Thousands of years ago, God gave a series of dreams to a teenage boy.
The young shepherd intuitively understood they predicted his future. He imprudently shared the dreams with his already envious older brothers in a move that demonstrated both his immaturity, as well as his failure to grasp the price he would have to pay to reach what his dream showed.
Unable to tolerate the thought of bowing down to the baby in the family, his brothers sold him as a slave. Their betrayal initiated a baffling 18-year wait to see those dreams come to fruition.
To some extent, Joseph’s story is our story. While we may lack the gift of prophetic dreams, we have specific hopes and desires for how our lives will unfold. And, like Joseph, we are often incapable of comprehending that the fulfillment of our dreams may look nothing like what we originally imagined.
Based on the content of Joseph’s dreams and how he articulated them to his family, it seems that he interpreted them quite literally and assumed he was destined for success. On the surface, success in ancient Egypt would scarcely resemble what it looks like today: no New York Times best-seller list, no interviews with Ellen DeGeneres or Jimmy Fallon, no viral YouTube posts. However, since mankind’s soul has evolved little over the past several millennia, I don’t think success today feels much different than it did during the Egyptian dynasty.
Like Joseph, we are tempted to fixate on the culminating moment, imagining the tangible metrics such as respect, notoriety, wealth and the power to affect change. There’s nothing immoral about any of these expectations, and sometimes it does play out this way. But Joseph’s life illustrates that as we pursue our dreams in the context of following God, our sometimes precious expectations might be obliterated.
Our reality may not mirror our imaginative dreams for at least two reasons. First, the fulfillment of God-inspired dreams rarely happens without some form of suffering. Richard Rohr writes, “There is always a wounding on our journey with God.” Sometimes they are visible flesh wounds, but more often, the cut is so deep it leaves no external mark.
Joseph’s wounds were many: betrayed by his brothers, sold into slavery, wrongly accused by Potiphar’s wife, jailed and separated from his family for nearly 20 years. Humanity’s ingrained reflex to avoid pain and suffering inclines us to check out or self-medicate, both of which impair our ability to continue toward our dreams.
Additionally, our expectations get dashed because we often assume that our God-inspired dreams are all about us—about our pleasure and our happiness. If we make this mistake, then when our blood inevitably flows, we quickly lose sight of our sacred mission and either abandon the pilgrimage or become embittered, much like Naomi. Her husband and two sons died; she had ample reason to taste a residue of bitterness. When Naomi returned to her homeland, she explains, “I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. The Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me”(Ruth 1:20-21).
She cannot see beyond her grief to understand the essential role she will play in the redemption of her people. Mid journey, she and Joseph are on the same perplexing trajectory. We don’t have a narrative telling us how Joseph navigated his years of confinement. Did he begin to doubt whether his dreams were actually from God? Did he succumb to despair that he would never be free or see his family again?
We do know Joseph experienced both God’s presence and his favor during this time. Even Potiphar realized “the Lord was with Joseph, giving him success in everything he did.” But it is worth noting receiving God’s favor did not mean Joseph’s sentence was commuted.
Reading between the verses, it seems that Joseph surrendered to his circumstances while holding onto the reality that God was both with him and for him. This allowed him to work unto the Lord in a posture of faith.
When we submit to what is beyond our control or ability to change and do so believing God is both for us and with us, it makes all the difference in how we walk out our days and how we reflect God in the process.
Eventually, Joseph’s brothers dramatically fulfilled his dream. In year two of a famine, the desperate clan walked from Canaan to Egypt, arrived before Joseph (but failed to recognize him), and “bowed before him with their faces to the ground” (Genesis 42:6). After many plot twists and much intrigue, Joseph revealed himself to his family.
Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone leave my presence!” So there was no one with Joseph when he made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard him, and Pharaoh’s household heard about it. (Genesis 45:1-2)
This is his denouement—and I don’t think it unfolded according to his earlier script. He does not gloat, nor does he retort, “Hey! Remember that dream I had, the one that made you all so angry? Isn’t it funny how this all worked out?” Instead, Joseph nearly collapses under the weight of his grief and loss.
More often than not, what we hoped for or thought we were promised may confound us. When his brothers knelt before him, I think Joseph must have thought, “I was right! Those dreams were from God!” But being right did not eradicate all of his pain and loss.
Despite his suffering, Joseph gradually understands that his teenage expectations paled in comparison to how God actually deployed him. His awe spills out as he emotionally assures his family, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people” (Genesis 50:20).
Joseph’s life and his unprecedented journey remind us all that God gives us dreams not for simply for our own fulfillment, but so that we can partner with Him to serve and bless the world around us.
Dorothy Littell Greco is a writer, author, and photographer who lives and works outside Boston. You can find more of her work on Twitter (@DorothyGreco) or Facebook (Words&Images by Dorothy Greco).