God is sovereign AND we are responsible. It is often thought that God's sovereignty - his control over events, lives, and hearts - somehow infringes upon our freedom and responsibility as human beings. That may seem like the logical answer if we are trusting in our reason as our authority. But Scripture must be our authority. And Scripture doesn't appear to believe that human responsibility and divine sovereignty are mutually exclusive. Genesis 50:20 says, "As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today." It is telling that Joseph doesn't let his brothers completely off the hook. He doesn't say "what you guys did was okay, because God had a plan." He doesn't say "you're not responsible for your actions because God was in control." No, he says it like it is - what you did was evil, you meant evil against me. But God had a plan that was for my good and for the good of our people.
Being a Christian gives us the ability to interpret suffering. If God is both in control and is good, which we believe, then when we suffer and watch others suffer we have a grid through which we can view those periods of our lives. Joseph suffered immensely. At age 17 he is sold into slavery by his own brothers and by age 30 he's released from prison and brought before Pharaoh. That's 13 years stolen from him. In between those two bookmarks he works as a slave in Egypt, is falsely accused of attempted rape, and is unjustly thrown in prison where he is forgotten by those that he helped. Can you imagine how confusing and frustrating those times must have been? His own brothers, the ones that are supposed to look after him as the little brother, contemplate murdering him but decide against it so they can make a little money. While a slave he does everything right, works hard, is trustworthy, and then he even flees a sin that many of us wouldn't...but instead of being rewarded he's thrown in jail. And then in jail the same pattern recurs. He is trustworthy and diligent and blessed, so much so that the jailers begin to give Joseph responsibilities. And how is he rewarded? By interpreting a dream for a guy who then goes before Pharaoh and completely forgets about him for two years. Talk about confusing and frustrating. That was Joseph's life. And yet, when older, Joseph can look back on all those and say, "I get it. I may not have got it completely then, but I continued to trust that God knew what he was doing. And now, I see what his plan was, I see why I went through all of that. It was so that through me God could save many lives. The Egyptians, yes, but mostly his promised people of Israel." Suffering doesn't make sense to us. But Joseph's story teaches us that God is there and at work, even in our suffering.
God must first work in us before he works through us. This is a common theme through Scripture. David was not anointed king and then immediately put on the throne. Rather, he spent years of his life on the run from Saul. Living in caves, fighting battles, suffering hardship. Joseph, too, was first put through the fire of suffering before he was put in the place God had for him, a place where God would work powerfully through him. We were created for good deeds. Ephesians 2:10 says, "For we are God's handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." We were created to do good works. But for God to accomplish good works through us he must first work on us. He must develop our character, our faith, our perseverance, our intellect, our relational skills, our ability to love, our ability to serve. He does this in many ways. Through the passage of time, periods of suffering, reading of his word, faithful and diligent prayer, discipline, within small groups, through classes or sermons, etc.
The story of Joseph is one that I've latched on to throughout my life. Maybe these three thoughts will help you as they've helped me.