We begin with the words of Mark Twain who said, “There are two great days in a person’s life - the day we are born and the day we discover why.”
One is easier than the other.
One is a date in time.
It’s October 4 or March 29 or February 12 or September 26.
It’s a moment you celebrate every year.
It’s the date when you made your first public appearance.
That date is easy.
The other one isn’t.
It’s probably not a literal date at all. It’s the moment you finally figured out why God put you on planet earth.
The first day explains your presence on earth.
The second explains your purpose.
Often it takes a long time to discover why you were born.
Sometimes it happens very suddenly.
On April 18 of this 2013, Sean Collier was assigned to a certain intersection on the campus of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston. Three days earlier, two bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring over 250 others. A massive manhunt put the whole city on virtual lockdown. By Thursday evening, the authorities had tracked the bombers to the area around the MIT campus. Police believe that sometime after 10 PM the bombers crept up on Sean Collier’s patrol car, shooting him five times. He was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital. He was only 27 years old.
In a statement posted on the university website, MIT Police Chief John DiFava said,
"Sean was one of these guys who really looked at police work as a calling. He was born to be a police officer.”
“Born to be a police officer.”
It is hard to imagine a finer tribute for a man who died in the line of duty.
We can think of many variations . . .
- She was born to be a mother.
- He was born to play baseball.
- She was born to be a senator.
- He was born to be a soldier.
- She was born to help the homeless.
- He was born to lead a nation.
What were you born to do?
That’s a hard question.
You’ll spend the rest of your life trying to answer it.
One year, I analyzed all the questions people asked me either in person or by email. After thinking about all the problems that people have, I realized that most of them boil down to one simple question:
“Lord, what do you want me to do?”
Proverbs 3:5-6 promises that if we will trust in the Lord, he will make our way straight. How exactly does he do that?
Here are seven fundamental facts about God’s guidance:
1. He can put you exactly where he wants you to be.
2. He can arrange all the details years in advance.
3. He can open doors that seem shut tight.
4. He can remove any obstacle in your way.
5. He can take your choices and fit them into his plan that you end up at the right place at just the right time.
6. He can even take your mistakes and bring good out of them.
7. He can take tragedy and use it for your good and his glory.
This is what Proverbs 16:9 means when it says that “in his heart, a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps.”
So let me ask you a crucial question: Do you know why you were born?
Sometimes we find our calling early.
Often the revelation doesn’t come until late in life.
Sometimes others see it before we do.
Often the circumstances of life reveal it to us.
I am thinking of a man who fits that last category. He never knew his purpose for many years of his adult life. It was only after a series of events unfolded, nearly all of them outside his control, and many of them quite painful, that the plan of God for his life became evident.
This is the story of Joseph, son of Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham.
He was born to save his family.
Genesis 37 introduces him this way:
“Jacob lived in the land of his father’s sojournings, in the land of Canaan.
2 These are the generations of Jacob.
Joseph, being seventeen years old, was pasturing the flock with his brothers” (vv. 1-2).
These verses tell us three facts about Joseph:
1. He’s 17.
2. He’s working in the family business.
3. He doesn’t have a clue about his own future.
Life is like that. If we said to Joseph, “Do You Know Why You Were Born?” he would have no idea. He would no doubt presume that he was destined to be a shepherd like his father Jacob, his grandfather Isaac, and his great-grandfather Abraham.
But in truth, he has no idea of the events that are about to unfold. This strikes me as a crucial point because when we read his story thousands of years later, we know how it all ends. And that colors our estimation of these early events.
Sometimes I am asked how to “discover” God’s will? The answer is, you can’t.
You don’t “discover” God’s will.
God’s will “discovers” you.
You don’t find it.
It finds you.
I heard someone say that God’s will is more like a sunrise than a sunburst. Out of the darkness and chaos of life, God’s will rises slowly over the horizon. It’s not so much that we see the sun. It’s that by the sun we see everything else. So it is with God’s will. That reminds me of another common metaphor, the “blueprint” of life.
Does God have a blueprint for your life?
Yes, he does.
But there’s only one copy, it’s locked up on the third floor of the Administration Building in heaven, and I don’t know of any way you can get a copy. ’Im emphasizing a point that is as true for us as it was for Joseph. God’s will is revealed to us a little bit at a time, like the sun slowly rising or like a blueprint unrolling before our eyes.
First, he was Jacob’s favorite son.
Then he was betrayed.
Then he was sold into slavery.
Then he was purchased by Potiphar.
Then he rose in Potiphar’s house.
Then he was falsely accused by Potiphar’s wife.
Then he was thrown in prison.
Then he met the baker and the butler in prison.
Then the butler forgot him.
Then he stood before Pharaoh.
Then he became the prime minister of Egypt.
Then he met his brothers.
Then he gave his family a home in Egypt.
All of that ended up saving his family and preserving the line of promise.
Joseph rode the roller coaster of life
At the moment we’re at the front end of this amazing story. Just remember that when we meet Joseph as he is tending the flocks, he doesn’t have a clue about the roller-coaster ride he life is about to become.
To back up a bit, there is a 21st-century word that perfectly describes his family. It’s a word that you won’t find anywhere in Genesis, but it fits nonetheless.
Joseph grew up in a dysfunctional family.
His father Jacob had four wives.
He had 11 brothers scattered among those four wives.
He had one full brother, the youngest child of all, Benjamin.
With all of that, there is bound to be trouble–and there was. Genesis 37:3 says that Joseph was his father’s favorite son—the son of his old age. It means he was the first son by Rachel, the woman Jacob always loved.
Joseph was always his favorite.
All the brothers knew it.
The family looks like this:
1 father, 4 mothers, 12 brothers plus one daughter (Dinah).
And one favorite son.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that this is a disaster waiting to happen. Trouble is brewing right under the surface in Jacob’s complicated family.
Out of it will come Joseph who many years down the road will rescue the brothers who betrayed him. As the story opens, there is no reason—none at all—to see any of this in advance. In the beginning, we mostly see dark clouds on the horizon.
From this, we glean an important point. Your background is no impediment to your service for the Lord. Joseph came from a family that was in many ways “out of bounds.” It certainly was not a neat, clean, one man-one woman nuclear family. He was born into a family where jealousy, comparison, and distrust were the rules of the game. It was not a happy family. Yet God chose Joseph and used him mightily.
Not many of us come from perfect families.
Actually, none of us do because there is no such thing.
“I’m Definitely Darker”
Who said this?
“At the end of the day, who everybody meets in the public eye, the public image, and myself are two different people in a way. It’s a very accessible version of me. I’m definitely more introverted. I’m definitely darker. I’m definitely more, at times, pessimistic in real life. I shouldn’t say pessimistic. That’s a little strong. I’m more pragmatic in real life because I come from a whole different body of experience.”
Those are the words of Cory Monteith, star of the hit TV show Glee, who was 31 years old when he died in a hotel room in Vancouver of an overdose of alcohol and heroin on July 13, 2013.
In a 2011 Interview with Parade magazine, he talked about his past experiences with drugs and then made this conclusion:
“I don’t want kids to think it’s okay to drop out of school and get high, and they’ll be famous actors, too. I’m lucky on so many counts—I’m lucky to be alive.”
And now he is gone.
The Bible has a lot to say about this:
“What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:14).
“So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).
“What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?” (Mark 8:36)
The real problems we face are not “out there.”
They are always “in here,” on the inside.
That’s where we fight our greatest battles.
More than two decades before he died, Michael Jackson sang these lyrics:
“I’m starting with the man in the mirror
I’m asking him to change his ways
And no message could have been any clearer
If you wanna make the world a better place
If you wanna make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself, and then make a change.”
There is wisdom here, and a lesson we all need to learn. This world is a messed-up place, and the most messed-up part lies inside the human heart. That’s one reason we know the Bible is true. It speaks the truth about the human condition. It doesn’t lie to us about our “unlimited potential” or tell us that we are basically okay the way we are at the moment.
It says we are all sinners.
Separated from God.
Dead in our sin.
Unable to help ourselves.
This is where the gospel becomes so incredibly relevant. It doesn’t make us feel good and then say, “Just try harder and you will be okay.” Sometimes when I preach I will quote the familiar words of Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned and fall of the glory of God.” Heads nod approvingly across the room When I ask about the last phrase of verse 22, no one knows the answer. But that phrase in verse 22 is the key to verse 23.
“For there is no difference” (Romans 3:22b).
No difference between rich and poor.
No difference religious and pagan.
No difference between Jew and Gentile.
No difference between young and old.
No difference between housewife and harlot.
No difference between criminal and choirboy.
No difference between American and Kenyan.
We’re all in the same boat, and unless God does something, we’re all going to sink together.
We are all broken people. Some of us know it, some of us don’t.
If you can relate, this story is for you.
If you come from a broken home, this story is for you.
If you don’t get along with your brothers and sisters, this story is for you.
If you were abused, this story is for you.
If your friends lied to you, this story is for you.
If you’ve done jail time, this story is for you.
If your family doesn’t understand you, this story is for you.
So how did God’s will unfold? At the beginning of Genesis 37 Joseph is tending the flocks with his brothers in Canaan. By the end of the chapter he’s a slave in Egypt, his life having taken what appears to be a massive turn in the wrong direction.
But God has other plans in mind for Joseph, plans that require him to be in Egypt. How does a 17-year-old Hebrew shepherd become the prime minister of Egypt? Here are the first few steps on that long journey.
1. He worked in the family business.
Joseph, being seventeen years old, was pasturing the flock with his brothers (v.2).
He stood for different values.
He was a boy with the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives. And Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father (v. 2).
No doubt Jacob knew that some of his sons were men of low character. Joseph simply reported to his father what he saw and heard.
3. He was marked out as special at an early age.
“Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his sons, because he was the son of his old age. And he made him a robe of many colors” (v. 3).
This is the part of the story that almost everyone knows. The phrase “robe of many colors” translates a difficult bit of Hebrew. It at least means that the coat was richly embroidered, most likely with long sleeves, the sort of robe a son of royalty might wear. We may debate among ourselves about the wisdom of Jacob’s gift to his favorite son. Perhaps he should not have made his feelings so obvious, but nothing in the text suggests that he did wrong. By wearing the robe, Joseph signaled to his brothers that he was destined for greatness in his father’s eyes. If the robe had long sleeves, it also meant he couldn’t work in the fields the same way his brothers did, thus increasing their animosity toward him.
4. He had two strange dreams.
In his first dream (vv. 5-8) he and his brothers were gathering bundles of wheat in a field. When his bundle stood up, the other bundles bowed down before it.
Not too hard to figure that one out.
Needless to say, his brothers weren’t happy with what he shared.
The second dream was even more grandiose:
“Then he dreamed another dream and told it to his brothers and said, ‘Behold, I have dreamed another dream. Behold, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me’” (v. 9).
He told this one to his father and his brothers (v. 10). At first his father rebuked him but later pondered what it meant (v. 11).
5. His brothers hated him more and more.
Note how things have developed in a downward spiral. The text mentions it four times:
V 4. His brothers hated him.
V 5. They hated him even more.
V. 8. They hated him even more.
V. 11 His brothers were jealous of him.
No wonder they could not speak kindly to him (v. 4). Soon their anger and envy will lead to a shocking betrayal.
This account is both sad and instructive. Often those closest to us will not recognize God’s call on our lives. Many a young person has had to fight through family opposition in order to serve God. Not everyone will applaud your decision to follow Jesus. Some will oppose you openly. Others may criticize you behind your back. In Joseph’s case, his brothers are about to commit a heinous crime. They will conspire to kill their own flesh and blood.
All because of envy.
Hebrews 12:15 warns us to see to it that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble. That is precisely what happens here. Centuries later Solomon would write these words: “A tranquil heart gives life to the flesh, but envy makes the bones rot” (Proverbs 14:30).
These sad words are about to come true. Envy will not only cause trouble, but it will also nearly destroy the family.
6. His brothers betrayed him.
Now events unfold swiftly:
The brothers conspire to kill him (v. 18).
B. When they see him coming, they derisively say, “Here comes this dreamer” (v. 19).
C. They plan to kill him and throw him in one of the nearby pits (v. 20).
D. They ended up throwing him alive into an empty pit (v. 24).
Then comes the most callous act of all:
They ate a meal while he was in the pit (v. 25).
While he was screaming for help, his brothers ate a meal, no doubt laughing at their little brother’s shouts from the pit.
What sort of men do this?
Along come some desert traders at just the right moment. So Judah comes up with a clever plan that will make some money off their brother’s distress.
“What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him, for he is our brother, our own flesh” (v. 27).
So the deal was done.
Joseph was sold for 20 pieces of silver.
The price of a slave.
If that reminds you of someone else sold for 30 pieces of silver, it should. Jesus who was betrayed by Judas was a distant descendant of Judah who sold his own brother.
Only one detail remains.
What will they say to their father when Joseph does not come home with them?
Taking the coat of many colors, they dipped it in goat’s blood and told their father that a wild animal had killed Joseph.
It was a bald-faced lie.
Jacob believed it, of course. What else could he do?
7. He ended up as a slave in Egypt.
Verse 28 tells us what happened next:
“They took Joseph to Egypt.”
There he was sold to a man named Potiphar.
For a moment, let’s stand back and look at Genesis 37.
What a sordid story!
It’s all messed up!
Where is God?
He’s not mentioned in Genesis 37.
His name is nowhere to be found.
What should we conclude from this? Does it mean he has abandoned Joseph to his brothers’ evil schemes? Not at all!
Though everything seems to be spinning out of control, at every point Joseph is exactly where the Lord wanted him to be:
In the field with his brothers.
Reporting to his father.
Telling his dreams.
Looking for his brothers.
Thrown into a pit.
Sold as a slave.
Marched off to Egypt.
While this chain of events must have seemed dark and chaotic to Joseph, it was all leading exactly where God intended it to go from the beginning.
Let’s wrap up this post with two enduring lessons.
1. When God chooses a leader, he often allows enemies to arise who will put him to the test.
Where did Joseph’s enemies come from? His worst enemies came from the people who should have been closest to him—his own flesh and blood.
What started as hatred . . .
Congealed into envy . . .
Which resulted in conspiracy . . .
Which led to violence . . .
That was compounded by callous indifference . . .
And ended in a shocking betrayal . . .
Which was covered with an evil deception.
Jesus warned that a man’s enemies will be those of his own household (Matthew 10:36). Let us then not be surprised when people we thought we could trust turn against us. It doesn’t always happen, but when it does, the results are devastating.
2. When God chooses a leader, not even his enemies can stop him from doing God’s will.
This is the other side of the story.
Nothing the brothers did could cancel God’s choice.
Behind Jacob’s favoritism,
And behind those strange dreams,
And behind the brothers’ evil schemes,
Stood the God of the universe, working his will.
Not even the treachery of envious brothers could thwart God’s plan. Years later Joseph would say, “You meant it for evil against me” (Genesis 50:20), and that was no exaggeration. They first meant to kill him and only spared his life because they saw a way to make money off his disappearance. It was evil through and through.
Didn’t God know about the betrayal?
Didn’t God know about the slavery?
Didn’t God know about Potiphar’s wife?
Didn’t God know about the false accusations?
Didn’t God know about the prison time?
God knew all those things and a lot more besides.
Joseph was God’s choice.
Therefore, God led him through the pain of betrayal.
It had to happen that way.
Better or Worse?
At the beginning of Genesis 37, Joseph is tending the flocks with his brothers who already hate him. At the end of Genesis 37, he is a slave in Egypt.
Is he better off or worse off?
It depends on your point of view.
It depends on how big your God is.
That brings us back to the words of Mark Twain:
“There are two great days in a person’s life - the day we are born and the day we discover why.”
It took a long time but Joseph eventually discovered why he was born.
He’s not there yet.
Do you know why you were born? Perhaps the right answer should be,
“I was born to serve the Lord. Everything else is just details.”
Seen in that light, the real hero of Joseph’s story is not Joseph. It’s God. The whole story illustrates how God accomplishes his purposes for us even when we are clueless about the big picture. That comforts me because I rarely feel like I see the “big picture” of what my life is supposed to mean. And what little I do understand happens as I look back and see how the pieces fit together. Even tonight, as I write these words, I have no special knowledge about tomorrow or the day after, much less what the next five years will hold for me. I do believe God has a “blueprint” for my life. I also believe I don’t have access to it. I only see that “blueprint” as it unfolds before me a little bit at a time.
So it is for all of us.