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How To Live Without Success



Many of you reading this are probably dealing with failure in some form. Maybe it’s financial or, worse, career failure. Maybe it is in marriage. Maybe your children are growing up and giving you the distinct message that you were not a good parent. Failure abounds.

Sadly, even though we know how life is, we tend to separate people into two groups. One group consists of those we despise as losers because they are visible failures. The others are visibly successful, and we resent them for it. Solomon warns us against both responses:

  • “Whoever belittles his neighbor lacks sense, but a man of understanding remains silent (Proverbs 11:12 ESV).
  • “Whoever despises his neighbor is a sinner, but blessed is he who is generous to the poor” (Proverbs 14:21 ESV).
  • “A tranquil heart gives life to the flesh, but envy makes the bones rot” (Proverbs 14:30 ESV).

In addition to the unhappiness of not getting what we want, we add the burden of envying (what appears to be) success and judging others who (apparently) fail. This is a recipe for social distrust that makes everyone worse off.

The final story in the book of Genesis is about Joseph, a great grandson of Abraham. His story is the climax of Genesis. At the start of Genesis, Adam and Eve were made in God’s image to rule the world but sinned and realized they were naked. Joseph, on the other hand, twice had his clothing torn away from him by violence and deception even though he did nothing to deserve it. Adam and Eve sinned by impatiently grabbing at wisdom (represented by the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil). Joseph showed wisdom and was enslaved then imprisoned for it.

But in the end Joseph was recognized for his wisdom, dressed in royal clothes, and made a ruler of the world. Adam and Eve got scarcity inflicted on the world while Joseph fed the world and saved it from starvation. God promised Abraham that kings would come from his line (Genesis 17:6) and Joseph told his brothers that God “has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt” (Genesis 45:8 ESV). Joseph’s rise is a picture of the reversal of Adam’s fall.

Joseph forgave his brothers who had sold him into slavery. But even while a slave he consistently demonstrated that attitude. During his years of slavery, his faithful service to Potiphar, his master, got him elevated as high as a slave could be. As a result, Potiphar’s wife wanted to have an affair with him. Joseph’s response needs to be appreciated:

But he refused and said to his master’s wife, “Behold, because of me my master has no concern about anything in the house, and he has put everything that he has in my charge. He is not greater in this house than I am, nor has he kept back anything from me except you, because you are his wife. How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” (Genesis 39:8–9 ESV).

Joseph had been kidnapped and sold to a man who didn’t care about how he had been made a slave. Yet Joseph lists all the ways in which Potiphar has promoted him as if they were honors that he must not fail to repay by loyalty! He doesn’t even mention explicitly that God forbids adultery.

I’m sure that Joseph hated his situation. When he had a chance to mention the injustice he had suffered to someone in authority who could help him, he did so (Genesis 40:14-15). But he did not speak as one embittered by life. He did not act resentful. And when he finally had power over his brothers, who had treated him far worse than Potiphar, he was willing to forgive them.

By the way, Potiphar’s wife repaid Joseph’s loyalty to her husband by manufacturing a rape allegation. Many read the text at face value and assume Potiphar believed her. That’s highly doubtful. A slave assaulting a master’s wife would probably be killed. Instead, we are told, “And Joseph’s master took him and put him into the prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined, and he was there in prison” (Genesis 39:20 ESV). How does someone’s slave get put in THAT prison?

Joseph ran the prison just like he ran Potiphar’s house. There’s a reason for that. The prison was the domain of the captain of the guard (Genesis 40:3) and the captain of the guard was Potiphar himself (Genesis 39:1). Evidently, Potiphar knew his wife was lying.

So, when Pharaoh decides to make Joseph his manager over all Egypt, we have an idea what went into that decision. “Refused to sleep with my master’s wife” was an asset on his resume. Joseph’s life as a slave showed he could rule well.

The story of Joseph should tell us something about living without the success we want. Rather than worrying about failing, we should avoid acting like failures—allowing envy or resentment to rule our character. It is all too common for people to imagine how good they would be if they had immense resources and more support from others. “If I were a billionaire, I would be a good billionaire.”

Really? Why don’t you prove it to us, yourself, and God, by being good now, in your current situation?



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