You probably know the story of Joseph and his brothers that is told in chapters 37-50 of the Book of Genesis. Still, allow me to recount it in summary: Joseph was the eleventh son of Jacob, “the child of his old age” (Genesis 37:3) and his favorite. Out of envy and hatred for Joseph, his ten older brothers conspired to sell him to slave traders while convincing their father that Joseph had been devoured by wild animals. Unbeknownst to Joseph’s father or brothers, he ended up in Egypt. There he was favored by God and, through a series of events culminating in his successful prediction of and preparation for a severe famine, Joseph rose to a position in Egypt that was second only to the pharaoh. His father Jacob, whose family was afflicted by the same famine, sent Joseph’s ten older brothers to Egypt to buy grain. When they met the man in charge of selling the country’s grain, they did not realize it was Joseph. Eventually, Joseph revealed his identity to his brothers and invited them, along with their father Jacob and his entire household, to come to Egypt to enjoy peace and plenty.
The conclusion of this story is not just about unexpected reunion – Joseph reunited with his family against all odds. It is about reconciliation – Joseph forgiving his brothers who treated him cruelly – and about divine providence – Joseph’s slavery and exile resulting in the salvation of countless people from starvation. These themes present themselves poignantly at the very end of the story. Joseph’s brothers had worried since their first visit to Egypt that they were “being punished on account of [their] brother” (Genesis 42:21). Then, after their father Jacob died, “Joseph’s brothers became fearful and thought, ‘Suppose Joseph has been nursing a grudge against us and now most certainly will pay us back for all the wrong we did him!’” (Gen 50:15). Joseph’s response to them is extraordinary: “Do not fear . . . Even though you meant harm to me, God meant it for good, to achieve this present end, the survival of many people” (Genesis 50:19-20).
Joseph recognized that the story of his life was dramatized, not only by human actors and their purposes, but also by the purposeful direction of God. His brothers, as actors in this play, sold him into slavery with the intention of doing harm. Nevertheless, God directed those same actions with the intention of doing good. Without denying the wrongfulness of his brothers’ actions, Joseph was able to appreciate how, in and through those actions, God’s providential purposes came to be realized.
Because of this, Joseph could forgive his brothers. He understood that the events of his life – even the bad ones – had been steered by God for the accomplishment of His saving plans. God made even the bad things in his life work for the good. Therefore, Joseph had no need for revenge. God had made everything right. Joseph felt no need to try to rectify matters by striking back against his brothers.
What is God’s purpose for us when bad things like illness and injury happen in our lives? Does God mean those things for good, as He did for Joseph? Saint Paul says He does, that “all things work for good for those who love God” (Romans 8:28). But that can be hard for us to recognize because when such things are happening to us, we don’t know how they will turn out. We don’t have the benefit of hindsight that Joseph had at the end of his story. We do, however, have Joseph’s example and the even greater example of Jesus and the promise of Saint Paul. In the midst of sickness and suffering, we cannot see how God will direct the course of our lives for the good. We do, however, have every reason to trust that God will.
Because of this, we can forgive. We understand that the events of our lives – even the bad ones – have been and will be steered by God for the accomplishment of His saving plans. God will make everything work for the good. We don’t have to curse our bad luck or fight back or cast blame or unleash our anger in order to make things right. God will make everything right. We have only to trust.