By, Isam Itson III
One aspect of embracing our cross in the name of Jesus is surrendering our self interest in obedience to God for the good of others. Another aspect of embracing our cross is staying focused on God’s will for us as we encounter the stubborn self interest and selfishness of other human beings. I have had a strong sense of purpose for my life since I was in high school, what our friends overseas call secondary school. In spite of the difficulties in my own life, I enjoyed early success and recognition in university. As I left university and entered the adult world of work and career I was certain that I was destined for and capable of great things in life and pastoral ministry. I quickly discovered to my frustration and discouragement that the pride and selfishness of others was as threatening to my pursuit of God’s purpose for my life as my own sense of pride and self interest.
In fact, the stubborn self interest of others was more dangerous because it aroused my own hidden fears and anxieties. Issues I had overcome years before would rise up when someone challenged me. I could be enraged over a petty insult and cast blame like a confused child, instead of maintaining my focus and composure like a mature adult. I had no idea that the difficult, impossible, and prickly people around me were God’s instruments to strengthen my character and help me become the person I wanted to be for God and that God made me to be for others. I needed to become someone who could endure assaults on my person and character, and offense to my reputation, and stay focused on God’s purpose for me. I needed to become more like Jesus Christ.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. – Hebrews 12:1-2.
The shame of the cross is that it puts our weakness on public display and makes us a target for ridicule and insult. One of the keys to developing the depth of character and the strength necessary to endure the grief, loss, and pain of our cross is learning to despise or disregard how others perceive us while keeping our focus on the joy of blessing others and pleasing God with our dedicated service. The best example in the scriptures that I have for what it looks like to develop the endurance necessary to display grace in the face of public shame is the life of Joseph recorded in Genesis chapters 37 – 47.
Joseph’s older brother’s hated him because he was their father’s favorite. Joseph did his work for the family diligently and with a commitment to excellence, and this made them look bad by comparison. Joseph may have also been a little arrogant. At age 17, Joseph had a dream from God that one day the entire family, even his father, would follow his lead. When he shared this with his family his father rebuked him, but his older brothers hated him even more. Motivated by jealousy, they sold Joseph into slavery.
Joseph was taken to Egypt and purchased by Potiphar, a captain of the guard in Pharaoh’s army. Just like at home Joseph was favored by God and excelled in service to Potiphar, who ultimately placed the entire household under Joseph’s management. Not long after that Potiphar’s wife decided she wanted to have sex with Joseph. He refused her advances citing the trust of her husband, and his devotion to God. In retaliation she accused Joseph of trying to rape her, and Potiphar had Joseph thrown into the king’s prison.
In Pharaoh’s prison Joseph once again enjoyed God’s favor. He excelled in his work and the warden placed all of the prisoners under Joseph’s care. One day he even interpreted a dream for Pharaoh’s cupbearer that he would be released from prison and restored to his position in three days time. The cupbearer was released and promised to plead Joseph’s case. But he forgot about Joseph. By this time Joseph was 28 years old.
Two years later Pharaoh had a dream that none of his advisers could interpret. Long story short, the cupbearer told Pharaoh about Joseph. Joseph was brought before Pharaoh, interpreted Pharaoh’s dream, and gave Pharaoh counsel on how to plan for the severe famine that his dream foretold. Again Joseph was favored by God and Pharaoh released Joseph from prison and placed all of the affairs of Egypt in response to planning for the famine relief under Joseph’s administration. Joseph was now 30 years old.
Seven years later the famine hit the region hard. Long story short, Joseph’s brother’s ended up seeking aid from Joseph in Egypt. He revealed himself to them and had them send for the rest of the family. They all ended up living in Egypt under Joseph’s care. Joseph was 37 years old.
Betrayed, slandered, and forgotten, Joseph had every reason to give in to his bitterness and give up on God. But he endured. He honored God and developed the humility, integrity, and expertise necessary to run the critical affairs of an entire nation and the opportunity to save his entire family because of his faithfulness to God in spite of suffering profound injustice.
For the followers of Jesus Christ suffering does not define us. Suffering gives us the opportunity to stand with God and grow through adversity. In the words of the Apostle Paul,
suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. – Romans 5:3-5
Let’s encourage each other to stay focused on God’s faithfulness as we keep blessing others in the name of Jesus with dedication and a commitment to excellence, no matter how long it takes for God’s vision to be fulfilled in our lives, or the unjustified personal, social, or professional challenges we suffer along the way.
1. What injustice have you experienced?
2. How have you persevered in the face of your doubt and discouragement?
3. How have you experienced God’s faithfulness to address your fear of deprivation or failure?