I’m always looking to finish something and move on to the next. My mom will tell you that, growing up, I would ask about dinner plans every day. I didn’t ask around dinner time like a normal kid, but rather I would ask as soon as I finished lunch.
If there is a problem, I want to solve it as quickly as possible. I’ve heard people in the past say, “I was going through some struggles and knew that God wanted to teach me something, but I was too stubborn to listen or learn.”
Not me. At the first signs of trials or tribulation, I say to God something like, “alright God, if there is a lesson I need to learn let’s do it as quickly as possible so we can move on. I’m ready, let’s go!”
I’m beginning to realize, however, that this is not how God usually works. His timeline is different than mine. The last year has been pretty tough for a lot of different reasons, and I’m ready to move out of this season. Life may get easier here for a while, and it may not. Regardless of what the future brings, however, I’m slowly feeling more equipped to deal with the challenges. A major reason for this, is the truths I have found in the story of Joseph in the Bible.
Joseph was an amazing servant leader. He constantly got thrown under the bus, and then responded by continuing to work with integrity for those around him. Despite being a man who consistently honored God, Joseph spent 16 years as a slave and then as a prisoner in Egypt.
In this article, we’ll review the biblical story of Joseph and then discuss 5 strategies we can learn as servant leaders today from Joseph’s exemplary levels of patience. I’ll share why the story has encouraged me, and why I think it can benefit any modern person going through a time of feast or famine.
Joseph’s story begins in Genesis 37, when he is seventeen years old. We learn that Joseph is his father’s favorite, and his many brothers are already jealous of him. Then Joseph has a dream where his brothers bow down to him. Instead of keeping this to himself, Joseph lets everyone know.
Joseph may have had other motivations for telling his brothers, but it’s hard to believe pride wasn’t a big part of it. Especially considering that he told everyone about a second dream where his whole family bows to him. His brothers, already jealous, became furious.
They worked together to get rid of Joseph. Instead of murdering him, however, they sold him into slavery. His brothers enjoyed a nice payday, meanwhile Joseph became a slave in the house of a man named Potiphar.
Joseph as a slave
Potiphar was an officer for the Pharaoh, the captain of his guard. In other words, Joseph landed in a pretty important house. Instead of acting bitter and intentionally doing a bad job, Joseph leaned into his relationship with God and worked to do his best. Good things happened, according to Genesis 39:3-4:
His master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord caused all that he did to succeed in his hands. So Joseph found favor in his sight and attended him, and he made him overseer of his house and put him in charge of all that he had. From the time that he made him overseer in his house and over all that he had, the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; the blessing of the Lord was on all that he had, in house and field.
Despite being betrayed by his brothers and ending up a slave in a foreign country, things seem to finally be turning positive for Joseph.
But it doesn’t last.
Potiphar’s wife becomes attracted to Joseph and attempts to sleep with him multiple times. Joseph refuses to betray Potiphar, and his wife gets jealous. She accuses Joseph of sexual assault, and so Joseph gets thrown in jail. With the quality of his work, I’m sure Joseph had hoped to escape slavery soon, but going to prison was probably not the path forward he would have chosen.
Joseph as a Prisoner
Once again, despite being in prison, Joseph continues to honor God with his heart and actions. He doesn’t respond with bitterness, but continues to work with integrity. Genesis 39:21-23 shows us the results.
But the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison. And the keeper of the prison put Joseph in charge of all the prisoners who were in the prison. Whatever was done there, he was the one who did it. The keeper of the prison paid no attention to anything that was in Joseph’s charge, because the Lord was with him. And whatever he did, the Lord made it succeed.
A cupbearer and a baker who work for Pharaoh also find themselves in prison. They have some troubling dreams, and Joseph interprets them perfectly. The cupbearer will soon be released and promises to try and help Joseph get out of prison. Finally, things seem to be turning around.
But then the cupbearer simply forgets. And so Joseph continues to wait in prison.
Until finally the Pharaoh himself has a troubling dream. No one can interpret the dream for him, and the cupbearer finally remembers Joseph. The pharaoh calls for Joseph, who once again interprets the dream with wisdom. He explains the meaning of the dream in Genesis 41 by saying:
It is as I told Pharaoh; God has shown to Pharaoh what he is about to do. There will come seven years of great plenty throughout all the land of Egypt, but after them there will arise seven years of famine, and all the plenty will be forgotten in the land of Egypt. The famine will consume the land, and the plenty will be unknown in the land by reason of the famine that will follow, for it will be very severe.
Joseph then gives Pharaoh advice on how to respond to this fact, and Pharaoh responds by making Joseph his right hand man.
Joseph as a king
Joseph is finally freed from prison at age thirty, or thirteen years after being sold as a slave. Joseph will lead the way on preparing for the 7 years of famine, and he does an amazing job.
When the famine finally hits, Egypt is well-stocked with food. Not only do they survive the famine, but they’re able to provide for non-Egyptians who need help.
And this is where Joseph’s brothers finally return to the story. They’re starving, and their father Jacob sends them to Egypt to buy grain. Joseph recognizes them instantly, but unsurprisingly they do not recognize him. Joseph is now forty years old and practically a king, and it’s been twenty-three years since they sent him away as a slave.
Joseph could have used his power to bring vengeance. He could have sent every one of his brothers to death or slavery. Instead, he chose mercy and grace. He forgave them, embraced them, and fed them. He brought his whole family to be closer to him, and was finally reunited with his father once again.
That may seem like a long summary, but Joseph’s story isn’t short. It spans decades and fourteen chapters of the Bible. Now let’s take a look at how Joseph’s patience enabled him to be a better leader.
1. How Joseph shows patience through the bad times
The prosperity gospel is an increasingly popular belief that those who love God, think positive, and work hard will receive material wealth and success. The story of Joseph stands in stark opposition to this. Joseph did everything right, and still spent thirteen years as a slave or prisoner.
And while many Western christians today would say they don’t believe the prosperity gospel, few of us would stomach the idea of suffering for thirteen years. We’re uncomfortable with the idea of suffering at all, but we like to think we can handle it for a few months. Surely God wouldn’t push us to struggle for longer than that, right?
Once we’ve learned our lesson, we can move on to a season of blessing and easy living!
And yet, we are never promised this. We may experience trials and tribulations for far longer than a few months, we might experience them for longer than Joseph did. As I said at the beginning of this post, our family has endured a really tough year. Now that it’s been almost 12 months, I’m really hoping we’ve crossed the finish line.
The story of Joseph reminds me that the trials may not be finished. The story of Joseph also reminds me that, even if the trials aren’t over, we will be ok. Because here is the good news: Just as God was with Joseph during his time as a slave and a prisoner, God will be with you during your hard times. Not only that, but we are promised an eternity without sickness, pain, or tears.
If you want to show the kind of patience Joseph did during difficult times, then stay as close to God as possible. Don’t give up on God. We may doubt our faith, but God will continue to be right by our side. He is working, even when we cannot see it or feel it. And of course, we can look forward to the day when all the bad things will be forgotten, and we can spend an eternity closer to God than ever before.
2. Sometimes waiting means doing nothing but wait
As a person who loves to solve problems, this principle really drives me nuts sometimes. There are definitely times to take action and work for change, but there are also times when God simply calls us to wait.
In her book, I Give Up, Laura Story shares this exchange with a Pastor named Bill.
“I think in this season of life you need to wait on the Lord.” “Yes! That’s it! I need to wait on God. Great! What steps do I take to do that?” “You’re not getting me, Laura,” Bill had said. “Wait is wait. There are no steps. You just surrender. And then you sit tight.”
It’s the perfect example of how many of us think – yes! I can wait. Now that I’ve waited for five minutes, what do I do next?
It can be hard for any leader to truly be patient. Why wait when you can create a to-do list and start taking action? Well, sometimes God wants us to sit in something. Sometimes he wants to teach us something, and some lessons take time.
There was nothing Joseph could do to get himself out of slavery or prison. He did a great job and rose to the top position in each setting, but no one was going to let him out. Even when the Cupbearer promised to help Joseph escape, he completely forgot. Joseph was still stuck.
He continued working with integrity, but he had to wait for God’s timing to receive freedom. Fortunately, God used that time to teach Joseph and help him grow…
3. Remember that growth takes time
And I would argue that Joseph had a lot of growing to do.
Remember, he demonstrated a good dose of pride at the beginning of the story. He bragged to his brothers and parents about his prophetic dreams of power.
In fairness, he was seventeen and most teenagers think the world of themselves. Can you imagine putting that kid in charge of Egypt? The power would have risen to his head rather quickly, and he could not have led the way that people needed him to lead. It would have been a disaster.
Instead, God put him in positions of leadership where he could grow in both humility and as a leader. Joseph needed the time as a manager of Potiphar’s household and a manager of the prison before he became a manager of all of Egypt. He also needed time in a powerless position so he could learn humility and dependance on God.
This is a very real issue today. How many people graduate college with aspirations to become Senior VP or CEO by the age of 25 or 30? Who needs leadership experience when you’re smart or have an MBA? Clearly I can do better than whoever is in charge now, right? I’m going to start a company and turn it into a Fortune 500 in three years!
And yet, the reality is most of us need the practice. We need to demonstrate that we can lead well with small things before we can lead with big things.
And perhaps, most important of all, humility takes time to learn. This is the lesson I keep learning over and over again. I know in my head that I need God, but my heart sure doesn’t feel that most of the time.
Humility is often a painful lesson to learn, but it is a requirement for any good servant leader. How can you put others first when you think so highly of yourself?
And so, like Joseph, we must remember that true growth takes time. A tree that grows quickly without good roots will fall. There are no short cuts – strong leaders take time to grow.
4. Trust God through everything
Genesis 50 ends the story with Joseph’s most famous quote. After their father dies, Joseph’s brothers begin to worry again that Joseph will now take vengeance upon them. They approach him to apologize again and seek his grace and mercy. Here is how Joseph responds:
But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.
Last week I found myself pretty angry with God. I felt like I was asking for bread and He was handing me snakes. I just couldn’t understand why He was doing some of the things He was doing.
At the same time, our three-year-old son was recovering from surgery. The procedure went well, but on the second day our son started refusing to take his medicine. We tried every trick in the books: bribery, hiding it in food or drinks, and we even had to force it down his mouth sometimes.
Every single instance was an emotional fight. Despite our best efforts to explain the benefits of the medicine, he did not want it. The medicine was like a snake to him, and he fought it as hard as he could.
At one point, a light bulb went off in my head: I am genuinely trying to do what is best for my son. He doesn’t get it, doesn’t trust my words, and can’t understand why I would force him to take the medicine he hates. In the same way, I know that God also wants the best for me. I may not get it, I may not trust Him at times, and I certainly cannot understand it, but God does actually want the best for me.
Joseph was lucky. It may have taken decades, but he was able to see why God put him through so many trials and tribulations. God used all of it for good, to save countless lives.
Hopefully, God will reveal to you the reason (or at least part of the reason) behind your suffering. But the truth is, He may not. We may never understand the work He is doing in our heart or recognize what He is preparing us for.
And while it is remarkably frustrating to not get the answers, God still deserves our trust. He sent His son to die for us because His love for us is so extravagant.
He is a good Father, and He works constantly to heal our hearts.
5. Show patience in the good times
It can be difficult to wait during the bad times, but it can also be difficult to wait during the good times.
How many businesses or churches have failed because they pursued rapid growth when steady growth would have been better? How often do we spend money on something we don’t need because we have a little extra cash (but not enough)?
Joseph showed tremendous discipline as a leader. There were seven years of feast before there were seven years of famine. After spending thirteen years as a slave or in prison, Joseph could have delayed responsibilities. He could have just had fun for a few years.
But instead, he began leading like a servant right away. He worked to ensure there would be enough food for everyone, tirelessly. He worked to build the infrastructure to store the food. His preparations are described in Genesis 40:47-48
During the seven plentiful years the earth produced abundantly, and he gathered up all the food of these seven years, which occurred in the land of Egypt, and put the food in the cities. He put in every city the food from the fields around it. And Joseph stored up grain in great abundance, like the sand of the sea, until he ceased to measure it, for it could not be measured.
But even before that, when Joseph was a slave in charge of Potiphar’s house or a leader in the prison, he maintained a steady patience while doing a great job. Being a slave leader still means you’re a slave, so it isn’t the really the best position. Joseph could have become complacent or selfish or a big complainer. But instead, he patiently continued to do good work.
We often think we deserve more credit and reward for our work. You may be right about that, or you could be wrong. Either way, God calls us to continue worshipping Him and doing the best work we can to bless others.
Because in the end, servant leadership isn’t about receiving rewards for ourselves, it is about providing for others and their needs. Joseph exemplifies this perfectly, and we would do well today to learn from him.
The Old Testament is filled with characters who have massive and often repeated moral failures. Somehow, Joseph tends to rise above them. He endured great hardship. His life was not fair and he was punished for sins he did not commit.
But through it all, Joseph maintained a patient and steady reliance on the Lord. He did the right thing, even when he could not see the purpose or the light at the end of the tunnel.
If you want to be a leader like Joseph, then it starts with one thing: stay close to God. There will be good times and there will be hard times, but God loves you and is working in you and through you, even when you cannot see it or understand it. So trust in Him, and lead well.