One of my all-time favourite sporting yarns comes from 1994. West Ham were playing a pre-season friendly at Oxford United, and a number of their squad were nursing injuries. With his team struggling, a mouthy Hammers fan kept hurling abuse from the touchline: “Get up you donkey. I’m not coming again if you play like this!”
Manager, Harry Redknapp, finally had enough and confronted him: “Think you can do better? You’re on for the second half.” And so, for the first time in history, a supporter, Steve Davies, was plucked from the crowd to play for his beloved team. It turned out he couldn’t do better than the professionals – the ball almost knocked him over the first time he touched it, such was the pace on the pass. The scathing critique of the team dried up once in the middle of the arena.
Success is like that. It looks so glossy, so shiny from the outside, but it comes with pressures of its own: increased scrutiny, further to fall if things go wrong, not to mention the persevering hard work and discipline to get there. I used to be an armchair critic of public speakers. That’s changed now I’m regularly doing it myself.
Joseph the prime minister knew all about that. His life may have looked a picture of success from the outside as he ruled over Egypt, but he experienced pressure I wouldn’t relish. Genesis 43:32 tells us: “They served (Joseph) food by himself…because Egyptians could not eat with Hebrews, for that is detestable to Egyptians.” A ruler in a nation where nobody deigns to eat with him: isolating indeed.
Perhaps a word of wisdom to all of us might be to be careful what we wish for. Those career advancements, leadership opportunities, new relationships and disciplined lifestyles all bring with them challenges as well as opportunities; hardships as well as blessings. If I want the benefits, I must equally be prepared for the costs. A final word of encouragement for those that are already scaling the mountain and beginning to feel altitude sickness: there’s a more exciting story in progress than your own, one that Joseph would have been acutely aware of himself.
Genesis 41:49: “Joseph stored up huge quantities of grain, like the sand of the sea; it was so much that he stopped keeping records because it was beyond measure.”
On the surface, that’s just a note of Joseph’s brilliant organisational abilities, his clever planning and forward thinking, the height of his influence. He’d have seen the deeper reality though, as would any Jewish reader worth their salt. When they heard of grain saving the world – like the sand on the seashore, too numerous to count, they’d think on a much bigger, much better story: that one day the earth would be blessed through countless sand-like descendants because of an old promise in Genesis 22:17-18. A descendant of Abraham eventually came along, and through him the whole world has, is, and will be blessed.
That’s something for us to ponder, too. Whether this year brings breakthrough success or unequalled loneliness, remember the bigger picture, the better story. God’s master plan was unfolding, both through Joseph’s nation-shaping decisions and equally when he was dining alone. It puts our small-fry plans in their proper perspective, but also provides great encouragement when stepping out onto the pitch and beginning to feel the heat from the crowd.