This is one of the best-known verses of the Bible, often mentioned by believers in times of trial and distress as a means of comfort. It is part of a passage in which Paul is reminding believers of their privileges as sons of God.
Among the privileges, they have the incomparable blessing of the indwelling Spirit enabling them to obey God, to overcome indwelling sin, to give a sweet sense of assurance, and to intercede along with them in their prayers. They also have a wonderful future, a future that includes the whole of creation because it is going to be delivered from its futility and it will experience, in its varied capacities, the fullness of the glory that will mark the sons of God when they are revealed when Jesus returns.
We might then ask if it is possible for other great blessings to be provided. The amazing fact is that there are more. In this well-known verse Paul mentions a third blessing that belongs to believers, which is that nothing is wasted. He does not mean only that nothing that will happen to them individually is going to be pointless, nor does he mean that nothing that will happen to the church corporately will be worthless. Rather he is saying that God will use everything that takes place within the created order for the benefit of his people.
Each believer has particular providences. Their individual characteristics, locations, careers, families, happy times, sad times and everything else are included in the ‘all things’. Similarly, the church has known times of great spiritual prosperity as well as times of dearth, and they are included in the ‘all things’. Moreover, the world has seen the births, lives and deaths of millions of people, with all their varied contributions; it has witnessed the appearance and demise of empires and nations, some of which fiercely opposed the church of Christ.
Note that these things all work together. This means that there is nothing haphazard taking place. As individuals, we go through sequences of events, some expected, others surprising. Often we look at them and see no connection. It is important to note that God is in control and can bring good out of them all.
Something similar happens in the church, whether locally, nationally or internationally. We sometimes don’t see any beneficial connection between these experiences; indeed from our perspective some details will seem disastrous at worst and pointless at best. But they are not. The sequence is overseen by God and he ensures that it will produce good.
Note, too, that Paul uses the present tense, ‘work’. Sometimes when we quote this verse, we insert the future tense and change its meaning to be that at the end of the day God will collect everything that has happened and cause them to bring about a good end. No doubt that is true, but that is not what Paul is saying. He affirms that God is active in each thing that occurs in the lives of his people.
An example of the use of this tense is found in 2 Corinthians 4:15-17: ‘For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God. So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.’
Paul there says that their affliction ‘is preparing’ an eternal weight of glory for his people. Of course there is a mystery here, but it is a reminder that God is continually active in every event that occurs in our lives. Whatever is happening to us at present, God is involved in it. He is the metalworker, removing dross; he is the shepherd, providing sustenance; and he is the teacher, giving instruction. He is working it all for the good of his church.