The dissonance that comes when personal experience and belief contradict is a painful discord. What do you do, for example, when you have believed that God heals, and yet you watch helplessly as a loved one dies of cancer? How do you affirm the goodness of humanity to a woman who was sexually abused as a young girl? How do you respond when you believe that hard work pays off, and yet you cannot square that formula with a series of professional and personal failures?
The fortress of beliefs we sometimes hold as impenetrable can come crashing down as life’s experiences crush us. In the aftermath, the alternative shelters of cynical doubt or blind faith beckon us to take refuge with them. For most of us, we run perilously between both extremes, without the sense of security that the fortress once provided.
The Bible is replete with stories about individuals who faced the difficult conflict between what they held as truth and what they experienced in their lives. Joseph was told by God through a sequence of dreams that he would one day be a great ruler and that even his family would bow down to him. He had been given a glimpse of his destiny, and he could have easily concluded that the road would soon lead him to the landscape God described. Instead, he was almost murdered by his brothers, sold into slavery, falsely accused by his master’s wife, and spent much of his life in jail. I highly doubt this was the path to glory Joseph imagined for himself.
Surely, Joseph believed in a God who watched over him and ruled the world with justice and mercy. But what was he to do with this demonstration of justice and sovereignty? Sitting in a jail cell falsely accused doesn’t align with our ideas about justice, nor does it seem to point to a merciful sovereign.
Yet despite the contradiction between his life experience and the dreams God had once given him, Joseph seemed to affirm his trust in God. He confirmed God as the provider of dreams and interpretations; he acknowledged God as the one who makes all things known. In every position Joseph found himself in, he found favor with God and prospered. Though in slavery, he was put in charge of Potiphar’s household. Though in prison, he was put in charge of the rest of the prisoners.
Even wrestling through belief and experience, contradiction and discord, God can give new perspective and a deeper understanding. Even in loss, God can alter our understanding of gain. In the words of Craig Barnes:
“The deep fear behind every loss is that we have been abandoned by the God who should have saved us. The transforming moment in Christian conversion comes when we realize that even God has left us. We then discover it was not God, but our image of God that abandoned us…. Only then is change possible.”
Sometimes it is through loss of vision that God restores sight. Indeed, Joseph later tells the very brothers who betrayed him, “It was not you who sent me here, but God.” Elsewhere he insists, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” Life doesn’t always go as planned, but the plans of God are sufficient. Joseph witnessed the sovereign hand of God, though probably not in the way he first imagined it. Perhaps we, too, need to look again at our discordant intersections of faith and experience. Often it is God Himself who stands at the crossroads.
Stuart McAllister is regional director for the Americas at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.