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You might recognize the name Elizabeth Gilbert as the author of the bestselling novel Eat, Pray, Love.  Along with her fiction writing, Gilbert also writes and speaks about creativity – how it works and how it sometimes doesn’t work.  She tells stories about her own experiences with writer’s block and the fear of failure that can stop creativity dead in its tracks.

Misfortunes and Blessings

Genesis 41.46-57
Rev. William Bills
UUMC

Joseph had experienced years of injustice and suffering yet somehow he is able to see nothing but blessings arising from his misfortune.

For the past couple weeks I have shared with you the story of Joseph, the youngest son of Jacob, the patriarch of Israel. We first encountered Joseph as a brash, arrogant and spoiled seventeen-year-old. He was the youngest son and the favorite of his father. Everybody knew this and his brothers hated him for it.

Now we find Joseph as a thirty-year-old man. He has acquired a lot of life experience. His brothers threw him into a pit years ago, leaving him to be picked up by slave traders. The brothers soaked his coat of many colors in animal blood and returned it to Jacob, allowing their father to think Joseph had been eaten by wild animals.

Joseph was then sold into slavery in Egypt where he served the captain of the king’s guard. The captain’s wife tried to seduce Joseph but he would not comply. She framed him on charges of attempted rape. He then spent years in a dungeon. One day Joseph was finally released and taken to the Pharaoh who was being troubled by disturbing dreams. Joseph was able to interpret the dreams of the Egyptian king and for that he was rewarded handsomely. The king made Joseph prime minister over Egypt. His authority in Egypt was second only to the Pharaoh.

Over a thirteen year period Joseph went from being his father’s favored son to almost being murdered by his brothers. He was sold into slavery in Egypt. Then through no fault of his own, he was unfairly thrown into another pit, a dungeon where he languished for years, accused of a crime he didn’t commit.

Joseph’s family resented his dreams. In those dreams Joseph rose to power over his family. Now it is his ability to interpret dreams that gets Joseph released from the dungeon. His ability to interpret the Pharaoh’s dreams led to Joseph’s appointment as prime minister of Egypt.

Joseph explained to the Pharaoh that his two dreams meant there would be seven years of good crops in the land. Following that there would be seven years of famine over all the world. Joseph suggested an economic strategy to help prepare for the coming famine. He also suggested that the king appoint someone discerning and wise to carry out the plan. The king was most impressed and appointed Joseph to carry out the plan.

In verse 37 the Egyptian king acknowledged that the spirit of God rested uniquely upon Joseph. He was no longer the arrogant seventeen-year-old. Joseph rose to power as a wise and discerning man of God who learned from his misfortune.

In some respects, Joseph had brought his misfortune on himself. He was spoiled. He was a tattle tale. He did little work. His brothers therefore despised Joseph. He made them mad and they dealt harshly with him. Perhaps too harshly, but he made it easy for them to be angry with him.

Now Joseph has grown into a man who has learned from his misfortune. He had been very patient in his suffering. He kept his faith and a sense of perspective. He made the absolute best of a truly terrible situation. I don’t know that I could do that. His newfound power and status don’t go to his head now. He has learned too much for that to happen. He now has the opportunity to bear good fruit, to serve others and to serve God in a time of great need. He didn’t spend time feeling sorry for himself. I don’t know that I could do that as well as he did, especially considering all that he had unfairly suffered.

People often have great hopes, dreams and plans for how their lives should go. Sometimes circumstances derail those plans and life goes careening out of control. Sometimes, like Joseph, we are our own worst enemy, and our poor judgment causes the derailment. Either way, we must choose how we will respond. Joseph could be blaming his brothers. Joseph could be blaming God. He could be extremely bitter. Instead he is calm, thoughtful and faithful. The misfortune he experienced put Joseph in the position of being a life-saving blessing to all the world.

It can be very hard to keep this kind of perspective when our life seems out of control. Especially if it is through no fault of our own. Anytime anyone suffers unjustly we can understand why they might become bitter, angry or cynical. Anger and blaming are normal responses to suffering injustice.

We need to be careful about telling people to count their blessings in such times because it isn’t easy to be like Joseph. Joseph is a remarkable example of someone who was able to persevere. He refused to blame or seek revenge. He maintained faith in God in the midst of great misfortune.

I wonder if he ever did just want to give up. It is remarkable when someone can find a way to bless others in the midst of their own adversity. I have to admit that I might have given up somewhere during those thirteen years of misfortune. I might not have been able to keep such a Godly perspective after all that Joseph went through. He was remarkable.

Joseph didn’t just cope with adversity. He is bore fruit as the result of his adversity. He is did wonderful things to change the lives of others. He wasn’t only thinking of himself and all he has suffered through.

I wonder if I could be that big of a person. I might think that the world owed me something after all those years of being treated so badly. If it were me, would I use my newfound power to save others, or would I use all that power to take care of myself, to make up for lost time? Would I use my newfound power to find those who had treated me so unfairly and get even with them?

Joseph was far from his home. He hadn’t seen his family for thirteen years. His brothers almost killed him. He was sold into slavery. He was framed and imprisoned. Surely his positive attitude and his perseverance were put to the test. He shows us that while life can be unfair and lonely sometimes, we are never really alone. The Pharaoh saw clearly that the spirit of God was with Joseph. Joseph saw clearly that God never calls anyone only to abandon them into senseless suffering.

We all live through life’s challenges at some time or another. When we are in the midst of those challenges it can be hard to maintain any perspective. It can be hard to keep faith and trust in God. It can be so hard to see or even believe that God is with us and that some blessing will eventually come out of our misfortune.

We aren’t usually able to see that until we are through the difficult times. After we come out on the other side, then we might able to see how God had sustained us. Time to heal, and some distance, can help us regain a sense of perspective so that we can use what we have been through to be a blessing to others.

After all the injustice and suffering that Joseph experienced he suddenly found himself in position to be a savior for the entire world. Funny how God does stuff like that sometimes! The spirit of God never left Joseph. Thanks to his wisdom and discernment, Egypt was prepared for the famine. Thanks to his wisdom and discernment, the entire world was saved from starvation. Thanks to his wisdom and discernment, Joseph was able to save his family, including his brothers who helped bring this misfortune upon him. Had Joseph simply given in to despair and hopelessness, he never would have been in position to save so many people.

After everything that had happened, Joseph was able to move on. He married an Egyptian woman and they had two sons. One he named Manasseh, meaning: God has made me forget all my hardship and what my family did to me. The other he named Ephraim, meaning: God has made me fruitful in the land of my misfortunes.

In spite of the symbolic names given to Joseph’s two sons, I don’t think that moving on meant that Joseph simply forgot all of his misfortune. Every time he spoke the names of his sons he would be reminded that he was not at home with his family. He was living in a foreign land and not by his choice. Every time he spoke the name of Manasseh he would have to remember his hardship and what his family had done to him. What he was really doing was reminding himself that in spite of these things, he had chosen to go on with life. He chose to not be bitter. He chose to bless others in response to his misfortune.

These choices can be hard to make. They are life lessons not easily learned. They are faith lessons not easily learned. They are life lessons learned the hard way.

When you are suffering injustice, being treated unfairly; when it feels like you’re in the pit or locked in the dungeon, you are never really alone. The spirit of God is with you. God never calls us to faithfulness only to abandon us to senselessness. That can be hard to see when life gets really difficult. But God can turn misfortune into blessing. It is possible to live through misfortune and suffering and learn from the experience and then bless others.

Even when we find ourselves in the deepest, darkest pit, God is there with us. God doesn’t promise that we will never find ourselves unfairly tossed into a pit. God does promise that if that happens, God will not abandon us. God will descend into that pit so that we are not alone in our suffering. God will lift us out of that pit.

God always offers us hope for the future and a spirit for healing. God will give the needed strength to move forward. God can show us how to take our own misfortune and use it to be a blessing for others. This is sometimes the most difficult lesson of faith that we learn. But it is one of the most important lessons of faith that we learn.