Becoming Lead Servants: Facing Futility

By Uli Chi

February 24, 2018

They bruised his feet with shackles,
his neck was put in irons…

Psalm 105:18


Some seasons of leadership are satisfying. Perhaps these seasons come after completing an important project, releasing a new product or service that delights our customers, or finishing a great team building event. We know it when we experience it. At times like these, we feel “blessed with work.”

Of course, other seasons are exactly the opposite. We wonder why the project we work on even matters, whether our new product or service will ever see the light of day, or whether we can ever get our team on the same page! I had lunch the other day with a young business colleague. He has a good job for which he expressed gratitude. Nevertheless, he struggles with a lack of intrinsic meaning and purpose in his work. He believes that work should be an expression of God’s calling in his life. Still, he couldn’t reconcile that conviction with his own lack of personal connection to his work. If God has called him to his work, shouldn’t he find meaning and purpose in that work? Why does he have a sense of futility about the work itself?

Joseph in Prison by Louis de Boullogne, 1733 – Photo by P. Poschadel (2014), CC BY-SA 3.0.

The story of Joseph, as recounted in Psalm 105, reminds us that the answer to that question is complicated. Joseph’s work begins by being betrayed by his brothers and being sold into slavery in Egypt. Once there, Joseph distinguishes himself as a servant of Pharaoh’s captain of the guard, Potiphar, who gives him broad responsibility for Potiphar’s household. But once again, he is betrayed, this time by Potiphar’s wife. Having failed to seduce Joseph “day after day” (Genesis 39:10), she accuses him of trying to seduce her. In a fury, Potiphar has Joseph locked up.

Joseph had worked for Potiphar with distinction and devotion. Everything in Potiphar’s household had flourished under Joseph’s management. And, in response to the illicit advances of Potiphar’s wife, Joseph demonstrated impeccable personal integrity and loyalty to Potiphar and to God. He culminated his lengthy argument rejecting her seduction by saying, “How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?” (39:9b) It’s a remarkable response from a young man who was likely in his early twenties at the time.

Despite his competence and character, as today’s text tells us, Joseph winds up in a dungeon in Egypt where “they bruised his feet with shackles, [and] his neck was put in irons.” Interestingly, the Hebrew word used for “dungeon” (40:15) is the same one used for the “cistern” in which Joseph’s brothers had put him before he was sold into slavery (37:24). Once more, Joseph winds up experiencing the antithesis of his dreams. For the second time, Joseph faced the possibility that his dreams (and now his work) would be futile.

What am I doing here? Why does doing good lead to nothing but a dungeon? What’s the point of doing work faithfully for God and for others, when all of it seems to result in futility? It’s easy to imagine Joseph wrestling with these questions as the years of imprisonment stretched on.

But, in the darkness of the dungeon, something happens to Joseph that is the work of God the Spirit. The Anglican Prayer Book helpfully translates the latter part of today’s verse, “the iron entered into his soul.” That’s a process that the Apostle Paul would later describe this way, “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” (Romans 5:3-4 NRSV). Of course, not everyone who suffers responds in faith in this way. It is possible to become bitter instead. No doubt, Joseph had plenty of reasons, as well as time, to indulge in such a response. It would have been easy for a “bitter root” (Hebrews 12:15) to have grown to full flower in Joseph. But it didn’t.

As a friend of mine has wisely said, sometimes we are called to do the will of God, and sometimes we are called to suffer it. Learning to suffer the futility of our dreams and our work, and to endure in faith, is not a popular lesson of leadership. Joseph reminds us that it is a necessary one.

Something to Think About:

Do any aspects of your work feel futile or without purpose? How might God be at work developing endurance, character, and hope in you through those aspects of your work?

Something to Do:

Read and reflect on Joseph’s story in Genesis 37, 39–40. Have a conversation about your insights or questions with someone you trust.


Lord Jesus Christ, we struggle at times with the meaning and purpose of our work. Sometimes, the work seems routine and repetitive, and the results seem to matter little or only to a very few.

We long to see the larger picture, to see how what we do fits into your eternal purposes. Help us to trust in you even when we do not see that larger picture. In those times, help us to endure with patience the work you’ve given us to do.

We ask in your name, Amen.


Explore more at the Theology of Work Project online commentaryThe Schemes of Potiphar’s Wife and Joseph’s Imprisonment (Genesis 39:1-20)

Uli Chi

Board Member, Senior Fellow, Affiliate Professor

Dr. Uli Chi’s career is a testament to his unique approach to leadership. He has navigated the realms of for-profit businesses, nonprofit organizations, the theological academy, and the local church, gleaning a wealth of wisdom from each. As an award-winning technological entrepreneur, h...

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