Wednesday Writings

Chronic Illness: A Place of Fruit and Ashes, Part II

Fruit in the Ashes

Most of us know the story of Joseph, Jacob’s first son by his beloved wife, Rachel (the one who died near Ephrathah): given dreams of a great future, envied by his brothers, sold into slavery in Egypt, falsely accused of crime, forgotten in prison, and finally not just restored but elevated and celebrated as Pharaoh’s right hand over all Egypt. His God-given dreams finally come true as he saves Egypt, the surrounding lands, and his own family from famine.

But that’s not all of the story. As part of Joseph’s promotion, Pharaoh gives him an Egyptian wife, who in the seven years before the famine bears Joseph two sons. Joseph names the elder Manasseh, which means “cause to forget,” “For God has made me forget all my toil and all my father’s house” (Gen 41:51).

God’s blessing, however, goes beyond helping Joseph forget the trials he experienced. What does Joseph name his younger son?

And the name of the second he called Ephraim: “For God has caused me to be fruitful [para] in the land of my affliction.”

Genesis 41:52

The name Ephraim (eprayim in Hebrew) means “double ash-heap” or “I shall be doubly fruitful” and comes from the same Hebrew word eprat, translated Ephrath or Ephrathah. (I didn’t recognize the -im ending of the Hebrew plural until this study; literally the name Ephraim is like saying eprat eprat, a double repetition: not just one ash heap but two, not just fruitfulness but abundant fruitfulness.)

I see this meaning in two ways: one, (if we take “fruit” in its Hebrew figurative sense for children) as God’s blessing in giving Joseph not one but two sons in the land where he’d spent 13 years as a slave; and two, in the more general sense of God’s blessing in not just allowing Joseph to survive but enabling him to thrive through his trial.

In fact, in his blessing upon each one of his sons, Jacob recognizes God’s work in and through Joseph’s hardship:

“Joseph is a fruitful [eper] bough,
A fruitful bough by a well;
His branches run over the wall.”

Genesis 49:22

Side note: How was Joseph able to be a fruitful bough despite–or because of–the wall, the steep rock, the obstacle of his affliction?

I believe the answer lies in the middle line of Jacob’s blessing: Joseph was a fruitful bough “by a well.”

I can’t help but think of Psalm 1:3:

He shall be like a tree
Planted by the rivers of water,
That brings forth its fruit in its season,
Whose leaf also shall not wither;
And whatever he does shall prosper.

Joseph was the godly man of this psalm, drawing from the presence of God beside him that allowed him to bear fruit in the desert land of his affliction.

What does this mean for us? First, I love the ultimate example of fruit in the ashes Scripture gives us: from the place of Rachel’s death (ashes of mourning), Bethlehem Ephrathah, came the life of the Messiah (fruit) who, through the ashes of His own death on the cross yielded the fruit of eternal life for all who would become God’s children (John 1:12).

Second, from this example as well as Joseph’s, and Job’s, and other heroes throughout Scripture and history, may we be encouraged by the truth that God is a God who gives fruit even in the ashes of affliction. God can bring life out of death.

For us, chronic illness can seem to bring only one death after another: the death of abilities, the death of dreams, the death of hopes, the death of identities–ongoing, repeated deaths that we grieve again and again. We sit in the ashes of once-upon-a-time and lift in silky handfuls all that remains of “I used to . . .”

But dear sister, remember:

1. These ashes are fertilizing your growth, giving special aid to your spiritual development (known as sanctification) that you would never have otherwise.

2. God is cultivating life. He will use and is using these ashes to bring about fruit, growth, and life–not just life but abundant life (John 10:10), whether that’s the restoration of physical life in our bodies or the resurrection of life in our hopes and dreams or new life given to opportunities we never would have imagined.

3. Cling to Christ. We can do nothing–let alone yield fruit (material or spiritual)–apart from Jesus (John 15:1-5). He is the Vine in which we abide, the well from which we draw, the river beside which we’re planted. Only if we cling to Him can we see Him bring any fruit out of our lives.

God is at work in our ash-heaps, using even death itself to bring forth fruit and new life in the miraculous redemption only He can accomplish. So no matter what ashes surround you, look for the life God is protecting, creating, and cultivating.

Because in chronic illness–in any valley for anyone who knows God–the place of ashes is also the place of fruit.

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