeper. Every day, we heap new suffering on ourselves, and we’re not showing any indication of stopping.
“Bleak” would be an understatement. And yet, even in that bleakness, there’s hope. It turns out that suffering isn’t just a result—it’s also a tool. To really understand what suffering is capable of accomplishing, though, we’ll have to take a look at the story of a man named Joseph.
In a single moment, Joseph’s entire life had been turned on its head. He was the favored son of his father (something his 10 older brothers failed to find endearing). God had given him two prophetic dreams that promised his family would one day bow before him. His future looked bright, to say the least.
And now, here he was—trapped in a pit.
Joseph’s brothers hated him. They hated him so much, the Bible says they “could not speak peaceably to him” (Genesis 37:4). They were jealous of his dreams and of their father’s obvious favoritism, and they decided to do something about it. When the opportunity presented itself, they staged Joseph’s death, throwing him in a pit to die along with his arrogant dreams.
But Joseph didn’t die. Not long after throwing him in the pit, the brothers spotted a caravan of traders heading toward Egypt, and they decided to make a quick profit by selling Joseph into slavery. And just like that, Joseph, the favored son, the dreamer of incredible dreams, found himself trundling off to a life of captivity in a foreign land.
Joseph’s story is full of these moments—low blows coming out of nowhere, continual setbacks and undeserved misfortune. For a while, it looked like Joseph was doomed to forever suffer at the hands of others. After making a name for himself as a loyal and capable servant, Joseph refused the sexual advances of his master’s wife—only to have her publicly accuse him of assault, earning Joseph a one-way ticket to the royal prison.
After some time in prison, Joseph accurately interpreted the dreams of two of Pharaoh’s imprisoned servants—one of whom, Joseph predicted, would be executed in three days’ time, while the other would be restored to Pharaoh’s service. When the prediction came true on both counts, the restored servant promptly forgot to mention Joseph’s innocence to Pharaoh—for two whole years. Joseph had to face two more years of imprisonment for a crime he didn’t commit in a land where, thanks to his brothers, he was nothing more than a common slave.
On the surface, it would look like God abandoned Joseph, leaving him to suffer unjustly and for no good reason—but it would be a mistake to stop there. Let’s go a little deeper and see what we can find.
When Joseph was a slave, something incredible happened (Genesis 39:2-6):
“The Lord was with Joseph, and he was a successful man; and he was in the house of his master the Egyptian. And his master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord made all he did to prosper in his hand. So Joseph found favor in his sight, and served him. Then he made him overseer of his house, and all that he had he put under his authority. So it was, from the time that he had made him overseer of his house and all that he had, that the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; and the blessing of the Lord was on all that he had in the house and in the field. Thus he left all that he had in Joseph’s hand, and he did not know what he had except for the bread which he ate.”
God didn’t abandon Joseph. Even as a captive in a foreign land, God was with Joseph, blessing the work of his hands and giving him favor in the eyes of his master.
But what about prison? Didn’t God abandon Joseph when He allowed him to go to prison for something he didn’t do?
“But the Lord was with Joseph and showed him mercy, and He gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison. And the keeper of the prison committed to Joseph’s hand all the prisoners who were in the prison; whatever they did there, it was his doing. The keeper of the prison did not look into anything that was under Joseph’s authority, because the Lord was with him; and whatever he did, the Lord made it prosper” (Genesis 39:21-23).
God never left Joseph. Even though Joseph found himself in some terrible situations, God was there, working something out behind the scenes.
As the story progresses, God’s plan for Joseph becomes crystal clear. When Pharaoh had two unsettling dreams and tried to discover their meaning, one of his servants conveniently remembered a man in prison who could interpret dreams. Joseph was brought before Pharaoh and revealed that Pharaoh’s dreams were a warning from God: Egypt would have seven years of prosperity, followed by seven years of crushing famine. If Pharaoh didn’t take action soon, all of Egypt would starve to death within a decade.
In response, Pharaoh put Joseph in charge of preparing for the coming famine. Joseph, the unjustly enslaved—Joseph, the wrongfully imprisoned—suddenly, that same Joseph found himself in charge of all of Egypt, second in rank only to Pharaoh himself.
To make a long story short, Joseph saved Egypt. Through careful planning and stockpiling during the years of plenty, the whole nation was able to survive an otherwise crippling famine. In fact, men from other nations affected by the famine came to Joseph to buy food—which is how, in a surprising twist of fate, Joseph’s brothers found themselves traveling to Egypt in search of bread.
Believing their brother to be dead, the 10 brothers failed to recognize Joseph as they bowed before this great Egyptians leader—unwittingly fulfilling the prophetic dreams that caused them to sell Joseph into slavery in the first place. And just like that, the truth becomes impossibly clear to Joseph and to us:
God had a reason for everything.
Joseph’s story isn’t just a tale of setbacks and misfortune. God had a purpose for Joseph from the very beginning—a purpose that wasn’t clear to anyone but God Himself. All the terrible things that happened to Joseph along the way—the kidnapping, the enslavement, the imprisonment—all those things were conveyer belts moving him closer and closer to his role as second in command over all of Egypt.
Not only that, but God was training Joseph. As a slave and as a prisoner, Joseph was given the opportunity to oversee and manage large-scale operations. God was with him in both instances, causing all his work to prosper. When it came time to oversee and manage the entire nation of Egypt, Joseph was qualified. His experience and track record made him the man for the job.
When the 10 brothers learned of Joseph’s true identity, they were understandably terrified. Would Joseph retaliate against them? Would he leave them to rot in prison? Cart them off as slaves? Execute them all? Here’s Joseph’s response:
“Joseph said to them, ‘Do not be afraid, for am I in the place of God? But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive. Now therefore, do not be afraid; I will provide for you and your little ones.’ And he comforted them and spoke kindly to them” (Genesis 50:19-21).
Sometimes our suffering is a direct result of our own sin. Sometimes it isn’t. But it always, always serves a purpose, and the story of Joseph sheds some light on what that purpose is.
Suffering refines us—if we let it. It broadens our understanding of ourselves and of God, and it shows us the path to self-improvement. It moves us away from where we are and closer toward where we need to be. It’s not God’s preferred method of working with us, but sometimes it’s the only method we’ll respond to. As a loving God who wants us in His family, He chooses to allow His people to experience suffering so that they can learn and grow from it.
God is described “as a refiner and a purifier of silver” (Malachi 3:3). Refining silver requires heating the silver until it melts, causing the impurities to rise to the top, where they can be scraped away and removed. Peter writes, “May the God of all grace, who called us to His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a while, perfect, establish, strengthen, and settle you” (1 Peter 5:10).
Solomon adds, “For whom the Lord loves He corrects, just as a father the son in whom he delights” (Proverbs 3:12). James ties it all together, reminding us to “count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing” (James 1:2-4).
Is it pleasant? No. Is it something most of us would choose, given the chance? Probably not. But God has big plans for you and me—plans “to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11)—and sometimes, the path to that eternal future requires moments of temporary suffering.
Once we learn to look beyond that suffering, though, we begin to catch a glimpse of something incredible:
God’s plan to end evil.