One of the difficult things about being a parent is knowing when to support your children’s dreams and when to gently let them know that they might want to consider getting another dream.
One of my pet peeves (and Sueanne will verify this) is whenever I hear someone say, “I just want you children to know that, when you grow up, you can be anything you want to be and do anything you want to do.”
And I want to scream at the TV, “No! That’s not true.” Not every child who dreams of playing in the NFL and going to the Super Bowl actually has the ability to do that. Not every child who dreams of being President of the United States has the ability to do that. Some dreams are not very realistic. And, if you don’t believe me, take a look at these school papers turned in by some children.
Answering the question, “What are three things you want to do in the future?” One child responded, “Get a girlfriend, kiss her, and rule the world.” Two of those dreams are doable, but one of them may be just a little bit unrealistic.
Here’s another who said, “When I grow up, I want to be a dog.” It’s hard to argue with him, because somebody on TV just told him, “When you grow up, you can be anything you want to be.”
My favorite, though, is this paper by a little boy named Chris. He was asked, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” and he said, “I want to be Michael Jordan when I grow up.” Then the question is, “What do you need to do to achieve your dreams?”, and he said, “#1, get bigger, #2, shave my head, and #3, be black.”
Having a dream is important, but sometimes our dreams need to be refined a bit. And even if we have a great dream, it’s possible that our dreams aren’t exactly what God would have them to be, and so our dreams may need to be modified in some way as we get older. We may even need to let go of some of our dreams.
But if our dream is what God intends for us, then we need to understand that there are those around us who will try to destroy our dreams and it’s important for us to hold those dreams tight. And, as you can imagine, sometimes the hard part for us is knowing whether we should let go of our dreams or hold them tight.
Last week, we talked about the importance of having a dream. Each and every one of us needs a vision for the future, a goal to motivate us and keep us going in the right direction. Our ultimate goal, of course, is to be with God eternally. But, in the process of striving for that, our goal is to glorify God in all that we do and to become more and more like Jesus Christ. In addition to those goals, it’s important that we set other goals for ourselves – maybe the desire for greater Bible knowledge, a desire to be more evangelistic, or a desire to strengthen our marriage.
But we shouldn’t be so naïve as to believe that this world will ever make it easy to us to achieve our dreams. Much of the book of I Peter deals with this subject because it was written to a group of Christians who were getting discouraged at the way the world was treating them. In I Peter 3:16, Peter says to live in such a way that “when they defame you as evildoers, those who revile your good conduct in Christ may be ashamed.” Peter says that there are people in this world who will talk bad about us and make fun of us and put us down just because we try to live a Christian life.
Then again, in chapter 4, Peter says, “Don’t expect your friends out in the world to understand or appreciate the changes in your life.” When you tell your friends, “I’ve become a Christian and I don’t drink and go to wild parties any more”, don’t expect your friends to say, “That’s great. I really admire you for that.” When you tell your friends, “I’m a Christian and I don’t believe it’s right in the eyes of God to have sex outside of marriage”, don’t expect your friends to say, “I think it’s commendable for someone to have their life guided by such a beautiful standard of holiness and righteousness.” Peter says that when your lifestyle changes, your friends will think it strange and they will speak evil of you.
Because Satan doesn’t want you to accomplish your goal of being like Christ; he wants to destroy your dreams. And there will be a lot of times in your life when you’re going to look around and say, “Things aren’t working out the way I thought they would. I thought when I became a Christian, things would get easier. I thought everything would just fall into place. But it seems like the more I try to do what what’s right, the harder things get.”
If you’ve ever felt like that, there’s a lesson we can learn from the life of Joseph, so this morning, we want to continue to take a look at the story of his life.
I. Joseph’s Suffering
One day, Joseph’s father, Jacob, sent him to check up on his brothers who were tending the flocks. He said, “Please go and see if it is well with your brothers and well with the flocks, and bring back word to me.” (Genesis 37:14). Since Joseph was wearing his coat of many colors, his brothers saw him coming from quite a distance, and they quickly made a plan. Verse 18, “Now when they saw him afar off, even before he came near them, they conspired against him to kill him. Then they said to one another, ‘Look, this dreamer is coming!'” (Genesis 37:18-19).
Their plan was to kill Joseph and then tell everyone that some ferocious animal had attacked him. They took a vote which was almost unanimous. Reuben was the only one of the brothers who didn’t want to kill Joseph. In fact, he begged the others not to shed blood — after all, Joseph was their half-brother. And finally, Reuben convinced the others to just throw Joseph into a pit. We’re told in verse 22 that Reuben’s plan was to return, “that he might deliver him out of their hands, and bring him back to his father.”
So, the other brothers agreed to put off killing Joseph. In verse 23, “It came to pass, when Joseph had come to his brothers, that they stripped Joseph of his tunic, the tunic of many colors that was on him. Then they took him and cast him into a pit. And the pit was empty; there was no water in it. And they sat down to eat a meal.” (Genesis 37:23-24).
This “pit” was actually a “cistern”, a large hole dug by shepherds to store water during the rainy season so that they would have an adequate supply for the flocks. A cistern was typically was shaped like a bottle or vase, with a narrow mouth at the top so a single flat stone could cover it; then down below it widened to form a large subterranean room. It was horrible to be stuck in one of those underground tanks, because there was no escape without assistance from someone at the top. It was absolutely impossible to climb up the walls the way a cistern was shaped. To get out, somebody had to lower a rope.
You can imagine what a terrifying experience that was for Joseph. Years later, when his brothers were confessing the guilt of what they had done, they said, “We are truly guilty concerning our brother, for we saw the anguish of his soul when he pleaded with us, and we would not hear…” (Genesis 42:21). You can imagine the agonizing screams of Joseph echoing in this dark, damp hole in the ground. And while Joseph begged and pleaded for his life, his brothers sat down and ate dinner.
I would remind you that Satan and all his forces would like to do the same thing with us and our dreams — our dreams of living lives of holiness and godliness, our dreams of a strong Christian family, our dreams of spending an eternity with God.
We sometimes sing the song “Am I a Soldier of the Cross?” The third verse of that song raises the question, “Is this vile world a friend of grace, to help me on to God?” The answer to that question is obvious. This vile world is not a friend to grace and it won’t help us on to God. Rather, this world resents anyone with a high and holy dream and will do everything in its power to keep us from achieving our goals.
When Joseph was in that pit, he had to wonder why God allowed things to happen the way that they did. It wasn’t supposed to turn out that way. It appeared that Joseph’s dream had ended before it even got started. And I suspect that most of us have had similar experiences. We start out with an idea we feel has come from God, and within a short amount of time, something or someone has put a damper on it.
Joseph didn’t understand why all of this bad stuff was happening. And there may be some of you who are going through experiences in your life that you don’t understand either. Those lofty goals we strive for are not always as easy to reach as we first thought. People don’t react the way we hoped they would. God doesn’t bring our dreams to pass the way we planned. Sometimes God’s answer to our prayers is to take us through a path of adversity and difficulty, things that weren’t a part of our dreams at all. But sometimes it takes experiences like that to help us to learn total dependence on God.
It didn’t seem to Joseph as if he was even going to live long enough to even have the chance to learn those lessons. But Joseph’s story wasn’t over. In fact, it was really just beginning. And one thing that we need to keep in mind is that there is more at work in this world than the forces of evil which are so apparent to us. God is still there, just as he was with Joseph. In fact, at a time when it must have seemed to Joseph that God had totally deserted him, God was most involved.
We continue in verse 25: “And they sat down to eat a meal. Then they lifted their eyes and looked, and there was a company of Ishmaelites, coming from Gilead with their camels, bearing spices, balm, and myrrh, on their way to carry them down to Egypt.” (Genesis 37:25).
One of the brothers, Judah, came up with a plan. Why don’t we get rid of Joseph and make some money at the same time? This time, the vote was unanimous because Reuben wasn’t even there to protest. So they pulled Joseph up out of the cistern and sold him to the traders for twenty pieces of silver.
Of course, when Reuben returned and saw that his secret plan to rescue Joseph had been thwarted, he was upset. But the brothers thought of a perfect cover-up. They took Joseph’s special robe, smeared it with the blood of a goat, carried it back to their father and said as innocently as they could, “We have found this. Do you know whether it is your son’s tunic or not?” (Genesis 37:32).
Jacob, of course, believed exactly what they wanted him to believe and that was that Joseph had been killed by a wild animal. Jacob never really got over what he thought was the death of his favorite son. Verse 35 tells us, “All his sons and all his daughters arose to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted, and he said, ‘For I shall go down into the grave to my son in mourning.'” (Genesis 37:35).
II. Learning to Understand
At this point, the scene in Genesis shifts to the nation of Egypt where the Midianites sold Joseph to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials (37:36). I’m sure Joseph still didn’t understand why God was letting these things happen to him. But allow me to share with you some of the eventual benefits of this.
God had promised Jacob’s family that they would inherit the land of Canaan but Canaan was filled with warlike tribes and at that time there were only a handful of Israelites. As long as they stayed a small group, the other tribes would have left them alone. But God needed them in great numbers, and when their numbers began to grow those Canaanite tribes would have gotten alarmed and wiped them out. God’s plan was to take them to a place where they could live peaceably and securely and grow into a large nation.
Also, they needed to be set apart from other pagan nations. They were to become the nation of Israel, so they could receive God’s law, produce prophets, teachers, writers and ultimately bring forth the Messiah, the redeemer of all the world. Even if the Canaanite tribes had allowed them to live in peace, the Israelites no doubt would have mingled with them and been absorbed by them. The children of Israel needed to be taken to a place where this wouldn’t happen. The Egyptians were a proud and exclusive people who didn’t associate closely with foreigners (43:32). So in the land of Goshen, Jacob’s family would be safe, segregated and allowed to grow into a great people.
Furthermore, the Canaanites were crude and barbaric, without much learning. Egypt, however, was one of the world’s highest civilizations. There were libraries, universities, arts and culture, and all of this would become a part of the Israelites’ lives. It would make possible the training of someone like Moses, a prince of the palace, who would ultimately lead God’s people and write the books of the law.
But Joseph, that 17-year-old boy crying in anguish as he was thrown into the cistern, rescued from the pit only to be sold into slavery — he didn’t know all that. And those desert Arabs traveling across the countryside on their camels — they didn’t know any of that. And those hateful, cruel brothers, happy to put some silver in their pockets — they definitely didn’t know that. And a heartbroken father looking at that beautiful coat, stained with what he thought was his son’s blood, as he mourned for years to come — he didn’t know any of that.
But God knew. Joseph didn’t fully understand until years later, when he was able to say to his brothers, “So now it was not you who sent me here, but God…” (Genesis 45:8).
Do you remember the movie Back to the Future? It was a story about a young man who used a time machine to go back to the time long before he was born, when his parents were just youngsters in high school and were dating each other.
I want you to imagine for a moment that you have access to a time machine and you use it to go back several thousand years to the days of Joseph. You arrive on the scene just after Joseph has been sold to the Midianite traders. It’s the first night of the journey to Egypt and the Midianite caravan has set up camp. Everyone is sleeping in their tents. You feel sorry for Joseph so you wake him up and quickly untie him. Then you help him to make his escape into the night. Within a few days he’s back home. There’s a big argument between Joseph and his brothers, but Jacob is so glad to have his favorite son home again that in time the whole incident blows over and the family lives happily ever after.
Wouldn’t it be great to have the opportunity to help Joseph out like that? It would seem that way — until you climb back into your time machine and head “back to the future” and see how everything turns out. Twenty years later, when the great famine strikes, there is no wise leader named Joseph in Egypt, and so there’s no grain to eat. Canaan and Egypt, as well as most other nations, are wiped out by starvation. Civilization gets set back by centuries. God’s plan for his people and the preparation for the Messiah are badly disrupted and delayed. The whole world is different and things are a lot worse than they would have been. All because you tried to save an innocent teenager from a lot of trouble.
I don’t think there’s another biblical story which better illustrates the providence of God in our lives than that of Joseph. It is living proof of what Paul wrote in Romans 8:28, “we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” We know that all things work together for good. Even in the moments of Joseph’s life when he was suffering greatly, God was at work, using those events to accomplish his purposes.
Joseph being sold into slavery took Joseph to the land of Egypt where God was later able to make a large nation out of his people, as they lived within Egyptian protection.
Joseph being sold to Potiphar, captain of the king’s guard, enabled Joseph to become thoroughly Egyptianized, and brought him within one step of Pharaoh himself.
His arrest and imprisonment, through the false accusations of Potiphar’s wife, took him to the royal jail where he had the opportunity to meet Pharaoh’s chief servants and interpret their dreams.
His being forgotten by the ungrateful cupbearer for two whole years, led to his being remembered at just the right moment, as the only possible interpreter of Pharaoh’s dreams.
It took thirteen years. Thirteen terrible years, filled with hatred, suffering, injustice and what seemed to be just plain bad luck. But, of course, now that we can look back on Joseph’s story, we see the great underlying truth — that God was able to work out his purposes, even through the suffering and the trials that Joseph had to go through. Looking back, it’s easy to see what God did and why he did it.
In Genesis 50:20, Joseph said to his brothers, “But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive.” Joseph’s faith believed that God could take the evil which was intended to harm him and make it work out for good. His brothers’ intended evil became the very means God used for “the saving of many lives”, including their own!
Here’s the lesson that we need to learn from all of this: When evil seems to triumph and we tend to get discouraged, when our prayers aren’t being answered the way we think they ought to be, when God allows us to go through long periods of suffering and difficulty, we need to be reminded that God is still over all. And while all things that happen to us are not good, we are convinced that all things will work together for good to those who love the Lord.
There’s a story that I read in a church bulletin several years ago. It was written as a true story and I assume that it happened just as I’m about to relate it to you. There was a Christian in Hungary traveling on a train back in the days before the Iron Curtain came down. He had a sack of Bibles and his own personal Bible with notes and sermons. A communist customs agent came through checking all baggage. He opened up this brother’s sack, thumbed through the pages of the Bibles and one by one began to throw them out the window of the speeding train.
And then, the agent looked down at the open Bible of this Christian, grabbed it quickly and threw it out the window as well. He was devastated. For years, this brother bemoaned the fact that his good Bible with all his sermons and notes was gone. He prayed, “Lord, I believe Romans 8:28, but how can this work out for good?”
Then one day, three years later, he was surprised to receive his personal Bible through the mail. There was a letter enclosed which said, “Dear brother in Christ: Thank you, thank you, for the use of your Bible. I found it by the railroad three years ago. I have kept it, read it and studied it often. My family and I have written many scriptures down on paper and many more in our hearts. We cannot thank you enough, for now we can go to heaven…but brother, please forgive me for keeping your Bible so long. I thought that if I did not read it now, I might never again find a Bible to read.”
The reaction of this Christian brother was to weep and to pray, “God, please forgive me for doubting”. But I wonder how often we, too, have doubted God. Looking back, it’s easy to see how God has used things in our lives that seemed unbearable at the time, to accomplish some particular good. Looking back, it’s easy. The hard part is believing that God is doing the same thing with what we’re going through right now. And yet, we have his promise that that’s exactly what he is doing. And so we hold onto our dreams no matter who tries to steal them from us.
But we also need to be aware that it’s possible for us to have dreams that don’t fit in with God’s plan for our lives. We’re not told, but I’m sure that, as a young man, Joseph had some other dreams for his life. He probably had a dream to live near his family all of his life. He probably had a dream that he would marry a nice Israelite girl and have a bunch of children with her. He probably had a dream that he would own a piece of his father’s land and build a nice house on it. If he had any of those dreams, then they were dreams that he needed to let go of.
There have been times that Sueanne and I have had to let go of some of our dreams, even dreams that we were convinced were a part of God’s will for our lives. At one time, Sueanne and I had a dream of doing missionary work in Scotland. After much time in prayer and giving it serious thought, we truly felt like it was what God in mind for us. Our goal, our dream, was to move to Scotland.
Needless to say, that dream never materialized. And at first, it was devastating to us. But we came to realize that it was for the best. We have since been blessed by God in many ways and given so many other opportunities to work for him. But, at the time, we didn’t understand. It was a dream we had to let go of.
So, how do we know? How do we know which dreams are godly dreams that Satan is trying to destroy and so we make sure we hold on tight? And how do we know which dreams aren’t really a part of God’s plan and so we need to let go of them? It can be difficult.
But, in the end, I think we have to do exactly what Joseph did – we resolve to remain faithful to God. Even when things don’t work out the way we think they should, we remain faithful to God and we trust that God will bring about those parts of our dreams that are according to his will. And as we remain faithful to God and some dreams that we have don’t come to pass, we accept that God has other ways of using us. And, in the end, it doesn’t matter so much what God does with us, only that we are open to being used by God in whatever way best honors him.