Joseph: A journey from envy to balance
Hespeler, 26 February, 2017 © Scott McAndless
Genesis 37:1-11, Genesis 45:1-8, 1 Peter 2:1-10
ifferent people are driven by different things on their path through this life. I think we all recognize that. Some people are driven by ambition or pride. Others are motivated by greed or envy or lust. But there are some people for whom all of that really means very little. There is really only one thing that matters to them: that they are unique and special.
Now, I realize that we are all, in our own ways, special. We are all individuals who have a unique makeup of habits, traits and interests. So, in a way, these people aren’t any more unique than anyone else. It is more a matter of how such people want to be seen and treated. They want everyone to see and notice how unique they are. They need to stand out from the crowd in some significant way.
If you want to compliment such a person – I mean, give them a compliment that will actually mean something to them – do not bother saying things like, “You look nice,” or “You did a great job.” They will hardly hear compliments like that. But if you say to them, “Wow, I’ve never seen anybody pull off a look quite like that before,” or “I didn’t even think that anyone could do that like you did it,” they will likely go away very happy and remember you fondly.
There are not necessarily a high proportion of such people in any given group because most groups can only tolerate so many people who grab all of the attention. But I imagine that you have known some. When they are around, after all, you can hardly help but notice them. They are brightly dressed, doing something weird and probably making a lot of noise doing it.
The great Biblical example of such a person is the patriarch Joseph, the son of Jacob. Throughout his long story, as told in the Book of Genesis, Joseph goes through many ups and downs. He goes from favoured son to slave to prisoner to prince. But at every point in his story, both in times of good fortune and of bad, you can always say one thing about him: he somehow always manages to stand out and get noticed.
There are probably some people here who are like Joseph. There are others who may have a Joseph in their life or in their family. And there are still others who have a little bit of Joseph in them. I think I have a little bit. Somewhere deep down inside, I do struggle with that desire to be recognized to be special and unique and I certainly have done some things in my life to get noticed for being different (and, no, I am not going to tell you what they were right now.) So I think it is worthwhile spending some time talking about Joseph and his incredible journey. God did something in his life – brought about a maturity in him over time that we should pay heed to and aspire to.
We first meet Joseph as a very young man. He is one of the youngest children of his father but he is also his father’s favourite. And right away Joseph stands out as special and unique. Now, it may seem at first that this is not something that Joseph wants for himself but that it is rather something that his father does to him. After all, it is his father who gives him the rather unique coat. In some ancient manuscripts is described as having fancy sleeves while in others to be made of many colours, but clearly, however it had been made, it definitely stood out from the ordinary.
But that was dad’s idea, not Joseph’s. Maybe that is how it all started with Jacob treating his son as special, but at some point Joseph clearly internalised that message. We see it coming out in his dreams. Joseph’s dreams are not hard to interpret at all. Unlike some of the other dreams in Joseph’s story that take a real expert to interpret them, the meaning of his dreams are immediately obvious to everyone. Joseph is having dreams that mark him as being extraordinarily special and unique – so much so that everyone else is bowing down before him.
I know that dreams mean a great deal in this story of Joseph. They are generally understood as being key indicators of future events. These dreams of Joseph do indeed predict the future events of the story as, before the end of it, Joseph will be a powerful ruler in Egypt and the members of his family will literally bow down before him. But I don’t think that it is a stretch to say that these dreams are also an indication of Joseph’s internal psychology. They are about how he is coming to see himself.
But even as Joseph begins to understand himself and what really matters to him, we realize that there is a negative side to being like him. It inspires envy in the people around him. His brothers start to hate him and even his father, who loves him, becomes concerned. Envy is, in fact, the big issue that people like Joseph will run into. They easily inspire it in others who can quickly get tired of them always stealing the spotlight.
But the really deep secret of the Josephs is that they tend to struggle with envy within their own soul. You can maybe understand why. The problem with wanting to be different and unique is that there is always the potential that there is somebody else out there who has something that you haven’t. And so Josephs are constantly on the watch for anybody who might just be getting too much attention or praise. The deep, dark secret of the Josephs is that, even as they suffer as victims of envy (which Joseph certainly does) they may harbour more of it in their heart than anybody else. Envy is, in fact, the sin that lies at the heart of a Joseph and, if redemption is not found for that sin, they will never be the person that God created them to be.
The entire story of Joseph, therefore, is the story of how God worked in Joseph’s life to bring about redemption, renewal and change. In the beginning, Joseph is an unredeemed Joseph. We see that in the way that he deals with his dreams. He is driven by envy of his brothers (who are all bigger and more important culturally than him) to boast of the contents of his dreams. And of course, his brothers are all very wrong in how they respond to this boasting. They plot to kill him and then tone down their response to merely selling him off into slavery! We, of course, condemn them for what they do. But at the same time, if Joseph had dealt with his envy differently, maybe they wouldn’t have reacted as they did.
Now the work that God did in Joseph’s life took many steps. I cannot do his story justice in a brief summary and you really do need to read his story for yourself. It is one of the most accessible stories in the entire Bible – it almost reads like an ancient novel – so I would definitely suggest that you take the time to read it in Genesis 37-46.
There are many ups and downs as Joseph deals with slavery (during which he stands out among all the other slaves in the household and ends up running it) and then becomes a prisoner (during which he stands out from the others in the prison population and ends up running the prison) and then becomes the Pharaoh’s advisor (where he stands out from all of the other advisors and ends up running the country). There is obviously a very clear pattern in all of this. God may be at work in Joseph’s life and taking him through some very serious ups and downs but God clearly isn’t taking away anything that makes Joseph special and unique and very much in the habit of standing out in any crowd. God, I believe, is not at all interested in taking away the things that make you uniquely you.
But, at the same time, God is working on Joseph’s life and working, in particular on that venomous envy that coils at the root of Joseph’s life. We discover this near the end of the story when the dream that Joseph had at the beginning is finally fulfilled and Joseph, ruler in Egypt, reveals himself to his brothers and they bow down before him. This is Joseph’s moment of triumph – that moment we all hope for when we get to say, “I told you so.”
But surprisingly, and seemingly uncharacteristically, Joseph doesn’t do that. Here is what Joseph says to his brothers at this key moment: “God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt.”
Compare that to the way that Joseph described his dreams to his brothers at the beginning of the story. Back then it was all about “me” and how everyone would give attention to “me.” Now when he speaks about everything that has happened and even as everyone is actually giving all of that attention to him, he is not at all interested in revelling in that attention. God has given a new perspective. Now Joseph is able to see and speak of God’s presence and God’s action in and through everything that has happened to him.
Now, of course, what Joseph says does not exclude consideration of himself and his part in everything that has taken place. He says, “God sent me before you to preserve life.” He recognizes, to a certain extent that he had unique talents and insights and abilities that meant that he was maybe even the only person who could have played a part in what God’s intentions were. Joseph is still special and he still knows it. This is such an important part of his personality that God is not interested in taking it away from him.
But what Joseph has gained is an incredible insight into how he, in his uniqueness, can be an essential part of what it is that God is doing in the world. This allows him to give all glory and praise to God when he sees God working in and through his life.
This is, in fact, the special gift that a mature and redeemed Joseph – a mature person who is motivated by that need to be unique – can offer to the church and to the world. When they finally get to that point in their life when God has worked on them enough to purge away their envy, they are uniquely able to see where they can fit in with God’s plan. Unfortunately a lot of us (who are not like Joseph) can miss that and wander through life with no clear vision of how we can be a part of what it is that God is doing in the world. The incredibly valuable gift that the Josephs give us is a new vision of how each one of us can be an essential part of the work of God’s kingdom on earth. And honestly, if we don’t have that, we will never reach our full potential as the church in this world.
What are some practical applications of Joseph’s story therefore? Well, first of all, it can teach us, when we come across people like Joseph (people who seem to have this deep need to be recognized and valued for being unique) in life or in the church, we can value them for who they are and for the insight they can give us. And if, as must be the case for some of us, you recognize some of Joseph’s traits in you, it can teach you to be open to allow God to work on the envy that may very well be hidden deep in your life so that you may become truly open to see how you can work together with God to see transformation for good in this world.