Detour by Design

Now Joseph had been taken down to Egypt . . . and the Lord gave him success in everything he did (Genesis 39:1, 3).

Something had happened to Joseph.

You probably know the story, the basic course of events and how they unfolded: Joseph the dreamer sent to find his brothers as they tend the flocks, the brothers plotting Joseph’s murder, opting instead for leaving him in a well, seizing the chance to make a profit by selling him to Ishmaelite merchants. In this sense we know exactly what happened to Joseph.

But as with most stories, there’s more going on than what we can see. Something had happened within Joseph and not simply to him. When Joseph arrives in Egypt and eventually takes his place in the service of Potiphar he seems like a different person, less like a boy and more like a man. More winsome than whiny. More doer than dreamer.

Something had happened to Joseph, quietly and out of sight. And, as best we can tell, it happened on the road to Egypt. Somewhere between the deal his brothers made at the well, and the servant role in the household of Potiphar, a new Joseph began to emerge.

The Road to Egypt

We’re not told how this happened or how long it took. The Bible is silent on these details. But this much seems clear: God works in significant ways on the road to Egypt.

From our perspective, the road to Egypt almost always feels like a detour. It’s not the route you had in mind or a journey you intentionally planned. The road to Egypt is where you find yourself when your life has been hijacked, and it is often a long and barren route. We travel it much as Joseph did, not knowing where it will take us or what we’ll find once the journey stops.

The road to Egypt shows up repeatedly in the pages of the Bible. Of course, it isn’t always a road, and often it has nothing to do with Egypt. What we’re talking about is God’s way of shaping those whom he will use by leading them to difficult places. God likes detours.

The 40-year-old Moses will flee Pharaoh’s courts and tend to livestock in the wilderness terrain of Midian until God gives him a new mission at the age of 80, sending him back to Egypt (Exodus 2-3).

When Moses finally leads the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery, they will take a meandering desert route rather than the shorter well-traveled trade route that led to Canaan (Exodus 13:17-18).

Elijah will launch his prophetic career only to be told by God to go hide in the Kerith Ravine where he will be fed by ravens (1 Kings 17:1-6).

A young David is anointed as Israel’s king by the prophet Samuel, but first he must live for years as a fugitive hiding from the crazed and jealous King Saul (1 Samuel 21-31).

Jesus will emerge from the waters of baptism to be plunged into the desert temptations before beginning his public ministry (Mark 1:12-15).

Your Path and God’s Purposes

And then there’s you. Perhaps you’re on the road to Egypt right now, living a story you would have never written. This road twists and turns. There are arduous climbs and exhilarating descents, highs and lows. Fast and smooth is not often the way God chooses to get us to his intended destination.

Think of Joseph’s story: his adolescent dreams were showing him his adult future, but he didn’t know that. Serving under Potiphar was preparing him for greater service under Egypt’s Pharaoh, but he didn’t know that. Interpreting dreams in prison earned him a reputation that would bring him to the attention of Pharaoh, but Joseph didn’t know that.

And there are things that God is doing in your life today that you don’t know.

Let this truth sustain you until you reach the place where the road ends and a new life begins: God’s detours are by design. On the road to Egypt God chisels out the form of who you were made to be. God readies you for what you were made to do.

When have you traveled the road to Egypt?


Far too often, Lord God, the road I’m on just seems wrong. It seems to be taking me nowhere, or it seems to be taking me to a place I’d be glad to avoid. My tendency is to insist on my own way, a path of my own choosing. Grant me grace to walk the path you’ve placed before me, trusting that you are at work in every step, leading me to what is good and preparing me for what I cannot imagine right now. I ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Guard Your Heart

“Here comes that dreamer,” they said to each other. “Come now, let’s kill him . . .” (Genesis 37:19).

Hatred, envy and jealousy reside most comfortably somewhere in the deep caverns of the human heart. Occasionally they will migrate north to the mind and hang out for while in our thoughts, but their natural habitat is the heart.

For many of us, much of the time, they dwell there unnoticed, hibernating until a particular person or event stirs them and we sense their presence as a kind of ache. Saint Thomas Aquinas wisely described envy as ‘sorrow at another’s good.’

It’s been a long while since I parented toddlers – but it seems to me that toddlers don’t hesitate to put their jealousy and envy on full public display. If there’s another kid in the room who has a toy they’d like to have, they’ll simply walk over and take it. When they perceive a lack of fairness, they’ll be loud with their protest.

Somewhere on the road to adulthood, however, we learn to edit ourselves. We wrap our jealousies in a filter that allows us to be gracious and friendly in public while harboring something dark in the heart. What we might fail to realize is that whatever we harbor in the heart will eventually find its way to our behaviors and words.

Proverbs 4:23 says “Above all else, guard our heart, for it is the wellspring of life.” One translation urges us to guard our heart because “everything you do flows from it.” When it comes to family life, what you harbor in your heart will show up in your home. Said another way, what you harbor in the secret places will eventually go public.

From Heart to Hand        

Three times in Genesis 37:1-11 we are told that Joseph’s brothers hated him. The reasons are stated plainly for us: they hated him because Jacob loved more than any of his other sons (37:3), and they hated him for his dreams in which they would all bow down to him (37:8).

Earlier this week a friend observed to me that what Joseph’s brothers were guilty of went far beyond garden-variety jealousy and envy. What they nurtured in their heart and what they did with their hands were nothing but evil. Being in a remote place, distant from their father while tending the flocks, the hatred and jealousy they felt gave rise to a plan to murder the eleventh brother. Reuben, the eldest among them, intervened – but the alternate plan was equally as violent. They sold Joseph like a piece of property, consigning him to a future of slavery.

What we see at first as hatred and jealousy soon becomes violence. How long did this take? The scripture does not tell us. Perhaps years passed between the provoked jealousy of 37:11 to the ambush near Dothan in 37:19.

Maybe the longer we carry and nurse hatred, envy, and jealousy, the more harm they can do when loosed on the world.

Change of Heart

Today is Valentine’s Day, and the heart plays a big part in the way we celebrate this day. Heart shaped candies, heart shaped gifts, expressions from the heart that are tender and affectionate. That’s the idea.

What we see in the story of Joseph reminds us that the love and affection and good will we carry in the heart has some unruly neighbors. Our heart can be crowded, home to things we’re not proud to acknowledge, much less speak of openly.

On Valentine’s Day we give our heart. But perhaps we need to guard our heart as well. Here are two ways to do that.

First, name and own the envy or jealousy or animosity you might feel toward another person. Say it out loud and say it out loud to someone you trust. Naming what’s in the heart sheds light on it and robs it of power. You pull the teeth from the green monster of envy.

Second, make a practice of praying for whoever that person might be. Recognize that God has a story and purpose for their life just as he does for your own. Try a simple prayer like, “God, do your will and accomplish your purposes in ______’s life.”

One last word. The presence of envy or jealousy in our heart serves to drive us to Jesus and the good news (gospel) of what his death accomplished for us. The last thing any of us can change about ourselves is our heart. I can mask what’s in my heart. I can confess what’s in my heart. But truly changing my heart is not something I can do by trying harder to be better.

For that I need something beyond myself, something supernatural. I need God’s grace – and grace is what God freely and gladly gives us as we turn in faith to Jesus. He pours his love into our hearts by the gift of his Spirit (Romans 5:5). And that’s a love worth celebrating.

How will you take steps to guard your heart today?


Sovereign God, you know my heart. You see the dark things I harbor there as well as the good things I desire to be and do. Change my heart be more like yours, filling it with your grace and making me a bearer of that grace to others, I ask in the name of your son Jesus. Amen.

The Life You Wanted . . . but Someone Else Got

Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons, because he had been born to him in his old age; and he made a richly ornamented robe for him (Genesis 37:3).

We’re not quite sure what to call it.

A fair rendering of the biblical Hebrew deems it a “richly ornamented tunic” or “long sleeved robe.” A more popular designation speaks of the “coat of many colors.”  Exactly what is was is hard to say, but this much is clear: Joseph’s coat galled his brothers. And if we’re honest, it would have galled us too.

You have to wonder what Jacob was thinking. What brilliant stroke of parenting insight prompted him to give this garment to only one of his sons? Did the others see it coming? There’s Joseph being measured, the length of his arms, the distance from his shoulders to his ankles. There’s the bolt of hard-to-miss cloth, lying on a table one day and then showing up around Joseph’s shoulders the next. A gift from Dad. One of a kind, not a set.

The Coats We Wish We Had

No use pretending. Joseph was the favored one. Perhaps that’s because he was born to Rachel, the woman Jacob had loved from the moment he saw her. Not only that, Joseph was born in Jacob’s old age (37:3). Of the twelve sons, Joseph was the eleventh – not quite the baby, but close enough. So Jacob doted on Joseph without shame, without apology. And in doing so he stoked the resentment of his other sons.

Every time they saw Joseph prancing around in his loud look-at-me robe they wanted to spit. They despised him, couldn’t say a kind word to him or about him. Joseph had something they didn’t have. He had the coat, but he had more than that. He held their father’s affections in a way that no one else did.

Most of us know what it’s like to be one of the eleven. We know what it’s like to want something and see someone else get it: A promotion, a marriage proposal, a positive pregnancy test, an offer on the house.  We might try to be gracious, but questions ricochet in the mind and they stir up all kinds of bitterness.

What did they do that we haven’t done?

What do they possess that we lack?

What makes them more deserving than we are?

The world is full of richly ornamented garments and life is wasted when we spend our energy looking at who’s wearing what, noticing the robes we’d like to have and resenting others who are already wearing them.

Our Misdirected Anger

Genesis 37:11 tells us that Joseph’s brothers were jealous. Their jealousy is understandable and hardly comes as a surprise. But here’s where we need to be careful. Our jealousy is often anger at God. We’re saying God got it wrong. God gives blessing and gifts in the freedom of his will. When someone has something I want, they just might have it because it came to them by grace. God is working in the life of the ‘other’ just as he is at work in my own. Anger at them is misdirected.

Maybe when we get angry at the person who has the coat of many colors, the person we’re truly angry at is the one who gave them the coat to begin with.

It took a long time for Joseph’s brothers to get over their jealousy. Their resentment over the coat spilled over into their behaviors. They couldn’t speak a kind word to Joseph (37:4). They eventually ambush him and sell him as a slave. They cover up what they’ve done by smearing the hated coat with blood and telling their father that his beloved son was killed. But God worked in all of it, and eventually these brothers came to see Joseph’s life differently. They came face to face with the man Joseph had become.

Jealousy and resentment are abated when we understand that God is shaping his will in every life. The person we resent today may become someone we respect tomorrow.

What is the coat of many colors that someone else is wearing today? How can you shift your focus from what they have to who they are becoming?


Gracious God, I don’t want to spend my days obsessed with what others have. I don’t want to be bitter over the favor they receive. Drive bitterness and jealousy from my heart and replace it with awe at your life-shaping work, forming something holy by the power of your Spirit. Amen.

Winter of My Discontent

He spreads the snow like wool . . . who can withstand his icy blast? (Psalm 147:16-17)

Before our move to the northeast I lost sleep dreading the Pennsylvania winters. These days I’m remembering why.

This is our third winter. The first two winters probably gave me a false sense of confidence. Sure, it was cold, and snow covered the ground on more than one occasion. But as a transplanted southerner I felt like I had adapted well to my new environs. Thus far, with one notable exception, I have been able to manage the snow with a shovel. As for the cold, it’s all about wearing the right clothes.

This winter, however, is testing my mettle. Luckily, I was out of town a week ago when the arctic air moved into the area and camped out for a while. I caught the tail end of that, but that was enough for me. I was like a kid at Christmas waiting for our return to the balmy 30s a few days ago.

Beyond the physical discomfort of jaw-clenching cold, this winter has exposed something about my soul. Something I don’t like. Winter has laid bare the gap that exists between the theology I know in my head and teach in a class, and the theology that shapes my heart and my thoughts. A little backstory might be helpful at this point.

Big Plans, Big Storm

My son’s 21st birthday was a couple of weeks ago, Tuesday, January 22d. Marnie and I had made plans to go down to North Carolina to celebrate the day. She conspired with a couple of John’s friends to gather a group for a surprise dinner. Aside from the birthday, we were ready to get out of town for a few days and see our kids.

The plan was simple. After Sunday services on January 20th we would load the car and hit the road. Getting to Winston-Salem takes us about eight hours, so we knew we could get there for a late dinner. The itinerary was etched clearly in my brain. The movie reel in my head played the celebratory scenes on a loop. I was ready to go.

A full week before our departure, however, forecasters began issuing cautious words about the weekend to come. With each passing day their descriptions of the weekend weather became less cautious and more certain, and their certainty was laced with foreboding. And it wasn’t just the ‘weekend’ that was at risk; it was the period overnight Saturday into Sunday morning. Sunday services were being threatened by the weather. My travel plans were being threatened by the weather.

As I obsessed over various weather apps on my phone, I saw clearly my natural response to whatever threatens my plans. I was angry. Angry and anxious. I believe in the sovereignty of God. However, it seems I don’t love the sovereignty of God. When it comes to my plans, I love my own sovereignty. I want to be in charge.

In All These Things  

Psalm 147 tells us that God ‘spreads the snow like wool and scatters the frost like ashes. He hurls down his hail like pebbles. Who can withstand his icy blast?’

We can’t affirm God’s sovereignty in some parts of life and insist on our own in others. To speak of God as sovereign means that God oversees all things. That includes weather and the heart of a King (Proverbs 21:1). What this winter’s icy blast has shown me is that I don’t always want that to be true. And even when I say that I do want it to be true, my anger betrays a belief that God is not at work for my good, that I know best and could manage my life better.

My story had a good ending – a much better ending than weather forecasters had led me to expect. The winter weather event through Saturday night was not catastrophic. We delayed church and held one service. When it ended Marnie and I were able to get out of town before a flash-freeze moved in to make the roads icy. We were in Winston-Salem for that late dinner. God kindly overlooked the distrust that I seem to carry in my heart, even as I speak of his good governance of all things with my mouth (or in writing).

But what if the ending had been different? What if a massive storm had completely ruined our plans for that Sunday and the days that followed?

Paul reminds us in Romans 8 that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. That includes trouble, hardship, persecution, and all manner of deprivation. It surely includes illness and suffering and setbacks of every kind. Even bad weather. In all those things, we still come out ahead. We may not like what happens – but what happens cannot separate us from God’s love or thwart his purposes for us.

Winter has exposed how desperately I need God’s grace. And in this winter of my occasional discontent, I have received it in abundance. So what about you? How do you truly respond to God’s sovereign claims over your life and your plans?


There’s still a rebel in me, O God – a little tyrant that insists on having my own way and being in charge of my own life. Apart from your grace, I will not embrace your sovereign work in my life with gladness and gratitude. So forgive my sin, and grant your mercy, that I might trust your good governance of my life and this world in all things, I ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.


Comforted or Confused?

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 NLT)

When you need comfort, where do you look? What’s your go-to source when you need to know that everything will be ok?

Honestly, I could answer that question with a list. Maybe you could too.

At the top of the list would be people, especially my family. As I write this my wife is down the hall in her familiar morning place. My kids are removed from me by nearly five-hundred miles – but I know where they are, and I know they are well. I take comfort in that. The same can be found in the presence of a trusted friend or a co-worker who functions as your ‘right arm’ day after day. There’s no comfort like a comforting presence, a confident voice, someone next to you at just the right moment.

Further down the list I would add other ordinary comforts. Comfort foods like pot roast and mashed potatoes, a Chick-fil-A sandwich, or chili on a cold night. These days I find comfort in a favorite sweatshirt and old blue jeans, a fire in the fireplace and a good book. You get the idea.

All of these are gifts from God given for our enjoyment. But let’s raise the stakes just a bit. If you had to choose one thing from your list, a singular source of comfort above all others, what would it be?

Our Only Comfort

Bear with me for a short history lesson. In 1562 a group of theologians were commissioned to write a unifying statement of faith for the German people. The work they produced in 1563 is known to us as ‘The Heidelberg Catechism’ and we Presbyterians still make use of it to this very day. A catechism teaches the basics of the faith through a series of questions and answers, making it suitable for children to study and memorize (we Presbyterians don’t do that anymore).

The Heidelberg opens with this question: ‘What is your only comfort in life and in death?’

Pastor-professor Kevin DeYoung explains that the word ‘comfort’ translates the German word ‘trost’ which is connected to our English word ‘trust.’ Where do you place your trust? What do you look to above all things to secure your well-being, your peace of mind and heart?

The catechism answers: Our only comfort is the knowledge that we belong to our savior Jesus Christ and that we are set free from the tyranny of sin by his death on the cross.

Then we read these words: Jesus who died for me ‘also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven. In fact, all things must work together for my salvation.’

Read that last sentence again. Slowly. And then ask yourself, ‘do I believe this is true of my life?’

The ‘S’ Word

Some years ago, as I was teaching through parts of the Heidelberg, a woman in the class interrupted me at this point. Those words about a hair not falling from your head without God’s will bothered her. She wasn’t buying it. I knew some of her story – a story filled with heartache – and I wasn’t surprised by her resistance to this idea. She placed the events of her life alongside these words of the Heidelberg, and she couldn’t hold the two together.

What we’re talking about here is God’s sovereignty. The idea that God in power and goodness governs all things, and that all things ‘must work together for my salvation.’ The catechism tells us that this is a source of comfort. For many people, however, this is not comforting at all. It’s confusing.

If God can stop tragedy and pain and suffering, then why doesn’t he stop it?

If God can bestow blessing and healing and wholeness, then why won’t he give it?

You might wonder, if God is truly in charge, then why is this world so screwed up? And why is my life such a mess? And why are people I love hurting? The words of the Heidelberg might not comfort you at all. They might just make you mad, bitter.

More than You Know

I won’t even begin to try to defend or explain the sovereignty of God. I’m not capable, and this reflection is already long. What I will do is invite you to listen closely to the story of Joseph. You can easily read his entire story in one sitting (Genesis 37-50). Pay close attention to what happened to him. Ponder what God is teaching us through his life. There’s plenty of heartache in Joseph’s story, plenty of reasons he could have become a bitter and despairing person. That’s not what happened.

Be very careful about drawing conclusions about your life or about God based on what’s happening to you today. Things are not always what they appear. More is happening than you know. God’s guidance and governance of your life doesn’t depend on your grasp of the hows and whys. No, this mystery is rooted in his love and grace.

You belong to him. He is on your side. And there’s great comfort in that.


Comforting God, remind me today that my life is firmly in your hand, that you are watching over and guiding my steps. I won’t pretend that this truth is always easily embraced. But even in my questions I will look to you as my hope and strength, come what may. I offer this prayer through Jesus my savior. Amen.


Nothing Wasted

“As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good . . .” (Genesis 50:20)

In the back corner of our basement there’s an area with a workbench.

A large Craftsman tool cabinet sits next to it, six or seven drawers worth of odds and ends plus actual tools for making or fixing things. The wall behind the workbench is a peg board with an array of hooks upon which to hang accessories that might be useful in the woodworking craft or other miscellaneous household projects. At least that’s the intent.

Once I’ve distinguished between a Philips-head and a flat-head screwdriver, my skills with tools are pretty much exhausted. Thus, very little craftsmanship or woodworking takes place at the so-called workbench. A more truthful designation for that part for the basement would be “storage room.”

Step into this part of the basement and what you’ll find is a healthy collection of stuff that we’ve not really touched since we moved into the home two years ago. There are a couple of ice coolers and a dorm sized refrigerator that my kids don’t need since their school provides a fridge in every dorm room. There are boxes of things we probably should have gotten rid of before we left Georgia. What you’ll also find in this part of the basement is a decent collection of scraps – left over materials from various household projects that were done by the previous homeowner. Among the scraps you will find samplings of bathroom tile and an assortment of paint cans.

Maybe you’ve got a place like this in your house. Here’s my theory: the scraps accumulate because they are perfectly good materials – but we have no idea what to do with them, and we can’t bear to throw them away after paying perfectly good money for them in the first place. The underlying conviction in all of this is that surely these things are good for something. But we can’t say what. So, there they sit, taking up floor space.

A Life by Design

The sight of my cluttered would-be workshop provides me with a way of understanding the story of Joseph. In the coming weeks as we walk through the Joseph stories from the book of Genesis, we’re going to learn something about the way God deals with us and works in our lives.

What we’ll see may be summed up like this: God never leaves scraps. Nothing is wasted, nothing thrown out. Even the moments that seem like junk, random pieces of your story that weren’t useful then and make no sense to you even now. Everything you live through is something that God takes in hand like a tool to craft your life according to its intended design. That’s basically the story of Joseph. And what God did then in his life, God still does in yours. As with Joseph, so with you.

Joseph was despised by his brothers, sold to slave traders, accused of rape, imprisoned and subsequently ignored by the parole board – until a door opened in government service and Joseph ascended to the right hand of the Pharaoh. And in all of that, nothing was wasted. When God designs and builds a life, there are no scraps.

Your Soul’s Workshop

Maybe your life has a would-be workshop, a place in your soul where you’ve collected some things that you don’t know what to do with, but you can’t seem to let go of. Remember – God wastes nothing.

That divorce you didn’t want, the illness you didn’t expect, the tears you’ve shed over a difficult child, the misunderstanding that cost you a friend, the job you wanted but didn’t get, the job you had but couldn’t keep – all of it becomes a scalpel in God’s hand, cutting us deeply while making us whole.

Perhaps in the weeks to come you’ll begin to see that Joseph’s story looks very much like your story. Pieces of your life that seem like scrap are essential material in a design you could never imagine. Nothing is wasted.

Of course, you can’t see that right now. You can read the words I’m writing, but deep down you don’t believe them. Let’s remember that as Joseph sat in an Egyptian prison, falsely accused, he wasn’t thinking of God’s good plan for his life. It would take years before Joseph could speak what we read in Genesis 50:20. There Joseph is able to say to the brothers who harmed and hated him, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.”

What have you hidden away in the would-be workshop of your life? Do you see some random pieces, unwanted events or circumstances that don’t make sense? Here’s an invitation to place your story in God’s hands, remembering that God doesn’t leave scraps.


Ever creating God, so many life experiences seem like random left-over pieces that we can’t throw away, but we don’t know what to do with. Today we offer the material of our lives to you, trusting you as a master craftsman who wastes nothing. Use all that we bring, and even what we try to hide, to shape your will and character is us, we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.