Dear ICB family,
On Sunday on the basis of Joseph and Jesus I argued that even when the devil, our enemies, the world, or our own flesh intends us harm by doing evil to us, at the very same time, in the very same act, God intends that evil for good.
That's what Joseph explicitly says to his brothers: "You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good" (Gen. 50:20 NIV).
In other words, when Joseph's brothers sold him into slavery, their intentions and purposes were evil. In that very same act, God's intentions and purposes for Joseph were good.
We see the same dynamic in Acts 4:27–28. After Peter and John were released from prison, they gather with other believers and pray, and that prayer includes these two breathtaking sentences: "Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen."
That is, Herod, Pilate, the Gentiles, and the people of Israel intended nothing but evil when they put the innocent Son of God to death. God, however, intended that very same evil act for good, namely, to provide salvation for the world.
After the service on Sunday, someone asked me a very good question: It's clear that God intended evil acts for good in the cases of Joseph and Jesus. That's what the texts say. However, is it appropriate to apply these particular instances to us today and say that when we face evil, God intends those evil acts for good, too? Are there any cases when we should simply say that evil happened and God did not intend that evil to happen for good purposes?
That is an excellent question that I think deserves a lot more attention than what I gave it in the sermon on Sunday. Am I taking a leap by saying that since God intended the evil perpetrated against Joseph and Jesus for good, God also intends the evil that happens to us today for good?
I don't think I gave the dear brother who asked the question a very good answer, so I'd like to try to do better here.
In short, I do think we can say that in any and all evil perpetrated against us today, God intends those evil acts for ultimate good. And I'd like to give you some reasons why.
I want to preface all this by saying that I tread very lightly here. We're looking into some of the deepest mysteries of the universe. I chose to end the service with the doxology from Romans 11 on purpose to highlight that very fact. Yet, I do believe the Bible gives us some help in answering this question. In what follows I'll examine some of that evidence.
Second Corinthians 4:17 says, "For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison" (ESV).
In the context, the "troubles" Paul has in mind are things like being "afflicted in every way" (4:8), being "perplexed" (4:8), being "persecuted" (4:9), being "struck down" (4:9), carrying "in the body the death of Jesus" (4:10), "being given over to death for Jesus' sake" (4:11), and having "death… at work in us" (4:12).
It's clear that those afflicting, perplexing, persecuting, and striking Paul down, causing him to carry Jesus' death around in his own body and experiencing death at work in him, were doing so with evil intentions. They meant what they did for evil.
But then notice that in 4:17 Paul says that it's those kinds of afflictions that are "preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison." In other words, it's as if the afflictions have another intention or purpose in mind, namely, to prepare for us something that is so big and glorious we can't even begin to compare it with anything else. Such an intention is very much good!
Now, obviously the afflictions themselves do not have a will. They themselves are merely acts committed by other people. That means that they in and of themselves cannot intend anything good or evil. Only those committing the acts can have an intention one way or the other. So while the people carrying out the afflictions are clearly intending evil by what they do, we must ask the question, "Who or what is intending those afflictions for good?"
We could answer that by saying that there is some mysterious force in the universe at work that takes afflictions and intends those very evil afflictions for good. Or we could say that God himself intends evil afflictions for good. I'm inclined toward the second of those two options.
Does not James 1:2–4 follow this very same logic?
"Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing."
Again, James says that the testing of your faith (that is, "trials of various kinds") produces steadfastness. It is not hard to conclude that those bringing about the various trials that we encounter in our lives intend evil by doing so. Yet James' words almost sound like the trials have some sort of will in and of themselves and intend to produce such steadfastness. Of course, the trials themselves are not capable of possessing a will.
So, as was the case in 1 Corinthians 4, we're left asking who or what does in fact intend the trials of various kinds for the good end of producing steadfastness which leads a person to being perfect and complete, lacking in nothing? Certainly not the ones inflicting the trials. I conclude that our being perfect and complete is God's intention in the various trials we face. (I would argue the same dynamic is at work in 1 Peter 1:6–9.)
Lastly, I would point to Romans 8:28: "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose" (NIV).
Compare the NIV with the ESV:
"And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose" (ESV).
Which is it? Do all things "work together for good" (ESV), or is it that "in all things God works for the good" (NIV)?
The Greek grammar allows for either translation. We can understand the text to be saying that the things themselves work together for good, or we can understand the text to be saying that God is the one who actively works them together for good.
In the end, I think we arrive at the same conclusion, namely, that it is in fact God who actively and intentionally works all things together for good, including Joseph's being sold into slavery by his brothers, the death of Jesus, and any of the various trials that you face day in and day out.
I say that it must be God who intends all things—even evil—ultimately for good because even if we go with the ESV's rendering of the verse ("all things work together for good"), if you don't conclude that it's God who is doing that, you're left having to credit the fact that all things work together for good to some cosmic force, as if the things in and of themselves have the ability to achieve their desired good end somehow apart from God.
I feel much more confident saying that, even if the ESV represents what Paul intended (and again, the grammar can go either way), ultimately it is God who brings about good in all things, even evil. And that is a blanket statement that applies equally to us today as it did to Joseph and Jesus.
So those are my reasons why I would say that I am justified applying these verses about Joseph and Jesus to us today. I do really think that, given enough time—perhaps in some cases not until eternity—we'll be able to look back at all the evil we faced and conclude that God intended that very evil for good.
I'll say that that does not mean God commits evil. Evil human beings commit evil. I'm simply saying that in some mysterious way, God intends even evil to accomplish good: like the salvation of God's people from a famine, or the salvation of the world from their sins, or an eternal weight of glory that is beyond all comparison, or our steadfastness which makes us perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
I'll end where I ended on Sunday. I believe this is true. I believe this is amazingly comforting and hope-filled. My enemies, the world, my flesh, and Satan himself cannot throw anything at me that God does not intend for good.
However, that fact doesn't always feel very comforting, especially when the pain is still so sharp.
So let's not be quick to take these glorious truths and shove them down people's throats when they're hurting. Let's be patient. Let's weep with those who weep. Let's be quick to hear and slow to speak. Let us speak truth, but let's do it when it might be best received, and that might take some time. Perhaps a lot of time.
Be encouraged, dear brothers and sisters. God intends your good.
Grace and peace,