There is a debate within the Church about how God works. Some hold that God has planned out everything in life and foreordained it all to happen, therefore nothing can happen without God causing it to happen. Others hold that God allows humans to have free will, therefore we have a choice in what occurs in life and humans, in essence, are co-creators of reality with God based upon what we choose. Keep these ideas in mind as you look at this passage:
Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me,” and they moved closer. He said, “I’m your brother Joseph! The one you sold to Egypt. Now, don’t be upset and don’t be angry with yourselves that you sold me here. Actually, God sent me before you to save lives. We’ve already had two years of famine in the land, and there are five years left without planting or harvesting. God sent me before you to make sure you’d survive and to rescue your lives in this amazing way. You didn’t send me here; it was God who made me a father to Pharaoh, master of his entire household, and ruler of the whole land of Egypt.”
How can we understand how God works in light of this passage? This would seem to show that God orchestrated the entire situation, from the brothers’ hatred of Joseph to their selling him as a slave to Joseph’s life of hardship and ultimate ascendancy in Egypt. In fact, those (like me and the denominational tribe to which I belong) have a hard time supporting the concept of free will in light of this passage.
Of course it is always unwise to read passages of the Bible in isolation from each other and try to make huge theological principles from those singular passages. I could show how there are numerous passages in the Bible that also equally support the idea that humans have free will, and I could also make a logical case that God would not hold people eternally responsible for their choices in life if they really did not have the possibility of making real choices (if everything was already scripted out for them). And I could also point out that the entire biblical narrative, from Genesis to Revelation, is about having a real relationship with God and that cannot happen if we do not have the ability to make a real choice to have that relationship (for what kind of relationship is it when one party in the “relationship” has absolute control over what the other party thinks, feels, and acts?).
So what does one who believes that humans have free will do with a passage like this? We see that God can redeem any situation. There are evil people and evil situations in life. Many times that evil impacts people we would not necessarily say deserved it. Yet even in those situations God can bring out of them blessing and good. After all, the ultimate example of someone who did not deserve evil is Jesus, and through his crucifixion the ultimate blessing and good was delivered to humanity.
God does not cause evil, but God can redeem evil. This is Christian hope, and one of the main points of our faith.