The Death of Dreams

Joseph sat in his grave, remembering his former dreams.

Once upon a time he had dreamed of greatness, of being honored and approved of by his family. It hadn’t seemed such an unreasonable dream at the time. After all, he had been his father’s favorite, the firstborn son of his beloved Rachel. With the physique of a superhero and the mind of a sage, Joseph had had every reason to dream of a rosy future.

LORD, you have assigned me my portion and my cup; you have made my lot secure. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance. I will praise the LORD, who counsels me; even at night my heart instructs me.
Psalm 16:5-7

He had been certain that God favored him too. Why else would He send him such hope-inspiring dreams? Sheaves of grain bowing down before him. The sun, moon, and stars paying homage to him. The message had seemed so clear then. God had great things in store for his life, position and prestige beyond his wildest dreams. Even his father felt threatened by the obvious meaning of his dreams. Joseph was surely destined for a life of greatness.

But nothing was the way it had seemed.

I have set the LORD always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken. Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure, because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay.
Psalm 16:8-10

Rough hands. Brutal blows. The spiteful, sneering faces of those he had trusted. The cold, hard betrayal of those nearest to him. His knees hit the bottom of a deep dark pit. His whole life flashed before his eyes. Was this the end? Surely they just meant this as a cruel joke. Surely they would not abandon him in this grave or allow his flesh to rot in this hole.

A rope from above. The light of day. Resurrection of hope, only to be dashed again. Twenty pieces of silver exchanged for his life. Was this all that he was worth to them? Chains of slavery fastened to his soul. Was this what would forever define him?

When his master saw that the LORD was with him and that the LORD gave him success in everything he did, Joseph found favor in his eyes and became his attendant. Potiphar put him in charge of his household, and he entrusted to his care everything he owned.
Genesis 39:3-4

A fresh start in Egypt. The favored attendant of a prestigious master. This wasn’t exactly the kind of greatness that he had originally imagined, but Joseph threw himself into making the best of it. Competent and hardworking, trustworthy and unbelievably successful, he quickly rose to the top of the service chain, his master honoring him far above the normal status of a slave. Past dreams forgotten, present chains overlooked, Joseph accepted his new identity. He might not be the favorite son of his father any more, but at least he was secure in his new position as favorite servant of his master.

But even that was not the way it had seemed.

Trauma leaves us in the dark, devoid of all the certainties on which we based our past, bereft of all the dreams towards which we oriented our future.

Harsh accusations. Sickeningly familiar chains. Triumphantly betrayed by his jealous mistress. Angrily turned on by his beloved master. Was this the full extent of their relationship? After years of loyal service, wasn’t he at least worth a fair trial? Joseph found his body once again thrown into a deep dark pit, his soul once again abandoned to the grave.

But when all goes well with you, remember me and show me kindness; mention me to Pharaoh and get me out of this prison. For I was forcibly carried off from the land of the Hebrews, and even here I have done nothing to deserve being put in a dungeon.”
The chief cupbearer, however, did not remember Joseph; he forgot him.
Genesis 40:14-15, 23

Left with nothing but memories of the past, his former dreams came back to taunt him. He vaguely remembered a time when he had assumed that his life would be one of security and comfort, when he had actually aspired to honor and greatness. How could he have been so naïve as to believe that everything turned out good in the end for the righteous? Any last shreds of those ideals were cruelly crushed as he was once again used and forgotten. The clang of the prison door behind Pharaoh’s cupbearer sounded the death-knell on Joseph’s last dream.

The death of our dreams gives rise to God’s.

A black curtain of hopelessness shrouded his soul. The dark wall of an empty, meaningless future barred his way, mocking any attempts to imagine his way around it.

So Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I hereby put you in charge of the whole land of Egypt.” Then Pharaoh took his signet ring from his finger and put it on Joseph’s finger. He dressed him in robes of fine linen and put a gold chain around his neck.
Genesis 41:41-42

Joseph’s dreams had died. But God’s dreams for him were finally ready to be resurrected. Little could he know the dream God would send to Pharaoh, the position of fame and power that he would be appointed to, or the ways in which God would fulfill each one of his former dreams beyond his wildest imagination. His father’s multicolored robe replaced by Pharaoh’s finest linen. His dream of bowing sheaths fulfilled by his brothers’ kneeling plea for grain. His vision of being adoringly surrounded by a family of celestial beings finally realized with the incredible relocation of his whole family to Egypt.

Trauma leaves us in the dark, devoid of all the certainties on which we based our past, bereft of all the dreams towards which we oriented our future. But the death of our dreams gives rise to God’s. The removal of our plans makes room for His. As bewilderingly futureless as the post-traumatic prison may seem, it is a gateway to a greater glory on the other side. The grave will give way to new life. Our dead dreams will be resurrected into newborn realities.

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11 thoughts on “The Death of Dreams”

  1. Only someone who has experienced treasured dreams being apparently dashed could write that. Thank you for making scripture real—so often it is preached by people who have no idea how to do so.

      1. I am curious; I’ve been working with the idea that “there is no such thing as free knowledge”. While this seems possibly at odds with “free grace”, it seems consonant with (a) your “became real for me at a high price”; (b) the idea of struggling with God as exemplified by Abraham, Moses, Jacob, Job, etc. Have you thoughts on this? I encounter a lot of Christians who don’t seem to accept that knowledge and things worthwhile have cost; I don’t yet have a good response for them. Perhaps you’ve worked one out?

      2. While I don’t have a well-developed response to that, I do agree that you are on to something. Solomon is the only individual narrative in Scripture that I can think of that doesn’t involve struggle in the process of gaining God and a greater dose of His glory, and yet the contrast between his heart and and his father David’s heart is so stark that it makes me pity Solomon. Both the individual narratives and the metanarrative of Scripture point to hardship (at times described as discipline) as the means by which God is training His sons and preparing them to become co-heirs with His Son (who also had to go through the process of suffering to become “perfect” – whatever that means considering He was already God). So yes, cost is always involved in redemption, in growth, in achieving a greater glory (Rom 8).

      3. I want to find a way to communicate that cost to college students. Consider: college students will spend 40+ hrs/week on school work, but perhaps not more than church + a 1–2hr Bible study on God. I want to say that “you get what you pay for”, but in a way that’s actually true. There does seem to be a sense in which gaining wisdom could be cheaper, if we were only more humble. This seems to mess with the idea that “you get what you pay for”. It makes that idea not quite true. I don’t want to say that pain is necessary.

        I suppose I could say this. There is a lot of evil in the world, committed daily but also unresolved evil from eons past. One could simply look at Native American reservations in the US, and consider how Native American blood is still crying out from the ground, along with Abel’s. This built-up ‘injustice’ active fights its own quelling. Maybe it’s as simple as saying ‘injustice’ = ‘momentum’, and force is required to cancel out momentum. But it seems that injustice is not just static, but that it has a kind of ‘life’ of its own, whereby it seeks to add to itself. We see that show up all the time in fiction, whereby someone becomes evil in fighting evil.

        And so, there is a necessary component of fighting evil that is required in coming to know God. Jesus did not “pay it all” in the sense that there is nothing more to be paid—else Col 1:24, Rom 8:16–17, and 2 Cor 4:7–12 would make no sense. You don’t get to know a person better and better unless you participate in his/her dreams, hopes, fears, etc. And so, one cannot know God without e.g. loving mankind, after the pattern set by Jesus. There is no shortcut in agápē: fighting evil necessarily involves pain and suffering. That is simply how the universe is constructed.

        Thoughts? The above seems to be a pretty radical idea compared to contemporary American Christianity; it might be quite inline with earlier forms of Christianity which weren’t so suffering-averse.

  2. Is this “cost” of knowing God more completely and of yielding our dreams to His reality what many call “dying to self?” And who initiates and completes this payment?

    Phillipians 2:12-13:
    “So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling;
    for it is God who is at work in you,
    both to will and to work for His good pleasure.”
    Paul seems to indicate that our salvation in Christ, which is already completely ours, is still to be “worked out” in our day to days. And the “working out” is to be done in fear and trembling, according to Paul.
    But blessedly even this “working out ” is assured to us, as “it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work.”

    Not only is it God who is “working out” His will, or reality for us; it is God who in “at work in us” to transform our hearts and minds to change our self-filled dreams into the reality of His perfect good pleasure for us. And in Christ Jesus, His good pleasure for us, is far beyond what we can ask or imagine… the idea of it, the desire of it, the thought of it, the working of it, the fulfillment of it, and the reality of it. Christ is all in all. ♡

    1. Is this “cost” of knowing God more completely and of yielding our dreams to His reality what many call “dying to self?” And who initiates and completes this payment?

      I think part of the cost is dying to false conceptions of how reality ought to be, but I’m with Heather: our dreams die and then are raised back to life, with fewer false conceptions. It’s not like we just stop being us and receive a 100% new personality; the pearl in Mt 13:45–46 is us, pre-salvation! Having the dross refined out of us is very different from having all the metal scooped out and replaced with new metal. The former is biblical; the latter is not.

      As to your second question, I think there are multiple answers. Jesus clearly died for our sins. But this does not negate the truth of verses like Col 1:24, Rom 8:16–17, and 2 Cor 4:7–12. I consider it a heresy that Christians aren’t called to suffer, and yet that heresy is alive and well, at least in the United States.

    2. I couldn’t agree more, Shirley. In a sense, I think the only thing we have to offer God is the willingness to submit ourselves to His transforming work. That dying to self, as you call it, is an ongoing posture that invites Him to simultaneously empty us of our preconceived notions of what goodness looks like and refill us with something even better–more of Himself. On a personal note, the times in my life when I have experienced the greatest deaths of the God-given dreams that I held dearest have also been the times when my intimacy with and delight in Him have grown by leaps and bounds.

      I suppose that is the cost that you refer to, Luke. Your statement “You don’t get to know a person better and better unless you participate in his/her dreams, hopes, fears, etc” sums up the point of discipleship. We are being offered the opportunity to walk a mile in Jesus’ shoes, not just so that we can become better children of God but also so that we can become Jesus’ companion, that helper suitable that was not found in the original creation. He designed the universe in a way that requires our participation in His sufferings so that we can also share in his glory.

      And yes, Heather, I think these dreams that we hold so dearly are often given by Him in the first place. Holding on to them too tightly turns them into idols; relinquishing them on the altar of worship turns them into sacrifice. But He has this beautiful way of taking the seeds of our original dreams through a death and resurrection process that results in something the same, but infinitely better.

  3. Personally, God has given me back the dreams when I let go of my script. He delights in giving good gifts. Perhaps He will take them back again. But they are lent to us for a while in the first place.

  4. Dear Tiffany, Karen here, this is amazing, I really needed to read this tonight! Thank you!! It spoke to my heart so much!

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