This present message is one of my favorite sermons to preach when I’m invited to speak to high school students. The title, “How to Succeed with Straight ‘F’s,” always gets their attention because they think that I’m going to tell them that they can still be successful even if they don’t study. The lesson, based on the life of Joseph, demonstrates the godly qualities that every believer must have to ensure that he is not subject to the snares of the devil.
Finding the Will of God
Joseph’s first “F” was that he found God’s will for his life. His two dreams (Genesis 37:7, 9) gave him direction for his destiny. In Genesis 41:28 and 39, he proclaimed that Pharaoh’s dream was God’s revelation of His plan. Once you find God’s will for your life and begin to move toward it, you are on the pathway to success.
Wherefore be ye not unwise, but understanding what the will of the Lord is. (Ephesians 5:17)
We are unwise if we are unable to find the will of the Lord. We need to understand, prove, and move into the will of God in our daily lives. How to recognize the will of the Lord is one of the most important things that any Christian can ever learn. We can come to know the will of the Lord in several ways.
The first and foremost way to know the will of the Lord is from the written Word. The written Word tells us what is the will of the Lord. For example, it is God’s will that none shall perish but that all should come to everlasting life. (II Peter 3:9) If we are seated next to a sinner on the bus, what is the will of the Lord? The will of the Lord is that the person next to us should not perish but for him to come to the knowledge of everlasting life. Therefore, the will of the Lord for us is that we should help that person move into the will of the Lord for his life. We don’t have to ask God if it is His will for us to share the gospel with that person sitting next to us. We already have His will written in the Word. He has told us to “go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.” (Mark 16:15) The Word of God gives us general direction in what the will of the Lord is. We can study the Word and get a general revelation of God’s will.
Don’t get overly spiritual — as some have done — in seeking God’s will. One man opened the Bible randomly and pointed his finger to a verse that read, “And Judas went out and hanged himself.” He thought that he had better try again, so he closed his Bible, quickly opened it up again, and randomly pointed his finger to another verse, “Go and do thou likewise.” Remembering that everything should be confirmed in the mouth of two to three witnesses, again he closed his eyes, opened his Bible and randomly pointed his finger to another verse. This time it read, “And what you do, do quickly.” This is certainly not the recommended method for understanding what God’s Word would say concerning our lives.
Another way the Lord reveals His will is through His Spirit. There is an inward witness inside each born-again believer to tell him what God wants for his individual life. God will speak to us, but it is very important for us to get to the place that we can hear the voice of the Lord. So many people come up to me saying, “If God would only show me what to do, I would do it.” It is very likely that He is speaking, and they are not recognizing His voice. When we get very close and personal to the Lord, we are able to hear His voice.
Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice and a stranger they will not follow.” (John 10:3-5) Remember that we have already learned that He said “sheep,” not “lambs.” We must mature in our relationship with the Lord in order to clearly recognize His voice. Hearing God’s voice comes from maturing. We must stay in close communion with Him so that we will distinctly know His voice and obey it. When we were young and in love, we could talk three or four hours to our boyfriends or girlfriends about nothing at all. When our mothers asked what we had been doing and why we are coming in past your curfew, we replied, “Oh, we were just talking.” It was not facts or knowledge that you were communicating; you were communicating relationship. We received something of the other’s personality, and he or she received something of our personality. Talking is very important in establishing a relationship — with God as well as with other people. We need to get to the place that we can hear the voice of God and, regardless of the circumstances under which that voice comes, we know that it is the voice of God so that we are able to follow through with what He is saying. A mature Christian should be able to recognize the will of the Lord and not to be confused.
Isaac had two sons, Esau and Jacob. We know that the father was old and blind, but the Bible doesn’t say anything about his having hearing problems. He asked his son Esau to go hunting and bring back some venison for him. In the meantime, Jacob put on his brother’s clothes in a plot to deceive the aged father. Isaac recognized that the voice was not the voice of Esau. Even though Jacob smelled like Esau and he felt like Esau, he didn’t sound like Esau. Isaac denied that voice because the circumstances didn’t match with the voice. He blessed the deceptive son because he didn’t follow the voice that he heard.
Another way that we can know the will of God is through supernatural confirmation. God can use supernatural signs and wonders such as prophecy for confirmation of His will; however, He usually does not give us direction that way. Generally, He uses this form of communication as a confirmation of what He has already spoken to our hearts.
We can also know the will of God through the advice and counsel of elders. When there is something that we want to know or have a question about, we need to bring it before the eldership in our local church. We don’t need to go to a leading televangelist for his opinion, we need to go to somebody who personally knows us and loves us enough to give us what is really in his heart. The evangelist may have a supernatural word that would associate to us, but our pastor or elder — the person who has seen you mature and has spiritual oversight over you — can go before God with a heart of care for us, and he will receive the answer from God.
One final way of knowing God’s will is through the circumstances in which we find ourselves. For instance, Paul certainly didn’t plan on being bitten by a snake; but when it happened, he realized that God had set up the circumstances so that a revival could occur on the island. Regardless of the method, it is imperative that we learn to know and follow the will of God for our lives and in our day-to-day affairs.
Joseph’s second “F” was his faithfulness. In every condition Joseph found himself, he proved faithful over his responsibilities. Even in cases where he had no one demanding that he fulfill certain quotas, he set high standards for himself and then strove to fulfill — if not exceed — them. Joseph seemed to know and his life certainly proved that faithfulness in small matters results in mastery over great responsibilities. He was faithful in his stewardship over Potipher’s house. (Genesis 39:4) He was faithful in the face of temptation. (Genesis 39:7-9) He was faithful over the king’s prison. (Genesis 39:22-23) Finally, he was faithful over the great bounty of Egypt. (Genesis 41:41-57, esp. 49)
Paul opened his letter to the Ephesians by addressing them as saints and as faithful. The concept of faithfulness has been woefully lacking in most contemporary Christian teaching — yet it is a vital key to spiritual victory.
We are all desirous of being overcomers and more than conquerors. Unfortunately we too often feel that we can achieve these spiritual qualities through some “spiritual microwave” quick fix, such as having some anointed spiritual leader lay hands on us or by going on an extended fast. We seem to have forgotten (or maybe never learned) that in order to overcome, we must endure — all the way to the end. In describing the Christian life we are called to, Jesus said, “And ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake: but he that endureth to the end shall be saved.” (Matthew 10:22) The quality that keeps us on task to the point that we can be said to be enduring and eventually overcoming is called faithfulness.
When St. John was given a vision of the victorious army of the redeemed (overcomers at their best) returning with Christ for history’s final conquest of evil (the ultimate in spiritual warfare), he listed only three qualifying requirements. While two of these qualifiers are totally at God’s own discretion, one is under the control of the individual. The only character trait listed that the individual Christian can develop in order to be numbered among the overcomers is faithfulness!
These (Antichrist’s forces) shall make war with the Lamb, and the Lamb shall overcome them: for he is Lord of lords, and King of kings: and they that are with him are called, and chosen, and faithful. (Revelation 17:14)
If each individual soldier is not faithful to appear at all the roll calls, practice all the drills, and follow all the commands of his superior officers, there is no army. Just as no army can exist if the soldiers are unfaithful and undependable, the spiritual army of God cannot be successful in its mission unless each of its members develops faithfulness.
The world is full of Christians who began the race but eventually dropped out. Because they could not stay on focus, they lacked the staying power necessary to succeed. Because faithfulness is one of the major attributes that equips an individual for the long haul, it is one of the main qualities God is looking for — and requiring — in His servants. “Moreover it is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful.” (I Corinthians 4:2)
Psalm 101:4-8 contrasts God’s pleasure with the faithful and His contempt for those who lack it.
A froward heart shall depart from me: I will not know a wicked person. Whoso privily slandereth his neighbour, him will I cut off: him that hath an high look and a proud heart will not I suffer. Mine eyes shall be upon the faithful of the land, that they may dwell with me: he that walketh in a perfect way, he shall serve me. He that worketh deceit shall not dwell within my house: he that telleth lies shall not tarry in my sight. I will early destroy all the wicked of the land; that I may cut off all wicked doers from the city of the LORD.
Notice all the contrasting options this passage offers when listing those who lack faithfulness: the froward (or perverse) of heart, the wicked persons, those who slander their neighbors, ones with high looks and proud hearts, those who work deceit, and those who tell lies. Not only do those who fail to qualify as the faithful lack the admirable quality of being able to stick to the task, they actually display a long list of negative and destructive attributes. There is no middle ground where we can be good guys in every area except that we are just a little short on our loyalty. Notice how Jesus described the person who lacked faithfulness:
And the Lord said, Who then is that faithful and wise steward, whom his lord shall make ruler over his household, to give them their portion of meat in due season? Blessed is that servant, whom his lord when he cometh shall find so doing. Of a truth I say unto you, that he will make him ruler over all that he hath. But and if that servant say in his heart, My lord delayeth his coming; and shall begin to beat the menservants and maidens, and to eat and drink, and to be drunken; The lord of that servant will come in a day when he looketh not for him, and at an hour when he is not aware, and will cut him in sunder, and will appoint him his portion with the unbelievers. And that servant, which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. (Luke 12:42-47)
As soon as the servant abandons faithfulness, he becomes abusive (beating the other servants), self-indulgent (eating and drinking to excess), negligent concerning his responsibilities (not looking for the master to whom he is responsible), faithless (he is listed among the unbelieving), rebellious (knowing his lord’s will but not doing it), and careless about his faith (being unprepared for the return of his lord). Who would have thought that so much depended upon our being faithful? Normally, we think that there are only temporary and immediate short-ranged consequences if we let our responsibilities slide. We think that our actions are either of no consequence at all or that they will produce only a small ripple effect.
For example, we know that we should be faithful in our tithing, but we feel that there will not be any really big consequences if we fudge a bit one week. We may think, “Sure, the church will be out a few dollars; but what does that matter? Everyone else is giving, and there may even be a visitor who will drop a little something extra into the offering plate. Besides, what does my offering have to do with the total budget of the church anyway?” The thing we fail to recognize is that when we hold back on our tithing we are actually inviting the devourer into our lives. In Malachi 3:11, God obligated Himself to the task of rebuking the devourer away from the lives of those who tithe. As soon as we fail in our faithfulness to this responsibility, God’s “hands are tied” so that He can no longer resist the devil for us. When the devourer rushes in, he will certainly begin to eat up our finances, but do you think he’ll stop there? Of course not, he will eat up any and everything he can get to: our health, our relationships, and — as we can tell from the parable we just read — our character!
While practicing faithfulness in small matters will help us to develop a greater sense of responsibility, unfaithfulness concerning even the slightest of our obligations will lead us to shirk more important responsibilities. Jesus said, “He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much.” (Luke 16:10) Failing in our faithfulness has more than just a simple ripple effect. A more accurate illustration could be drawn from the story we learned at our mothers’ knees about the little Dutch boy who held his finger in the dike to keep the city from flooding. The breach in our faithfulness may look like a tiny hole, but it will soon make the whole dam collapse and we will be inundated!
While we are busily pursuing more flashy spiritual manifestations, it may be very easy to overlook the “wallflower” quality of faithfulness. According to Proverbs 20:6, “Most men will proclaim every one his own goodness: but a faithful man who can find?” While the average man is busy “putting on airs” trying to make himself look good and cover up the fact that he has a perverse heart, is wicked, slanders his neighbor, is proud, works deceit, and tells lies; the faithful man lives a simple, unassuming life that may make him almost melt into the background. He may not stand out as a superstar to men, but — and this is an all-important “but” — he will attract the attention of God.
When we have God’s attention, we become targets for His blessings. In His parables, Jesus repeatedly spoke of the promotion that the Lord has in store for those He considers to be faithful.
His lord said unto him, Well done, good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord. (Matthew 25:23)
And the Lord said, Who then is that faithful and wise steward, whom his lord shall make ruler over his household, to give them their portion of meat in due season? (Luke 12:42)
Advancement, finances, and spiritual fulfillment are the inheritance of those who are deemed faithful and dependable. God rewards faithfulness because it shows stability. Because He knows that a faithful person is trustworthy, He will entrust him with gifts, privileges, and responsibilities. God knows that the faithful person will be with Him when He needs him and that he will take on any responsibility with the same care he has consistently shown.
At the literal conclusion of history as we know it, when the final blows are being struck in the Valley of Megido, even Jesus Christ Himself will be identified with two outstanding qualities — one of which is His faithfulness! “And I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse; and he that sat upon him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he doth judge and make war.” (Revelation 19:11)
Forfeit the Glory
Joseph’s third “F” was that he forfeited the glory. On several occasions, he had opportunity to take credit for his accomplishments; but in each case he acknowledged that it was not his own wisdom or ingenuity that had been demonstrated. In each case, he gave God the total credit. When confronted with the dreams of the butler and the baker, he never claimed to be able to interpret them; he simply confessed that the interpretations of dreams belong to God. (Genesis 40:8) When summoned to interpret Pharaoh’s dream, he again gave all the credit to God. “God will give Pharaoh an answer of peace.” (Genesis 41:16) Joseph accepted the position as Pharaoh’s number one man, not because of his own ability, but because the Spirit of God was with him. (Genesis 41:38) Even when testifying to his own family, Joseph emphasized that it was God, not his own achievements, that had secured him the position as lord over all Egypt. (Genesis 45:9)
It is important that we focus our lives. It is important that we get our perspective, not on our accomplishments and what we are doing, but on the love of the Father. If we keep our focus on the love of the Father, we will still be able to accomplish our goals, but our achievements will be in an eternal perspective. We have to focus our lives on knowing and accomplishing the will of God. If we focus our lives on the will of God, we will be able to do something that will last for eternity. If we don’t focus our lives on the will of God, no matter what we do — it will become nothing; it will only be temporary.
We could simply sum up this point with the word “humility.” Matthew 18:4 says, “Therefore, whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of God.” Humbling ourselves as a little child is the key to becoming the greatest in the kingdom of God. Luke 9:46 gives us another key.
And then a dispute arose among them as to which of them would be the greatest. And Jesus perceiving the thought of their heart took a little child and sat him by him and he said, whosoever receives this little child in my name receiveth me. And whosoever receiveth me, receiveth him who sent me. For he who is least among you will be the greatest.
We have to be willing to be the least and the most unimportant. Not drawing attention to ourselves is the key to true success.
We have to come to the place that we don’t desire to be recognized. If we have the pride of life, the desire for being first, we will never make it to “first place” in God’s eyes. It is only after we get beyond the desire to be first that God can promote us to that place. Twice in the book of Luke, Jesus said that the one who humbles himself will be promoted. (verses 14:11, 18:14) The book of Psalms tells us that promotion doesn’t come from the east, west, or south — but from the Lord. (Psalms 75:6)
Our focus must always be to bring honor and recognition to God rather than to ourselves. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told us that we must live our lives in such a manner that when people do acknowledge whatever good we have done they will give the accolades to God rather than to us. (Matthew 5:16)
Following God’s Directions
The fourth “F” on Joseph’s report was that he followed God’s directions. When God showed him the plan for storing the grain and saving Egypt from starvation, Joseph did exactly what God said. Joseph didn’t take God’s directions as a “rough draft” that needed to be taken into the conference room for improvements. He did exactly what God said to do, exactly the way God said to do it, and he had exactly the success that God said would come. (Genesis 41:33-36, 39) I must admit that if I had been in Joseph’s shoes, I would probably have tried to alter God’s plan. After all, it doesn’t make good mathematical sense to save twenty percent of the harvest when you know that you will have seven years of good harvests and seven years with no harvest at all. Had I been in charge, I would have mandated that fifty percent of the harvest from the first seven years be squirreled away. That way there would be an equal amount in store for the coming seven desolate years.
Unfortunately, we all too often have a problem in not being able to give diligence to what we hear from God. In Exodus 15:26 the Lord, speaking concerning our health and healing, said that we must diligently hearken to His voice and give ear to His commandments in order to partake of His divine provision. While Deuteronomy chapter fifteen speaks of release from financial and physical bondage, verse five limits these provisions to only those who will carefully hearken unto the voice of the Lord and observe all His commandments. The twenty-eighth chapter of Deuteronomy contains an oft-quoted roster of blessings, but we must realize that the opening two verses limit these benefits only to those who hearken diligently unto the voice of the Lord and that verse fifteen turns all the blessings into curses for those who will not hearken unto His voice and observe all His commandments and statutes. For just a minute, let’s think on totally natural terms. Suppose we ask someone for directions to a specific place. Imagine that the instructions are a bit complicated with several turns, some to the left and some to the right. If we listen with only a casual ear, we will likely make the first turn with no difficulty and possibly take the second turn correctly; however, by the time we are at the third crossroad, we will be confused as to which way to turn. We’ll probably be totally lost before reaching the fourth road. Unfortunately, we are all too satisfied turning a nonchalant ear to God; therefore, we miss the precise plan He wants to lay out for our lives. Think of the detail that God gave Moses when He laid out the plans for the tabernacle; it took seven full chapters of Exodus (chapters 25-31) to spell out the pattern for the structure and the priestly order. But, more importantly, notice the preciseness with which Moses followed each detail when he implemented the blueprint. (chapters 36-40) The reward for this attention to detail was an invasion of the presence of the Lord so overwhelming that Moses was not even able to enter the tabernacle. (verses 40:34-35)
We must learn that God is not in the habit of giving suggestions, but direct commands that He expects to be followed explicitly. However, we will never be able to follow them in minute detail unless we learn to listen with diligence. I remember being in a service when a prophetic word came forth in which the Spirit reiterated three times that the Lord is God and that His people should kneel before Him in worship. As soon as the prophecy had ended, the moderator of the meeting took the podium, “We’ve all heard the Holy Spirit’s admonition, so let’s stand up and praise the Lord.” Fortunately I was in a position of leadership within the group so that it was not out of order for me to step up and correct the moderator by reminding the people that the Holy Spirit had directed us to kneel — not stand — and to worship — not praise. No matter how sincere the moderator may have been, he was wrong and would have led the people astray because he did not hearken diligently to the voice of the Lord in the prophetic message.
Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths. Be not wise in thine own eyes: fear the LORD, and depart from evil. It shall be health to thy navel, and marrow to thy bones. (Proverbs 3:5-8)
One major “F” on Joseph’s report card was his faith. This young man had more occasions than most to give up hope; yet, he somehow kept on trusting God that what He had promised, He would do. Certainly, when he was in the pit was a great place to throw in the towel — but he didn’t. (Genesis 37:24) As a slave, Joseph somehow kept on believing that others would be bowing to him rather than his always being the one to kiss the dust before his Egyptian master. (Genesis 39:1) Just when Joseph had begun to feel that he was crawling out of his captivity and had become the master over Potipher’s house, he suddenly found himself in a dungeon. Yet, even in the prison, faith was still alive in his heart. (Genesis 39:20) Again, when he saw a glimmer of hope as he sent the butler to Pharaoh with a message of his unjust imprisonment, Joseph found that he was a forgotten man with an unheard appeal. Nonetheless, he refused to give up his faith. (Genesis 40:23) It is this quality of faith that pleases God and propels a man into a successful life.
Dr. Sumrall’s definition of “faith” was the knowledge of God. If we are acting out of our knowledge of God, we can rest in plain and simple trust. In the first verse of the eleventh chapter of the book of Hebrews, we find the oft-quoted definition of faith: the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen. From that verse, some people often begin to name and claim things that they don’t see and try to call them into existence — calling the things that are not as though they were. Unfortunately, if we use this verse as our foundation for understanding faith, we have stopped about ten verses short of the bottom line of the argument for faith. Verse eleven states, “Through faith also Sara herself received strength to conceive seed, and was delivered of a child when she was past age, because she judged him faithful who had promised.” Here we see a more applicable definition of faith: trusting God to make good on any and all His promises. Of course, to operate according to this verse we must first know what His promises are and then we must know God well enough to be able to trust Him to fulfill those promises.
We also need to know enough about the character of God to be able to trust Him to follow through on His promises. There are some companies and individuals who have the reputation of not honoring their word; they are known to be able to find loopholes in their service contracts that allow them to escape from providing any repair or replacement services. On the other hand, there are businesses that have the reputation of being very customer friendly; they go beyond what is technically required of them in order to ensure the customers’ satisfaction. So it is with God — if we know Him well, we’ll know that He is always looking for an opportunity to bless us.
For the eyes of the LORD run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to shew himself strong in the behalf of them whose heart is perfect toward him.” (II Chronicles 16:9)
But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him. (Hebrews 11:6)
Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning. (James 1:17)
As we increase in our knowledge of God and His promises, we increase in our faith. Again, a physical example will give us a comprehension of this. In the same way that we have difficulty trusting a stranger but can easily put our confidence in a close friend, it is easier to have real faith in a God with whom we have a vital fellowship and relationship.
I suggest that we abandon trying to live successfully by following a list of rules and begin to focus our attention on simply developing a relationship with God. Paul said:
Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, and be found in Him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith: that I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being made conformable unto His death if by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead. (Philippians 3:8-11)
Perhaps this is the reason that Dr. Sumrall’s prayer — even at age eighty-three, after having been in the ministry for over sixty years and having established a worldwide broadcasting ministry, a global compassion ministry, an expansive publications ministry, a university, a Christian school with day care, a nation-wide ministerial network, and several churches abroad as well as a vibrant local church — was, “Lord, I want to know You.” He was focusing on the faith that is necessary for the long haul — faith that comes from intimately knowing the Lord.
Perhaps one of the most important “F”s was Joseph’s feeling. He never lost his sensitivity to others. Certainly, Joseph’s life was full of tragedy and hardship that could have turned him heartless and callous to the world around him. But, his testimony bears no indication that he ever lost that cutting edge of gentle compassion. Genesis records that he wept (verse 42:24), that his bowels did yearn as he wept (verse 43:30), that he could not refrain himself as he wept aloud (verses 45:1-2), that he kissed and wept over his brothers (verse 45:15), that he wept for a good while (verse 46:29), that he wept at his father’s death (verse 50:17), and that he wept when he granted final forgiveness to his brothers (verse 50:17). Never letting bitterness or hardness enter our hearts is one of the most important keys to success in life.
In Romans 12:15-16, Paul admonished us to rejoice with those who rejoice and to weep with those who weep, not feeling self-secured in our own conceit. In other words, he was telling us to always cultivate sensitivity toward others — whether it be in their good times or bad. In the letter to the Ephesians, he discussed those who were beyond feeling and had given themselves over unto lasciviousness to work all uncleanness with greediness. (verse 4:19) Of course, he was talking about having their sensitivity toward God so calloused that their consciences were no longer able to direct them; however, that same callousness toward God is manifest in callousness and hardheartedness toward our fellowman. On the other hand, the scriptures boldly remind us that our God is touched with the feeling of our infirmities (Hebrews 4:15) and moved with compassion toward us (Matthew 9:36, Mark 1:41, 6:34, 8:2, Luke 7:13). He also expects that we would demonstrate this same nature toward others.
And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you. (Ephesians 4:32)
He does not want us to be like some of the vegetables we see in our local supermarket. We want to avoid being like the potato who has eyes but can’t see. We don’t want to become like corn that has ears but can’t hear. We certainly can’t afford to follow the example of lettuce with a head but can’t think. Most of all, we must not imitate the artichoke that has a heart but can’t feel.
The “F” of feeling leads to the next “F” on Joseph’s report card — forgiveness.
Genesis 50:16-21 records one of the most moving stories in the biblical annals. It is the story of a man who has been hated, betrayed, and plotted against by his own brothers. After second thoughts on the scheme to murder him, they doomed him to the lowest station in life — that of a slave, a less-than-human piece of property to be used, abused, and misused at the whim of his master’s will. Suddenly, these cruel brothers are confronted with the fact that this young lad is now their master and holds their lives in the palm of his hand. One quick hand motion and their heads would be on the chopping block. Out of this macabre plot comes the most powerful statement of forgiveness ever spoken short of Jesus’ own affirmation from the cross, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” Joseph’s immortal words still ring with power millennia later as we read, “Ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive. Now therefore fear ye not: I will nourish you and your little ones. And he comforted them, and spake kindly to them.”
One of the characters in the movie Patch Adams was a patient in a mental institution whose characteristic behavior was to get in the face of each person he met, hold two fingers in front of him, and demand, “How many fingers do you see?” Of course everyone thought that he was crazy because of this erratic behavior; however, Patch Adams eventually realized what the gentleman was up to. When Patch looked beyond the fingers and gazed at the man himself, the fingers were no longer in focus. Suddenly, he saw four — not two — fingers! The point of the object lesson was that we need to learn to look at the people whom God places in our lives rather than at the problems they may cause us. If we continue to focus on the problems, we will never see the people as God wants us to see them — we are blinded and walk in darkness. (I John 2: 7-11) From my own personal experience, I can testify to the power of this principle. As a graduate student in seminary, my major professor became more of a tormentor rather than the mentor he was supposed to be. Every encounter I had with him was a confrontation rather than a confirmation. It seemed that he saw his mission in life as hindering rather than helping me earn my degree. No matter how hard I tried, the situation didn’t seem to improve. That is, until the day he made an off-the-cuff statement that let me see into his personal self. I realized that he was having trouble at home and that he was bringing his frustrations and anxieties from home to the office. Apparently, I had become the brunt of his emotional release. When I realized what was happening, I mentioned to him that I was going to pray for him and his family. Instantly, his attitude changed and our working relationship took a one-eighty! Magic? No, the blessing of God because I got my vision in proper alignment. From the moment I started praying for him rather than about him, I was seeing him the way God wanted me to see him. When I was able to stop seeing him as a problem and begin to see that he had a problem, I began to see him from the viewpoint of God.
Joseph even named his two sons with words that begin with “F”s. The first-born’s name, Manasseh, meant “Forgetting,” symbolizing the need to forget the hurts of the past and press on to the promises of the future.
You can’t imagine how much my heart went out to the woman on the other end of the phone. She had called for prayer and counseling over the loss of her husband. The tale that she shared with me was tragic and heart wrenching. He had left the house at his usual time to go to work. A couple hours later, she walked into the garage and discovered him hanging from the rafters. Rather than leaving for work that morning, he had committed suicide. She was in shock and overwhelmed with grief over discovering his lifeless body suspended before her eyes. Understandably, she was devastated and traumatized. I listened in horror as she graphically laid out the details of her experience. Overwhelmed with compassion for the poor woman, I asked when this had happened, expecting that she would answer that it had been just a few hours or at the most a couple days. It was all I could do to keep from bursting out in laughter when the lady answered that it had happened some twenty-five years prior. Her tearfulness and the freshness of the details as she described her trauma were totally out of the realm of reality for a wound which had occurred almost a quarter of a century before. Apparently she had not taken seriously Paul’s advice in Philippians 3:13: “…forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before…” To grieve a loss, especially such a tragic one as this, is certainly natural; but to go for twenty-five years without getting past it is totally unrealistic, even for the unregenerate — especially for those who have Christ living inside them.
Before we look at the context of this passage from Philippians, we can take a minute and remember that Paul was a good man to whom bad things happened. Several times in his second letter to the Corinthian church (verses 2:4, 4:8-12, 6:4-5, 11:23-28, 12:7-10, 12:15), he listed the things he had to endure for the gospel’s sake. Although Paul listed some horrific challenges, he summed these trials up as “light afflictions.” (verse 4:17) For him, the real issue wasn’t “How come?” but “How to overcome.” His power to overcome was demonstrated in that he always kept the attitude that God meant for everything to come out for good in his life. Even though he was going through hell, he was determined to keep a heavenly attitude.
Going back to the context of the Philippian passage, we notice something even more powerful. The things Paul is listing here as things that he chooses to forget are the accomplishments he has able to amass along the way. (verses 4-6) The more powerful aspect of his forgetfulness was not his ability to forget what bad things had befallen him but his ability to forget even the good he had accomplished. In addition to forbidding the bad things to become roadblocks on his way to heaven, he also determined that the accomplishments he had achieved would not become detours that would reroute him from his heavenly destination.
Joseph’s second son’s name, Ephraim, meant “Fruitful,” signifying that God can bless and make you abound even under difficult circumstances.
Fruitfulness is actually demanded as part of the human job description. Genesis twice records that God commanded Adam and Eve to be fruitful. (verses 1:22, 28) The mandate was reiterated with Noah after he was rescued from the destruction of the flood. (Genesis 9:1, 7) As history progressed, the commandment was restated as a blessing in the lives of Abraham (Genesis 17:6), Ishmael (Genesis 17:20), Isaac (Genesis 26:22), Jacob (Genesis 28:3, 35:11, 48:4), Joseph (Genesis 49:22), Ephraim (Genesis 41:52), and all the people of Israel (Exodus 1:7).
I like the way Ephesians 1:7-8 reads in the New International Version, “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding.” This passage depicts the abundance of the fruitfulness God wants to produce in our lives. To understand what the word “lavished” means, I need to give another little illustration. I stopped by a fast food restaurant one day and ordered a sandwich. I watched as the teenaged girl with a plastic glove reached into a bin of meat and took out a handful. She then dropped it onto a scale and began to pick off little pieces of meat to make sure that I was not going to get more than four ounces exactly. Becoming a bit offended as I watched her meticulously guard the company’s profits, I made a decision that my next meal would be across the street at the all-you-can-eat steak house where I could choose from salads, hot entrees, grilled-to-order steaks, and desserts — and I could eat until I could barely waddle out. My son once ate twelve steaks at this place for essentially the same price I paid for my four ounces of shaved roast beef! When it comes to understanding the blessing of God, we need to realize that He is like the smorgasbord — He spreads a lavish table before us.
It is significant that we note that the verse tells us that these blessing will come with wisdom and understanding — the things that Paul prays continually that the church will receive in verses sixteen through eighteen of this same chapter. In other words, we can totally miss what God has prepared for us if we don’t have our spiritual eyes opened by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Let’s take a look at some of the things that are lavished upon us from understanding the scriptures. Simply thumbing through our Bibles, we find an almost inexhaustible list of things that are said to be given to us in abundance: all things (Deuteronomy 28:47), produce of the seas (Deuteronomy 33:19), spoil of the city (II Samuel 12:30), spices (I Kings 10:10), silver, trees (I Kings 10:27), rain (I Kings 18:41), iron, brass (I Chronicles 22:3), workmen (I Chronicles 22:15), gold, silver, brass, iron, wood, precious stones (I Chronicles 29:2), sacrifices (I Chronicles 29:21), timber (II Chronicles 2:9), vessels (II Chronicles 4:18), victuals (II Chronicles 11:23), cattle, sheep, camels (II Chronicles 14:15), warriors (II Chronicles 15:9), riches, honor (II Chronicles 17:5), money (II Chronicles 24:11), first fruits (II Chronicles 31:5), darts, shields (II Chronicles 32:5), fruit trees (Nehemiah 9:25), peace (Psalms 37:11), blessings (Proverbs 28:20), glory (Isaiah 66:11), truth (Jeremiah 33:6), wealth of all the heathen (Zechariah 14:14), heart (Luke 6:45), gift of righteousness (Romans 5:17), hope (Romans 15:13), consolation (II Corinthians 1:5), utterance (II Corinthians 8:7), grace, every good work (II Corinthians 9:8), joy, riches of their liberality (II Corinthians 8:2), revelations (II Corinthians 12:7), judgment (Philippians 1:9), fruit (Philippians 4:17), love (I Thessalonians 3:12), faith, virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, godliness, brotherly kindness, and charity (II Peter 1:5-8).
In II Corinthians 9:8, Paul said that God has given us sufficiency in all things. Though many would want to try to limit the fruitfulness of God simply to the spiritual arena, the Bible repeatedly — literally from cover to cover — reiterates that it is His intent to give all things to His children. In fact, Romans 8:32 makes the point that if God did not hold back on giving His very own Son for us, how much more freely He will give us all other things.
The wisdom that we need is to realize that we can ask for these things because they are meant for us, and it is God’s desire that we have them!
Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him? (Matthew 7:7-11)
Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. (Luke 12:32)
The truly astonishing reality concerning God’s desire for us to be fruitful and have abundance is that He’s not even satisfied that we abound in all good things, but actually wants to command more abundance upon our lives.
For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath. (Matthew 13:12)
Furthermore then we beseech you, brethren, and exhort you by the Lord Jesus, that as ye have received of us how ye ought to walk and to please God, so ye would abound more and more. (I Thessalonians 4:1)
We must also understand that our God is jealously protective of all His promises and intends to fulfill them if we will only allow Him an opportunity to work on our behalf.
Then said the LORD unto me, Thou hast well seen: for I will hasten my word to perform it. (Jeremiah 1:12)
The truly fruitful and blessed man is one who can recognize God’s blessing in every area of his life without letting these blessings overwhelm him. Solomon, possibly one of the wealthiest men to have ever lived on Planet Earth, made this reasonable summation concerning prosperity:
Hast thou found honey? eat so much as is sufficient for thee, lest thou be filled therewith, and vomit it. (Proverbs 25:16)
Two things have I required of thee; deny me them not before I die: Remove far from me vanity and lies: give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with food convenient for me: Lest I be full, and deny thee, and say, Who is the LORD? or lest I be poor, and steal, and take the name of my God in vain. (Proverbs 30:7-9)
The Apostle Paul was able to consider himself to be abounding even while yet a prisoner because his true abundance was in the heart more than in his wallet.
But I have all, and abound: I am full, having received of Epaphroditus the things which were sent from you, an odour of a sweet smell, a sacrifice acceptable, wellpleasing to God. (Philippians 4:18)
We must learn to let God be sufficient in His own way. For an example we can turn to the Old Testament stories of the prophets Elisha and Elijah. Both of these men of God faced similar problems and received supernatural answers from God proving that He is all sufficient; however, the two solutions proved that the same Lord could solve the same problems without being forced into a box. After Elijah left the Brook Cherith, he came to Zarephath where the Lord directed him to the widow who was to support him throughout the rest of the drought. The miraculous provision for the widow came from a single bottle of oil that multiplied daily until the famine ended. Elijah’s protégée, Elisha, also had a miraculous provision for a widow with a single bottle of oil. This time, the oil multiplied instantaneously and became a one-time provision to fill the immediate lack with sufficiency for all future need. Two widows with single bottles of oil trusted the same God who intervened in both of their situations by supernaturally multiplying the oil; but one experienced a daily miracle while the other received an all-at-once provision. God’s sufficiency can come in any way He chooses to provide it — either with barns being filled with plenty and presses bursting out with new wine (Proverbs 3:10) or with bread sufficient for our daily needs (Matthew 6:11); but either way, it is His blessing!
God’s view of fruitfulness is based more on resourcefulness than on resources. For examples we can look at the churches addressed in the book of Revelation. To the church at Laodicea, the Lord says, “Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked: I counsel thee to buy of me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich; and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear; and anoint thine eyes with eyesalve, that thou mayest see.” (Revelation 3:17-18) They apparently had resources but lacked the true sufficiency of God necessary for their spiritual and physical wellbeing. The church at Smyrna is addressed as “rich” in the midst of their poverty. (Revelation 2:9) What they lacked in material resources was more than compensated for in their spiritual resourcefulness. Like Peter when he met the lame man at the Beautiful Gate, these believers knew that even though they didn’t have silver and gold there was something that they did have in and through the name of Jesus that was of much more value and effectiveness.
It has been said that no character in the Old Testament more portrayed the nature of Jesus than did Joseph. Individuals in any generation can also display the positive character traits demonstrated in Joseph’s life if they exchange their lives for the life of Christ which is offered to them. Paul told us his secret in Galatians 2:20:
I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.
Jesus told us how to obtain that secret in John 3:5-8:
Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.
Second Corinthians 5:17 adds that if we are in Christ, we become new creatures and that the old things have passed away and all things have become new. Colossians 2:14 reiterates that God has blotted out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross. In other words, whatever marks were on your report card before can be replaced with all “F”s!