A Painful Decision
When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. (Matthew 1:18-19)
Have you ever wondered why God sent the angel to inform Mary that she would coneive the Messiah by the Holy Spirit, yet forced Joseph to agonize over what to do about Mary's pregnancy before sending the angel to him? Imagine what those throbbing, awkward hours must have been like for him.
Joseph felt a twinge of anxiety. He sensed something unusual in Mary’s request that he come.
When he arrived she was standing under the tree near her father’s house where, as a betrothed couple, they were given some supervised privacy. Mary wasn’t herself. She was staring at the ground. She seemed burdened.
“Mary, is something wrong?”
She looked up at him intensely. “Joseph…“ She paused. “I’m pregnant.”
A blast of shock and disbelief hit him, blowing away all his coherent thoughts for a moment. His legs quavered. He grabbed at the tree to steady himself. It felt solid, rooted.
He stared at her. He was numb. No words came. Everything seemed surreal.
Mary was still looking at him with her intense eyes. He saw no shame in them. No defensiveness, no defiance. Not even tears. They looked…innocent. And they were searching his eyes for an answer.
Mary broke the charged silence. “What I need to tell you next I don’t even know how to say.”
Joseph leaned harder into the tree, bracing himself. He looked down to Mary’s feet. Her feet. They looked just the same as they did when he believed she was pure.
That was what made everything so strange. Mary looked as chaste as she ever did. If she had been the flirtatious type or had some discernible character weakness, this news might have been comprehendible. But Mary was literally the very last person Joseph would have suspected of unfaithfulness. He could not imagine her with another lover. He didn’t want to know who it was.
“I know this will be very difficult to believe. But I need you to listen to me.” Still looking at Mary’s feet, Joseph’s nod was barely detectable.
“I have not been unfaithful to you.”
Joseph lifted his eyes to hers. Rape? That might explain her innocence. But why wouldn’t she tell me —
“God has caused me to become pregnant.”
This statement flew around his mind, looking for a place to land. It found none.
“Joseph, I know how it sounds. But I’m telling you the truth.” Then Mary described an angelic visit and the message she had received. She was to bear a son, conceived by the Holy Spirit, who would be called the Son of the Most High who would sit on David’s throne forever. God was the baby’s father. Mary was pregnant with the Messiah.
She sounded as sane as ever. Nothing about her was different. Except that she was claiming to be pregnant with God’s child. He felt like his brain was exploding. Was she adding blasphemy to adultery? He could not conceive of her being capable of either.
“I…I don’t even know what to say to you, Mary. I can’t even think straight. I need to be alone.”
Joseph spent the late afternoon walking up on the brow of the hill that overlooked Nazareth. Things were clear up there. From this height he could see the Sea of Galilee to the east, and to the west he could just see the blue Mediterranean on the horizon.
But he could not see how Mary’s story could be true. There was nothing like it in the Torah or the Prophets that he could remember. “God, show me what to do!” He must have prayed this a hundred times.
The sun was setting as Joseph walked back toward the nearly finished house that was to be their home. Just that morning, working on the roof, had been dreaming of the happy voices of children — his and Mary’s children — that someday would fill this house. That dream was now dead. His decision was made. Mary’s claims were too incredible, maybe even delusional. He needed to end the betrothal, but he resolved to do it as quietly as possible to shield Mary from avoidable shame. He still loved her.
That night he fell asleep, exhausted from grief. And then the angel came to him and and resurrected his dream with a wildness and wonder that was beyond comprehension.
God chose Joseph for his role just as he chose Mary for hers. But he dealt with them differently. He could have told them both in advance about Jesus, but he didn't. He informed Mary but not Joseph. Then God allowed what must have been a horribly awkward conversation to happen.
At that point, Joseph faced a very painful decision. And God did not rescue him from it immediately. He allowed Joseph to struggle in grief and bewilderment for a time. Being a just man (Matthew 1:19) Joseph assessed Mary's claims in the integrity of his heart, and, I think we can assume, with a deep trust in God. He made the best decision that he could, one he believed was both just and merciful.
But it turned out to be the wrong one, because God was doing far more abundantly than Joseph could ask or think (Ephesians 3:20). And that's when God, full of mercy, intervened. He gently corrected Joseph and gave him the guidance he needed.
God will not spare us from all awkward and painful decisions. Neither does he spare us from all wrong decisions resulting from our fallen finiteness, even if they are made in the integrity of our hearts. God has his purposes in all of these. But what we can trust him to do is faithfully give us the correction and guidance we need at the time he deems right.
The Joseph Trilogy (Part 2): A Stable of Desperation
The Joseph Trilogy (Part 3): (Un)Planned Detours