Several years ago, I sat with a trusted counselor, seeking wisdom on how best to counsel a friend crushed under the weight of his upbringing in an abusive home. With tears, I poured out my frustrations at my friend’s parents, whose hypocrisy and heavy-handedness had warped the soul of their son. The counselor’s response reset my thinking and adjusted my theology.
The counselor told me, “Dan, his parents caused grave spiritual and mental anguish. And yet you must know that God is not in Heaven today questioning Himself for placing this boy in that home.” Those were not words I wanted to hear. But he continued. “As hard as it is, he must come to the place where he accepts the sovereignty and goodness of God in his situation.”
My response was to create a list of abuses.
What if he had been shown a little love?
What if they had nurtured his creative side?
What if he’d been put in a good school?
What if they gave him some sense of acceptance and belonging?
The what-ifs rolled off my tongue in rapid succession. The gray-haired, wise old counselor waited and then responded with gentle grace:
“Dan, I wish, too, that those things would have happened for your friend. It would have made his life less challenging, wouldn’t it? Yet, here’s the important thing. They didn’t happen. Apparently the life you sketched out for him, that you think would have been the most ideal, was not the life God intended. You will only help him as you show him how God employs the unfair hardships of this world to shape a man’s soul—if only he will allow God to do that work.”
Over the years I’ve reflected on that conversation. It marked a seminal point in my understanding about God and about life. Academically I’d always believed in the sovereignty of God. But those seemingly abstract concepts matter in the black and blue of real life pain.
I’m continually drawn to the biblical narrative of Joseph, whose story is a real-life Adjustment Bureau, only with better theology. Born the favorite son of a Jacob, Joseph was raised in a highly dysfunctional home. His father was a worshipper of Jehovah, yet he had multiple wives, a passive-aggressive leadership style, and a habit of cruel favoritism. By the time Joseph reached the formative years, he would be the target of hatred by his brothers. His brothers could do nothing about Dad, so they executed their vengeance on Joseph. Ultimately, they kidnapped and nearly killed their brother, selling him like merchandise to a traveling band of merchants who sold him into Egypt, where he would do nothing but serve others. He went from the privileged son of a wealthy landowner to an immigrant slave in Egypt.
The highlight of this story is that Joseph rises to the top leadership position in Egypt. His journey has given hope to millions over the ages, as we watch God help him along a rocky path from servitude and injustice to leadership. But buried in his epic is a powerful nugget of theology that helps us cultivate a fresh intimacy with God from a messy past.
In Genesis 50:20, Joseph is surveying his entire life, his reconciliation with his family long since completed. By now, he has provided his father and brothers a comfortable new lifestyle in Egypt. And yet the fear of retaliation by Joseph, now a powerful political figure, lingered in the minds of the siblings. They wondered if or when Joseph would use his power to exact revenge on them. Joseph dispels this by sharing a perspective about God that would become the guiding principle of his life:
As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. Genesis 50:20 (ESV)
Notice the lack of regret or bitterness in Joseph’s words? He could have easily rattled off a long list of “what if’s” and “if onlys.”
What if Dad hadn’t been so passive?
What if the brothers would have let me explain myself?
What if Dad had given them a bit more fatherly affirmation?
But Joseph doesn’t have this backtrack. He had long buried the futile quest to rewrite the scenes in his life script over which he had little control. Instead, he prevailed upon the character of God. Looking back on his chaotic home life, the betrayal by his brothers, the injustice in Potiphar’s house, the lonely languishing in a foreign prison—he saw all of these, not as unfortunate injustices, but as tools in the hand of a loving and sovereign God.
The sin and evil of others brought about good, not simply in Joseph’s life but in the lives of God’s people. Joseph’s story continued Jehovah’s promise to grow the family of Abraham. In Egypt, Joseph’s family would flourish, growing into a nation through whom the Messiah, Jesus, would be born.
Joseph learned that God was more powerful than an abusive and dysfunctional upbringing. God was bringing purpose out of the messy details of Joseph’s life. God wasn’t caught off guard by the injustice in his young man’s life.
And so it is with you and me.
The truth is that all of us have some regret about our upbringing, even those like me who hail from fairly safe, normal households with biblically functional Christian parents. The reason is that our parents, our pastors, coaches, youth leaders, and Sunday school teachers—each is a sinner with unique sins and weaknesses. None of us grew up in Eden. So we can easily pick apart our life story and find areas we wish might have gone differently. But this is an exercise in futility, because the past is the past. It’s set in concrete and cannot be changed.
However, God is not like the Chairman in The Adjustment Bureau, with good intentions that often go bad. There won’t be a day where He will nod his head and say, “Yes, you were right. Things should have worked out differently.”
We may not understand this aspect of God’s character and we don’t get to choose our spiritual heritage. But we do have a choice of how we react to the good and bad parts of growing up Christian. We can spend our lives cursing an unchanging past or we can move forward with forgiveness and faith. Faith in the goodness of God who transforms our afflictions from a source of sorrow to a fountain of joy.
Furthermore, God isn’t surprised by the injustices we suffer. He’s not in Heaven beating fist against head in frustration over the way your life or my life or anyone’s life has played out. Somehow, in ways we don’t fully understand, God weaves the good and bad choices of men to fulfill His ultimate purposes.
Excerpted from Real, Owning Your Christian Faith