Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Humility Pt. 1

I've learned so much during my book fast. My nightly routine used to be: start reading devotionals at ten pm, usually two or three books until about 10:30 pm, then open up the Bible and read three chapters and one Psalm/Proverb, write in my journal, then read a book, usually fiction, until I am too tired to keep my eyes open, usually around midnight.

During the fast, I started reading the Bible each night at ten pm and read until my eyes crossed from exhaustion, I'd usually be jotting things in my journal all along, and I was still getting to sleep around midnight. I discovered that by allowing the Bible to be the last thing I read before falling asleep, the message stuck with me through the next day far more than previously. Plus, by not just reading a few prescribed chapters, I digested huge chunks of story in one setting giving me a much deeper understanding of it. I feel like my faith and understanding grew more in these six weeks than it had in the six years prior!

One of the common threads I saw running through my reading was the humility of the men who were called by God. The first time I noticed this was in Joseph.

Joseph was the son of Jacob, great-grandson of Abraham with whom God made his covenant. The second youngest of twelve sons, Joseph was given prophetic dreams by the Lord. Unfortunately, as a young man, Joseph had yet to develop his humility, and he told his father and brothers about some dreams that involved them bowing down to him. Even his father, who favored him over all his other sons, was dismayed by Joseph's sharing of these dreams. Eventually, Jacob's favoritism destroyed the brotherly relationship, and Joseph's brothers sold him into slavery and he was brought to Egypt. It's there that Joseph's true character begins to shine.

Joseph was sold to a man named Potiphar who was a manager in Pharaoh's household. Now Joseph was a teenage boy who had been born to a wealthy, powerful man, a bit full of himself from the doting love of his father, and had been brought to a strange country and forced into slavery. He easily could have pouted and sulked or did a poor job of his duties. I don't think anyone would blame him for plotting his escape and doing a slipshod job. Instead:

As it turned out, God was with Joseph and things went very well with him. He ended up living in the home of his Egyptian master. His master recognized that God was with him, saw that God was working for good in everything he did. He became very fond of Joseph and made him his personal aide. He put him in charge of all his personal affairs, turning everything over to him. From that moment on, God blessed the home of the Egyptian—all because of Joseph. The blessing of God spread over everything he owned, at home and in the fields, and all Potiphar had to concern himself with was eating three meals a day. Genesis 39:2-9

Joseph accepted where God had placed him and obviously treated his employer with a great deal of respect and humility. No slave owner would promote a slave who acted like his better or did sloppy work. Joseph's work speaks for itself; Potiphar trusted him so much that he gave him complete control of his household.

However, Potiphar's wife also noticed Joseph's beauty and goodness and wanted him for herself. After several unsuccessful tries to seduce him, she accused him of attempted rape. Potiphar threw Joseph into prison, probably bemoaning the loss of the best servant and manager he'd ever have.

Again Joseph has been put into a terrible situation, and no one would blame him for being angry at God or giving up, but he continues to soldier on.

But there in jail God was still with Joseph: He reached out in kindness to him; he put him on good terms with the head jailer. The head jailer put Joseph in charge of all the prisoners—he ended up managing the whole operation. The head jailer gave Joseph free rein, never even checked on him, because God was with him; whatever he did God made sure it worked out for the best.  Genesis 39:21-23

Joseph continued to give his best effort, even in the middle of terrible adversity. He wasn't planning a break-out or making a shiv to take out the warden. Joseph was humble and so trustworthy, that the jailer allowed him to run the jail. While he was there, two of Pharaoh's servants, his cupbearer and baker, had dreams they couldn't explain. When Joseph heard them talking about them, he asked for details, but made sure that they knew where his knowledge was coming from: Joseph said, "Don't interpretations come from God? Tell me the dreams." Genesis 40:8

Joseph explained the dreams to each man, the cupbearer would return to Pharaoh's service and the baker would be executed, and asked the cupbearer to remember him to Pharaoh and get him out of prison. Everything happened just as Joseph predicted, but cupbearer forgot all about securing his freedom. Joseph could have become bitter from this betrayal, but he continued on in faith and trust in God.

Two years later, Pharaoh had a dream that neither he nor any of his magicians could interpret, and the cupbearer finally remembered Joseph. Pharaoh ordered him brought from the jail, but before Joseph appeared, he cut his hair and put on clean clothes, ensuring a good impression. Pharaoh asked Joseph to tell him the meaning of the dream since he was known for having the ability to do so. Joseph answered, "Not I, but God. God will set Pharaoh's mind at ease." Genesis 41:16 Joseph always gave the credit to God.

Upon hearing the dream, Joseph quickly explained that a time of great harvests was going to come up on the land for seven years, but following that would be seven years of the worst famine anyone had ever seen. He didn't stop there, but offered advice to Pharaoh on how to handle the problem. Joseph's manner must have been humble as well as wise because Pharaoh listened to his advice. That alone is amazing, but what Pharaoh did next is miraculous: he offered Joseph the job of organizing not just the food to get them through the famine, but made him second in the kingdom, answering only to Egypt! Think about that: Joseph comes up from spending seven years in prison and is immediately offered the job of running a country.

After all Joseph had suffered, he easily could have become arrogant, believing that this change in status was what he deserved. When his brothers make an appearance in the middle of the famine, no one would be surprised if he turned them out of the country without a grain of wheat or even threw them all in the same prison where he had toiled, but Joseph was truly a man of God, because he recognized God's hand in this and acted with humility. He did put his brothers through a few tests to see if their character had changed in the twenty or more years since they sold him into slavery, and his tests proved that they had. Judah, who originally orchestrated Joseph's capture and sale, offered himself up rather than allow another brother to be lost. Joseph's brothers' realization of the depth of their sin in selling Joseph had matured them, and when he saw their changed hearts, he couldn't hold back the tears. He welcomed them, embraced them, and forgave them for the sins they had committed against him. I don't think that if he had been holding on to his anger for all those years, he would have been able to do so that easily. Joseph must have forgiven them and surrendered his hurt and anger over to God.

Another indication of Joseph's humility and stellar character is Pharaoh's response to the discovery of the brothers. Pharaoh tells Joseph "'Tell your brothers, 'This is the plan: Load up your pack animals; go to Canaan, get your father and your families and bring them back here. I'll settle you on the best land in Egypt—you'll live off the fat of the land. Also tell them this: 'Here's what I want you to do: Take wagons from Egypt to carry your little ones and your wives and load up your father and come back. Don't worry about having to leave things behind; the best in all of Egypt will be yours.'" Genesis 45:17-20.

If someone is arrogant, rude, or proud, you certainly wouldn't invite their entire family to move in and offer to take long-term care of them. Joseph's family is welcome because he has made himself a pleasure to be around. That point is proved again when several years later Jacob, Joseph's father, died and the entire country of Egypt mourned his loss for seventy days. Jacob had no status in Egypt other than what came from his son. Joseph's humility provided for his entire family.

My heart really began to understand Joseph with this conversation with Pharaoh after Jacob's death: When the period of mourning was completed, Joseph petitioned Pharaoh's court: "If you have reason to think kindly of me, present Pharaoh with my request: My father made me swear, saying, 'I am ready to die. Bury me in the grave plot that I prepared for myself in the land of Canaan.' Please give me leave to go up and bury my father. Then I'll come back." Pharaoh said, "Certainly. Go and bury your father as he made you promise under oath."Genesis 50:4-6

Joseph was second in charge of Egypt. He had served under Pharaoh for over ten years, and yet he addressed him as a servant. He presented his request with a great deal of respect. Another man would have become jaded by the proximity to power, perhaps conspiring to overthrow the Pharaoh and take control of the throne for himself. Another man would have become lazy and drunk with power, ignoring his familial obligations and caring only for his own pleasure. Another man would have exploited his known relationship with God and understanding of dreams to inspire fear in others.

But Joseph was none of those men. He was a man who allowed his life to be led by God, no matter where the journey took him: through slavery, prison, betrayal, or to the heights of power. He was a humble man who never allowed his relationship with God or his power in the kingdom to change who God had made him to be. In reading the story of Joseph's life, you get the impression that Joseph identified himself as a man of God, son of Jacob, brother to Benjamin, and father to Ephraim and Manasseh, rather than as slave, prisoner, or ruler of Egypt. He didn't allow those labels to change who he was as a person, and I believe that there is a powerful lesson in that for each one of us.