I think “Immanuel” was the first of God’s names I learnt growing up because of Christmas carols and the annual reading of Isaiah’s prophecy echoed by Angel Gabriel during services [Isaiah 7:14, Matthew 1:23]. Until recently, I didn’t think much of the implications of the name, possibly because I’d become overly familiar with it. But of all the monikers God Almighty could use to herald the Messiah, He chose one that means “God with us”. Why would God need us to remember that He was with us? Could such a name point to the possibility that we might encounter experiences which make us doubt God’s presence and faithfulness? On the other hand, how might we approach life if we truly believe the Creator and Sustainer of the universe is with us through the highs, lows and in-between seasons of life? Knowing God as Immanuel should be paradigm-shifting, yet how often do we face life’s challenges with that conviction?
I was speaking to my brother recently about facing unexpected change, and he made a profound comment: “God’s presence guarantees success, not ease”. Life bears witness to that statement. We may even assent mentally to the truth of my brother’s words, but they remain challenging to embrace in adverse situations. It seems the more enamoured we are with our comforts, the harder it becomes to accept any inconvenience, even for God-ordained reasons. As a result, many of us desire the crown but reject the cross that precedes it [Hebrews 12:2] and then become frustrated when success doesn’t manifest. Even in Scripture, none of our heroes of faith had an easy route to destiny. So, why do we often expect different? I’m increasingly embracing another truism: “The road to destiny is marred with many discomforts”. Put differently, we won’t achieve much by remaining in our comfort zones, and what a mercy it is when God ushers us out of the familiar, sometimes kicking and screaming.
The story of Joseph encapsulates much of what it means to embrace unexpected change anchored in the revelation of Immanuel. Joseph was the apple of his father’s eye, the envy of his brothers and gifted with the ability to interpret dreams [Genesis 37:3-4]. Being the favoured son of a wealthy patriarch would’ve had its perks too. I suspect Joseph was quite pleased with life. His story began with two dreams he had which revealed he was destined for greatness [Genesis 37:5-11]. As is often the case, Joseph only saw the end but had no idea of the trials ahead. Joseph didn’t know that in a few days, he would be sold as a slave by his envious brothers, taken against his will to a foreign country to live in a culture he didn’t understand amongst people whose language he didn’t speak. He was imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit and forgotten by someone he helped with his gift. However, years later, with the benefit of hindsight, Joseph would testify that God allowed these trials to bring about good [Genesis 50:20].
Joseph was a remarkable man who suffered more than most. He had every reason to moan at God and complain about the injustices he encountered, but there’s no record of a single complaint from Joseph in Scripture. I believe Joseph knew the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as Immanuel. Time and again, we see the refrain: “…the Lord was with Joseph” during his years as a slave and a prisoner, pointing us to the reason behind Joseph’s remarkable composure in adversity. Joseph knew two things: first, the nature and character of his God, and second, what God had promised him. I’d posit that those are two things we need most in seasons of unexpected adversity [2 Timothy 1:12]. Peter assures us that if we humble ourselves under God’s mighty hand, God will exalt us in due season [1 Peter 5:6]. How might believing Peter’s exhortation affect our outlook when the going gets tough?
Sometimes, submitting ourselves to God will require us to endure discomforts for the sake of righteousness and remain silent even when we have every reason to speak because we’re confident God is orchestrating events for His glory and our good [Isaiah 53: 7, Romans 8:28]. Nevertheless, Joseph’s story affirms Peter’s words and provides tangible evidence of God’s faithfulness to encourage us [Romans 15:4]. Joseph endured thirteen years of slavery and imprisonment and twenty-two years in total separated from his family because of the base choices of others. However, in due season, God transformed Joseph’s life in a day, established him, brought him incredible honour and blessed him beyond his wildest expectations [Genesis 41]. He subsequently named his sons after his testimonies as a public declaration of God’s faithfulness [Genesis 41:50-52].
Life is challenging for most today. On a global level, many of us are contending with rising costs of living, safety concerns and the effects of geopolitical instability, in addition to the challenges of daily life. That can be overwhelming. Yet, these are the times to remember that the God of the Bible isn’t some distant indifferent deity. Instead, He is Immanuel – the God with us through the peaks and troughs of life. God swears on His integrity to never forsake or forget His own, no matter how dark life gets [Isaiah 49:15-16, Hebrews 13:5-6]. So, however dire your story may seem today, you’re guaranteed a good ending [Jeremiah 29:11]. Even if you stumble under the weight of your trial, He will not condemn you [Romans 8:1, 2 Timothy 2:13]. As Peter can attest, we serve a God who is always willing to give us another chance [John 21:15-19, 1 John 1:8-9]. I may not have known Immanuel as a child, but now more than ever, I want to know Him as Joseph did so that I can face the uncertainties of life confidently.