The Big Reveal

Joseph feasting with his brothers by Yoram Raanan
Joseph Feasting with His Brothers by Yoram Raanan

The biblical character, Joseph, went through a lot. While growing up, his brothers misunderstood and ridiculed him as “that dreamer.” Their jealousy and hatred of Joseph led them to throw him into a well and leave him for dead. Then, they turned around and pulled him out only to sell him into slavery. Joseph served as a household slave, until he was again misunderstood and wrongly accused by his master’s wife.

So, Joseph languished in a prison for years, suffering injustice. Yet, the awkward liminal space in between his family of origin and becoming the administrator over all Egypt was not a waste of time. Rather, it gave Joseph a divine perspective on his life and shaped him for his rise to power.

Likely believing he would never see his brothers and father again Joseph went about the immense work of overseeing Egypt. One day, during a severe famine, lo and behold, his brothers show up in his court looking to purchase some food for their large families! Joseph immediately recognized them. The brothers, however, did not have a clue that this was their long-lost brother.

Joseph, understandably guarded, kept his identity to himself and toyed with his brothers to discover how Jacob his father was doing. Eventually, through a labyrinthine experience of a few journeys of the brothers back and forth from Palestine to Egypt, Joseph could take it no longer; he just had to reveal his identity to his brothers. (Genesis 45:1-15)

Yet, the ultimate unveiling is much more a glimpse of what God was up to. Joseph provided a commentary on his life, why he endured hardship, and how he came to be the administrator over all Egypt. Joseph wisely discerned that God sent him to Egypt to save many lives.

It is mostly in retrospect we see what God has been doing all along.  A good chunk of our lives is a mystery that is concealed, only revealed with time and patience on our part. While we exist in the strange space of the great unknowing and may struggle to understand our hardships, God is working behind the scenes, bending all our life events to his purposes. And that is the key to understanding the entire narrative of Joseph (Genesis 37-50).

Joseph’s brothers, despite being stinkers, were the means God used to send Joseph to Egypt.  Furthermore, all of Joseph’s experiences in Potiphar’s house, and in the prison where he was unjustly sent were the training ground for him to lead all Egypt, second only to Pharaoh himself.

The Reconciliation of Joseph and his Brothers, Peter Cornelius 1
The Reconciliation of Joseph and His Brothers by Peter Cornelius, 1817

Therefore, trust and faith are imperative for God’s people. Faith is placed where the object is trustworthy. In other words, we trust God if we believe God is good and has our best interests at mind. Conversely, if we view God as sometimes fickle or inattentive, then placing faith in him becomes a gamble and we might be hesitant, hedging our bets and relying more on ourselves and our own ingenuity to get through a hard circumstance.

Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers.  Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.  He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of first fruits of all he created. (James 1:16-18, NIV)

We all face times and seasons in our lives where we wonder if the Lord is sitting in his Lazy-God recliner sleeping while we wither in some miserable situation, believing that God has better things to do, or has simply lost interest in my puny life. Yet, it could be that the Lord is providentially shaping our circumstances in preparation for us to accomplish a significant godly purpose.

Although hindsight can help us see the superintendence of God, the relationship between divine sovereignty and human responsibility is still largely a mystery.  Many times, we can only affirm paradoxical truths. For example:

  • It was ordained before the foundation of the world that Jesus would be our Savior.
  • Jesus chose to willingly face the cross for our sake.

Both statements are equally true at the same time, all the time.

  • Christ’s betrayal by Judas was foreordained and foretold in the Old Testament centuries before Judas Iscariot was born.
  • Judas deliberately chose to betray Jesus with a kiss for thirty pieces of silver.

Both are equally true.

  • Joseph was meant by God to go through all kinds of hardship for a purpose.
  • Joseph willingly submitted to his hardship, choosing not to become angry, bitter, or vindictive.

Both of those realities are equally true.

It is not so much what happens to us that is the issue or problem. Rather, it is how we interpret what happens to us that is the critical issue. The way Joseph interpreted his difficult circumstances and his brothers’ calloused behavior toward him was to see the big picture of what God was doing in the world, instead of merely viewing events from a narrow perspective of painful personal adversity and becoming hateful.

Just as Joseph saw his suffering, hardship, and persecution as the means to saving lives, so Jesus viewed his suffering on the cross as the means to save our lives and bring us reconciliation. And, in the same way, we too, will undergo suffering and hardship for the purpose of saving lives through peacemaking efforts.

My dear wife and I have endured our share of hardship in our lives. I choose to interpret the reason we have gone through it all just as the Apostle Paul discerned his own adversity by saying to the Corinthian Church:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.  For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows.  If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces within you a patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer.  And our hope for you is firm because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort. (2 Corinthians 1:3-7, NIV)

Whatever you are going through, or have gone through, even if it has been many years ago, God wants to use your difficulties and troubles for both your personal strengthening of faith, and for empathic and compassionate ministry for the sake of others.

We all need to practice patience and perseverance through hard times, if we are going to realize better days and gain a better interpretation of our difficult circumstances. Here are a few ways to do just that:

Write It Out

When suffering an upsetting event, writing about it can make us feel better as well as helping us make some sense of it. The act of writing organizes our thoughts, which then makes the experience feel less chaotic. Writing also provides an emotional release, along with insight and awareness into yourself. And with awareness, we have conscious choices.

Guard your heart more than anything else because the source of your life flows from it. (Proverbs 4:23, GW)

Some thoughts to get started writing:

  • Set aside 10-15 minutes a day for several days to write about the event and how it made you feel.
  • Don’t worry about grammar or creativity. This is just for you.
  • Stick with it. At first writing about an upsetting experience might be painful. However, over time it can help you get past the upset. Keep in mind, though, that if it is an especially disturbing event, you might want to do this work along with a trained professional.

Tackle Your Problem(s)

When distressed, it is unhelpful to stew in self-pity or to waste energy in blame shifting. Instead, be assertive.

Make every effort to present yourself to God as a tried-and-true worker, who does not need to be ashamed but is one who interprets the message of truth correctly. (2 Timothy 2:15, CEB)

Take charge of your trouble:

  • Write down the problem. On paper it seems more manageable than when it is swirling inside your head.
  • List as many solutions as possible. You can reject options later.
  • Assess the list. Ask yourself how you would like this situation to end. Which of the written options likely will get you there? Weigh the pros and the cons.
  • Accept a reasonable solution, without searching for the perfect one. Focusing on perfection only breeds disappointment.
  • Form a concrete workable plan. Set some realistic and specific deadlines.
  • Avoid discouragement if the first solution does not pan out – just try another one on your list.

Get Support

We as people are hard-wired by God for community and needing one another.

Help each other with your troubles. When you do this, you are obeying the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:2, ERV)

  • Ask someone to give you a hand if you are overwhelmed.
  • Do not be afraid to ask for advice. Consulting and collaborating with others are always the way of wisdom.
  • Get emotional support. Crying, sharing our frustrations, or otherwise venting helps release tension, relieve stress, and helps us move on.

So, may we choose to have the eyes of faith and trust, discerning that God is good and  sovereignly works out his will through our troubles.

John 21:1-14 – Breakfast in the Liminal Space

BreakfastAtDawn MikeMoyers
“Breakfast at Dawn” by Mike Moyers

Later, Jesus himself appeared again to his disciples at the Sea of Tiberias. This is how it happened: Simon Peter, Thomas (called Didymus), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, Zebedee’s sons, and two other disciples were together. Simon Peter told them, “I’m going fishing.”

They said, “We’ll go with you.” They set out in a boat, but throughout the night they caught nothing. Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples didn’t realize it was Jesus.

Jesus called to them, “Children, have you caught anything to eat?”

They answered him, “No.”

He said, “Cast your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.”

So, they did, and there were so many fish that they couldn’t haul in the net. Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It’s the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard it was the Lord, he wrapped his coat around himself (for he was naked) and jumped into the water. The other disciples followed in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they weren’t far from shore, only about one hundred yards.

When they landed, they saw a fire there, with fish on it, and some bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you’ve just caught.” Simon Peter got up and pulled the net to shore. It was full of large fish, one hundred fifty-three of them. Yet the net hadn’t torn, even with so many fish. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples could bring themselves to ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. Jesus came, took the bread, and gave it to them. He did the same with the fish. This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead. (CEB)

Sometimes, maybe oftentimes, it takes a bit of time to wrap our heads and our hearts around a new reality. After all, if you’ve been used to operating a particular way for a long time, it can be hard to come around to embracing difference – even if that change is really good.

Good ol’ Peter, you’ve got to love him. Bless his heart, the Lord Jesus is risen from death and he, along with some of the other disciple fishermen, are not quite up to speed on resurrection. Christ is alive, the disciples have already seen him on two separate occasions, yet they seem like a dog who has chased a rabbit and now don’t know what to do with it once they’ve surprisingly gotten it.

So, Peter goes fishing. Yep, when all else seems upside-down and topsy-turvy, just go fishing. The problem is: Peter and the boys are going back to a life that doesn’t exist anymore. And that’s pretty much what we all tend to do when we are stuck in a liminal space, caught in a situation of uncertainty without much of a clue what to do. We simply go back to what we’ve always done and hope we catch some fish.

But we can’t catch fish. It isn’t the same anymore. The resurrection of Jesus has completely upended the world. There’s no going back to any sort of pre-resurrection days. All has changed. I’m not sure if the disciples believed they were going to catch any fish, or not. Seems they just had to go do something familiar.

Unknown to them, the rules changed. The old way of fishing won’t work. While they’re off trying to live from the old life, Jesus shows up on shore. The disciples don’t realize its him. So, they don’t anticipate that when Jesus calls out and encourages them that they’ll end up with a nice haul of fish. While the old life yields nothing, the new life with Christ brings abundance, blessing, and fellowship. After the big catch of fish, here are the disciples now eating breakfast with the King of Kings, yet they’re still scratching their heads. What’s going on? Who is it? Well, of course, it’s Jesus, but is it? What’s the plan? I’m so confused.

In the passage and the journey from one reality to another, from a place of familiarity to a place of a future we’ve never seen, from an old life to a new life, there is both the shadow of doubt which makes everything feel so uncertain and the confidence of faith which keeps us going forward. In this middle space there is a continual vacillating between doubt and faith. Rarely is there ever a black-and-white existence. No, instead its wise to become friends with the gray because most lessons we learn come while inhabiting this weird in-between space.

When the disciples encountered Jesus in today’s Gospel story, it was an experience of Jesus in the middle – a six-week time between resurrection and ascension. It was also an experience of the disciples in the middle. There was no going back to a pre-resurrection time of walking and talking with Jesus as they had done before. And there is also no future where they can live in the past or pick up the fishing business just like before.

Although we have the advantage of knowing how the story shakes-out with Christ’s ascension, the giving of the Spirit, and a robustly bold group of disciples going out to change the world – the disciples cannot picture that future in their liminal space on the beach.

We, too, inhabit a middle space. We are in-between the two advents of Christ. This truly is an awkward time in which we, along with disciples, experience a mix of belief and doubt because we aren’t at the end of the story. So, a combination of worship and wondering exists in the here-and-now. Jesus doesn’t chide the disciples for sometimes believing and sometimes not; and, our Lord isn’t exasperated with us because one of the certainties for the Christian is that grace overcomes everything. Sitting down with Word and Meal creates a new space where we can begin to make sense of our sometimes very nonsensical lives.

Great God of Resurrection, help me to embrace both the meaning and the mystery of faith as I negotiate and interpret every situation in my life through the light of Jesus Christ, your Son, my Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Click There Is a Hope by Stuart Townsend for encouragement through your liminal space.