We continue our series in the story of Joseph, found in Genesis 37-50. We hope that you are able to read along with us. Alasdair MacIntyre is a moral philosopher who wrote a very famous book on ethics, After Virtue (1981). MacIntyre underlined the idea that to be human is to live within a storied existence, and that it is in and through our stories that we find sense and meaning. I read this sentence in my hot Richmond, BC apartment, sometime in 1992:
I can only answer the question “What am I to do?” if I can answer the prior question “Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?” [Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, p. 216]
What story are you living in? I wonder how Joseph might have answered that question through the various turns of his life. I wonder how he might have answered that question in his lowest moment, at the moment his story took the turn into an unjust imprisonment. The dream and the dreamer appeared to be very much in jeopardy.
But there remained this point of hope: God was with him. That phrase is repeated twice as Joseph begins his long years of imprisonment. Take a look at the end of Genesis 39 and find this glimmer of light in an otherwise despairing set of circumstances. In the descent of his life to its lowest point, Joseph is still in the hands of God, still a man with a destiny, still someone of whom it could be said, “God was with him”.
I have never been in jail but I have known some very low points in my life. And so have most of us. I have even known a few moments of despair, evidenced in my personal journals and in a few pieces of poetry I have written to help myself through those times. But I have to say this as well: that my moments of hopelessness were never total. For somehow, and in some unquantifiable way, I knew that God was with me. Sure, I wondered what was going on in my story, but I also knew the comforting divine presence:
Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I will not be afraid, for you are close beside me. Your rod [protection] and your staff [guidance] protect and comfort me. [Psalm 23:4, NLT]
You may have heard about Teresa of Avila, one of our more vibrant saints. Teresa was known for her energetic leadership (she founded 14 monasteries) as well as her tenacity in the face of adversity. She also carried a wonderful sense of humor. One of the most famous anecdotes about Teresa recounts a moment when she questioned God about the trials she was enduring. Teresa said she heard God say to her, "But this is how I treat my friends." To which Teresa replied, "No wonder you have so few of them." One wonders why God takes us through such difficult paths.
Perhaps one clue is seen in the way some of our most famous Christian writers were shaped by prison: the apostle Paul, John Bunyan, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, Corrie Ten Boom, Charles Colson and Richard Wurmbrand. Though none of them would have ever chosen prison (whoever could?), I believe they would all echo Solzhenitsyn’s sentiment when he called his prison experience strangely “blessed”. Each found God and their truest self through that experience.
Few of us will experience real prison, especially the kind of unjust imprisonment that Joseph endures. But there are other kinds of “constrainment”: discouragement will surely come to us all, and so will heartbreak, loss, confusion, trouble, suffering. And how might we describe such realities except they withhold from us from the life we would rather be living, the life we believe we were meant to live. I suppose the question then becomes: how does one respond when you are not in the driver’s seat of life? What story are you part of when that story suddenly takes a turn you didn’t want or expect? And this: do you still know that God is with you?
In prison Joseph waits. The years go by, for this is not a story told quickly. But this is the way God chooses to form the greatness that will be Joseph when he finally emerges before all of Egypt. As Theresa came to understand, this is sometimes how God treats his friends. Can we accept this?
We continue our series in Joseph this Sunday.