External Influence and Internal Interpretation

How did Joseph not exact his revenge? Here he sat as the second in command over all of Egypt and the brothers who had, years prior, sold him into slavery grovelled before him. The hellish nightmare they had put him through had surely earned them his wrath, and yet that’s now how the man responds. Instead he reassures them of his kindness and compassion, and grants protection (Gen. 50:15-21). He views these wicked events, sins committed against him, through a lens that affords him the opportunity to extend grace. How we interpret the external influences on our lives has the power to determine our responses to those same events. Interpretation is key to responding godly in the midst of difficult circumstances.

For most of us, most of the time, our emotions have reasons. We respond to our circumstances by means of applying significance, meaning, and interpretation to them which lead to a corresponding emotional output. So, for example, I don’t simply become bitter, I interpret offenses committed against me – determining intent and ascribing significant meaning – and then respond to that interpretation. The bible gives us several examples of both positive and negative interpretive keys, which determined sinful or godly responses to life circumstances. We can explore two examples to highlight the power of interpretation.

Take, as one example, the story of Naomi within the opening chapters of the book of Ruth. Naomi had experienced intense sorrow and suffering. She and her family were facing famine and then, in the midst of that crisis, both her husband and her two sons died. She did nothing to bring about this sorrow in her life, it was not her fault, and yet she responds to it poorly. She reflects on these sorrows and interprets them as the cruel and heartless actions of God. She shares her interpretation saying:

She said to them, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. (Ruth 1:20)

She identifies herself with “bitterness” (that’s what mara means) because she has interpreted God’s activity as cruel. She is so convinced by this interpretation that even when her daughter-in-law plead to stay with her she urges Ruth to return to her land, her families, and her foreign and false gods (Ruth 1:15). The Lord has “gone out against” her (v. 13) and so she does not invite her daughters to follow this God. Her interpretation has so colored her experiences of suffering that she cannot see the loving hand of the covenant keeping God of Israel.

There is no doubt, of course, that she experienced unspeakable pain from her loss. There is real sorrow here and she should feel real grief. No Scriptural teaching on suffering should ever paint over the pain of grief. Even Joseph, in his interpretation of the sins against him, acknowledges that evil was committed and intended (Gen. 50:20). His interpretation and godly response doesn’t gloss over that fact. But, in contrast to Naomi, he foresees that God can be up to good even in the pain. In fact that is the real truth of Naomi’s situation. For out of this painful story comes another son, Obed – the grandfather of King David, the predecessor of Jesus himself. The women of the city rejoice at this birth, saying:

Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without a redeemer, and may his name be renowned in Israel! 15 He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age, for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has given birth to him.” (Ruth 4:14-15)

Out of her painful story comes a redeemer! God is up to good even in her pain. This doesn’t white wash the pain; rather it unites it to hope. But Naomi’s initial interpretation could not see that.

In contrast to Naomi we may look at the life of Paul, one who suffered much at the hands of his opponents. Paul describes just a glimpse of his life in Philippians 4. We read:

10 I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. 11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

Paul had quite a range of experiences. Some of these were pleasant (abundance and plenty), some were not (brought low, hunger, and need). Paul had suffered much on his missionary journeys. He had been stoned, left for dead, chased out of town, bitten by snakes, shipwrecked, and eventually imprisoned. Yet, he says here that he has “learned in whatever situation…to be content.” Contentment was his response to the varied situations. How can that be? How can Paul find contentment in hunger and need? He can do so because he interprets all these circumstances through a key lens, found in verse 13: I can do all things through Him who strengthens me. Paul believed that God would give him grace for the trial, which God had elsewhere promised (2 Cor. 12:9). He had every reason to hope, even in the face of difficulty.

Interpretation makes all the difference in how we respond. We can respond to suffering, innocent suffering even, in sinful ways if we are not careful. We can seek revenge, grow bitterness, lash out, isolate, or turn from God when we experience suffering. If we strive to interpret our experiences through the lens of Scripture, however, we can develop a more godly response. Consider you own life. How are the external influences in your life tempting you to respond? How are you interpreting those events, and how does that interpretation lead naturally to sinful responses? How might you interpret your experiences differently? Consider the following tool as a means of self-evaluation:

My Response Progression

On the left hand side you will see three circles with the corresponding content inside. The circles progress from circumstance, to interpretation, to response. On the right hand side you will see blank circles that you can fill in with your situations, interpretations, and responses. I urge counselees to do both a negative and positive. What are the false interpretations that are tempting me towards sinful responses; and what is a godly interpretation that will encourage a righteous response to my situation.

Our circumstances do influence us, but they don’t determine our outcomes. How we respond is tied very closely to how we interpret those circumstances. What is your interpretation?

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