I teach a young adult Sunday school class at my church. This fall we started off on our second trek through the Gospel Project. Yesterday we talked about Joseph and his early days in Egypt.
When I read this story, I’m always struck by the obedience and faithfulness of Joseph. Certainly I don’t want to make Joseph “the” hero of the story. After all, Genesis 37 describes young Joseph as foolish at best and a braggart at worst. No, Joseph is not “the” hero of Genesis. He is, however, remarkably obedient and faithful once he arrives in Egypt.
I think there are a number of lessons here for American Christians, particularly American pastors. How did Joseph fight temptation, and how can we follow his example?
- You must not compare yourself to others (Genesis 37-38). Joseph could have easily found solace in the fact that he was better than his conspiring, violent, greedy, adulterous brothers. We too can find comfort in the fact that outwardly our morality is “better” than what we see in the world. There’s always a way to “win” when you play the comparison game. In reality, the comparison game is a game we always lose in the end. Our standard is not the morality of the world. Our standard is the holiness of God.
- You must have the presence of God (Genesis 39:2, 21, 23). Three times the text says the LORD was “with” Joseph, once when Joseph arrived at Potiphar’s house, twice when Joseph found himself wrongly imprisoned. Joseph was obedient in difficult circumstances because God was “with” him. The LORD was with Joseph for more than blessing and prosperity. He was with him for obedience and faithfulness. If we are going to fight temptation, we need more than education or Sunday church. We need the presence of God.
- You must fight temptation daily (Genesis 39:10). The text tells us that Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce Joseph “day after day.” This was not a single temptation to sexual sin, this was a daily onslaught of temptation. Joseph, separated from his family and friends, had every reason to desire intimacy. Nevertheless, he would not grasp for intimacy by taking another man’s wife. Today, we face a similar onslaught of temptation. The world, our flesh, and the demons have a plan to ruin our lives. We must fight temptation daily.
- You must fear God (Genesis 39:9, 41, 41:16). Joseph responded to Potiphar’s wife by insisting that an illicit tryst would be sin against God. This same idea would be repeated by Israel’s greatest king on the occasion of his repentance. David insisted that his affair with Bathsheba was against God, and God only (Psalm 51). Joseph also feared God when he stood before Pharaoh. Tempted to take credit for his ability to interpret dreams, Joseph insisted that God was working in him. If we want to fight temptation, we must fear the LORD.
- You must love others (Genesis 39:8-9). Joseph refused to sleep with Potiphar’s wife because he saw the act as sin against God. He also saw it as sin against Potiphar. He reminded Potiphar’s wife (and perhaps he reminded himself) that his relationship with Potiphar was based on trust. His role within Potiphar’s house was based on dependability and faithfulness, even when no one was looking. Joseph had a genuine love for Potiphar. Likewise, we must love our neighbor as ourselves if we are going to fight temptation.
- You must be willing to run from temptation (Genesis 39:13). Joseph did this in the most literal way. When Potiphar’s wife made her move, Joseph literally ran away leaving his cloak behind. In the same way, we must be willing to run from temptation. Unfortunately, we often try to linger in the presence of temptation. We try to “toe the line” of sin, getting as close to disobedience as possible without crossing the imaginary line of disobedience. Instead, we need to cut off our hand and pluck out our eye and run away.
- You must accept the consequences of obedience (Genesis 39:19-20). There is always a consequence when you choose sin. While you are free to choose your sin, you are never allowed to choose the consequence. The story of Joseph also reminds us that sometimes there is a consequence for obedience. When Joseph fled from temptation, he left behind an angry woman who turned on him. His job was lost. His reputation was ruined. His relative freedom was history. Sometimes there are consequences, even in obedience.
- You must fight bitterness (Genesis 41:1, 16). If ever a man had good reason to be bitter, if ever a man had good reason to throw a pity party, that man was Joseph. Sold into slavery by his brothers. Falsely accused of assault by his master’s wife. Forgotten by his friend and left in prison for two extra years. Joseph had plenty of opportunity to give himself over to bitterness, anger, and rage. Instead, Joseph remained focused on the LORD. Likewise, we must resist the subtle, constant urge to give our hearts over to bitterness.