“We know that all things work together for good to them that love God …” (Rom. 8:28). This familiar promise is one of the most frequently quoted parts of Scripture. But its full significance is often overlooked. It is not a verse to be glibly quoted to one suffering hardship to assure him that things really aren’t as bad as they seem.

To be rightly understood, this promise must be considered in the light of its context, which speaks of a purpose that God is working out in the lives of Christians. God calls those whom he chooses, not just so they can escape hell and go to heaven, but so that they can be made like Jesus, here and now. He is carrying out this purpose in the lives of believers, and in his sovereign power he is able to use all things that come into their lives as instruments to mold them in the image of Christ.

The promise that “all things work together for good” does not mean that all things that happen to us as believers are in themselves good; it means, rather, that God uses all things—both bad and good—to carry out his purpose. Sometimes tragic things happen, things for which there is no ready explanation. But God works even through these to being about the best for us—that is conformity to Christ.

An artist beginning to paint a landscape may streak the canvas with colors and patterns that seem to have no relation to the scene he is portraying, and a casual observer may think he has really made a mess of things. But as the artist continues to apply the various colors from his palette, the landscape begins to appear; had he not made those seemingly faulty first strokes he could not have created an accurate likeness. At times it may seem that God has lost ...

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