When we stand east of Eden with Adam and Eve because we couldn’t keep our hands off forbidden fruit, weeping over lost loves, lost chances, lost lives...
Tucked away in the deep recesses of your being is that dirty, little secret that you’ve been carrying around for years. At times you forget it’s there. Then a certain person’s name will come up, or the DJ will play that old song, or you’ll hear something on the television that triggers the memory. Then all of a sudden you’ll feel your secret reach out with two long-nailed fingers and pinch your soul, just to remind you it’s still there.
When the twelve-year-old Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem while his parents headed home to Nazareth, He knew what He was doing. He knew that Mary and Joseph would assume that He was somewhere in the large crowd of family and friends who’d made the pilgrimage with them. He knew that eventually they’d realize He wasn’t in the group, and that they’d retrace their steps in search of their missing boy.
If you like the wide open spaces of Nebraska, you probably don’t like the situations in which God often places you. For he hems you in on every side, presses you between a rock and a hard place, so that there seems no way out.
The best of stories contain bigger stories within them. The characters are more than heroes, villains, or victims stuck in an isolated narrative; they embody the ugly and the beautiful in life.
It’s one of my favorite family pictures. Sitting shoulder-to-shoulder on a couch are my granddad, my dad, me, and my son. A four-generation snapshot: Lee Roy to Carson to Chad to Luke. You can spy the DNA doing its thing; you can trace the lineage trickling down from face to face. Each father cradled each son on the day he bawled his way into this world. He gazed into that tiny face and saw mirrored there his own. “Here is bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh,” we all thought. Here, in this baby, is half of me, half of my wife. The Bible says Adam fathered “a son in his own likeness, after his image” (Gen 5:3), and ever afterward, we dads have been following suit. But not one father. He peered into a baby’s face on the night of his nativity, but he saw there no hint of his own eyes or the shape of his nose or the contours of his jaw. That boy would learn to crawl, then to walk, but His gait was nothing like the gait of Joseph. No old woman ever said, “That Jesus is the spitting image of His daddy.” For Mary’s husband couldn’t spy his DNA doing its thing. Half of him was not in Jesus. He is indeed called the boy’s father (Luke 2:33), but Joseph and Mary and Jesus Himself knew that a paternity test would yield negative results. When Jesus met people, and they asked where He was from and who His dad was, little did they realize what loaded questions those were.
It wasn’t the seed of Joseph that was planted in Mary’s womb, but when that baby was born; when Herod sent soldiers to murder Him; when the family had to flee the country; when they made the long journey home; when they needed a roof over their heads and sandals on their feet and food on their table, Joseph was the man to get it done. When baby Jesus filled His diaper with poop, Joseph wiped the divine butt and put a clean diaper on Him. When Jesus took His first wobbly steps, Joseph laughed with Mary as those divine legs learned how to walk. He taught Him to say aleph, bet, gimel as Jesus learned His Hebrew ABCs. This carpenter showed the Lord of all how to hew down and fashion into lumber the very trees He had planted at the dawn of creation. Joseph was not the father of Jesus, but then again, he was the father of Jesus. Jesus was the true offspring of the heavenly Father, very God of very God, begotten not made, but even the Son of God needed a daddy.
That’s one of the reasons why, when I see Joseph, I see God hallowing fatherhood. The Son that He is sending into this world will need more than a mother; He needs a father. As great a blessing as Mary was to our Savior, loving and caring for Him as mothers do, Joseph was equally a blessing to Him. Call him the foster father to Jesus; the adoptive father; the stand-in father; whatever you wish: the Bible simply called Joseph “His father,” (Luke 2:33). For so he was in every way except biologically.
Joseph is God’s way of reminding us that fatherhood is not a hobby but a vocation—a calling that is both sacred and life-encompassing. God hallows fatherhood, makes it holy, something that is set apart and special to Him. For in it He both conceals and reveals His own fatherhood to us. As Joseph protected his family, led them, worked for them, cared for them, taught them, he was but a mask for the Father in heaven who used Joseph as His hands and feet and mouth to care for the Savior and His mother. So my father was to me, and so I strive to be for my own family. If even the Son of God needed a daddy, I know that my son does, my daughter does. Do I fail? Yes, all the time. Do I fail miserably at times? Yes, I most certainly do. Every father does. Since Joseph was a flawed human being, he screwed up sometimes when he was a father to Jesus. But God forgives, covers our weaknesses with the cloak of His grace, and continues to use us as His masks to care for those whom He has placed in our care.
Joseph is also God’s way of reminding us fathers that our children are, from conception onward, divine gifts to us. Whether we are their biological fathers, adoptive fathers, foster or step-fathers, “children are a gift from the LORD,” (Psalm 127:3). As such, they always remain, first and foremost, God’s children. Every child has two fathers, one on earth and one in heaven. And, no matter what DNA is woven into their cells, it is the heavenly Father that defines who they are. They are not ours to do with as we please, but as God pleases. So we bring them to their Father’s house where He baptizes them into the divine family. We bring them, perhaps kicking and screaming at times, to their Father’s house, where He talks to them in His word, tells them about Himself, tell them about themselves, and draws them ever closer to Him. We teach them at home, in the car, wherever we might be, about the Father who loves them so much that He sent His own Son to be born into a human family, to live and to die and to rise again, that they might receive the gifts of life and salvation. We are all Joseph—all masks of the heavenly Father by which He cares for the children He has given to us.
I suppose that Joseph could have divorced Mary when he discovered she was a pregnant with a child that was not his own. He could have refused to believe the angel who told him in a dream that Mary was pregnant by the Holy Spirit (Matthew 1:18-25). He could have hightailed it to save his own skin when he learned that Herod’s men were on their way to Bethlehem, swords in hand. He could have abandoned the family in Egypt. He didn't have to be the dad he was, but he indeed was. He had a sacred calling. He was the husband of Mary, the father of Jesus, the mask of God.
This Christmas, as you see that man in the nativity scene, kneeling by the virgin, say a prayer of thanks for him. And say a prayer of thanks for all fathers, for we struggle, we fail, and we try again to live out our vocations. Some of us do better than others, some worse, but we all live by grace of Jesus, who lived and died for Joseph, for Mary, for all of us. If all children are a gift from the Lord, then the Christ Child is The Gift. In Him we are all the children of a Father who is truly faithful and has made us His own in that tiny babe of Bethlehem.
When Patrick was fourteen years old, he was kidnapped during a raid on Britain and taken to Ireland to serve as a slave. After six years in captivity, he escaped, made his way back home, and eventually was ordained into the priesthood. Then, in His own ironic way, God sent Patrick back into the land of his former captivity to proclaim the freedom of the Gospel. The boy who had been a slave was used by God to bring His word of salvation and life to a people who had been living in the darkness of pagan unbelief.
Centuries before, however, the Lord had established this saving precedent. He used another teenager in another country to do His work. When Joseph was seventeen, his brothers sold him into captivity in Egypt. After thirteen years as a slave and prisoner, he was elevated to Pharaoh’s right hand. God used Joseph to preserve the life of Egypt, as well as the life of his own family, during a seven year famine.
But more importantly, the Lord sent Joseph into Egypt to bring the light of divine wisdom into that darkened land. Led by God, Pharaoh made Joseph “lord of his house and ruler over all his possessions, to imprison his princes at will, that he might teach his elders wisdom,” (Ps 105:21-22). Joseph, who was full of the Holy Spirit (Gen 41:38), taught Egypt about the wisdom of God. He instructed these Egyptian pagans about the one true God; Joseph became a missionary to his former masters.
In his commentary on Genesis, Luther speaks of how Joseph became God's spokesman of Egypt:
“David [in Psalm 105:21-22] looked more deeply into this account and saw how salutary it was for the kingdom of Egypt. How many fine people Joseph must have influenced! He taught the princes themselves and the king, and even converted the whole court to the faith. He showed them the true worship of God. He likewise appointed priests to lead the way for others later and to instruct them. In short, he is a Christ in Egypt and even more, as Christ Himself says, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in Me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these he will do,’ (John 14:12). Christ converted one little nation in a corner of the one land of Judah; He fed several thousand people with a small amount of bread. Joseph fed all Egypt and the neighboring nations and kingdoms, both physically and spiritually.” (Lectures on Genesis, AE 7:136).
In both Joseph and Patrick we see the Lord of life at work. As we see Him at work in our own lives. The God who can take two slaves, both of whom seemed destined for nothing but death, and use their lives to bring wisdom and light and salvation to the lives of so many others—this same God can and will work in our own lives. We may seem destitute of hope, but the hope of Christ is stronger than our weakness. As He was for Joseph and Patrick, so He will be for us: our companion in suffering, our life in death, our resurrection in the grave, and the Lord who uses us in His own way to bring blessings into the lives of others.
My Dear Shadowbrand,
I admire the zeal you have exhibited in your struggle to bring Joseph into the hands of Our Father below. I need not remind you, however, that zeal is never sufficient in and of itself. To zeal must be added cunning, and cunning must issue in success. In your file I see nothing but one dismal failure after another. Joseph stubbornly clings to the Enemy. He still waits for those dreams of his to come true.
This latest turn of events, however, presents you with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Press your advantage. If Joseph will ever be vulnerable, it is now.
As you know, Joseph recently interpreted the dreams of his fellow inmates, the cupbearer and the baker. The latter, I rejoice to say, is now firmly in our clutches; the former is free and serving again in the court of Pharaoh. In the weeks and months to come, one of our brothers will be hard at work on the cupbearer. That disgusting human tendency to repay kindness with kindness will be met with counterarguments such as, “Yes, but we all know those foreigners will lie about anything, including their innocence,” and “If he were truly a man of God, then he wouldn’t be in prison now, would he?” Over time, any inclination the cupbearer might have to speak a good word to Pharaoh on Joseph’s behalf will seem less and less of a moral necessity. With humans, it’s almost too easy to turn “maybe later” into “never.”
Here is where your task becomes of vital importance. To begin with, hope will be your most powerful weapon. Stir up in Joseph a lusty anticipation of impending release. With the dawning of each new day, whisper to him that today will certainly be the day when he is vindicated, when his good name is cleared of the trumped up charges of attempted rape. Lure him to hope like he’s never hoped before. Do this, I suggest, for at least the first month.
Then, once you have fattened Joseph with hope, gradually introduce him to a diet of doubt. Make him begin to count the days since the cupbearer’s release. Reacquaint him with the pains of prison life that he may have overlooked during his month of excess hope. At the same time, labor on his imagination. Let him think of the life of ease in the palace that is enjoyed by the cupbearer—the man he helped to free! Let the bitter irony of this man’s dream leading to his release, and Joseph’s dreams leading to his eventual imprisonment, grow more bitter by the day. Your goal, my dear Shadowbrand, is for Joseph to grow angry with the man whom he thought was his ticket to freedom; then to feed that child of anger until it grows into the adult of hatred; and finally to bring forth from hatred’s womb the offspring of revenge, spite, and mistrust.
But even if you accomplish these goals, you have only gone halfway. We are waging war, I need not remind you, on both the horizontal and vertical levels. It is not enough that he hates this man, the cupbearer. Joseph’s blade of hatred must penetrate all the way through this man and plunge into the Enemy himself. Gradually transform the image of the cupbearer in his mind from the Enemy’s emissary to his tease. Suggest that the Enemy was only tantalizing him, holding out hope as a mirage in this desert dungeon.
If you can move Joseph, emotion by emotion, thought by thought, closer to the conception of our Enemy as the Grand Deceiver, then with the mere push of a finger, he will plummet off his mountain of hope into the pit of despair. His dreams will seem nightmares from childhood. His faith will seem an irrational fixation upon a sadistic, celestial tyrant. His hope…well, he will have no hope, for in the religion of despair, hope has been excommunicated. The vacuum left by it is easily filled with bitterness over the past, selfish pity over the woes of the present, and a blank stare into the futile future.
Do not waste this opportunity, Shadowbrand. Our Father below is watching. I trust you will not disappoint him again.
This fictional epistle is, of course, patterned after The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis, whose literary gifts I do not pretend to match. In my studies of Joseph's life, including the chapter in Genesis that is the basis for this article (40), I have often wondered at the temptations he must have faced. I suspect that the two years which elapsed from the cupbearer's release until Joseph's liberation were the most difficult of his life. For there are few sufferings harder to endure than to have one's hope built up, only to see it dashed to the ground. But thanks be to God, who sustained Joseph, and still sustains us, that we might cling to His word of promise even in the face of the most diabolical of temptations to despair.
My thanks to Haleigh Morgan for the suggestion of "Shadowbrand" as the name of the letter's recipient.
You don’t send a mouse to check on a group of cats. But that’s exactly what Jacob did. He sent Joseph, saying, “See if it is well with your brothers and with the flock,” (Genesis 37:14). Oh, sure, not a problem. I mean, if you ignore the brothers’ hatred against Joseph because he was their father’s pet; if you’re oblivious to the fact that the brothers despised Joseph even more when he relayed two dreams of his whole family bowing down to him; if you are so clueless about human nature as not to realize that the green-eyed monster of jealousy mocks the meat it feeds on (as Shakespeare puts it), then by all means send the mouse Joseph to check on the ten fraternal cats who were hungry for a pound of their little brother’s flesh. What happened, horrible though it be, is hardly a surprise. Since Joseph was so high and mighty, the brothers decided to teach him humility by tossing him into a pit. Since he was their dad’s favorite, they faked his death and duped their dad into believing a beast had ripped him to shreds. Since he had dreams of superiority, they turned his life into a nightmare of exile and slavery. The cats did what cats do: they toyed with the mouse. These green-eyed monsters mocked the meat they fed on.
Jealousy: it’s one of those forces within us that can manifest itself as protector or destroyer. Jealousy can be good—a “divine jealousy,” Paul calls it (2 Corinthians 11:2). It compels us to shield our loved ones from outside forces that seek to lure them into destruction and ruin. So the Lord our God is a jealous God, for He will have all of us—all our love and fidelity—and not share us with a soul-destroying idol. So my wife is a jealous wife, for she will have all of me—all my love and fidelity—and not share me with a marriage-destroying adulteress. Yes, jealousy can be good, when, prompted by love, it zealously protects the beloved from evil.
But jealousy, far more commonly, is a kissing cousin to envy and covetousness. It is the hand that’s attached to the arm of narcissism, snatching at what the self-lover yearns to have as his own. It is the jealousy of brothers who want what Joseph has. It is the jealousy of husbands who demand a slave they can control rather than a wife they can love and trust. It is the jealousy of coworkers, who, rather than rejoicing when their fellow employee climbs the ladder of success, secretly despise him for faring better than they are. In the case of Joseph, jealousy conceived hatred, which was born as rage, which, when fully-grown, became murderous, deceitful, family-destroying violence. Jealousy, like all vices, never crashes a party alone; it brings along its gang of hellish friends.
It’ll eat you alive, won’t it? We begin to think we’re victims, as if the whole world is conspiring against us to deprive us of what we deserve. How come she married such a good guy and I’m stuck with this pig? How come mom and dad always take his side and dote on him, while all they do is criticize me? Why can’t I ever seem to get ahead, and my neighbors never seem to fall behind? I’m a victim of fate, a victim of the bad choices others make, victimized by my family, victimized by the universe. On and on it goes, as jealousy makes a meal of our soul.
Let me tell you a better way. This better way does not involve you doing something to become a better person. This better way has no five or ten or fifty steps you can follow to become a happy, satisfied child or spouse or coworker. Rather, it’s a way of putting jealousy in its place, of watching as it sinks down into a wet grave to die the death it deserves. For if there’s anything cats hate, it’s water, and that’s exactly what this green-eyed monster needs: to be grabbed by the neck and held under the water until its lungs fill with liquid and its body grows limp. What jealousy needs is a swim from which it will never return.
Baptism is not just a one-time cleansing to which we can never return. The font becomes our daily companion. And into that fountain of water Christ Jesus daily plunges everything in us that is contrary to Him. He takes us, filthy with jealousy, stained by envy, smeared with covetousness, and shoves us down into those waters and brings us up again clean with holiness, spotless with gratitude, flawless with love. In other words, daily Christ creates us anew, daily fashions a clean heart within us that rejoices with those who prosper, thanks God for what we have, enjoys a life in which we are not victims but victors through Him who overwhelmingly conquered for us on the cross.
The solution to jealousy is not “don’t be jealous.” The solution is a Savior—a Savior who zealously pursued us, even to the point of crucifixion, that He might claim us as His brothers and sister, fellow children of our heavenly Father. He indeed has that divine jealousy, that saving zeal to have us exclusively as His own. And so He does. In His eyes you will spot no green, but rather the warm glow of love. It is a love that saves us from ourselves, that saves us from every vice, that saves us for a life in which Christ lives through us as a new and greater Joseph, delivered up out of jealousy to be the Savior of the whole world.
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Leo Tolstoy
There is a uniqueness to unhappiness, as Tolstoy rightly observed, a sad fingerprint left by each family that is like no other. And it’s rarely as simplistic as outsiders usually assume. “Oh, it’s that alcoholic father who’s ruined that family.” Or, “Yeah, it’s that cheatin’ wife of his.” Or, “it’s them dope-smoking kids.” Maybe the husband turns to alcohol as an escape because his wife nags him, belittles him, and makes him feel worthless. Maybe the wife sleeps with other men because they give her the illusion of attraction, while her husband says she’s fat, never touches her, and makes her feel as undesirable as a wrinkled whore. And this merely scratches the surface. Dig down deep into any unhappy family, and you’re likely to unearth layer upon layer of manipulation, abuse, neglect, grudges, and horrors which have no name.
Joseph came from a family like that. His dad, Jacob, was married to two women, having sex with two more, and fathering children by them all. I don’t need to tell you that, in a household where four women are sleeping with one man, jealousy was thick. Each wife was trying to out-pregnant the other, and even enlisted their maid-servants as sexual pinch hitters to try and make even more babies. To add to the mess, Joseph’s brother, Reuben, slept with one of those maid-servants as well, father and son sowing their seed in the same womb, brother sleeping with his other brothers’ mom. Still more, after one of the daughters was raped in a nearby town, the sons rose to avenge their sister with bloodshed, all the while incensed at their father who didn’t want to ruffle any feathers over the incident. And, finally, the jealousy of the wives filtered down to the sons, especially when Jacob made it abundantly clear that Joseph, the firstborn of his favorite wife, Rachel, was his favorite son and the one who would inherit his blessing. If every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, then Joseph’s family had plenty of ways of breeding more unhappiness.
Some of you reading this come from an unhappy family, or you’re living in that unhappy family right now. Maybe you’re wondering if there’s any possible way God could glue back together the shards of your shattered family unity. Maybe you suspect things are so bad that God has washed His hands of your marriage and children. Or maybe you’ve simply given up hope; you feel defeated; you’re tired of pushing that boulder uphill, only to watch it roll down again. The pains and disappointments in life are teaching you the hard truth that God has a warm place in His heart for happy families, while unhappy ones are left shivering through winter after winter of divine absence.
If so, consider this: Joseph’s family—that polygamous, incestuous, jealous, murderous, motley crew of screw-ups—was in fact the holy family that God chose and dearly loved. This family was the foundation of the church of the Old Testament. Those twelve brothers, reared by one deceitful father and four bickering mothers, who were constantly fighting amongst themselves, were the patriarchs of the twelve tribes of Israel. This microcosm of humanity, in which just about every evil and sin was exemplified, was nevertheless beloved of God and chosen by Him to carry forward the promise of redemption. This was the family whose DNA would eventually find its way into a baby boy born to a virgin in the little town of Bethlehem. The Savior of the world would come from Joseph’s family; indeed, his foster father would bear that patriarch’s name. From this unhappy family would arise the one whose coming would prompt the church to sing, “Joy to the world!”
So is God interested only in happy families? No, if anything, He seems to be the patron God of lost causes. For him, there is no family, no family member, who is beyond hope. He is the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep to look for the one lost lamb. He is the father who dashes from his house and runs like a madman to throw his loving arms around the prodigal son. He is the Christ who suffers with you through every family fight, holds you when you cry yourself to sleep in a lonely bed, sits beside you in divorce court, visits your child with you when she’s in rehab. He has bound Himself to you and your family. That doesn’t mean He approves of the evil that takes place; what it means is that He is not a God who runs away when things get ugly. He might even get ugly Himself sometimes, show tough love to those who need it, but behind that divine scowl of reproof is a heart of love that beats with a ferocious compassion. He will not give up on you or your family. Inked into God’s skin is the name of every person in your family. He bears your family in His own body.
Every unhappy family may be unhappy in its own way, but no family is beyond redemption, beyond the recovery of joy, beyond the love of the heavenly Father. Because every unhappy family is the family for whom Jesus Christ died. For Joseph’s family, for your family, the Son of God came from His Father, was born of a mother, was raised by a foster father, that He might redeem every member of your family, and make them members of an everlasting family known as the church. With Jesus Christ, no family is a lost cause.