(Note: I wrote this article and posted it on my blog before my book, Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession was published by WestBow Press in February 2018. This critical topic was later included in the book. I invite you to check it out. This article was also posted on the Coram Deo blog.)
Reading through Genesis this past week in keeping with my year-long Bible reading plan, I came across one of my favorite characters – Joseph. There are a few parallels between his life and mine. I am a dreamer, just like he was. God clearly protected and prepared us both for great things at a young age. And like him, my vocational journey has three parts.
I can personally identify with him in a couple of different ways. Let me explain in more detail.
In July 1985, I was fired from my job as Youth Minister. A short time later, I discovered that what Joseph said to his brothers when he revealed himself to them in Gen. 50:20 could apply to my own situation: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” Joseph clearly understood the sovereignty of God; he acknowledged what Paul would later proclaim in Rom. 8:28 that God works all things out for His bigger purposes and for our ultimate good. I eventually came to the same conclusion, knowing that God needed to take me out of my comfort zone by force and put me somewhere else that I needed to be to better glorify Him. I reflected on this in an article I posted on my other blog last summer on the 30th anniversary of this event.
Another way that I seem to identify with Joseph is that God’s presence was with him in his work, under Potiphar, in prison, and for Pharaoh. As a result, God abundantly blessed his employers through Joseph’s work. I have also experienced this sense of God’s presence and subsequent blessing to my employers throughout my nearly 30-year career with the Army, both while on active duty and as a Department of the Army civilian employee at Fort Leonard Wood. This narrative is painted so clearly in Genesis 39.
Incidentally, last September I reflected on how the presence of God is demonstrated through the work of His people, what I like to call “Immanuel labor”, in another article. I would like to point out some more details in the Joseph narrative here.
The first thing we see in Gen. 39:2 is that “the Lord was with Joseph, and he prospered”. Let me pause for a moment. In its literary context, remember the audience that Moses wrote for as he told this story. The presence of God was an important theme for the Israelites to focus on as they were settling in the Promised Land. God’s supernatural dwelling with and empowerment of Joseph as Potiphar’s employee had a divine purpose, to eventually bring the Israelites to Egypt so that they could be enslaved there for 400 years and be delivered by Moses.
Let us return to God’s presence with Joseph and how it relates to a theology of work.
Not only was Joseph blessed personally by the nearness of Yahweh, but Potiphar was blessed also because of Joseph’s work which reflected God’s presence (Gen. 39:5). How did this happen?
Potiphar “saw that the Lord was with him (Joseph) and that the Lord gave him success in everything he did” (Gen. 39:3). As a result, Joseph “found favor” in Potiphar’s eyes and he promoted him to a position of greater responsibility. He “entrusted to his care everything he owned” (verse 4). We see that same concept in verse 6: “he left in Joseph’s care everything he had”. Also, in verse 8, Joseph articulates his conviction to refuse to sleep with Potiphar’s wife: “everything he owns he has entrusted to my care“. We see in the next verse that Joseph understood that he did not just work under Potiphar’s authority, but under the Lord’s.
When I saw that this word care was emphasized three times in this scene, it caused me to think about stewardship. The clear application to me in my own work is that my employer has entrusted to me certain responsibilities so that he does not need to worry about them. I have to take good care of a number of things on a routine basis so that the organization I work for can prosper. When I faithfully and carefully carry out my duties, God blesses them through me because His presence is with me as it was with Joseph. This position of great responsibility that I am privileged to have also requires me to work hard and to work with integrity.
I was pleased to see that Gen. 39 continued the same way it started. Joseph is now in prison, under a different authority, but he has the same attitude towards his work. We read in verse 21, “the Lord was with him . . . and granted him favor in the eyes of the prison warden.” The pattern continued with the warden putting Joseph in charge, being made responsible for all that went on (verse 22). We see the same word “care” is used in the last verse as it was earlier, referring to Joseph’s sphere of stewardship and influence, “The warden paid no attention to anything under Joseph’s care.” Once again, we see the same result as before: “the Lord was with Joseph and gave him success in whatever he did.” Another reminder that Moses needed to emphasize to the chosen people of Israel and that we still need now.
Let us not forget to mention what happened two years later, as Pharaoh needed Joseph to interpret his dreams. Since God was with Joseph, he was able to give Pharaoh a satisfactory answer and provide a way to survive the upcoming famine. Pharaoh recognized that God’s Spirit enabled Joseph to do all this and hired him on the spot as his second in command (41:38-40).
This passage provides some great insight towards a biblical theology of work. When we abide in God’s presence, He blesses us, which in turn will bless those we work for, causing God to be glorified. We are to be servants of our masters, working hard with integrity in everything we do so that the blessings that God wants done in our places of employment can be seen. We can only do our jobs well if we allow God to work with, in, and through us.
In closing, it appears that I neglected to indicate one more important insight from this passage. In both of Joseph’s “occupations”, where it states repeatedly that God was with him, he was doing a secular job. He was not a minister, priest, missionary, teaching in a seminary or Bible college, or in any kind of full-time religious work. He was managing someone’s mundane, everyday business.
If God’s presence was with Joseph in such a powerful way in his secular job, this points out that as far as God is concerned, all work matters to Him. He can use us wherever we happen to be, as long as we look to Him to sustain, empower, and lead us as His representatives in the place of employment that He has sent us.
Russ Gehrlein is the author of “Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical to the Doctrine of Work”, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He is a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher, youth pastor, and a retired U.S. Army Master Sergeant. Russ currently works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. He received a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and a Master of Arts in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015. He is a husband of 38 years, father of three adult children, and grandfather of four.