How the evil of affliction works to the good of the godly.

Taken and adapted from, “A Divine Cordial”
Written by, Thomas Watson.

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“We know that all things work together for good, to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” – ROMANS 8:28.

CHRISTIAN READER,

There are two things, which I have always looked upon as difficult. The one is, to make the wicked sad; the other is, to make the godly joyful. Dejection in the godly arises from a double spring; either because their inward comforts are darkened, or their outward comforts are disturbed. To cure both these troubles, I have put forth this ensuing piece, hoping, by the blessing of God, it will buoy up their desponding hearts, and make them look with a more pleasant aspect. I would prescribe them to take, now and then, a little of this Cordial; ALL THINGS WORK TOGETHER FOR GOOD TO THEM THAT LOVE GOD. To know that nothing hurts the godly, is a matter of comfort; but to be assured that ALL things which fall out shall co-operate for their good, that their crosses shall be turned into blessings, that showers of affliction water the withering root of their grace and make it flourish more; this may fill their hearts with joy till they run over.

IF the whole Scripture be the feast of the soul, as Ambrose said, then Romans 8 may be a dish at that feast, and with its sweet variety may very much refresh and animate the hearts of God’s people. In the preceding verses the apostle had been wading through the great doctrines of justification and adoption, mysteries so arduous and profound, that without the help and conduct of the Spirit, he might soon have waded beyond his depth. In this verse the apostle touches upon that pleasant string of consolation, “WE KNOW THAT ALL THINGS WORK TOGETHER FOR GOOD, TO THEM THAT LOVE GOD.” Not a word but is weighty; therefore I shall gather up every filing of this gold, that nothing be lost.

In the text there are three general branches.

First, a glorious privilege. All things work for good.
Second, the persons interested in this privilege. They are doubly specified. They are lovers of God, they are called.

Third, the origin and spring of this effectual calling, set down in these words, “according to his purpose.”

First, the glorious privilege. Here are two things to be considered.

1. The certainty of the privilege — “We know.”
2. The excellency of the privilege — “All things work together for good.”

1. The certainty of the privilege: “We know.”

It is not a matter wavering or doubtful. The apostle does not say, We hope, or conjecture, but it is like an article in our creed, We KNOW that all things work for good. Hence observe that the truths of the gospel are evident and infallible.

A Christian may come not merely to a vague opinion, but to a certainty of what he holds. As axioms and aphorisms are evident to reason, so the truths of religion are evident to faith. “We know,” says the apostle. Though a Christian has not a perfect knowledge of the mysteries of the gospel, yet he has a certain knowledge. “We see through a glass darkly” (1 Cor. 13: 12), therefore we have not perfection of knowledge; but “we behold with open face” (2 Cor. 3: 18), therefore we have certainty. The Spirit of God imprints heavenly truths upon the heart, as with the point of a diamond. A Christian may know infallibly that there is an evil in sin, and a beauty in holiness. He may know that he is in the state of grace. “We know that we have passed from death to life” (I John 3:14).

He may know that he shall go to heaven. “We know that if our earthly tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (2 Cor. 5:1). The Lord does not leave His people at uncertainties in matters of salvation. The apostle says, We know. We have arrived at a holy confidence. We have both the Spirit of God, and our own experience, setting seal to it.

Let us then not rest in skepticism or doubts, but labor to come to a certainty in the things of religion. As that martyr-woman said. “I cannot dispute for Christ, but I can burn for Christ.” God knows whether we may be called forth to be witnesses to His truth; therefore it concerns us to be well grounded and confirmed in it. If we are doubting Christians, we shall be wavering Christians. Whence is apostasy, but from incredulity? Men first question the truth, and then fall from the truth. Oh, beg the Spirit of God, not only to anoint you, but to seal you (2 Cor. 1: 22).

2. The excellency of the privilege, “All things work together for good.”

This is as Jacob’s staff in the hand of faith, with which we may walk cheerfully to the mount of God. What will satisfy or make us content, if this will not? All things work together for good. This expression “work together” refers to medicine. Several poisonous ingredients put together, being tempered by the skill of the apothecary, make a sovereign medicine, and work together for the good of the patient. So all God’s providences being divinely tempered and sanctified, do work together for the best to the saints. He who loves God and is called according to His purpose, may rest assured that everything in the world shall be for his good. This is a Christian’s cordial, which may warm him — make him like Jonathan who, when he had tasted the honey at the end of the rod, “his eyes were enlightened” (1 Sam. 14:27). Why should a Christian destroy himself? Why should he kill himself with care, when all things shall sweetly concur, yea, conspire for his good? The result of the text is this. ALL THE VARIOUS DEALINGS OF GOD WITH HIS CHILDREN, DO BY A SPECIAL PROVIDENCE TURN TO THEIR GOOD. “All the paths of the Lord are mercy and truth unto such as keep his covenant (Psalm 25:10). If every path has mercy in it, then it works for good.

It is one heart-quieting consideration in all the afflictions that befall us, that God has a special hand in them: “The Almighty hath afflicted me” (Ruth 1:21). Instruments can no more stir till God gives them a commission, than the axe can cut of itself without a hand. Job eyed God in his affliction: therefore, as Augustine observes, he does not say, “The Lord gave, and the devil took away,” but, “The Lord hath taken away.” Whoever brings an affliction to us, it is God that sends it.

Another heart-quieting consideration is, that afflictions work for good. “Like these good figs, so will I acknowledge them that are carried away captive of Judah, whom I have sent out of this place into the land of the Chaldeans, for their good” (Jer. 24:5). Judah’s captivity in Babylon was for their good. “It is good for me that l have been afflicted” (Psalm 119:71). This text, like Moses’ tree cast into the bitter waters of affliction, may make them sweet and wholesome to drink. Afflictions to the godly are medicinal. Out of the most poisonous drugs God extracts our salvation. Afflictions are as needful as ordinances (1 Peter 1:6). No vessel can be made of gold without fire; so it is impossible that we should be made vessels of honor, unless we are melted and refined in the furnace of affliction. “All the paths of the Lord are mercy and truth” (Psalm 25:10). As the painter intermixes bright colors with dark shadows; so the wise God mixes mercy with judgment. Those afflictive providences which seem to be prejudicial, are beneficial. Let us take some instances in Scripture.

Joseph’s brethren throw him into a pit; afterwards they sell him; then he is cast into prison; yet all this did work for his good. His abasement made way for his advancement, he was made the second man in the kingdom. “Ye thought evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Gen. 1:20). Jacob wrestled with the angel, and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was out of joint. This was sad; but God turned it to good, for there he saw God’s face, and there the Lord blessed him. “Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, for 1 have seen God face to face” (Gen. 32:30). Who would not be willing to have a bone out of joint, so that he might have a sight of God?

King Manasseh was bound in chains. This was sad to see — a crown of gold changed into fetters; but it wrought for his good, for, “When he was in affliction he besought the Lord, and humbled himself greatly, and the Lord was entreated of him” (2 Chron. 33:11, 12). He was more beholden to his iron chain, than to his golden crown; the one made him proud, the other made him humble.

Job was a spectacle of misery; he lost all that ever he had he abounded only in boils and ulcers. This was sad; but it wrought for his good, his grace was proved and improved. God gave a testimony from heaven of his integrity, and did compensate his loss by giving him twice as much as ever he had before (Job 42:10).

Paul was smitten with blindness. This was uncomfortable, but it turned to his good. God did by that blindness make way for the light of grace to shine into his soul; it was the beginning of a happy conversion (Acts 9:6).

As the hard frosts in winter bring on the flowers in the spring, as the night ushers in the morning-star: so the evils of affliction produce much good to those that love God. But we are ready to question the truth of this, and say, as Mary did to the angel, “How can this be?”

Therefore I shall show you several ways how affliction works for good.

(1). Affliction is our preacher and tutor? “Hear ye the rod” (Micah 6: 9). Luther said that he could never rightly understand some of the Psalms, till he was in affliction. Affliction teaches what sin is. In the word preached, we hear what a dreadful thing sin is, that it is both defiling and damning, but we fear it no more than a painted lion; therefore God lets loose affliction, and then we feel sin bitter in the fruit of it. A sick-bed often teaches more than a sermon. We can best see the ugly visage of sin in the glass of affliction. Affliction teaches us to know ourselves. In prosperity we are for the most part strangers to ourselves. God makes us know affliction, that we may better know ourselves. We see that corruption in our hearts in the time of affliction, which we would not believe was there. Water in the glass looks clear, but set it on the fire, and the scum boils up. In prosperity, a man seems to be humble and thankful, the water looks clear; but set this man a little on the fire of affliction, and the scum boils up — much impatience and unbelief appear. “Oh,” says a Christian, “I never thought I had such a bad heart, as now I see I have; I never thought my corruptions had been so strong, and my graces so weak.”

(2). Afflictions work for good, as they are the means of making the heart more upright. In prosperity the heart is apt to be divided (Hosea 10:2). The heart cleaves partly to God, and partly to the world. It is like a needle between two loadstones; God draws, and the world draws. Now God takes away the world, that the heart may cleave more to Him in sincerity. Correction is a setting the heart right and straight. As we sometimes hold a crooked rod over the fire to straighten it; so God holds us over the fire of affliction to make us more straight and upright. Oh, how good it is, when sin has bent the soul awry from God, that affliction should straighten it again!

(3). Afflictions work for good, as they conform us to Christ. 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. Would we be parts of Christ’s mystical body, and not like Him? His life, as Calvin says, was a series of sufferings, “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53: 3). He wept, and bled. Was His head crowned with thorns, and do we think to be crowned with roses? It is good to be like Christ, though it be by sufferings. Jesus Christ drank a bitter cup, it made Him sweat drops of blood to think of it; and, though it be true He drank the poison in the cup (the wrath of God) yet there is some wormwood in the cup left, which the saints must drink: only here is the difference between Christ’s sufferings and ours; His were satisfactory, ours are only castigatory.

(4). Afflictions work for good to the godly, as they are destructive to sin. Sin is the mother, affliction is the daughter; the daughter helps to destroy the mother. Sin is like the tree that breeds the worm, and affliction is like the worm that eats the tree. There is much corruption in the best heart; affliction does by degrees work it out, as the fire works out the dross from the gold, “This is all the fruit, to take away his sin” (Isa. 27:9). What if we have more of the rough file, if we have less rust! Afflictions carry away nothing but the dross of sin. If a physician should say to a patient, “Your body is ill, and full of bad diseases, which must be cleared out, or you die; but I will prescribe prescription which, though it may make you sick, yet it will carry away the dregs of your disease, and save your life”; would not this be for the good of the patient? Afflictions are the medicine which God uses to carry off our spiritual diseases; they cure the excessive gas of pride, the fever of lust, the dropsy of covetousness. Do they not then work for good?

(5). Afflictions work for good, as they are the 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. A thorn grows up with every flower. God would have the world hang as a loose tooth which, being twitched away does not much trouble us. Is it not good to be weaned? The oldest saints need it. Why does the Lord break the conduit-pipe, but that we may go to Him, in whom are “all our fresh springs” (Psalm 87:7).

(6). Afflictions work for good, as they make way for comfort. “In the valley of Achor is a door of hope” (Hosea 2:15). Achor signifies trouble. God sweetens outward pain with inward peace. “Your sorrow shall be turned into joy” (John 16: 20). Here is the water turned into wine. After a bitter pill, God gives sugar. Paul had his prison-songs. God’s rod has honey at the end of it. The saints in affliction have had such sweet raptures of joy, that they thought themselves in the borders of the heavenly Canaan.

(7). Afflictions work for good, as they are a magnifying of us. “What is man, that thou should magnify him, and that thou should visit him every morning?” (Job 7: 17). God does by affliction magnify us three ways.

(1st.) in that He will condescend so low as to take notice of us. It is an honor that God will mind dust and ashes. It is a magnifying of us, that God thinks us worthy to be smitten. God’s not striking is a slighting: “Why should ye be stricken anymore?” (Isaiah 1:5). If you will go on in sin, take your course, sin yourselves into hell.

(2nd.) Afflictions also magnify us, as they are ensigns of glory, signs of sonship. “If you endure chastening, God deals with you as with sons” (Heb. 12:7). Every print of the rod is a badge of honour.

(3rd.) Afflictions tend to the magnifying of the saints, as they make them renowned in the world. Soldiers have never been so admired for their victories, as the saints have been for their sufferings. The zeal and constancy of the martyrs in their trials have rendered them famous to posterity. How eminent was Job for his patience! God leaves his name upon record: “Ye have heard of the patience of Job” (James 5:11). Job the sufferer was more renowned than Alexander the conqueror.

(8.) Afflictions work for good, as they are the means of making us happy. “Happy is the man whom God corrects” (Job 5:17). What politician or moralist ever placed happiness in the cross? Job does. “Happy is the man whom God corrects.”

It may be said, How do afflictions make us happy? We reply that, being sanctified, they bring us nearer to God. The moon in the full is furthest off from the sun: so are many further off from God in the full-moon of prosperity; afflictions bring them nearer to God. The magnet of mercy does not draw us so near to God as the cords of affliction. When Absalom set Joab’s corn on fire, then he came running to Absalom (2 Sam. 14:30). When God sets our worldly comforts on fire, then we run to Him, and make our peace with Him. When the prodigal was pinched with want, then he returned home to his father (Luke 15:13). When the dove could not find any rest for the sole of her foot, then she flew to the ark. When God brings a deluge of affliction upon us, then we fly to the ark of Christ. Thus affliction makes us happy, in bringing us nearer to God. Faith can make use of the waters of affliction, to swim faster to Christ.

(9). Afflictions work for good, as they put to silence the wicked. How ready are they to speak evil and calumniate the godly, that they serve God only for self-interest. Therefore God will have His people endure sufferings for religion, that He may put a padlock on the lying lips of wicked men. When the atheists of the world see that God has a people, who serve Him not for a livery, but for love, this stops their mouths. The devil accused Job of hypocrisy, that he was a mercenary man, all his religion was made up of ends of gold and silver. “Doth Job serve God for nothing? Hast not thou made a hedge about him?” Etc. “Well,” says God, “put forth thy hand, touch his estate” (Job 1:9). The devil had no sooner received a commission, but he falls a breaking down Job’s hedge; but still Job worships God (Job. 1:20), and professes his faith in Him. “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him” (Job. 13:15). This silenced the devil himself. How it strikes a damp into wicked men, when they see that the godly will keep close to God in a suffering condition, and that, when they lose all, they yet will hold fast their integrity.

(10). Afflictions work for good, as they make way for glory (2 Cor. 4:17). Not that they merit glory, but they prepare for it. As ploughing prepares the earth for a crop, so afflictions prepare and make us meet for glory. The painter lays his gold upon dark colors, so God first lays the dark colors of affliction, and then He lays the golden color of glory. The vessel is first seasoned before wine is poured into it: the vessels of mercy are first seasoned with affliction, and then the wine of glory is poured in. Thus we see afflictions are not prejudicial, but beneficial, to the saints. We should not so much look at the evil of affliction, as the good; not so much at the dark side of the cloud, as the light. The worst that God does to His children is to whip them to heaven.