Sometimes when I listen to a message, I feel that it is highly relevant to me even if it may not have been intentionally directed at me. At times, feeling something highly relevant is not enjoyable, and at times it can be encouraging. Yesterday, for example, I heard a message that was very encouraging not because there was anything necessarily novel about the content, merely that the points made were particularly applicable to my own particular context. As it happened, the story told was an extended explanation of the story of Joseph, and if the story of Joseph is a familiar one, a mini-novel in terms of its emotional range and dramatic plot, it was told well and that is something worth appreciating and applying as best as possible to my own life. The message was also broad enough that no doubt others could have done the same thing.
It would be worthwhile to examine at least briefly the parts of the message that were the most relevant to me before looking at some ultimate takeaways that apply to how we appropriate scripture in our life, and indeed any sort of text. For one, it was very striking to me that the speaker believed that even if it appeared unwise for Joseph to tell his family his dreams, that what was done was ultimately meant to be by God for future purposes impossible to see at the time. I find this to be deeply relevant personally. There are many aspects of my life, especially my writing (whether letters or blog entries or related texts), in which I act for reasons of my own honor, and because I feel it necessary to express my own goodwill and my own honorable and decent intentions, and even if such things may appear deeply unwise to others, that does not mean that they are without value, only that sometimes one faces a lonely road of being a person of decent character long before that character is recognized by others or rewarded by God.
Another aspect of value was that Joseph’s life tended to change in an instant. One minute he was the favored son of a wealthy man, hated by his envious older brothers but possessing a fair amount of callow arrogance common to talented youth, and in an instant he was in a dark pit being sold as a slave while his brothers casually ate hearing to his pitiful pleas. He was then sold as a slave and yet God was with him in slavery, even as he was continually tempted with adultery (which he nobly resisted) and was falsely accused of trying to rape someone. In an instant, he was then thrown into prison, but God was with him in prison, allowing him to interpret the dreams of Pharaoh’s servants and in an instant reach a high position of honor as the vizir of the Pharaoh, finally seeing the purpose, which allowed him to forgive his brothers and understand how God used evil for good. Oh, that we could all be so fortunate.
The trials and tests that Joseph faced, in many ways, are not unfamiliar to myself either. No doubt others are familiar with some of them. There is the test of pride, in making sure that we give God proper honor for the talents and abilities we have rather than attempt to claim all the credit for ourselves. The is the pit of despair, which I know all too well, where one fights to keep one’s spirits up in a seemingly impossible situation before seeing deliverance come. Then are the tests of prison, being in a place one cannot get out of where part of the challenge is not getting out on your own skills, but rather building faith and trust. Then there are the tests of power and prosperity, where we deal with issues that tend to derail many people and see if we can handle them well. Like many, I’d like more of that kind of test, personally.
Briefly, at least, what is the relevance of looking to texts for personal meaning? One must be careful not to read personal meanings for scriptures that are contrary to the meaning of the text. This is certainly true of other texts, but especially true of a text that is used to try to seek justification for what we do. Any text that is used for justification always carries with it a heavy burden of difficulty in making sure that our meaning does not do violence to a text. That said, the complexity of a text is what allows it to have multiple meanings, and the richness of detail often allows people to be able to relate to a story, especially a true one that captures the difficulty and struggle of life. To read about a happy ending is to be reminded of our own longings to see happy endings for ourselves.