Faith and Suffering

A sermon on Genesis 39 and 40 by Coty Pinckney, Desiring God Community Church, Charlotte, NC, 10/17/04

The year is 1900: The place: China. A secret society that calls itself “The Righteous and Harmonious Fists” has overthrown the progressive emperor and installed his elderly aunt as their puppet. Foreigners, somewhat jokingly, label this society “The Boxers” but the result is no joke: The empress secretly sends a message to provincial officials, telling them to kill all foreigners and wipe out Christianity.

As the secret message becomes known, crowds of hostile Chinese throng any foreigners passing through their villages. Calling out, “Foreign devils! Foreign devils!” they rob, beat, and humiliate hundreds of missionaries.

Emily Whitchurch and Edith Searell, missionaries with China Inland Mission, are working with opium addicts in Shansi Province. In the midst of the crisis Edith writes, “From the human standpoint, all missionaries . . . are equally unsafe. From the point of view of those whose lives are hid with Christ in God all are equally safe. His children shall have a place of refuge, and that place is the secret place of the Most High.”

Only two days later, a mob attacks Emily and Edith’s house, murdering both women. Over the course of the summer, mobs and government officials slaughter 186 other missionaries and thousands of Chinese Christians.

Emily and Edith had gone to China because of their desire to show the compassion of Christ to people who were trapped by drug addiction. They were confident that they had gone out for the glory of God, for the sake of the Name. And yet they suffered horrible deaths.

Was God with them? Were they really safe? Were their lives hid with Christ in God?

In our instant-gratification society, we look for results.

As we’ve already seen in Genesis, God doesn’t work that way:

We are an instant society but God is not an instant God.

In today’s text we see this again: Joseph is a slave in Egypt, the victim of his brothers’ hatred. He begins to advance through his diligence and God’s blessing – but then, unjustly accused, he ends up in prison. 

Was God with Joseph?

Is God with you when you suffer for, apparently, no good reason?

The answers to these questions lie, in part, in our perspective of time. We’ll see that as we go through this text.

Potiphar’s House: God’s Presence and Blessing

We’ve already read chapter 39 during the service: Joseph is sold to Potiphar, an Egyptian official. Look again at v2:

The LORD was with Joseph, and he became a successful man,

This is the way we Americans want God to act: God is with us, and makes us successful. We want a particular kind of success – a success that is readily apparent to all our friends and, indeed, to us.

Joseph had such success.

But do you realize that even this type of success did not happen overnight for Joseph? It is described in just a few words, but certainly took place over a lengthy period of time. Consider:

Remember, Joseph is only 17 when he is sold to Potiphar. Facing all the normal temptations of that age, he is ripped out of his family, taken away from all he knows, away from all those who believe in God, and placed in a slave society in which anything goes. Yet he holds on to God, he maintains faith – indeed, he strengthens his faith, by the grace of God.

So do you see how God’s blessing works? In this case, and in many cases, God’s blessings are not like winning the lottery: One day you have nothing and the next day you have more than can imagine. Instead, God gives us the desire and the ability to focus on Him, to be diligent in what we do – and then He works through that diligence. Just so with Joseph. God gives Joseph the ability to work hard and remain faithful, Joseph puts that ability to work, and God blesses his efforts.

At some point, Potiphar recognizes that God has blessed Joseph. He recognizes furthermore that God is blessing him through Joseph. And so Potiphar elevates Joseph to the number 2 position in the household. Joseph is in charge. He is still a slave – but he has great authority, and great privileges. Given his situation when sold by his brothers, this is incredible success. Joseph recognizes that this has happened only by God’s grace.  

Potiphar’s House: God’s Presence and Suffering

We don’t know how long this situation lasts. But Joseph is undone by one of his positive qualities: his attractive looks. Potiphar’s wife decides this young hunk would be a great lover, and tries her best to seduce him. Joseph responds in verses 8-9:

"Behold, because of me my master has no concern about anything in the house, and he has put everything that he has in my charge. 9 He is not greater in this house than I am, nor has he kept back anything from me except yourself, because you are his wife. How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?"

Joseph her recognizes four important truths, and thereby gives us an excellent pattern for fighting sin. He recognizes:

Just so with us. When we fight sin we must:  

She keeps asking him day after day to have sex with her. So Joseph tries his best not even to be with her. But she arranges the ideal time, when all the other servants are out. Then she physically assaults him. In response, he literally 2 Timothy 2:22: 

So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness

He runs away, leaving his cloak behind.

Joseph’s actions here contrast sharply with those of his brother Judah in the last chapter:

Potiphar’s wife, as the spurned lover, is angry at Joseph’s rejection and decides to accuse him of attempted rape, using his cloak as evidence. So once again Joseph’s cloak/robe is used to try to deceive someone else about him.

Potiphar returns home, and his wife pours out the story. Does Potiphar believe her? Verse 19 only tells us, “His anger was kindled”. It’s not clear whether he is angry at his wife, at Joseph, or at both. Normally, a slave who assaulted his mistress would be put to death, not thrown in prison. So perhaps Potiphar is at least skeptical about his wife’s claims.

In any event, Joseph deserves neither death nor prison, but nevertheless is locked up.

We saw in verse 2 that “The Lord was with Joseph,” and caused him to be successful.

No. Joseph needs to go to prison. God’s purposes for Joseph require that he spend years in prison. God is with Joseph – He sends him to prison.

Do you feel like God has sent you to your own type of prison?

Do you question God’s presence?

Do you question God’s plan?

Joseph must have done the same. I don’t think Joseph thought, “Oh well, God is in control. Maybe prison won’t be so bad.” On the contrary, I’m sure he asked, “Lord God, what is going on? What are you doing? I acknowledge the pride I displayed wrongly before my brothers. But you know I didn’t deserve to be sold into slavery. And you know I served Potiphar and his wife faithfully. Why am I thrown into this stinking prison?”

God doesn’t speak to Joseph. He doesn’t appear in a dream and tell him what He is doing. When we are in similar situations, we have God’s Word, the Bible, to hold on to. What does Joseph have to hold on to? Not nearly as much:

God is with Joseph. But God’s plans are hidden from him. And God’s plans do not reach fulfillment overnight. Joseph must wait for God’s perfect timing. And he does.

Prison: God’s Presence and Blessing

But the LORD was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison. 22 And the keeper of the prison put Joseph in charge of all the prisoners who were in the prison. Whatever was done there, he was the one who did it. 23 The keeper of the prison paid no attention to anything that was in Joseph's charge, because the LORD was with him. And whatever he did, the LORD made it succeed. Genesis 39:21-23

Does this sound familiar? Almost the same words are used to describe Joseph’s advance in Potiphar’s household. Once again, Joseph enters a new setting; once again, Joseph finds himself as the lowest of the low – the new guy in prison.

But once again the Lord is with him! Even in prison, God shows Joseph steadfast love, or lovingkindness. God blesses Joseph. And Joseph works diligently once again. He does not sulk; he does not complain. He sees his lot, and although he does not understand it, he trusts that God is at work and does what he can to make himself useful to others in prison.

The keeper of the prison recognizes this; he sees Joseph’s talent, skill, and diligence. Eventually he makes Joseph his assistant.

But Joseph has no desire to remain in prison. Even the most accomplished prisoner is still a prisoner! So he waits and prays and hopes.

One day circumstances change dramatically. Two senior officials of Pharaoh’s court are thrown into the prison, and Joseph is commanded to attend to them. These two important men – the cupbearer and the baker – were trusted by Pharaoh, but they each did something to arouse his suspicion, making him think they were out to harm him. Note that both were in a position to poison him – and poison was commonly the cause of death for kings at this time. So these two prominent men are in prison with Joseph.

Then one night they dream particularly vivid dreams. In the morning, Joseph asks them about their sad, puzzled faces; they believe they each have received a message, but are sad because they don’t have anyone to interpret their dreams for them. Joseph invites them to tell him, saying, “Do not interpretations belong to God?” So they tell him:

So the chief cupbearer told his dream to Joseph and said to him, "In my dream there was a vine before me, 10 and on the vine there were three branches. As soon as it budded, its blossoms shot forth, and the clusters ripened into grapes. 11 Pharaoh's cup was in my hand, and I took the grapes and pressed them into Pharaoh's cup and placed the cup in Pharaoh's hand." 12 Then Joseph said to him, "This is its interpretation: the three branches are three days. 13 In three days Pharaoh will lift up your head and restore you to your office, and you shall place Pharaoh's cup in his hand as formerly, when you were his cupbearer. 14 Only remember me, when it is well with you, and please do me the kindness to mention me to Pharaoh, and so get me out of this house. 15 For I was indeed stolen out of the land of the Hebrews, and here also I have done nothing that they should put me into the pit." 16 When the chief baker saw that the interpretation was favorable, he said to Joseph, "I also had a dream: there were three cake baskets on my head, 17 and in the uppermost basket there were all sorts of baked food for Pharaoh, but the birds were eating it out of the basket on my head." 18 And Joseph answered and said, "This is its interpretation: the three baskets are three days. 19 In three days Pharaoh will lift up your head- from you!- and hang you on a tree. And the birds will eat the flesh from you." Genesis 40:9-19

Two very similar dreams, with two similar – yet how different! – interpretations.

As Joseph said, interpretations of dreams belong to God. But God gives Joseph the interpretations. He tells the cupbearer and the baker exactly what is going to happen.

But for our purposes, note particularly verses 14 and 15. Joseph sees his opportunity to get out of prison. Here is a senior official, a man who serves Pharaoh himself! He has just helped a man who will be in Pharaoh’s presence in only three days!            If the cupbearer will only speak to the king about him, Joseph might be released!

So Joseph pleads with the cupbearer to remember him upon his reinstatement.

All comes to pass exactly as Joseph says: The baker is executed and his body is lifted up and exposed for all to see; the cupbearer is lifted up to his former position. Joseph must have been excited: “At long last, I’ll be out of this prison. Then maybe I can try to return home and see my father, and my brother Benjamin. He must be such a big boy by now!”

God has been with him, even in prison. God has lifted Joseph up and blessed him. God has shown Joseph lovingkindness. But he’s still in prison – will God now take him out?

Prison: God’s Presence and Suffering

Yet the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph, but forgot him. Genesis 40:23

And look at the first phrase of the next chapter: “After two whole years . . .”

Joseph has his hopes raised – but one day passes, and another, and nothing happens. Each day; at the sound of footsteps approaching the prison, he thinks, “That must be the messenger arriving from Pharaoh with orders for my release!”

But messenger after messenger arrives – and he’s still in prison.

Days become weeks, weeks months, months a year and more. And he’s still in prison

He continues as the assistant to the keeper of the prison, but this must have been a very difficult time. He interpreted the cupbearer’s dream, and that official was restored to his post. But Joseph remains a prisoner, falsely accused, unjustly treated. He suffers without reason or cause. And this goes on for two more years.

At this point, Joseph might very well say, “God, why did you raise my hopes? Why did you even put that man in my life? I was more or less content – but that encounter with the cupbearer made me think about freedom and family and sunshine. Why did you raise my hopes just to knock them down again?”


Many of us know the end of Joseph’s story – and we’ll see next week that God is still very much with Joseph. He orchestrates the timing perfectly. Joseph will be exalted to a level he never dreamed of. And he stays in prison exactly the length of time necessary to bring about that exaltation.

Joseph must have wondered about God’s plan. He must have pleaded with God over and over to end this imprisonment. He must have asked God to right the wrongs he had suffered. And, in the end, God does exactly that during Joseph life. The next chapters tells us that he lives to see his God-given dreams fulfilled.

But others have pleaded:

Many, like Joseph, had to wait years to see their prayers answered.

Many, unlike Joseph, even after waiting years, saw those prayers answered by the word, “No.”

The two missionaries to China we mentioned at the beginning, Emily Whitchurch and Edith Searell, certainly prayed for safety and protection. And they felt secure in the arms of Christ. Yet the mob broke down their door and murdered them.

Can we have faith in God’s presence – even when our prayers for protection and healing and safety are answered, “No”?

There are many passages we could look at to help us understand this point. But let’s turn briefly to Acts 14:19-22. Paul and Barnabas are in Lystra, in present-day Turkey: This is Timothy’s home town. The crowds are greatly impressed with Paul. Indeed, they proclaim that he is a god, and want to offer sacrifices to him. But then Jews arrive from the last two cities where Paul preached, and they denounce him. So the fickle crowd turns against Paul. They decide to execute him. Surrounding him, they pelt him with stones. They intend to kill him.

Is this fair? Is God with Paul? Is God protecting him?

Paul has come to help these people! To tell them the good news about Jesus! And they are killing him!

Eventually he falls unconscious. His breathing is so shallow that those stoning him think he is dead. So they drag him outside the city and leave his body to the vultures.

Paul lies there, immobile, bleeding, gashes all over his face, swelling bruises all over his body. The disciples come, weeping, to bury him – and then he opens his eyes! He even gets up and walks! He is injured – but alive.

Paul and Barnabas depart, preach elsewhere, and then, after some days or weeks, return to Lystra.

And what does Paul say when he returns? As you hear these words, remember that many of the people listening to Paul saw him stoned. They saw him on the ground. They believed he was dead. Furthermore, remember that as they listen they can see the scars on his face from the stoning.

Paul returned to Lystra:

strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. Acts 14:22

“Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.”

Paul could easily have died in Lystra. God did not stop the stoning – Paul suffered terribly. But God did protect Paul from death at that time. Later, Paul, like Joseph, will spend years in official custody for no good reason.         He will suffer shipwreck and flogging. And though God keeps him alive in Lystra and on many other dangerous occasions, eventually Roman officials behead him.

“Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.”

Some of you may be thinking, “Coty, this is not comforting!” But note: Paul was “strengthening the souls of the disciples” when he said this to them! Paul was “encouraging them to continue in the faith”! What’s the encouragement?

The encouragement is NOT: “You, like Joseph, will have your troubles come to an end during this life. God will raise you up and give you riches and power and fame.”

The encouragement is this: God has a purpose for our suffering. Our suffering is not pointless – even when we can’t see that purpose. God uses our suffering for His glory and our good in ways that we cannot fathom.

In 2 Corinthians, Paul tells of a time he asked God to relieve some of his physical suffering. God replied: "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Paul continues, “That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties.” (2 Corinthians 12:9) He not only endures such hardships – he DELIGHTS in them!

Just so with Jesus Himself. The book of Hebrews tells us, “For the joy set before Him, [He] endured the cross, scorning its shame” (Hebrews 12:2). He too could DELIGHT in His sufferings, knowing that through the cross, God was glorifying Himself through the redemption of millions of men and women from every tribe and tongue and people and nation.

What about Emily Whitchurch and Edith Searell? Did their suffering glorify God?

At the time of their deaths, as the mob was breaking in the door, they could not have known how God would work in China. But “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Today there are more than 100 million Christians in China, in part because of the courageous faith of missionaries like Emily and Edith, and the courageous faith of many thousands of Chinese martyrs.

Like Emily and Edith, many of us suffer and do not know what God is doing. We can see neither the reason for our sufferings not the result of them. But God tells us they are necessary. God graciously gives us the example of Paul, and others in the Bible, and the examples of courageous men and women of faith over the centuries, so that we might take heart, and have confidence that God will use whatever happens to us for His good purposes.

Loved ones, whatever your sufferings know this:

So have faith! Trust the sovereign God. And delight in Him!

This sermon was preached at Desiring God Community Church in Charlotte, NC on 10/17/04. Commentaries by Bruce Waltke (Genesis: A Commentary, Zondervan, 2001), and James Montgomery Boice (Genesis: An Expositional Commentary: Volume 3, Genesis 37-50, Baker, 1985, 1998) were helpful in the preparation of this sermon. The translation for Genesis 4:1 is from Volume 1 of Boice’s commentary set. The story of Emily Whitchurch and Edith Searell is taken from Michael and Sharon Rusten, The One Year Book of Christian History (Tyndale, 2003); see the readings for August 3 and 30. Some details of the persecution of Christians during the Boxer Rebellion are taken from One Thousand Miles of Miracles: The Tragic, True Story of Persecution During the Boxer Rebellion in China by A.E. Glover (Christian Focus, 2000; originally published c1901).

Copyright © 2004, Thomas C. Pinckney. This data file is the sole property of Thomas C. Pinckney. Please feel free to copy it in written form, but only in its entirety for circulation freely without charge. All copies of this data file must contain the above copyright notice.

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