Archive for January, 2011
A couple of weeks ago I used Isaiah 40:31 as part of my sermon series on the life of Joseph. Waiting time is not wasted time, for its during those moments of waiting that God does his work of preparing us for what lies ahead. Some of our members commented that what I did with the verse was helpful, so I thought I would paraphrase the verse and post it. I hope it encourages you today.
“Those who wait with a spirit of expectation for the Lord’s actions will discover that their hope in God renews their strength. Like soaring eagles they will have discernment which helps them have clarity and perspective. They will discover that God will re-energize them to meet the demands placed before them, like a marathon runner who gets stronger and stronger as the race progresses. Not only that, they will be consistent and steady in the day to day routine of life, never stumbling because they have lost their balance.” (Isaiah 40:31, TDV)
Joseph waited 13 long years before he had any tangible indication that his dreams would come true. Joseph is one of many biblical characters that experienced detours on the pathway to their God given dreams. As is true of us, they experienced a broad span of emotion that ranged from total resignation to steadfast hope. Their stories are inspirational because these characters, when faced with the decision, chose to have hope in God. And from God’s point of view hope is a reasonable choice.
Hope is a reasonable choice because it is based on God, not on our limited resources or our dire circumstances. Whether one is in a pit, a prison, facing a Red Sea, standing in the middle a desert wilderness with no water, a giant who stands 9′ tall, a well equipped army, or even a cross; hope was and remains today a reasonable choice because your situation is never hopeless until God has spoken the last word.
It is impossible to walk in a straight line without a point of reference. What is your point of reference? Better yet, who is your point of reference that provides guidance and direction?
After spending 10 years as a slave, Joseph then faced three years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. It wasn’t just or fair. Maybe you’ve discovered life can be like that. When we face adversity in life, whether just or unjust, we naturally ask the question “Why?” From time to time I come across a bewildered believer who will ask whether it is appropriate to ask the question “Why?” when life goes sideways. You may not be questioning things today, but you may someday. Maybe you know a person who is struggling with one or more issues who is asking the question “Why?” So to those who have such questions on our lips I offer these thoughts.
Asking “Why?” is a normal and natural thing to do. We are wired to seek understanding, and in many regards, that’s how our faith has been developed to this point. But our desire for understanding frequently collides headlight to headlight with God’s insistence to be somewhat veiled in mystery. We want clear answers from a God that is perfectly comfortable with allowing his dearly loved children to struggle with unresolved mystery. So don’t beat yourself up for asking “Why?” It doesn’t make you less of a Christian and God, believe it or not, is not offended when you do.
While asking “why?” may not be a problem as an initial response to our suffering, getting stuck there can be. To be completely honest, the question “Why?” is really shorthand for a longer stream of consciousness. When we ask “Why?”, we’re really asking…
… “Why ME?”
… “Why this CIRCUMSTANCE?”
… “Why this DIFFICULT PERSON?”
… “Why NOW?”
If we get stuck on the question “Why?”, we inevitably end up defending our own righteousness in the face of the righteousness of God. We become entrenched in defending our own merits and goodness and insist that we are not deserving of whatever it is we are facing. If you find yourself defending your goodness over the goodness of God, you’re stuck (see the story of Job).
You can choose a better question, and that would be the question “What?” “What am I supposed to learn?” “What area of my character is being developed?” “What do I need to learn from this adversity?” “What can I take from my adversity that will make me a better person?” “What experiences can I take and use to serve others who are suffering?” That line of questioning may not provide every answer you seek today, but it will help you work through your suffering and grow you into the likeness of Christ.
Even though Joseph did the right thing he ended up in prison. According to Psalm 105:18, he suffered greatly during his incarceration. Alone in jail, Joseph continued to cling to the promises of God with a pure conscience and his integrity intact. Let me offer a few final thoughts about how we can handle temptation.
1. Establish clear boundaries for your life.
One of the reasons we find ourselves in compromising situations is that we don’t have clearly defined limits and safe guards in place. You can’t protect yourself from temptation 100% of the time, but you can drastically reduce the severity of temptation by setting boundaries and sticking to them.
2. Don’t be easy on your passions.
Be a student of yourself and above all be honest with yourself about the cracks and fault lines in your life. If you are a student of yourself and can appropriately identify the weak spots, you can work on those areas and shore them up. Unfortunately we live in a culture that values image projection over character development. Working on your character is a daily discipline you can ill afford to neglect. I Corinthians 10:12 says, “Therefore, whoever thinks he stands needs to be careful not to fall!”
3. Fill your life with the righteousness of God.
In the parable of the mustard seed, Jesus taught that the mustard seed grows into a tree where the birds come and make nests in the branches. The point of the parable is not that little things get big. The point is that the Kingdom of God overtakes and crowds all other competing affections. When you fill your life with God, God will begin to crowd all of the competing desires and affections out so that their allure is drastically diminished.
If you will establish clear boundaries for your life, become real about your passions, and fill your life with the righteousness of God, you’ll find that you’ve taken some giant steps in your battle against temptation.
Temptation came to Joseph at a time in his life when he was vulnerable. The temptation appealed to his natural desires. He was far away from home where his accountability would have been higher. His family background failed to provide a positive model. It came after a big promotion when he would have been relaxed. It was constant. As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, we can take several steps toward overcoming temptation by simply recognizing the circumstances that make us vulnerable.
Though Joseph was vulnerable he stood firm. The story from Genesis 39 tells us how Joseph resisted this temptation. These points are invaluable, especially if you’re facing chronic or habitual sin patterns in your life.
First, Joseph got his mind right (Genesis 39:8-90). He confronted Potipher’s wife with the following rationale for his refusal:
• Your husband trusts me, and my integrity and character is of utmost importance.
• You are married and you belong to your husband. You are off limits! (It’s fascinating that Joseph had a sense that adultery was wrong…especially given the fact that this event occurred 400 years prior to Moses and the Ten Commandments!)
• God sees me! God was so real to Joseph that he knew that God was fully aware of every step he took.
While those arguments were well thought out and delivered, Potipher’s wife just doesn’t get it. She continued to pursue him. So Joseph did some practical things to resist her overtures (Genesis 39:10-12). He ignored her, refusing to acknowledge her continual requests, and he avoided being in her presence as much as possible.
Finally, Joseph had an escape strategy (Genesis 39:13). He could avoid her most of the time, but what would he do when backed into a corner? That’s right, he ran into the streets, leaving his coat behind. When all else failed, Joseph physically removed himself from the temptation. By the way, that was Paul’s advice to young Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:22: run!
I Corinthians 10:13 says, “The temptations in your life are no different from what others experience. And God is faithful. He will not allow the temptation to be more than you can stand. When you are tempted, he will show you a way out so you can endure” (NLT).
Do you need a plan to counter attack temptation? Do you have a plan? Joseph’s plan is a good template. Feel free to borrow it and make it your own. That’s why it’s in the Bible.
Joseph was ambushed by his brothers and sold to slave traders, proving that sometimes mayhem is unavoidable. Though we can’t control adversity, we can do something about our response. Which brings me to the next section of Joseph’s life, found in Genesis 39:1-20. Joseph arrived in Egypt and was sold to the highest bidder, who happened to be a man named Potipher. Potipher was the chief of the executioners in Pharaoh’s cabinet. We might think of him as a modern equivalent to the Director of the FBI or the CIA. Joseph would live as a slave in his house for nearly 10 years.
Because Joseph was a man of destiny, God blessed him and all that he did. His success gained Potipher’s attention and he was promoted to serve as the chief administrator of Potipher’s household. Enter mayhem. Joseph was well built and handsome. There are only two others in the Bible who are designated “handsome.” Before you know it, Potipher’s wife began making sexual advances toward him. When I pause and think about it, its quite remarkable that Joseph didn’t give in. Think about it…
…The temptation would have been natural. Joseph was a single guy who has been approached by (what I assume) is a beautiful woman. After all, powerful men tend to have pretty wives.
…Joseph was away from home. You know the phrase “what happens in Egypt stays in Egypt!” There’s something about being away from home that makes temptation strong.
…Joseph’s family would not have provided a clear, positive example. He had grown up without a healthy model of relationships between men and women.
…The temptation came after a big promotion when it would have been easy for Joseph to relax and let down his guard.
…The temptation was continual. She pressed him frequently.
The apostle Paul reminded the Corinthian church to not be “taken advantage of by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his intentions” (2 Corinthians 2:11, HCSB). Joseph’s experience in Potipher’s house warns us that we will face temptation. It’s real. But it’s easier to deal with temptation when you are aware of how temptation comes and when you are most vulnerable. Tomorrow I’ll post more from this story and deal specifically with how Joseph resisted temptation.
Where are you vulnerable to temptation?
Last Christmas my daughter Lauren gave me The Hole in the Gospel as a gift, but I think it would be more appropriate to call it a blessing. Written by Richard Stearns, President of World Vision, U.S., this book serves the reader in two special ways.
The first section of the book is autobiographical. Stearns shares his story of growing up in poverty and putting himself through an Ivy League school, earning a degree in neurobiology then later a MBA. He was an avowed atheist who turned to Christ through the witness of his girlfriend who eventually became his wife. Stearns was successful in his business career and was named President of Parker Brothers at the age of 33. He later became President and CEO of Lenox, Inc., America’s fine tableware and gift company.
During his years in business, the Stearns family lived a committed Christian life. They were active participants in local churches and were especially supportive of missions and mission work around the world. Stearns replays with transparency the struggle he underwent hearing and acknowledging God’s calling to leave the business arena to become the head of World Vision.
Stearns then shared his work with World Vision and provided the reader with a powerful challenge to become engaged in helping to solve real problems among the suffering around the world. There are many talking heads today that are able to share some of the same statistical data that Stearns provides in the book. Some of those statistics are well known while others are obscure and unfamiliar. Statistical data works in this book simply because Stearns has been to the places he writes about. He tells stories from his travels of the people he’s met and the suffering that he’s witnessed first hand. For me, those statistics became more striking because I knew that he knew something that went beyond the numbers. He had walked and lived among the suffering and was able to attach a name and a face to the suffering. Statistics alone can never do that.
I also appreciate Stearns ability to appropriately use Scripture in context to call the community of faith to action. His writing wasn’t filled with peppered assaults on the reader from the Bible. He faithfully interacted with Scripture and called the reader to be open to the Holy Spirit’s call to involvement. This was powerful in the most tasteful way.
The Hole in the Gospel is a wonderful book for those who have a heart for missions and to alleviate suffering in the world. I commend it to those who are passionate about the world, and recommend it to those who realize that there’s more to life than making silverware.
“For I was hungry, while you had all you needed. I was thirsty, but you drank bottled water. I was a stranger, and you wanted me deported. I needed clothes, but you needed more clothes. I was sick, and you pointed out the behaviors that led to my sickness. I was in prison, and you said I was getting what I deserved.” (Matthew 25:34-36, Richard Stearns Version)
So what is The Hole in the Gospel? The Hole in the Gospel is the dispairity between what we say we believe and what we actually do. Until we fill that hole, our religion is an empty religion that God despises.
Joseph must have been reeling after he was stripped of his robe, thrown into a pit (to starve to death), then sold for the price of a crippled slave to Midianite traders headed to Egypt. You can read the details of these events in Genesis 37:12-35. Mayhem didn’t hit Joseph gradually. Within moments he went from being the heir of the family to a slave, escaping with little more than his life. I’ve frequently wondered how Joseph processed these events in light of his coat and his dreams. How do we process mayhem when (not if!) it comes?
Here are the three talking points that I shared last weekend in worship.
1. Suffering is an introduction to exaltation.When adversity meets our ambition it can be difficult to find clarity in the midst of chaos and confusion. But from a 30,000 feet perspective, we can see the adversity we face is used by God to prepare us for something greater. Every signficant biblical character faced adversity which, in turn, developed character and prepared them for even greater assignments. Even Jesus dealt with mayhem during his three year ministry. There was no palace for Joseph without a pit and a prison. There was no crown of glory for Jesus without a cross. If God will permit mayhem to come to us on our way to our holy ambition, then who are we to think we should be exempt?
2. It’s not what happens to me, but what happens in me that counts.God will use adversity to develop character and Christlikeness in our lives. Let me explain. Think about the mayhem in your life. Now think for a moment about your reaction to that adversity. I believe that the reaction that spills out of us when mayhem strikes becomes the very internal issue that God seeks to work on and redeem. Pay attention to your reactions to those inconvenient interruptions, because they are the very places that God desires growth in your life. God will use difficult problems and difficult people to make you more like Christ.
3. Never doubt in the dark what God has shown you in the light.All Joseph could see was what Joseph could see. What he couldn’t see was that he was right on schedule in accomplishing his God given dreams. Sometimes when mayhem hits our lives we enter a period of darkness where it is hard to find clarity. In that darkness we can’t see any good or any benefit from our adversity. Worst of all, we are tempted to feel as though God has abandoned us. We feel that because we cannot see God at work, that God is not at work, but nothing is farther from the truth. God was at work even though Joseph couldn’t see it. Remember, at Jesus most desperate moment he cried, “My God, My God why have you forsaken me.” It was at that very moment in time that God was doing his greatest work. Just because you can’t sense God working doesn’t mean He’s not. Don’t doubt it for a moment.
The biblical story of Joseph begins in the 17th year of his life. Even though his family background had provided him with some unique personal challenges, he must have been enthusiastic about his own future. Full of youthful optimism and innocence, Joseph embraced his God given dreams and anticipated what lie ahead. Even though God had revealed and exciting future, Joseph may not have expected his journey to be filled with so many obstacles. What do you do when adversity collides with your holy ambition?