The story of Joseph’s life in Genesis is familiar enough in our culture to have been made into a West End musical. The dream that in a flash someone can be catapulted from a dungeon-like experience to the second most powerful man on earth has inspired hope in millions of people throughout the centuries.
I have to confess, however, I’ve often misapplied the story, simply thinking: “If it can happen to him, why not me?” That tends to start idle fantasising about standing in front of Number 10 Downing Street, implementing policy that changes a nation for the better, or equally self-absorbed visions of grandeur.
However, the transition from prisoner to prime minister isn’t the most notable change in the story. Instead the reader is to take note of the inner transformation that Joseph undergoes. In Genesis 37 he’s given an ornamental cloak and everyone hates him for it. We can safely assume that he was anything but embarrassed by his father’s favouritism, instead: rather arrogant, boastful and egocentric.
Four chapters and 13 years later, he’s again robed in impressive clothes by Pharaoh, only this time he’s characterised by wisdom and an ability to forgive by humility, despite his great prominence and everyone cheering his name – Genesis 41:43.
Those 13 years of slavery followed by imprisonment were characterised by many things, but perhaps more than anything Joseph had lots of time with God. In fact, the only times in the whole adventure we’re told that “the Lord was with Joseph2 – Genesis 39:2,3,21,23 – was under Potiphar’s watchful eye, and then again in prison.
How does time with God change us? Significantly, it frees us from self. Joseph begins the story boasting about his future, freely speaking of dreams about reigning over his family. After more than a decade of knowing God with him, he’s become a servant in Genesis 41:4. That’s the hallmark of a changed life: “Whoever wants to be great must be your servant.” Matthew 20:26.
The problem with so many of my plans for the future is they’re all about me: my success, my achievement, my relationships, my athletic waistline. That self-obsessed perspective was the problem I was born with. Jesus is slowly helping redeem me from that.
There’s actually something better to live for: not me. I wonder how my life would be different if I devoted myself, my time and my money to others above myself?
“Greater love has no one than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” John 15:13.