Researching my grandfathers’ story, and his role as an army chaplain in the first wave of liberators into Belsen, has been a phenomenal journey over the last 5 months (and one that will continue). A question I’ve been asked a lot is ‘how do I think his faith impacted his ability to cope with the suffering he saw’. The truth is, as I never met him, I don’t know for sure, but I can take an educated guess from my own faith, the stories that he’s left, and also looking to characters in the bible to see how their faith impacted their ability to deal with suffering – whether that was suffering for something they were going through or suffering that others around them were experiencing.
Knowing that my grandfather would have played an instrumental part in the burial of thousands of bodies at Belsen has been an incredibly humbling revelation to find out, and also challenging. If his faith could sustain him through that, then how can I strive to have the same faith that he had, to sustain me when life doesn’t go as I expect?
The current corona crisis
With the current corona crisis inducing lockdown in many areas of the world, I can’t imagine that there will be a single person that emerges from this unchanged in some way. We all have a choice in just how this changes us.
Over the last few years, God has taken both me and my husband on an incredible and challenging journey at points, as we’ve sought to follow where he’s led. The journey has not always been easy, but the one constant is that every challenge has helped my faith to grow – sometimes that growth has come compliantly, and sometimes I’m ashamed to say it’s come with a lot of resistance on my part. However, one theme has been quite consistent – every time I come to read the story of Joseph, I find fresh depth, fresh strength and a fresh reminder to keep my eyes focused up and forward and to just keep going.
The story of Joseph
The story of Joseph has always fascinated me (Gen 37, Gen 39-46). As a child it may have been something to do with the brightly coloured coat, and also the musical was one of the first that I ever heard (I still remember my mum practicing the songs at the piano when we were children). But, it’s also because the old testament story of Joseph is full of a character that is able to keep on going, despite anything that life throws at him, and life throws a lot at him.
Joseph is his father’s favourite son, something which doesn’t ingratiate him with his other 11 brothers. He shares dreams of his brothers bowing down to him, and then is given a beautiful coat by his father – talk about adding insult to injury! Needless to say, the brothers don’t take kindly to his actions, and plot of ways that they can get rid of him, some willing to be more brutal than others. A plan is hatched to dispose of Jospeh for good, but Joseph’s saviour comes from a passing trader, who the brothers sell him to instead, not great news for Joseph, but better than death at that point.
Through these trials, and many more (false accusation, 2 years wrongfully imprisoned, and a person who forgets a debt owed for a while), Joseph is used in the most miraculous way to lead a nation. Not only is his wisdom used to to save his adopted nation from famine, but he is also able to save his own nation, and provide a safe place for its people to multiply and expand.
Joseph’s own suffering developed his compassion
As a young boy, Joseph had been very quick to share his dreams with his brothers, and not always in the most empathetic of ways. His actions helped to build the jealously that arose and culminated in the brothers scheming to get rid of him. However, by the time that Joseph is in the prison cell after being unfairly ousted from Potiphar’s house, he’s learned to deliver news in a much more diplomatic and compassionate way, this is followed through by the way that he delivers the very difficult news about the upcoming famine to Pharaoh.
If we allow it, suffering can build compassion within us, to help us identify with others in difficult situations. We have a choice in this. It would have been so easy for Joseph to have given up at a number of given points, feel like the world was against him, and become bitter. Giving up, and just shouting out ‘it’s not fair’ to the world around him.
There are indeed a significant amount of times in his story where his own misfortune is purely down to the actions of others (his beautiful coat being taken, being sold into slavery, the mistress of the house accusing him of rape and being thrown in jail). However, Jospeh does not give up. No, every time he finds himself in some new awful situation, he looks for how he can help others, and also keep himself going.
In Potiphar’s house he quickly rises to leading the house due to his strategy and trustworthiness. In the prison, he makes himself helpful to the prisoners around him. And in Pharaoh’s house, the hand of God is on him so much that he leads a nation strategically through 7 years of abundance and then 7 of horrific famine.
Joseph is used by God at all points, but one key thing is that he allows himself to see the opportunity and compassion in each season, and not dwell on the insult not the horror.
Joseph’s story saved a nation
If at any of these points Joseph had chosen to give up both on himself and on God, we would never have reached the amazing stories of the book of Exodus. Joseph had had dreams about the important part he was to play in the saving of Egypt and also his family, but even his story doesn’t record dreams that show the full extent of what God was up to. By the fact that a single person, Joseph, was brought into slavery in a foreign land, and rose through the ranks, his whole nation was saved.
Joseph rose to a position of prominence and trust in the house of the Egyptian Pharoah, and then was able to not only feed his brothers and their families when they came begging, but was able to secure a new home for them all – some of the best farming land in Egypt – where they could settle safely with their families.
This is where we leave the story in Genesis, but by the beginning of Exodus, we see that an amazing transformation has taken place. Jacob’s descendants have amassed to a full people group, growing within the safety of another nation. Now granted, by the time we meet them, that other nation, Egypt, isn’t treating the Israelites brilliantly, and it’s time to move on, BUT, it never ceases to amaze me just how good God’s provision was to provide a safe place for growth, at a time when the world around them seemed to be dying through the famine. Also, that this safe place led to such a growth in population later on.
It’s worth also highlighting, that for a fledging nation, for the Israelites to have been able to seek sanctuary with the most dominant empire of the time, the Egyptians, was no mean feat. It shows just how much God’s hand was in the events that had led up to it.
The events go to show that even in the darkest of times, we don’t know what God is up to, nor the impact that our stories could have in generations to come. Just like my grandfather’s story – his story has brought fresh hope and strength to the granddaughter he never knew.
Joseph developed faith in crisis
We all have good days, and we all have bad days. Just because we have a faith, (and even if we don’t), Joseph’s story is a great reminder that for some days, everything is easy, but for others, our whole world can be knocked upside down, and we find ourselves in a place we’d never expected, nor wanted.
What we do know from Joseph’s story, is that through difficult seasons of suffering, he was trained for incredible service. Joseph kept going, and he kept trusting the God that he believed in. Even by the time that he reaches Pharaoh’s service, by which point he’s been a number of years from his family nation, and therefore others who shared his faith, he still gives thanks to God for his ability to interpret dreams, and doesn’t trust his own strength. His reply to Pharaoh says it all “I cannot do it, but God will give Pharaoh the answer he desires”.
In this current season, I’m currently in the third trimester of pregnancy, and pregnancy in COVID-19 lockdown is a very different experience to the one that I’d taken for granted would happen. However, through digging into my grandfather’s story, and also seeking fresh inspiration from the bible, I’m finding fresh hope and fresh strength for the season. The season is not easy by any means, with a lot of uncertainties around us, but it’s pulling me anew to explore strength from the stories that I thought I new so well, and seeing them with fresh eyes.
A masterpiece in keeping going
Joseph’s story is a masterpiece in keeping going, and keeping true to our personal callings. Each one of us God has placed in a position for influence and impact. Just like my grandfather, you never fully know how your stories will be used to bring hope to future generations, or even how your current situation may be used for compassion and strength to those around you.
In these most challenging of times, I hope these blogs serve to give some encouragement and strength to keep going. Whatever seems hopeless right now, there will be light.
There are also opportunities around us now if we strive to see them.