The day begins as any other in prison—no hope, no indication that today’s dreariness is going to be any different than any other. Joseph’s sentence is undefined and subject to the whims of Pharaoh. At thirty years old, he’s become jaded, burned from briefly allowing himself to hope that the cupbearer would put in a good word. His optimism faded long ago—two whole years, like an added sentence. So in Joseph’s wildest dreams he couldn’t begin to imagine what this day holds. He doesn’t allow himself to dream.

Suddenly a summons, and a whirlwind of activity. Bathing, shaving, new clothes, makeup. In a few short hours—minutes perhaps, given Pharaoh’s sense of urgency—Joseph is transformed from a lowly prisoner and slave to advisor, standing before Pharaoh like an intern called before the president. He doesn’t seem to have been given any context, any indication of what he’s being asked to do. All these years of waiting, and Joseph has a few minutes to make an impression. There is no transition.

Joseph can’t possibly have a plan; the opportunity is so sudden, he is clearly working off the cuff, relying on God to guide him. And yet all of Joseph’s thirty years have prepared him for this moment of spontaneity. Upon his summons he has the presence of mind to offer a rebuttal that it is God who can give Pharaoh what he wants; Joseph is merely a spokesperson. Then he has a few minutes to listen to God’s word to Pharaoh, sense the meaning in it, collect his thoughts and give a response.

In Genesis 41:1-32, Joseph does exactly as requested and expected: he tells Pharaoh seven years of abundance will be followed by seven years of famine.

It would be a completely different story if Joseph ends there. However, like the sons of Issachar (1 Chronicles 12:32), Joseph not only understands the times but knows what to do. That’s where Joseph crosses a line from being simply a prophet to being a discerning and wise strategist. The key, of course, is that in Joseph “is the Spirit of God” (Gen 41:38). He combines wisdom with action, and the courage to follow through. Joseph takes an enormous risk advising action to Pharaoh. I imagine a deafening moment of silence when he finishes, with all eyes on Pharaoh. In verse 37, a smile creeps over Pharaoh’s face, and things will never be the same for Joseph.

Pharaoh’s gut tells him he needs to promote this young man as the one to implement this plan. To come up with such a specific plan of action with no advance preparation, it’s clear to all that God must have shown him the strategy, too. It is this God who makes Joseph stand out above Pharaoh’s own wise men (Gen 41:8,38-39). Pharaoh makes a key observation: that this is not a one-time incident; if the Spirit of God dwells in Joseph, no one will be as continually discerning and wise as Joseph. Within the next nine years, God will make Joseph a “father to Pharaoh” (Gen 45:8), and he will instruct princes and teach Pharaoh’s elders wisdom (Ps 105:22).

By the end of the day, Joseph has a new name, fine clothing, a signet ring, a private chariot and a new bed in his own palace.

But Joseph is not content to kick back, enjoy his new status and his new wife. Motivated and ready for action after waiting so long, he quickly gets to work. How does Joseph lead in times of prosperity? First, he scouts the country and secures his status. It’s important as a newcomer that he be seen, and it’s important that he see the land. He learned leadership at a much smaller scale, which allowed him to get to know and attend those under his care, and his new scope requires travel. His education in Egypt has also been incomplete, and he must learn the agricultural industry. As the Theology of Work Project puts it,

His office would have required that he learn much about legislation, communication, negotiation, transportation, safe and efficient methods of food storage, building, economic strategizing and forecasting, record-keeping, payroll, the handling of transactions both by means of currency and through bartering, human resources, and the acquisition of real estate…. The genius of Joseph’s success lay in the effective integration of his divine gifts and acquired competencies.

Joseph has a high level of responsibility and loyalty, and with a looming deadline, he has a lot to manage. Like any businessman today, Joseph needs agility to take full advantage of opportunities and resolve bottlenecks, and the right balance between stockpiling and investing for “the business cycle of economic boom and bust” (Tien Fock). Planning and preparation is required to preserve some grain for sowing at the end of the famine, while the rest will be portioned out by year. Security at the storage facilities will also need to be part of the plan.

True to the plan he had laid out to Pharaoh, he taxes the revenues during this period of abundance at 20%. He scales the management task, creating a regional oversight structure under competent leaders and designing regional storage collection. And he tracks inventory and revenues, until the abundance is too great to measure. Some accounting historians suggest this passage is marking an epic change in bookkeeping from tokens to writing; “the breakdown of the means by which the surpluses could be measured” (Jose and Moore) may precipitate a shift in how accounting is done in the ancient world. In short, God’s abundant provision breaks the system.

A rising tide raises all boats, and this period is a time of fabulous wealth for all. Joseph enters his own seven-year period of fruitfulness, gaining two boys (Gen 41:50-52) and incredible favour with Pharaoh. God is restoring Joseph and nurturing an environment that will preserve life, and especially Jacob’s family line (Gen 45:5-7). The edge that Pharaoh enjoys above any others is Joseph’s extraordinary insight into the timing of the trends. However, there is no way Joseph could tax the people and store this much grain in secret. As a man of integrity, Joseph wouldn’t have practiced insider trading; the timeline of abundance and famine had to be made public, and others had a chance to follow Joseph’s investment plan. Yet all evidence points to a failure by any individual Egyptians to properly plan for the seven years of famine.

The season turns, and the time of plenty comes to an end. Joseph has proven himself as prime minister, fulfilling his promise as a leader. There are different challenges to leading in abundance than leading in scarcity, and we’ll look at how Joseph adjusts in my next post.


Joseph series:

Since we first heard the stories about Jonah in Sunday School, we have learned that God is omnipresent; there is no place we can flee from his presence and no believer in whom he does not dwell. He’s everywhere. But if that’s true, then why do we see phrases such as these throughout Scripture?

The Lord was with…

My presence will go with you…

Lo, I am with you always…

Of course God is with us and goes with us. Right?

If the incredible frequency of these phrases in the Bible weren’t enough to catch my attention, the passion with which certain characters desire that presence certainly did. Consider Moses. He experienced enough of God’s physical presence in the burning bush, column of fire and smoke and face to face encounters that he wasn’t about to go anywhere without God’s presence. He argued, “If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?” (Exodus 33:15-16)

David is another leader who knew clearly that his success came from God’s presence. “The Lord was with him but had departed from Saul…. And David had success in all his undertakings, for the Lord was with him. And when Saul saw that he had great success, he stood in fearful awe of him.” (1 Samuel 18:12-16) No wonder, then, that after sinning with Bathsheba, David feared God would cast him out of his presence or take the Holy Spirit from him (Psalm 51:11). He was nothing without God’s presence.

I have a couple of foundational questions. If God is everywhere, why do we need to assure he’s present in our venture? And how can an omnipresent God remove his presence? These are critical questions for leaders, because if we don’t understand why Moses and David refused to lead without God’s presence, we lead at our own peril. Let’s look at a couple of things leaders need to understand.

Who gets the credit

There’s clearly some specific manifestation of God’s presence that gives a leader success. In addition to Moses and David, the Old Testament credits God’s presence as the secret to the success of Joseph (Gen 39:3,21), Joshua (Josh 6:27), Samuel (1 Sam 3:19), Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:7), Phinehas (1 Chron 9:20), John the Baptist (Luke 1:66) and Stephen (Acts 11:24). When I look back, I can see that, just as God was with Joseph in slavery, in prison and in the highest political office, he has given me success throughout my career, from the lows to the highs. I’ve seen problems solved through ideas that came to me in the middle of the night, I’ve seen doors open at just the right time and I’ve seen God give me favour in relationships that have advanced my career. I dare not claim any credit for those situations; the Lord was with me.

The key to effectiveness

The New Testament provides warnings and promises linking his presence to mission and leadership effectiveness. When Jesus commissions his disciples to be his witnesses, he promises his presence. As you go to baptize and make disciples, he says, “be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20) A short time later, as he prepares to leave them, Jesus warns them not to try to be witnesses until he sends the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:4-5). It’s only when the baptism of the Spirit falls on them that their mission begins.

In John 15, Jesus offered the image of a grapevine to talk about proximity to him, promising fruitfulness when we “abide in him” and he in us. While this idea of dwelling or remaining suggests sitting still, that’s not the point. God is always at work, and it’s far more effective to join him in that work than to stray from his life-giving power. Remember, he promised in Matthew 28 to be with us as we go on his mission. But Jesus doesn’t stop with just a promise. He also warns that there will be no fruit ”apart from him.” As I mentioned in a previous blog post, “the verse doesn’t say that we will only produce some fruit. It doesn’t say we won’t be able to do much. It says we can do nothing.” Going further, he says branches that are not attached to the vine wither, are thrown away and are gathered to be burned. There are consequences for a leader who strays from his presence.

For the leader, these Scriptures suggest some course corrections. You might need to stop your forward progress and wait until you have assurance of God’s presence before you move forward. It might mean you need to discern his movement so you can join him. Stay close to him, steep yourself in his Word, know his character and learn his ways so that your direction aligns with his. Moses did this so well that his personal overall objective changed. In Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Ruth Haley Barton concludes that through Moses’ journey in the wilderness, he eventually came to think of God himself as his promised land rather than getting to the land of “milk and honey.” It all comes down to the value we place on his presence.

In her previous book, Sacred Rhythms, Barton talks about the value of breath prayers. Breath prayers are cries from deep down in your soul that you condense into a simple phrase that can be repeated easily and almost subconsciously throughout the day. Often I find that the frequent cry of my soul is this:

Omnipresent Lord, I need your presence.

I’m obsessed with keeping God’s presence. I want to know where the Holy Spirit is moving so I can join in, as a sailboat looks for wind. I want assurance of God’s presence before I head down a road. And I want to abide in Christ and him in me, so that my actions are infused with power.

After all, the secret to my success has very little to do with me.

Here’s an unpopular idea for a New Years Resolution: resolve to do nothing in 2011.

That’s not the same as resolving not to make a resolution. My general pattern is to avoid them, as so many resolutions fall by the wayside before January expires, let alone survive the whole year. Rather, I’m proposing you resolve to be intentional about doing nothing. Let me explain.

There are two great Scriptures I’ve been chewing on in 2010. Both talk about the virtues of doing nothing. First, the words of Christ:

“I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing.”

Last October, Paul McKaughan of The Mission Exchange dusted off John 15:5 in his devotional thoughts at a conference in St. Louis. He reminded us that the verse doesn’t say that we will only produce some fruit. It doesn’t say we won’t be able to do much. It says we can do nothing. I want to have a productive, effective 2011. So I resolve to remain, to abide, in Christ.

After Moses brings the two tablets down from Mount Sinai to find all Israel worshiping a golden calf, he’s not the only one who is angry. In Exodus 33, God tells them he won’t travel with them on their journey, lest he destroy them. Moses pushes back: “If you don’t personally go with us, don’t make us leave this place.” I’d rather dwell with Christ where he is than try to go anywhere or do anything in 2011. Even better if I can join him where’s he’s at work.

Secondly, in Philippians 2:3,4 Paul admonishes:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

The point isn’t that I hold back from ambitious acts. The kingdom of God and his glory are of too much value to hold back. What it’s saying is that if my motives are bad, God would rather I do nothing. The HOW is important. So I need to clothe myself in humility, seeking others’ interests in a way that shows I value them over myself and over my plans. That is the way we advance God’s kingdom — by doing his work his way.

I have high hopes for 2011. We’ll see if I can carry out this resolution past January.

On day 2 of Willow Creek, one theme that stood out: Big change is accomplished by little things.

Dan and Chip Heath and Bill Hybels both talked about a series of little things. The Heaths recommended shrinking the change you want to see. If you can get it down to little things that are attainable, you can do it. And it’s amazing what those little things can add up to over time. They gave examples of people who changed counties, communities and countries by doing small things.

If you feel optimism versus being more and more discouraged, you’ve shrunk the change enough.

That paraphrase of what Dan said rings true for me in my experiences. Big change and big projects can sure lead to feeling overwhelmed. But when you work on the list of tasks you know you need to do today, after a year or two, you look back and you’ve accomplished something remarkable.

Hybels followed up with a reminder of the story of Naaman, where his entourage called him on his failure to obey Elisha. His paraphrase: “You’re a great man and would have done it if it was a great request. Do the little things he asked you to do.” It’s a great reminder of how God works, and our propensity for efficiency: one big thing to solve the world’s problems rather than faithfulness with smaller loads.

I see two issues. My dad used to watch my brother and me unloading groceries from the car, with a dozen bags hanging on our arms. He called it a “lazy man’s load.” “Why don’t you just take a bunch of smaller loads?” he’d ask. I still like lazy man’s loads.

I think there’s one deeper element to Hybels comments, though. I think we think of ourselves as “great men” and believe the lie that great men do great things. We want to do that great thing that gets noticed and puts us on the map. It’s the SportsCenter approach, where athletes try to throw in a few moves in a game so they get on ESPN’s highlight show that night.

But God cares more about faithfulness and fruitfulness than our pride. As Dave Gibbons reminded us yesterday, God’s metrics are different. He’s not all that concerned that our graphs always move “up and to the right.” He evaluates things differently, and he has a different definition of success.