And though she spoke to Joseph day after day, he refused to go to bed with her or even be with her (Genesis 39:7).
Joseph made two decisions with regard to Potiphar’s wife. Both were born of his resolve to do what was right. Both decisions were costly. Both point to his integrity.
And both imply something of his weakness too.
Her overtures were relentless. Perhaps they started as flirtations and hints, but eventually she grew bold, forward. “Come to bed with me” (Genesis 39:7). Joseph refused. To yield to her would violate the trust placed in him by his master. Most importantly it would be a sin against God.
To make ethical decisions based on whether someone else is hurt is a good start, but that’s all it is – a start. Ultimately, all our actions and ethical choices have to do with God above anyone and anything else. Joseph knew this.
So he made a decision. Not only would he not accommodate her advances, he would not even be in the same room with her. Noble, we might say. Growing weary of Joseph’s righteous resolve, Potiphar’s wife caught him alone in the house and seized his cloak, pulling his body closer to her own.
Decision time again. No more time for talk, no more explanations, no more moral reasoning. He had tried that and it clearly wasn’t effective. This time Joseph ran. His decision to run would be his undoing. He left his cloak in her hand – exhibit ‘a’ in the charge she leveled against him. Those decisions were costly. Joseph did the right thing and went to prison for it.
We are right to admire this. But perhaps we should be careful not to let our admiration for Joseph eclipse what was surely a genuine inner struggle. Why did Joseph resolve not to be around this woman? Why did he react so strongly when she laid hold of him? Was it because of his exemplary moral fortitude? Maybe. But maybe not.
Maybe Joseph stayed at a distance and ran because he knew that part of him wanted to do what she was asking. He knew how vulnerable he was to the threat she posed. He wanted to take what she was making so easily available to him. We don’t want to read too much into the story, but Joseph’s actions speak to something we know to be true in our experience. What tempts and lures us most powerfully must be resisted most intentionally.
People of integrity are people who know how weak and vulnerable they are, and they know how those weaknesses show up in their lives. Whether it be a weakness for food or sex or shopping, people who manage to do the right thing are often people who honestly acknowledge how much they’d love to do the wrong thing: eat too much, browse the porn, buy more stuff.
Integrity isn’t grounded in our moral perfections. It’s grounded in our imperfections. Integrity doesn’t belong to the confidently holy; it belongs to the humble and weak. Paul had it right. “When I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10).
And at the end of the day integrity isn’t about the thoughts that ran through our mind or the feelings we felt stirring somewhere deep within. It’s about what we did – the decisions made an acted upon, perhaps relying on a strength not our own.
What is your weakness? What will you do with it today?
Gracious God, help me to do what’s right, because apart from your help I probably won’t do it. Grant me the grace to make decisions that honor you, confessing the temptations that nag and harass me. You alone are my strength and I will live this day in humble reliance on you, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.