In Princess and the Goblin, George MacDonald shares a beautiful story of a grandmother who deeply loves her granddaughter. Wishing her granddaughter to walk in courage and confidence in a world of fears and goblins, the grandmother gives a ring to her granddaughter. This ring has a small yet strong string attached to it. She is given simple instructions: Whenever she is in need, simply follow the thread and it will lead her to her grandmother.
The granddaughter is awestruck by the provision of this small gift. But this simple promise has one clear caveat, “Yes. But, remember, it may seem to you a very roundabout way indeed, and you must not doubt the thread. Of one thing you may be sure, that while you hold it, I hold it too.”1
This thread connected the two individuals with a promise of protection. As the story progresses, the granddaughter is in desperate need of her grandmother. She pulls the thread, exits her room, and where she assumes the thread will take her up the stairs to her grandmother’s room, it does the opposite.
Down the stairs, out the castle, into the fields, through the woods, over hills, under bridges, the thread seemed to lead away from the loving arms of her grandmother, not toward them. The small string finally leads her to the side of a mountain and disappears into a pile of rubble. She turns around to return from where she came only to discover the string had vanished. The only way forward was through solid rock. Confused, lost, and without hope, the princess did the only thing she knew to do: she cried.
This is what it is like to follow God.
The journey with Jesus at first can feel like the loving embrace of a grandmother to her granddaughter. Early in our walk we assume that life with Jesus will somehow be easy. We figure that our paths will be smooth, the road cleared before us, and our pursuits successful.
Then we actually journey with Jesus and are confronted with reality. Walking with Jesus can feel like following a thread through unknown territory only to be confronted with confusion when the pathway ends abruptly.
This moment in our journey is called “disorientation.” Although often unwanted, it is actually the most natural path for the believer to be on. It is a critical part of our sanctification process.
All of us have ways we see God, ourselves, and others. We have a way we “orient” ourselves to the world around us. This is how we operate and make sense of life. Without a base of orientation, we would be like astronauts in zero gravity, trying to figure out which way is up. Our basic need for order and to operate demands a level or orientation.
And for the most part, we like the way we’re oriented to the world. It is a comfortable space, even though the way we see God, ourselves, and others is never fully correct. We are familiar with this posture, so we embrace it as normal.
But God sees differently. He sees right-side up. So, in love, God takes his children on a journey to disorient them from their false views of himself, themselves, and others. This process is painful, confusing, and feels never ending. And yet, what feels roundabout is actually the fastest way back home. Like the granddaughter with the string, we are called to hold fast to God and his promises continually as he holds fast to us. In time, God reorients our lives so that we see him, ourselves, and others more truly and live lives more fully.
This is the threefold cycle of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation we see in the Joseph narrative in the Genesis scroll (Gen 37-50).
We meet Joseph when he is fully oriented to how he views the world. He is the favorite son of his father. He is privileged above his brothers. He is even given dreams that declare his future exalted status. One day, Joseph would be prince over the greatest power in the day: Egypt. So how do you go from privileged to being a prince? Most would think Joseph was on an upwards journey with his road paved for him.
Then, the disorientation begins.
Fed up with Joseph, his brothers devise a plan to kill him. After a quick intervention by Reuben (the eldest), full blown murder is downgraded to a brutal beating, a holding pit, and captivity to merchants on their way to Egypt. Any hope of an “upward and to the right” easy life died in that pit.
We next meet Joseph in Potiphar’s house, an upgrade from the pit for sure. Things seem to be picking up for Joseph. Not the privileged life he was used to, but as a slave he is promoted to run the affairs of the household and experiences a level of freedom and status. Maybe the pit was just a mild setback in his journey?
Nope. The disorientation is still underway. Joseph, a handsome man, is then tempted by Potiphar’s wife. Wishing to have sex with him, she throws herself at him day after day. Joseph resists. He passes the test. His reward? To be wrongfully accused of attempted rape and then thrown in prison.
Joseph was promised privilege and status, and now he finds himself in prison for a crime he did not commit. Years pass. Disorientation settles deeper, the thread of a past dream vanishing behind him.
Then, two of his prison mates wake up startled next to him. Nightmares? No. Visions. And there Joseph is, “the dreamer,” as his brothers used to mock him. Listening to the dreams, Joseph tells the men their fate. One would be freed, one would be killed. To the one freed, Joseph makes a simple request, “But when all goes well with you, remember me and show me kindness; mention me to Pharaoh and get me out of this prison” (Gen 40:14).
Days pass. Then weeks. Then months. Then years. Nothing. Joseph is a forgotten man. Alone and disoriented. The string vanished behind a wall of stone.
Then, Pharaoh had a dream. No. A vision.
The grand reorientation begins. Joseph’s forgetful prison mate just so happened to be cupbearer to the king. The cupbearer finally comes through on his promise and tells Pharaoh of “the dreamer” who could interpret dreams. Joseph, a forgotten prisoner, now stands before the King of Egypt, interpreting his dream.
Joseph has every option to take credit for the interpretation of the dream. Yet he doesn’t. The reader is beginning to see what God has been developing in Joseph. He is a changed man, no longer boasting in his vision, but boasting in Yahweh, who grants the grace for him to interpret the vision.
Joseph is taken from the lowest of low to the highest of high. He is exalted from prisoner to prince.
So how do you take someone from a position of privilege to prince? According to God, the fastest route is through a pit, Potiphar’s house, and prison. Why? Because God is more interested in what he is doing in you than what you will do for him.
Any privileged brat can be a prince. But God doesn’t want a position to be filled; he desires a person to be shaped and molded. Through Joseph’s journey, God was making him a certain type of person. He was dislodging false views he had about God, himself, and others so that when God fulfilled his prophetic promise to Joseph, Joseph would not just lead, but be the type of leader God desired him to be.
Throughout the rest of the story, we see just how far Joseph has come in his journey. Given the opportunity to steward the resources of a nation, he acts in wisdom. Given the opportunity to destroy his family who betrayed him, he saves his family. Given the opportunity to condemn his brothers, Joseph forgives his brothers.
As Joseph reflected on his journey, the ups and downs, the brutality of the pit, the wrongful accusations, being forgotten in a prison cell for years, he came to two conclusions: 1) He is not God, and 2) God is good.
“But Joseph said to them, ‘Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives’” (Gen 50:19-20).
These two realities were only accomplished through a lengthy, lifelong process of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation. However hard, this process made “the dreamer” into “the leader” God would use to save many.
Joseph acts as a picture of our own disorientation process. Although few reading this will go through a pit in order to be a prince, all will experience unexpected turns in our journey with Jesus. These moments are hard, painful, and confusing. We, like the young princess who followed the thread to a dead end, can be tempted to give up, grow weary, and lose heart. And yet our great hope is a God who makes pathways out of dead ends (Hos 2:15).
Joseph is merely a shadow of Christ. He was the true beloved son, brutally treated by his brothers, wrongfully accused, forgotten in a grave, only to be raised to life and exalted above all. He faced the true dead end, buried in a grave. But his story did not end there.
As the young princess sat at the end of the thread in tears, she decided to pull on the string. In a moment, the rubble began to crumble around her. When the dust cleared, she saw a dear friend. Unbeknownst to her, he had been placed deep in a prison for a crime he did not commit. Now free, they both follow the string that leads them back safely into the grandmother’s arms. It turns out, the most roundabout path was the fastest way home.
The path of the believer is not a straight shot to glory. It is full of ups and downs, pits and palaces. Yet, however strange the path may be, we hold onto Christ and his promises. When we do, we will realize he is holding onto us.
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