The sovereignty of God is a challenging truth to grasp. It is difficult to accept the reality that God has ordained and arranged every moment of our lives, including those filled with pain and suffering. When we think of the sovereignty of God, our tendency is to remove all responsibility and obligation from man, but the Bible doesn’t allow for such thinking (Rom. 9:19–20). How does this work? The Bible is clear: God does not passively allow things to happen, but instead actively ordains them for His own sovereign purposes.
This is a conversation that has often brought into question the goodness of God. It raises uncomfortable questions. Yet it is helpful to ask these questions not just of each other, but of our faithful brothers and sisters throughout church history. One Puritan, in particular, can help us here. Puritan Thomas Watson looks to Romans 8:28 to help. He sees this verse as a window into the workings of God—that “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28).
In a chapter entitled “The worst things work for good to the godly,” Watson writes:
Do not mistake me; I do not say that of their own nature the worst things are themselves good, for they are a fruit of the curse; but though they are naturally evil, yet the wise over-ruling hand of God . . . has so tempered them, that they all work in a harmonious manner for the good of the universe.
In other words, every evil in this world is still thoroughly evil. Watson is not saying evil somehow is no longer evil. Bombings are evil. Cancer is evil. Pandemics are evil. We weep over these things. But even in the darkest and most dumbfounding moments, God is sovereignly working—so that even the most evil acts must finally, in the end, serve to advance His sovereign plan in the universe.
In Genesis, Joseph experienced years and years of evil. He was sold into slavery, falsely accused, abandoned, forgotten, mistreated, and demeaned. But at the end of his life, he tells his brothers: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result” (Gen. 50:20, italics mine). Notice the word meant. If most of us were writing this, we might say, “You meant evil against me, but God allowed it for good.” But Joseph did not say that. If God means (i.e. intends, plans, purposes) for these things to happen, and He doesn’t just regrettably allow them, what is His purpose for intending them? How can good possibly come from evil? What are God’s designs in ordaining the existence of evil? What does such evil produce in the soul of a slave of Christ?
God orders and designs our lives in such a way that makes us the most like His Son and brings His name the most glory. Thomas Watson provides just a glimpse into how this works:
Sin and evil work for good, because they are designed by God to teach us what’s in our own hearts.
Watson writes: “God makes us know affliction, that we may better know our selves.” In other words, affliction helps us to see that our biggest problem is not outside of us, but within us. It brings things out of us that ease and peace just never would.
God designs our days to show us just how desperately we need Him
Sin and evil work for good, because they conform us to Christ.
Watson writes, “God’s rod is a pencil to draw Christ’s image more lively upon us. It is good that there should be symmetry and proportion between the Head and the members.” In other words, the goal of God in affliction is not to change our circumstances, but to change us through our circumstances—into the image of His Son.
Sin and evil work for good, because they are God’s means of loosening our hearts from the world.
When you dig away the earth from the root of a tree,
it is to loosen the tree from the earth; so God digs away
our earthly comforts to loosen our hearts from the earth
~ Thomas Watson
We see this in our lives, don’t we? Affliction always has the effect of weaning us from lesser pleasures and fixing our affections on endless ones.
Watson helps us to understand that the doctrine of God’s sovereignty is not cold and loveless, but is instead the loving prescriptions of a Great Physician. He explains:
God is a skillful Physician. He knows what is best . . . . He has trials for the strong and cordials for the weak. God is a faithful Physician, and therefore will turn all to the best. If God does not give you that which you like—He will give you that which you need. A physician does not so much study to please the taste of the patient—as to cure his disease. We complain that very sore trials lie upon us; let us remember God is our Physician, therefore He labors rather to heal us—than humor us. God's dealings with His children, though they are sharp—yet they are safe, and in order to cure; “that he might do you good in the latter end.” (Deut. 8:16)
The reason for our trials, according to Watson, is not merely that God threw up His hands and allowed them, but that as our Physician, He graciously prescribed and ordered them to rid us of the lingering corruption in our hearts.
Trials are the sovereign medication
that mold us into the image of Christ
There is not a moment nor mile on this earth that does not rest in the sovereign hand of God. Thus we can trust that He knows our pain, and even more, that our suffering is not meaningless. He is a kind, loving doctor—curing the infirmities of our hearts. Sometimes medicine and procedures are painful, but they are always done for a good reason. God is working for our good: “For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17).
For more on glorifying God in trying times, see our free guide: Suffering Well.
 Cf. Genesis 50:20; Job 1:21-22; Psalm 105:25; Isaiah 45:6-7; 46:9-10; Lamentations 3:38; Amos 3:6; Acts 2:22-23; Acts 4:27-28, etc.