This article is the first in a series: “Saints Who Suffered.” Our goal is to encourage believers in trial, and it seems fitting to start with a man God elevated from the lows of prison to the height of power. It is remarkable that so much of God’s Book of Beginnings, Genesis, is occupied with this one man. In print, film, audio and the stage, Joseph is known as one who suffered for righteousness’ sake. He was a good and fruitful bough by a well, whose branches ran over a great wall of difficulty (Gen 49:22). His life inspires many.
Recounting the Scene
Our introduction to Joseph makes it clear that he was unique, marked by honesty and obedience to earthly authority and the God of heaven. There is no hint of self in the characteristic reply to his father, “Here am I!” God marked him for service at a youthful age, and his honest report and fantastic dreams kindled a dark and sinister jealousy among his brothers. They rejected Joseph and his dreams and sold him as a slave, seeking an expedient end to the light he shed on their stained and selfish hearts.
Slavery led him to Potiphar’s house, and while the scene changed, Joseph’s spirit and long trial did not. Within a brief time, Joseph was elevated by his godly character and dutifully met all of Potiphar’s needs. His success and appearance caught the eye of Potiphar’s wife. Her lies and deceit compounded Joseph’s rejection and suffering. He would not submit to her wickedness and sin against God (Gen 39:9). As a result, he was cast into prison and forgotten.
Yet, even in prison Joseph’s integrity shone. Pharaoh’s disgraced butler found himself indebted to a godly man who opened dreams by the power of God. Ironically, dreams led Joseph to Egypt in chains and dreams would set him beside Pharaoh’s throne. Finally remembered, Joseph displayed the wisdom of God to the confused young Pharaoh. His acumen was recognized and, after years of suffering, Joseph left the cistern, slavery and the cell to rule the land of Egypt!
The Reality of Suffering
We tend to wonder why people like Joseph suffer. Somehow, we expect the sinfulness of sin to leave them alone. But suffering befalls all of humankind; it is a product of sin. Each of us is subject to sin in this world, and so suffering follows. It may come physically, emotionally or spiritually, and it hurts. Saint and sinner groan and travail in the pain of sin. The Apostle Paul wrote that even we, first fruits of the Spirit of God, groan within ourselves because of sin (Rom 8:22).
Joseph suffered for doing what was right in a sinful world. We do not read of his own actions bringing him shame, but the wrongs of others grieved him (Gen 49:23). As such, he is a picture of suffering for good, for what is right and Christ-like. However, this does not mean the pain was any less than one who suffers for doing wrong! In fact, such suffering may be felt more keenly. The thief on the cross knew he suffered the due reward of his deeds, and he expected the punishment (Luk 23:41).
What a slap to young Joseph when he obediently found his brothers in Dothan, and then stumbled, hours later, friendless and in chains behind a Midianite caravan! Potiphar’s wife robbed him of any chance to defend himself before his master. Cast down, he was hurled into the prison in a rash of anger. Some chronologies suggest Joseph may have suffered more than five years in the dungeons, laboring before Pharaoh’s dreams woke him up to the light of the palace. While God meant it for good, Joseph knew the pain of suffering for the wrongs of others, and the iron entered his soul (Psa 105:18).
The Response of the Sufferer
It is clear that Joseph suffered for doing good and right before God. However, the greatest evidence of Joseph’s suffering for righteousness is seen in the coming of his brothers to Egypt. With slavery and prison behind him, the ruler of Egypt saves the empire and averts a great famine by the wisdom of God. Food abounds while crops fail, and the nations and tribes around are forced to Egypt to buy grain. It is under these conditions we see his dreams fulfilled, and we witness his greatest pain.
The “Savior of the World” didn’t cry when the Midianite traders hauled him to Egypt. There were no tears in Potiphar’s house. Day after day of dreary prison work was met with silence, not sobs. But when 10 sons of Jacob appeared to buy grain, Joseph wept great tears. In fact, Joseph wept through each trial of his brothers, and each lesson they learned from his hand tore his heart.
His lessons were hard, but necessary. They despised his true report and search at Dothan as a youth, and so they must know the pain of suffering as untrue spies in his kingdom. They sold him for silver, and so they feared to find that silver in the mouth of their grain sacks. They disposed of him as their authority, and so they despaired to find his ruler’s cup with Benjamin. He was lost to his father and family, but they marveled when he knew them by age and birthright.
Before his sinful brothers, with Christ-like compassion, Joseph suffered not for his own righteousness, but that they might be right before God. He taught them, forgave them, and embraced them. His words are compassion: be not grieved, be not angry with yourselves, God did send me to preserve life (Gen 45:5). “But Joseph said to them … ‘As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.’ Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them” (Gen 50:19-21 ESV).
The Result of the Strife
Joseph’s pains brought the sons of Israel to Goshen, where God needed them in the famine. His suffering on their behalf ensured that Israel, as a complete nation, would grow and ultimately return to Canaan in His time. The glory of this suffering saint was not his own righteousness, but that his righteous heart suffered so others could be used by God as well. When trials befall us, we can suffer for doing good, even doing good for others (1Pe 3:17).