Chapter OneThe Overruling
Providence of God
"And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God,
to them who are the called according to his purpose."
READING: Romans 8:26-30
This sentence, interpreted in its context, can bring unlimited
comfort and cheer to the Christian in time of testing. With
Paul it was a matter of profound conviction: "And we know that
all things work together for good." No room for question here. He
had unwavering confidence in the overruling providence of his God.
He believed that "God makes everything turn out for the best"
(Scholefield). For him this conviction rendered complaining unthinkable
since every event of life was either planned or permitted by God.
It made possible of achievement his counsel of perfection, "In everything
give thanks." It turned sighing into singing. It was a practical
embracing of this truth which enabled him and his companion to
sing at midnight even when plans seemed to miscarry and they were
immured in a dungeon with bleeding backs. To him it mattered little
whether physical conditions were propitious so long as he knew he
loved God and was called according to His purpose. Everything,
whether seemingly adverse or advantageous, would certainly turn out
for the best. The important question is, Do we share Paul's joyous
Paul couches his statement in such categorical terms that it is impossible
to remain neutral in the face of its astounding claim. If it
were somewhat qualified or expressed in less dogmatic fashion it
would be easier to accept. When faced with devastating sorrows or
reverses it sounds rather glib and divorced from the grim reality of
experience to say that it is all working together for good. But is it really
so? Must this assertion be viewed with secret skepticism, or can it be
embraced with joyous realism? Interpreted in its context, with full
value given to each word, there is no verse in the whole of Scripture
which will give such poise and serenity in the midst of tragedy, trial,
The key to the interpretation of the central statement, "All things
work together for good," is that it must be neither isolated from its
context nor divorced from its two conditional clauses-"to them that
love God" and "to them that are called according to his purpose."
These two clauses determine and limit its application. The simple fact
is that all things do not without qualification work together for good
for everybody. Nor does this verse claim that they do. Two things are
presupposed. First there must be correct relationship to God. The beneficiary
under the promise is a member of God's family, enjoying and
manifesting the family affection. Such a person is persuaded that He
who did not spare His own Son would never permit or ordain anything
which was not for his ultimate good. Love trusts even when it
cannot discern. Then there is partnership. He is one of "the called"
according to God's eternal purpose, and his plans have given way to
God's plan. To him it is inconceivable that God's perfect design could
be thwarted by anything really adverse to him. God is intermingling
all things for his good. With his God, "accidents are not accidental
and adversity is not adverse." The conclusion is that God's purpose
unfolds to those whom He has called and who love Him in return.
The promise has nothing for the man in rebellion against God and
out of sympathy with His purposes. It is to the cold heart that this
verse becomes a stumbling block. It glows with comfort when the
heart is warm with love to God. But to be entitled to the comfort of
the verse we must come within the category laid down by Paul.
The question inevitably arises, Can tragedy be good? Is ill health
good? Is bereavement good? Is frustration good? Why does God permit
these to strike us? In Paul's day there were four characteristic reactions
to adversity. The attitude of the Epicurean was, "Let us eat and
drink, for tomorrow we die." The Cynic defied fate to do its worst. The
Stoic set his teeth and steeled himself to accept the divine will.
Epictetus wrote: "Have courage to look up to God and say, 'Deal with
me as Thou wilt from now on. I am as one with Thee; I am Thine; I
flinch from nothing so long as Thou dost think that it is good. Lead
me where Thou wilt; put on me what raiment Thou wilt. Wouldst
Thou have me hold office or eschew it, stay or flee, be rich or poor?
For this I will defend Thee before all men.'"
But in the text Paul epitomized the Christian attitude, not defiance
or indifference or even resigned acceptance. The Christian joyously
embraces adversity or sorrow, knowing that all things whether propitious
or adverse are working together for his highest good.
Four truths full of comfort and encouragement emerge from this
God's Plan Is Beneficent
"All things work together for good."
The crux of the problem involved in the practical application of this
verse lies in our interpretation of the two words "for good." The
"good" promised by God in His long-sighted love may not always
seem good and acceptable to us. Indeed His providences sometimes
appear disastrous when viewed from a materialistic, temporal viewpoint.
The good promised by God is spiritual rather than temporal,
and some time may elapse before we discern its true beneficence.
It took years before the strange providences in the life of lob had
their vindication. His afflictions had their rise in the malicious mind
of Satan, but Job did not attribute them to blind chance or even to
Satanic agency. He expressed his philosophy in the noble words, "The
Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the
Lord." When taunted by his wife he maintained his confidence in
God. "What! Shall we receive good at the hand of the Lord, and shall
we not receive evil?" His stand of faith was abundantly vindicated by
subsequent events. He emerged from his trials enriched and not
impoverished. Through Job's cooperation, God took the evil acts of
Satan and made them work out for good without in any way condoning
"We tend to interpret good in terms of animal comfort," writes
If we are exempt from disease, if our bodies are never stabbed
by pain, if we always have money in our pockets or reserve in
the bank, if we live in modern homes and enjoy the latest luxuries,
if we can dress well and take long vacations at the
seashore . that we consider good. Unfortunately we find
ourselves victimized by a materialistic civilization, and despite
our Christian faith we subtly equate comfort and goodness. In
the same way we tend to equate success with goodness Or
yet again we tend to equate pleasure with goodness And
yet such equations are a million miles removed from Paul's
basic teaching. And because all of these are false equations, we
have trouble with Romans 8:28. Our failure to grasp Paul's
conception of the good, changes what ought to be a soft pillow
for our hearts into a hard problem for our heads.
Whate'er my God ordains is right;
He taketh thought for me.
The cup that my Physician gives
No poisoned draught can be,
But medicine due,
For God is true.
And on that changeless truth I build
And all my heart with hope is filled.
Few tragedies have highlighted this truth more than the fire at Serampore,
India, on March 12, 1812. Within a few moments the sacrificial
translation work of years of William Carey and his colleagues
went up in smoke. The loss in paper for Bibles was immense. The
newly cast Tamil type and Chinese metal type were a total loss.
Portions of manuscripts, grammars, and dictionaries laboriously compiled
perished. William Carey wrote, "Nothing was saved but the
presses. This is a heavy blow, as it will stop our printing the Scriptures
for a long time. Twelve months' hard labor will not reinstate us; not
to mention the loss of property, mss, etc., which we shall scarcely ever
The loss of manuscripts referred to included portions of nearly all
his Indian Scripture versions, all his Kanarese New Testament, two
large Old Testament books in Sanskrit, many pages of his Bengali dictionary,
all of his Telugu Grammar and much of his Punjabi, and
every vestige of his well-advanced Dictionary of Sanskrit, the magnum
opus of his linguistic life.
But there follows his affirmation of faith in words akin to those of
our text. "God will no doubt bring good out of this evil and make it
promote our interests." Before the ashes were cold, Carey's colleague,
Marshman, wrote that the calamity was "another leaf in the ways of
Providence, calling for the exercise of faith in Him whose Word, firm as
the pillars of heaven, has decreed that all things shall work together
for good to them that love God. Be strong therefore in the Lord. He
will never forsake the work of His own hands."
In the midst of this desolating reverse, God's servants' grasp of this
truth kept their hearts at peace. "It stilled me into tranquil submission,
enabling me to look up and welcome God's will," said
Marshman. Carey told how he had been hushed by the verse, "Be still,
and know that I am God." Ward, the third of the famous trio, was
found while the fires were still smoldering, not just submissive, but
But how could this possibly be working together for good? It did
not take long for the strategy of God to appear. "The catastrophe unstopped
the ears of British Christendom. In the blaze of the fire they
saw the grandeur of the enterprise; the facts were flashed out. And
thus the destruction proved a beacon, and multiplied the Mission's
zealous friends." So loud a fame it brought them as to reverse the
nature of their risks. "The fire has given your undertaking a celebrity
which nothing else could," wrote Fuller in a faithful warning. "The
public is now giving us their praises. Eight hundred guineas have been
offered for Dr. Carey's likeness! If we inhale this incense, will not God
withhold His blessing, and then where are we?"
Then what is the nature of the good which Paul had in view? The
answer is found in the context: "For whom he did foreknow he also
did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son" (Romans
8:29). Paul's conception was that anything which made him more like
Christ was good, altogether irrespective of its reaction on his comfort
or health or success or pleasure. Christlikeness does not always thrive
in the midst of material comforts. Many of the most Christlike
Christians have been plagued with ill health. Success in business has
in many lives been the death knell of holiness. Seeking after pleasure
often defeats its own ends.
God's Plan Is Active
"All things work together for good."
The heart that loves God discerns Him busily at work in even the
most heartbreaking and unwelcome happenings of life. All things are
turning out for the best because God is at work in them, transmuting
bane into blessing and tragedy into triumph. His operation is not
always clearly discernible. Indeed it not infrequently seems that He is
doing nothing. Carlyle, meditating on the enigmas of life, in the
anguish of his heart said, "The worst of God is that He does nothing."
But God is often most active when all seems most still. The working of
God in nature is unseen but nonetheless effective. Under His invisible
control the stars maintain their predestined courses and the restless ocean
keeps within its appointed limits. We should never, in impatience at
the seeming inactivity of God, take things into our own hands and try
to be our own Providence. The daily happenings, whether tragic or
joyous, are the raw material from which God is weaving the design of
life. "This dance of plastic circumstance, machinery just meant to give
the soul its bent." Introduce God into the events of life, and order
emerges from chaos. "He is too kind to do anything cruel, too wise ever
to make a mistake." No conceivable circumstances could better prosper
God's plan or further our highest good.
God's Plan Is Inclusive
"All things work together for good."
"All things" means exactly what it says. Everything in every sphere is
under the beneficent control of God. It is the comprehensiveness of
this statement which is so breathtaking. Bereavement, illness, disappointment,
blighted hopes, nervous disorders, children who are giving
concern, lack of fruit in service despite earnest endeavor to fulfill
conditions of fruitbearing-surely these are not working together for
good. Paul quietly asserts that such is the case. We may be willing to
admit that life as a whole is subject to the overruling providence of
God, but often we hesitate to believe that every detail of life is the
object of His loving concern. Yet our Lord asserted this to be the case.
Even the sparrow did not fall to the ground without His Father's
knowledge. The circumstances of the Christian's life are ordained of
God. There is no such thing as chance. Love refuses to believe that
God is not interested in every detail of life. Everything is permitted
and designed by Him for wise purposes. He will not cease His supervision
for a moment.
Every adverse experience when rightly received can carry its quota of
good. Bodily pain and weakness cause us to feel our frailty. Perplexity
reveals our lack of wisdom. Financial reverses point up how limited
are our resources. Mistakes and failure humble our pride. All these
things can be included in the term "good."
God's Plan Is Harmonious
"All things work together for good."
They work into a preconceived pattern. The events of life are not
related. The physician's prescription is compounded of a number of
drugs. Taken in isolation, some of them would be poisonous and
would do only harm. But blended together under the direction of a
skilled and experienced pharmacist they achieve only good. Barclay
renders the verse: "We know that God intermingles all things for good
for them that love Him." The experiences of life when taken in isolation
may seem anything but good, but blended together the result is
In adverse circumstances unbelief queries, "How can this be working
for good?" The answer is, "Wait until the Great Physician has finished
writing the prescription." Who cannot look back on life to see
that things considered disastrous proved in the ultimate to be blessings
in disguise? The artist blends colors which to the unskilled eye
seem far removed from his objective. But wait until he has finished his
Life has been likened to an elaborate tapestry being woven on the
loom. For the beauty of the pattern it is imperative that the colors
must not be all of the same hue. Some must be bright and beautiful,
others dark and somber. It is as they are all worked together that they
contribute to the beauty of the pattern.
Not until each loom is silent
And the shuttles cease to fly
Will God unroll the pattern
And explain the reason why;
The dark threads are as needful
In the Weaver's skillful hand,
As the threads of gold and silver
For the pattern He has planned.
In time of severe trial there is always the temptation, while assenting
to the truth in general, to feel that our present circumstances are
an exception. If that were so, the text is null and void, and the truth of
the overruling providence of God in the affairs of men has no meaning.
As tragedy upon tragedy overwhelmed Joseph-banishment from
home, sale as a slave, unjust imprisonment-it was difficult for him to
see these untoward events working together for his good. Yet in retrospect
he said to his brothers, "But as for you, ye thought evil against
me; but God meant it unto good" (Genesis 50:20).
In the events of life, "God has an end in view which is worthy of
Him, and will command our fullest approbation when we cease to
know in part." Even if called upon to face the wrath of man or Devil
we can confidently rest in the assurance that it will ultimately praise
God, and that which cannot do so will be restrained.
Whate'er my God ordains is right;
My Light, my Life is He,
Who cannot will me ought but good,
I trust Him utterly:
For well I know
In joy or woe
We soon shall see, as sunlight clear,
How faithful was our Guardian here.