As this week’s passage picks up the story of Joseph in Genesis 41, we come across a young man – a mere 30 years old at this point – who has reached a position of power and prominence in one of the most powerful kingdoms of the world. What may appear as a stroke of luck, good fortune, or favor, however, is rooted in a past filled with darkness and despair. Joseph, after all, only made his way to Egypt after being sold into slavery by his own brothers. Once in the care of Pharaoh, Joseph was falsely accused and sent to prison. Forgotten by those he had once faithfully served, Joseph spent two years imprisoned before his promotion to this new place of esteem and honor.
As the story unfolds in Chapter 41, three key themes emerge that, I believe, speak directly to a number of challenges faced by our culture today.
Our Stories Are Messy
Joseph’s life reads like a Hollywood thriller – the plot is filled with unforeseen twists and turns to make a John Grisham novel blush. And while we can easily reflect upon the story of Joseph and feel that our stories pale in comparison, the fact of the matter is that our own narratives follow much the same trajectory. Life does not operate in a linear progression of ‘good, better, best’ – our stories are much too messy for that.
If we’re honest, much of our lives are oriented towards trying to mitigate the turbulence and control the outcomes to some of our biggest questions – who will I marry, where will I live, what will my job be – and, most critically, will any of it actually matter? Risk mitigation is our collective expertise. Mercifully, the story of Joseph reminds us that such efforts are an exercise in futility. Better yet, this narrative pulls Joseph’s (and our) head out of the soul-quenching self absorption of obsessing over our own narrative and situates us within the liberating rhythms of The Narrative.
As we step away from the uneasy and unsettling emotions stirred up by our own imperfect stories, we find rest in a much more compelling story. I love that Joseph makes such an explicit effort to remind himself of this. He names his two children Manasseh – “God has made me forget all my hardship and all my father’s house” – and Ephraim – “For God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.” His father’s house, a place from his past that is emblematic of shame, regret, and distrust, is replaced with a fruitfulness in the land of affliction. In moments of doubt, frustration, and anxiety, we do well to remember that the messiness is not something to be feared. It is often out of these places of affliction that the fruitfulness of our lives begins to emerge.
Me vs. We
Joseph had a wife. He had kids. He had friends at work. He had difficult employees. He had neighbors. He had a strained family relationship that makes bickering about your difficult in-laws look quite pedestrian. Joseph’s story is a spider web of complexity, overlapping, intersecting, weaving in and out of the lives of others as his own journey unfolds. It is critically important we remember this as we seek to make sense of our own stories and how they fit within The Narrative that God is unfolding in the world. Our stories are meant to interact, intersect, and engage with the stories of others – without this, we lose our way.
One of the great tragedies of 21st American culture is the tyranny of self – “me” is the lens through which we most commonly view our world. Everything, and everyone, else we encounter is understood and evaluated through this prism. One of the casualties that results from this distorted worldview is a misappropriation of the value behind, and importance of, our work. When interpreted and understood through the lens of “me,” work becomes a mere means to an end. It is a self-serving exercise that is meant for my own personal consumption, provision, and pleasure. An artist I enjoy listening to, Sturgill Simpson, captures this well in the opening verse of his song ‘Living the Dream’:
Time and time again Lord I keep going through the motions
A means to an end but the ends don’t seem to meet
Walking around living the dream anytime I take the notion
‘Til the truth comes bubbling up so bittersweet
Simpson, I believe, speaks to the tension that so many of us feel. We yearn for a different life – one that we believe will be more exciting, more engaging, more liberating, more meaningful than the one in which we find ourselves. We want to be able to live the dream ‘anytime I take the notion.’ At the end of the day, it’s about me. It’s my story.
The Common Good is the Greater Good
But what if the liberating ‘dream’ we envision is actually the very thing that keeps us bound? While recently thumbing through Twitter, I ran across the following from well-known pastor and author Tim Keller: “True Gospel-humility means I stop connecting every experience, every conversation, with myself.” I think true Gospel-freedom, especially as it applies to our vocation, is also found in this ability to free ourselves from the suffocating self-absorption that often plagues our work.
The story of Joseph, I believe, resonates with this re-orienting of how we understand our relation to work. Joseph spends seven years in heavy labor and toil, storing grain and securing provision for the coming years of famine. Look at the result:
So when the famine had spread over all the land, Joseph opened all the storehouses and sold to the Egyptians, for the famine was severe in the land of Egypt. Moreover, all the earth came to Egypt to Joseph to buy grain, because the famine was severe over all the earth (Gen. 41: 56-57).
Through his labor, God not only provides for Joseph and his family but also for Egypt and, indeed, the world. Joseph’s work is woven into the fabric of a much broader tapestry of God’s faithful care and provision not only for Joseph, but also for others. How much of our culture’s struggle with discontent and frustration in our vocation is rooted in a misunderstanding of this basic truth? Our culture shops the lie that work is, first and foremost, meant to deliver pleasure, purpose, and self-fulfillment for me. The story of Joseph, on the other hand, emphasizes how the work of one man was meant to bless and benefit a multitude. In the end, the common good is the greater good.
A Better Way Forward
Just as it was from the beginning, God desires that we would cultivate, tend, and bless the ground around us. If you’re anything like me, this is much more easily said than done. Work is hard. Work is frustrating. Work is tiresome. The last thing I want to do is offer some sort of short-sighted, overly simplistic “Three Steps to the Job and Life You Love” agenda. To be honest, I don’t know what your situation is. I don’t know the unique challenges you as you seek to cultivate and bless the work that God has placed in your hands. So instead of offering you a few more items for your to-do list this week, I’d like to encourage you to embrace the messiness.
We spend our lives trying to make things black and white – God is, more often than we’d like to admit, found in the grey. When we quit demanding that our vocation serve us, and instead seek to serve through our vocation, I believe we take one more step into that grey. When we lift our eyes outside of ourselves, and see our lives and work as a means through which we engage and celebrate a bigger story, we find healthier relationships, healthier jobs, and healthier hearts in tow. May we each find the grace to step out of our narrative, and into the soul- freeing truths of The Narrative, as we ‘live the dream’ this week.
Patrick Pierson is a graduate student of International Studies at the University of Denver.