September 7, 2011
Joseph speaks an extremely interesting line as his tumultuous story comes to a head in this week's Genesis lesson. His brothers, having once again attempted to lie, cheat, and steal their way through life, come seeking (maybe) forgiveness in the hopes (certainly) of not being killed for their past sins. Joseph, unable in his humanity to offer much forgiveness, lays it all at the foot of God. "Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good..." Margaret Odell over at WorkingPreacher does an amazing job with this whole story, but her understanding of this peculiar line is extremely helpful. Whether we know it or not, this response of Joseph gets a high place in modern, western Christian philosophy. How often has it been said, "God has a plan"? How often has tragedy been shrugged off by saying, "God's will is perfect"? How often has damage been inflicted to a grieving family member, especially when a life has been cut way. too. short. by a well meaning friend or pastor who said, "We may not understand this, but God knows what he is doing"? That is, admittedly, one way of reading Joseph's word to his brothers. God's plan includes short-term evil, but in the end, it is all good. This is, I'm afraid, a terrible image of God. Odell argues, and I have no reason to disagree, that this word "intend" has its roots in weaving, and so we should read this not as God using evil to make good, but that evil stuff happens, children die, planes crash, cancer strikes and God, in his infinite wisdom, can even incorporate, can even weave, that great evil into his good plan. See how that turns things around? David Lose can say it better than me, "Joseph perceives that God can weave from whatever strands of brokenness, heartache, or calamity we have suffered a future that is, in the end, good. Care needs to be taken with these potent words -- "what you intended for harm, God intended for good" -- as they have too often been used to relativize evil or suffering in light of some larger "plan." That is not, however, what I think this scene -- or certainly the whole of Scripture -- advocates. The betrayal and treachery of Joseph's brothers is real. But so also is God's relentless intent to wring redemption and healing even from the most difficult of circumstances." It doesn't help with the "why bad things happen" question, but it does make some progress into the way in which God's plan plays out in everyday life. And for that, as a human being and as a pastor, I am exceedingly grateful.