Genesis 39:2, 21, 23 repeats the phrase, “the Lord was with [Joseph].” And for the first-time reader of the Joseph story, it can come across quite odd. For most of us who know this story inside and out, we skip over it without much thought. And that’s because we know how the story ends. After 13 years of suffering, Joseph comes out pretty well. Just like God told him through the dream in chapter 37.
But those 13 years were really bad. His brothers banded together to kill him. And then they acted together to sell him off to slave traders. In chains, he goes to the slave market where he is sold off to the highest bidder. As Potiphar’s slave, he tried to make best of his situation when he is wrongly accused of flirting with his master’s wife. I can’t imagine what it was like for him in prison – a foreign slave tried to sexually assault an Egyptian woman of upper class? It couldn’t have gone well for Joseph at all. And he was in prison for YEARS. And he didn’t do anything wrong! For 13 long years, he suffered.
And the Bible still declares, “the Lord was with him”? I think I can understand a few days of suffering, or even a month or two. But things are supposed to come around and become better if the Almighty God was with him. How can the Bible say God was with Joseph when his suffering lasted for 13 very long years? How can that be loving?
I know what the “biblical” responses are. 1) God wants to produce greater faith in us. We learn to trust God more in the midst of suffering. It’s when we suffer and know that we can’t do anything on our own that we turn to God and seek his help. 2) Suffering develops our character. Those who don’t suffer are too soft. But having suffered, we are stronger mentally and are able to cope with life better. 3) God wants us to be more empathetic to others in need. Having experienced suffering ourselves, we would be better qualified to care for others who need the love of God in their lives. 4) We cultivate greater wisdom. Crisis moments require thoughtful evaluation of the situation. We seek God’s wisdom; we learn to step away from quick reaction to think through seriously. 5) And of course, God wants to cut down our pride. Suffering produces humility.
I know all that, but suffering still hurts. And we are emotionally and psychologically affected by the pain. No one likes to suffer. We want blessing!
Let me try to understand God’s love in the midst of our suffering. God knows what he is doing. God alone knows the future and so he knows whether a particular suffering is helpful or destructive. And it requires our faith. We trust that our God knows what he is doing — that God is removing the destructive sufferings from our lives but leaving the constructive sufferings as they will produce those five positive results. Even if that suffering lasts far longer than we want. And we call our response, faith.
But still…I think 13 years is too much.