God Intended It for Good

Genesis 50

I have a confession to make: I have always been a little skeptical when people talk about the Bible and “family values.” From my read of scripture, family life in the Bible was pretty far from Leave It to Beaver families with father and mother and 2.3 happy children. Jealousy between brothers Cain and Abel that ended in murder; Abraham’s wives Sarah and Hagar, competing for the honor of bearing his son; Jacob cheating his brother Esau out of his inheritance, and leaving Esau in a violent rage—just to name a few of the stories! Extended and blended, admirable and conniving, it’s hardly the idealized model that “family values” seems to refer to. It’s more like the families we know and live in, in all their love and messiness.

The story of Joseph and his brothers which brings the book of Genesis to a close is no exception. Joseph is the 11th son out of 12; he is favored over his older brothers because he is born to his father Jacob’s favorite wife. Their jealousy of Joseph grows until finally they plot to kill him, only at the last minute sparing his life by selling him into slavery.

You might remember the story: Joseph ends up a slave in Egypt, the most powerful kingdom in the land. Through many turns of events, Joseph eventually becomes the lead manager of all Egypt, second only to Pharaoh himself. Many years go by until, one day, Joseph’s brothers show up to buy food due to a widespread famine. They don’t recognize Joseph, but he knows who they are immediately. And over the course of weeks, he tests them to see whether they regret the way they had treated him.

The story climaxes when Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers: “I am your brother, Joseph!” he exclaims. “Do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; For God sent me before you to preserve life.” Then, with tears and embraces, he promises to bring them to live in Egypt.

Our first lesson picks up the story after Jacob, their father, dies. Years have gone by, and the brothers and their families have prospered in Egypt. But now the brothers worry that Joseph only reconciled with them for his father’s sake. When they bring up the matter to Joseph, he says these amazing words: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.”

It is a remarkable story of forgiveness—if this is what people mean when they talk of biblical family values, then I am on board! But what I really love about this story is summed up in Joseph’s final line—that God’s grace is working in all circumstances, even when there are bad intentions and harm is done. I have seen that story lived out around me—especially in my friend Barb’s life.

Barb joined the church when she was getting married, and I was the young pastor. We had babies at the same time, and we became friends. God had always been in Barb’s life, but a new chapter began the day she left her home with her three small children and went to Interval House, a safe home for women encountering domestic violence. Leaving her husband was a huge step, because it acknowledged things she hadn’t wanted to see: a pattern of verbal abuse that was turning physical. Over the next year there were restraining orders, legal testimony, and finally, a messy divorce.

But it didn’t end there. Her former husband was angry, and he wanted revenge. He was so intent on making her life miserable that every little negotiation for the care of the kids became a battle. He took her back to court repeatedly. Every time in court was a way to intimidate her as he had in her marriage, not to mention potentially bankrupting her. But Barb held fast. She raised her three boys and represented herself in court when her dollars for lawyers ran out. She went back to work and sold the family house. Sometimes she would call me in a fit of anxiety—the conversation would just circle around and around. I didn’t know how to advise her about child support or legal fees or how much to sell the house for. But we would pray on the phone together, and then Barb would make a decision, and take a next step.

It’s been 17 years now, and Barb has come a long way. She has learned to hold her own when dealing with her ex; she is not so intimidated. She has become stronger, more mature, and more compassionate. She is working on letting go of her resentments, even toward her ex-husband. Holding a grudge against him just makes it harder for her to move on.

When I called Barb to talk with her about this sermon, she shared two pieces of wisdom. You can’t do it by yourself—you need community. And indeed Barb has relied on daily devotions, 12-step support groups, and supportive friends and family.       

And then she said, “If you have just a mustard seed of faith, God will take it and make it grow.” You see, Barb never thought of herself as a strong person. God has worked on Barb over a long time, utilizing each challenge, healing each hurt. So now she is like a spiritual giant. She has been a sponsor for others in the 12-step group, she mentored other women in a professional network—and she is an example of a living faith to me. To me, Barbara is living proof that even when people intend something for harm, God can make it into something good.

Life is full of casualties—no one escapes the school of hard knocks. But our hurts do not have to define who we are. We can choose a different story, like Joseph did. A story where God is patient with us, secretly working through our mixed motives and hurts and hard circumstance. Loving us into strength, blessing us with moments of peace and grace, challenging us with opportunities to grow. Taking what people meant for harm and turning it into good.

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