Failure Mode

We will sometimes believe that we have failed, and perhaps we have. But that can be okay. Look at Joseph. In the book of Genesis, Joseph was a teenager. Next to the youngest son, he was favored by his father, which led to resentment from his older brothers. Their resentment was not lessened by his attitude: he tattled on them, and he told stories about how he was going to someday be their boss because of the dreams that God had given him.

So, one day, when the opportunity presented itself for the brothers to get rid of him, they took it: they sold him as a slave to some passing traders. The traders took him down to Egypt and sold him to one of the Pharaoh’s officials named Potifer.

He was a slave, but at least it was in a nice place; and he was an indoor slave, rather than working in the fields. So he accepted his lot, did his job, and performed his duties—and managed to do them so well that he was soon promoted to being the head slave, in charge of everything in the household. Still a slave, but he was in the best slot that a slave could get to.

And then Potifer’s wife started attempting to seduce him. When he refused, she accused him of attempted rape, which got him fired from being a slave. One might not think one could be more of a failure than being sold into slavery by your own brothers. Now, he had lost even that “job” and found himself bound and tossed into jail.

So, he accepted his lot and did as he was told, and somehow he managed to gain some responsibility and notoriety in the lockup, to the point that he became the top inmate, a trustee, running everything inside the walls, under the supervision of the warden.

Notice that his life has been a downward spiral: one step forward, two steps back. He’s constantly losing ground. He had been his father’s favorite, supervising his older brothers. Then he became a slave, but he managed to be a supervising slave. Then he got himself arrested, and now he’s a supervising prisoner. Things are definitely not looking up for him.

At the age of thirty, his prospects for upward mobility are gone. He has no career, and no prospects of ever getting one. His future is grim, and, based on his track record, likely to get grimmer. This, despite the fact that it was hard for him to see how things could get much worse. But then, he thought there couldn’t be anything worse than being a slave.

Boy, had he been wrong about that.

One day, a couple of men—a butler and a baker—who had, till then, served in the Pharoah’s palace got dumped in the prison. They suffered bad dreams—not surprising given the turns for the worse that their lives had taken—and they told Joseph their dreams.

Joseph interpreted them. The butler would be restored to his position. The baker, sadly, would be hanged. Joseph asked the butler to put in a good word for him with the Pharaoh, since Joseph was in prison unjustly.

And things happened just as Joseph predicted.

But the Butler just forgot all about Joseph. For three years.

Then, one day, Pharoah had a dream. When no one was successful at interpreting it, the Butler told him that he knew a man who would be able to help. The Butler recognized this as an opportunity to ingratiate himself with the Pharaoh (“see, I was the one who solved your problem!”) So, Pharaoh called Joseph from prison.

After Joseph got cleaned up and dressed up, he was presented before Pharaoh. He interpreted the dream, warning of a coming famine and suggesting a course of action to help the nation survive it. The Pharoah was impressed and put Joseph in charge of overseeing things, making Joseph second in command in the nation, second only to Pharaoh himself.

Later, when his starving brothers showed up, he tormented them a bit, before revealing himself and offering them a place to live in Egypt with him in prosperity. Though they were fearful that Joseph would seek vengeance, he explained that while what they had done, they had done to hurt him, and that indeed, he had suffered a lot over the years—he recognized that God had been at work through the whole thing: not only had he personally risen to a place of power and comfort, more importantly, he was able to save not just his family from starvation, but an entire nation. His decade or more of suffering had led to the salvation of millions. His seeming failure had, in fact, been a rousing success story: riches to rags and back again.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm a deacon at Quartz Hill Community Church. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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