Are you a biblical realist? Sometimes as Christians we’re hopelessly naive; expecting to sail through life untouched by heartbreak, illness, mourning, persecution, broken relationships and the like. The problem is what happens when such things strike? We’re unprepared, shocked, and become bitter or resentful.
At other times we can be pathetically pessimistic; joyless, worn down, glum, our only thankfulness being that it’s not worse though we have a sneaking suspicion it might be about to be. What does such an attitude lead to? Bitterness, resentment, a life without joy and untouched by grace.
But God calls his people to be biblical realists; God never promises us that he’ll take us out of this broken world, rather in his wisdom he calls us to live in the middle of its brokenness. And in his sovereign grace God uses our experiences of living as biblical realists in the midst of the brokenness to mature our faith and call others to know him. Trials and blessings do not cause us to be something we are not; they reveal what we have been all along, accelerating the harvest of the roots in our hearts.
Genesis is written for Israel as they stand on the border of the Promised Land, a land in which they will experience great blessing and trials. Joseph teaches God’s people that circumstances aren’t the barometer of God’s faithfulness and that the way to respond to trial and blessing is to trust God and live by faith. Joseph is 17 when he’s sold by his brothers, he’s 30 when he enters Pharaohs service; 13 years of slavery, betrayal, false imprisonment, being forgotten, and broken promises. 13 years when scarcely for a moment did it look as if his dreams would come true, 13 years where judging by circumstance would have made him bitter and cynical. But Joseph doesn’t become bitter and cynical, he doesn’t resent or doubt, he trusts and lives by faith and through his trials this unwise slightly bratty tell-tale becomes a man who stands for God before Pharaoh, who can forgive and love those who so wounded him.
1. Know God
Fundamentally all our problems in responding to situations arise because we do not know God; his character, plans, promises, word, faithfulness, or relate to him as our loving Father who in all things works for our good and his glory. The remedy is to know God.
a. God is sovereign over all
How sovereign do you think God is? Is God in sovereign over major world events? I guess we’d answer yes. Is God reigning over the big things in the UK? Again yes. Is God sovereign over your life? Yes. But what about in the nitty-gritty of life, in everyday circumstances?
Genesis shows God is sovereign on every level. As Joseph sets out (ch37)to see his brothers God ensures there’s just enough delay that as the brothers plan his murder while opening their pack lunches they see the dust clouds of the Ishmaelite traders. God is sovereign over who the Ishmaelite traders sell Joseph to, he’s sovereign over which prison Joseph ends up in, look at 39:20 which prison is it? “where the king’s prisoners were confined”. Then naturally when the baker and the cupbearer are imprisoned where do they go? The king’s prison. And (4)they are assigned to Joseph’s care. God gives them each a dream and gives Joseph the interpretation, then he fulfils the dreams and even the cupbearers forgetfulness – which he calls a ‘sin’(9) - God uses for his purpose. Even the bad things God in his sovereignty uses, so that he has his man in place to tell Pharaoh about Joseph at just the right time.
God is sovereign not just over the big things but over everything; over timing, over events, over people, even through the cupbearer’s forgetfulness. And God’s sovereignty is emphasized in Pharaoh’s dream. 41:25Who gave Pharaoh the dreams and why? God gave them revealing what he is about to do. It is emphasized again in (28)and (32)”the matter has been firmly decided by God”. God is sovereign even in Egypt, even over Pharaoh who was supposedly a god and responsible for provision of food, for the Nile flood which brought fertility and food. God is sovereign, he is the real God over every nation, every land, every king, every circumstance.
Are you a biblical realist? Do you view God as sovereign over everything, every detail, every part of your life; the big things, the little things, the good things and even the bad things.
b. God is with his people
The temptation when everything is going well is to think that God is with us, the temptation when we’re experiencing trials, suffering and persecution is to think what? God isn’t with us.
Turn back to ch39:2, 3, 21, 23 all emphasize what? “The LORD was with Joseph.” As Joseph is sold as a slave God is with him, in Egypt God is with him, as he serves in Potiphar’s house God is with him, as he goes to jail God is with him. It continues in 40:8, 41:16 God is with Joseph as he interprets the dreams in prison, and 41:38-39 Pharaoh recognises that God is with Joseph and that’s what makes him stand out, and as the chapter closes with the birth of his sons **what do their names mean? Manasseh “God has made me forget”, Ephraim “God has made me fruitful” both recognise God is with Joseph.
Through the harsh circumstances, betrayals, disappointments, broken promises, and false imprisonment God is with him. In the rapid promotion and blessing God is with him. God is with him when he is hemmed in by prison or pit walls as he is with him amid the opulence of the palace and the blessings of family.
Circumstances do not determine the presence of God with his people, even when the cupbearer forgets Joseph God does not.
God is with his people, don’t fall for the lie that hardship means God has left us or blessing means God is with us. God is his people’s constant, that is biblical realism; God is sovereign and he is with his people, and that affects the way we live, the way we respond to trials and blessings.
2. Trusting God leads to fruitful service
A young pianist was making his debut at Carnegie Hall, he played magnificently and as he left the stage the audience erupted into cheers. The stage manager encouraged him to go onstage for his encore, but the young man refused. “But look out of the curtains. They love you! Go take your encore!” The Pianist answered “Do you see that one old man in the balcony on the left?” The stage manager looked and said he did. “That man is seated. I will not give an encore until he stands and cheers.” The exasperated stage manager said “Only one man is not standing, and you will not take an encore?” The pianist said “You see, that man is my piano teacher. Only when he stands will I take an encore”
God’s people are to live for his praise not the worlds, just like that young pianist we live our lives before an audience of one – that is what enables Joseph to live as he does when the world opposes him and to live as he does when the world praises and rewards him. Joseph knows God and lives to please him, it means he stays faithful and fruitful during 13 years of hardship and trial and stays faithful and fruitful when rewarded and praised.
What does biblical realism produce? What does knowing and trusting God enable us to do? What is a Christian response to such things?
Faces reality – Joseph doesn’t bury his head in the sand he faces reality. We get a sense of that with (40:15)his request to the cupbearer “I was forcibly carried off from the land of the Hebrews, and even here I have done nothing to deserve being put in a dungeon.”
Responds appropriately – sometimes we think we ought to respond stoically or robotically to circumstances. But biblical realism calls us to respond appropriately. There is a sense of grief and loss in Joseph’s words to the cupbearer and naming of Manasseh(41:51-52) but that pain and loss hasn’t mortgaged his sense of God’s presence and his trust in God’s promises, he can still praise God. His responses glorify God and recognise his sovereignty.
Reacts and is changed – The Joseph who meets his brothers and graciously forgives, is not the same one who lords his dreams over them, or runs to tell tales, or revels in his Father’s favouritism. Joseph learns and matures and his character is shaped as he trusts God through trial and blessing.
Refuses and remembers – Joseph refuses to allow circumstances to dictate his view of God but remembers who God is and applies that truth to his situation. (40:8, 41:16, 32)He remembers that God is sovereign, and that he has not for one second been outside of God’s plan for him, that even through evil God works, and that confidence enables him to risk confronting Pharaoh with his impotence in the face of a sovereign God.
Serves God by serving others – Joseph is not found reliving his mistreatment, or the forgetfulness of the cupbearer, instead he is serving others and it is apparent to everyone that God is with him(41:25-28), and that bears fruit and through him God blesses (56-57)the whole world.
Joseph responds to both blessing and trial the same way he faces reality, he responds appropriately, he reacts and is changed, he serves God by serving others, and he refuses and remembers. That is biblical realism which trusts God and bears fruit whether in trial or blessing.
How do we respond to blessing and to trials? They don’t cause us to be something we are not; they reveal what we have been all along.
Joseph responds and reacts as he does because he knows God, it flows from the relationship he has with God, a God who he knows is sovereign over everything and is with his people.