There’s all sorts of prisons, aren’t there? There’s the jails with barbed wire, armed guards, barred cells and the clamor of convicted felons. There’s the places where prisoners of war are isolated and tortured. There are work camps and slavery for the persecuted, imprisoned for their religion, beliefs or ethnicity, stripped of all dignity, starved, beaten and forced to do labor their weakened bodies can barely endure. These are the prisons with walls and gates and guards and masters.
But there are other prisons too, where the walls are not so easy to see. Where one knows the gate is locked but she can’t find the door. Where the torturers are people or memories or hurts he can’t escape, the walls are circumstances she can’t change, and the clamor is the voices in his head that tell him “this is all there is”, that tell her “hope is hopeless.” And there’s the prisons of our own doing…the things that isolate our hearts…pride, selfishness, unforgiveness, arrogance, control…I could go on.
Lately, I’ve been studying the book of Genesis – mostly the life of Joseph, son of Jacob. He was familiar with all sorts of prisons: brothers who hated him, the pit they cast him into, slavery into which they sold him, an Egyptian jail for a crime he did not commit, the constant demands of his eventual high position in a country that tempted him daily with its worldliness. These are the prisons Joseph knew.
As I study, I also find myself taking special notice of Judah, for it is through his line that the messiah, Jesus comes. It is not through Joseph, Jacob’s favored son. Rather, Jesus comes through Judah, a broken and blatantly sinful man.
Judah was the son of Leah, the less-loved wife, the wife who wasn’t favored. And so he also was a less-loved son. As an adult, Judah carried the guilt of selling Joseph into slavery then deceiving and bringing suffering upon his father. He lost his first two sons, his wife and then unwittingly impregnated his bereaved daughter-in-law from whom he had unjustly kept his third son. Judah had a few prisons of his own.
One difference in these two brothers is that Joseph, whether caught in the web of his brothers’ hatred, held captive as a slave or serving time in a dungeon, was, in his spirit, a free man. We can see it in his devotion and loyalty to the Lord and the people he served, his integrity, diligence, kindness, grace, mercy and complete trust in God’s plan and goodness. Joseph is not imprisoned by his circumstances or his emotions. He seems to know a wonderful truth: that the walls that hold his body in can not crush his spirit.
Eventually, toward the end of Genesis we see a transformed Judah, who offers his own life to save the life of his brother Benjamin and to prevent his father from enduring any further suffering. We see a Judah who is free from selfishness, envy and bitterness, freed because his concern for another finally outweighs his concern for himself. He looks physical captivity, slavery and even death in the eye and seems to say, “I’ve known greater prisons than you!”
So what about you and me? What kind of prisons are we living in? Are you stuck in a job you hate? Do you feel trapped in family wrought with bitterness and distrust? Is your body giving out on you? Maybe your depressed. Or lonely. Anxious about money. Is someone you love hurting and you feel helpless? Or perhaps you’re wondering how you’ll ever say good-bye to your first child as they head off to college?
Then there’s the spiritual prisons. In one way or another we are all in danger of being trapped by our decisions to put other things before God. I find myself asking: What do I trust more…my ability to earn a salary or God’s faithfulness to provide? What do I work for more, the approval of people or God’s approval? How do I know I am valuable, because others say so or because God says so?
Through the study of Joseph and some great conversation with our couples small group, I realized, in a new way, that even when I feel trapped, my spirit is free. Free to worship the Lord, free to do what is right, free to serve and love and dance and pray. Surely this is not something we can do on our own…but with God all things are possible.
A couple of months ago I was thinking about my “pit” (see The Pits) and wondering about God…why is he so willing to enter my pit…to reside there with me. Then He gave me a sort of picture: I saw Jesus climbing down into my dark, dirty pit. He was surrounded by earthen walls with bugs, cobwebs, plant roots…you name it…but nothing He touched made Him dirty. He was light and golden and perfectly clean. Why? Then a word popped into my mind “Incorruptible.” Jesus in incorruptible. God can be with us in our prisons and remain unchanged, pure and good. The God that rules over all of heaven is the very same God that meets you in your pit. He doesn’t shrink himself for you or compromise his God-ness. Even when He took on our sin his life was pure. And whatever situation we are in, His life – his incorruptible life – that well of grace, mercy, strength, courage, joy and peace – is available to us.
There are many books and sermons and essays written about Joseph’s life with titles like: “From the Pit to the Palace” or “Prison to Palace”. But that’s no longer how I see it. No. Joseph didn’t leave the pit for the palace. The palace was in the pit with Joseph all along. “The Lord was with Joseph,” Genesis 39:2. Every day, in all situations, Joseph’s heart knelt before the throne of the Lord. And he was free.