God has a way of building character in a young leader with high potential. Often it takes wilderness years, tragedy or failure to break down a young leader and build into him the character needed for high responsibility. In fact, in Leading with a Limp, Dan Allender postulates that a young leader can’t really develop the humility and servant heart required for spiritual leadership if he doesn’t go through those experiences.
As we’ve seen in my previous posts, Joseph lacks the character he will need for huge responsibility, so God breaks him down by taking the bottom out twice over a thirteen-year period. First, he experiences his brothers’ betrayal. After spending time in “distress of soul” in a dry cistern (Gen 42:21), he endures the humiliation of being sold and resold. The resilient Joseph surfaces again, proving himself and gaining responsibility in the estate of the captain of Pharaoh’s guard. Joseph may well relish his independence and fresh start in Egypt, enjoying the luxurious setting and the distance from his dysfunctional family. But God isn’t finished shaping him; for doing the right thing in a time of temptation, he is thrown into prison.
At what point are his rough edges broken off? How does he struggle with bitterness, blame and lack of forgiveness? When does he recognize his motivations, blind spots and the ugliness of his pride? The Bible gives a few clues to his spiritual and emotional journey once he emerges on the other side. In naming his boys, Joseph offers a glimpse of his troubles and the perspective he gains with time: “God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father’s household” (Gen 41:51) and “God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering” (Gen 41:52). At two points when he’s testing his brothers’ character, he breaks down and weeps (Gen Gen 42:24 and 43:30). Is it simply his joy and relief at seeing his family and evidence of their repentance, or is he personally struggling with forgiveness?
Let’s dig deeper to see how God uses the tragedies, the successes and the prophecy to shape and prepare Joseph to function competently as prime minister of Egypt.
1. Joseph develops faith and integrity
This sheltered young shepherd must develop his own faith and self control in a dark world of loose morals, fleshly attractions, injustice and politics. The temptation to sexual sin is particularly poignant because it exposes roots of self pity, entitlement and bitterness. The scars of his family’s betrayal could have led Joseph to reject their faith and chart his own course. Instead, he taps deeper into his faith in God. Further, this incident of low-hanging temptation was practice for the day that Joseph would bear the responsibility of power and its accompanying ease of access to sin.
2. Joseph learns to be a witness
In this first test with Potiphar’s wife Joseph begins to learn to let his light shine so God receives glory (Matt 5:16). As he refuses to take the bait, he even goes out of his way to mention his faith (Gen 39:9). The fury of Potiphar’s wife—a woman who likely wasn’t used to refusals—may well mask conviction. When he eventually gets an audience with Pharaoh, Joseph uses the opportunity to point him to God (Gen 41:16). By that point, his witness has made a noticeable impression on Potiphar (Gen 39:3), the jailed cupbearer (Gen 41:9) and Pharaoh himself (Gen 41:38).
3. Joseph grows in God awareness
It is the hand of God that steers Joseph into not just any Egyptian household, but the captain of the guard. Not just any prison, but the royal prison. Acts 7:9-10 says God was with Joseph in Egypt “and rescued him from all his troubles.” Likewise, it is the hand of God that gives him success at every stage (Gen 39:2,3,21,23). Seeing God gives Joseph clarity of mind in his first moment of temptation; his sin would be betrayal.
4. Joseph learns to serve
Joseph begins his time in Egypt by attending Potiphar (Gen 39:4) and quickly works his way up to running the entire estate. In the royal prison, Joseph attends Pharaoh’s officials (Gen 40:4). So Joseph learns service before he gets leadership position. As Robert Greenleaf said, “The servant-leader is servant first… That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions” (The Servant As Leader, p50). There are few ways to learn servanthood better than a period of slavery.
5. Joseph learns forgiveness
Dr. Leong Tien Fock says Joseph responded well to the twin tragedies of slavery and imprisonment.
In view of the powerful position he was going to hold, he needed to be put on the receiving end of injustice and suffer much so that he would do justice and love mercy when placed at the giving end of power. The fact that he prospered in both situations showed that he responded positively to the ordeal. If he had been unforgiving and bitter, his life story would have been different.
6. Joseph develops economic, administrative and political skills
Joseph rises in leadership wherever God places him, and as he does, he begins honing the skills that will serve him well in the years ahead. Rev. Bernard Bouissieres says, “Joseph was trained by God in the School of opposition. He became a better administrator in Potiphar’s house, a better manager in prison. He got training for the task ahead.” Likewise, he will certainly use the economics lessons he learns from managing the estate.
He also learns politics and influence. Early on he attracts the investment of a benefactor and potential mentor, and some remnant of that favour guides and guards Joseph throughout his darkest days. While Potiphar has to take action on his wife’s accusations, he maintains a personal interest in Joseph. First, he chooses not to kill Joseph and instead imprisons him with the king’s prisoners—in a facility he oversees. So Joseph continues to serve the captain of the guard (Gen 41:12) and receives special assignments from him (Gen 40:4). Potiphar seems to hold up well to the passages in Scripture urging slave holders to treat their slaves with equity and justice, without ever hinting that they should set them free. But it leads to a complex cultural arrangement that is simply a whitewashed form of perpetuated injustice. While the slave holder gives increasing responsibility and protection, he is unwilling to risk his reputation by releasing his slave. Joseph clearly gains from this arrangement, but I wonder how comfortable Potiphar will feel on the day of reckoning, when Pharaoh will set Joseph free.
No doubt Joseph picks up the written and unwritten rules by observing Potiphar’s household, and even more when he spends years with political prisoners who have fallen out of favour. He learns from what they did wrong, absorbs a lot of the politics and overhears innumerable secrets. Early evidence of his abilities can be seen when he attempts to leverage his interpretation of the baker’s dream to get a quid pro quo. It’s pretty brazen to ask for a shout-out to Pharaoh! But he also learns even more when the baker quickly forgets him; there’s not much leverage from prison.
7. Joseph is tested by the Word
Finally, he is simultaneously encouraged and tested by the prophecy about him. Rev. Bernard says, “How did the dream sustain him in the dark years of waiting? God’s promise to him gave him hope.”
However, Psalm 105:17-19 adds a layer of complexity to Joseph’s vision. When Joseph was sold as a slave,
his neck was put in a collar of iron;
until what he had said came to pass,
the word of the Lord tested him.
In other words, until it came to pass, the prophecy that he would one day rule mocked him. Doubts likely set in, made even more acute by the two-year extension in prison. But Dr. Leong Tien Fock says, “When God’s word finally came true, the ordeal had not only refined his character but also inspired in him the conviction that God had sent him to Egypt for a purpose. For when he revealed himself to his brothers he could comfort them saying, “it was not you who sent me here, but God” (Genesis 45:8).”
When we say that Jesus is Lord and master, we submit to his will, his shaping, his timing. He is the potter, and we are the clay. My personal experience is that God’s methods of leadership development are not mine; they seem circuitous at best. However, the result of God’s process is far deeper, far more effective—and admittedly far more painful—than we would ever choose. But he will accomplish his purposes, and we may see that larger perspective with time.