I read Paul’s promise that God causes all things to work together for good for his people, and I think of Joseph. He recognized God’s divine purposes at work throughout the evil actions of his brothers, and, in so doing, he became a living example of the truth Paul later proclaims (Genesis 50:20; Romans 8:28). No act, however evil, can thwart God’s sovereign purpose; he can use “all things” (Romans 8:28). When I consider this truth, I tend to associate the promise with the externals of life, which leaves me to wonder if the promise also rings true for the internals. I know God works through even the vilest of events which afflict us; does he work through our sorrow as well?
For years, I assumed emotions had little significance in the grand scheme of things. My mind focused on the externals, on the road ahead or the trial at hand or the truth I needed to learn. The internals, my emotions about any of those things, seemed secondary in importance. I viewed emotions either as positive things I needed to keep in check or as negative things I needed to suppress or overcome. But I’m learning that God’s promise in Romans 8:28 does indeed extend to emotions. Here are four things I’m beginning to recognize God does through our sorrow.
1. God uses sorrow to teach us.
God uses trials to deepen our faith and to sanctify us in the truth. Both Paul and James write of the need to joyfully endure tests of faith, highlighting the work God does through such seasons to make us the people he has called us to be. While external forces such as sickness and persecution and death do indeed sharpen us, so also do internal factors. When we face sorrow, be it from disappointment or frustration or confusion or loss, we can rest in the knowledge that God uses even bitter emotions to further his sanctifying work in our lives. When he disciplines us, as he does to all whom he loves, he does so to produce “the peaceful fruit of righteousness” (Hebrews 12:11). This means we can be joyful even in our sadness, a point that leads to the next truth.
2. God uses sorrow to further our witness.
Paul describes believers with a string of paradoxes in 2 Corinthians 4-6, noting that they are “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10). These seeming contradictions point to a beautiful truth, namely that “we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Corinthians 4:7). Our temporary sufferings reveal eternal truths. God’s power shines through us as we, though weak and broken, advance God’s holy kingdom. We reveal a deeper peace and joy and hope than any this world can provide. Thus, though we face great sorrow, we do so with an unshakable foundation of joy in Christ. We, though inwardly broken, have perfect peace. This baffles the lost world and ultimately points them to a sure anchor for their souls.
3. God uses sorrow to identify us with Christ’s sufferings.
Paul tells the Philippians of his desire to know Christ and the power of his resurrection (Philippians 3:8-11). In his pursuit, he counts all earthly gain as loss and seeks to share in the sufferings of Christ, identifying himself wholly with his Lord. As he so surrenders himself, he follows in the footsteps of Jesus who was “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). Jesus knew sorrow. The shortest verse in the Bible bears witness to that profound truth (John 11:35). As Paul faced sorrow and suffering, he viewed it as a means by which he could know Christ more fully, walking in confidence with his eyes fixed on the joy ahead, on “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8). We too can follow his example, trusting that God can use our sadness to identify us with our Savior.
4. God uses sorrow to deepen our dependence upon him.
Disappointment stings. Frustration confounds. When we face these things, sorrow often follows close behind, urging us to retreat away from those around us. If we aren’t careful, we can be tempted to run from God himself. Yet sorrow ought to drive us closer to our Father. Paul learned to rest in God’s power in the midst of his suffering (2 Corinthians 12:8-10). As noted already, James and Paul both point to the joy we can have through trials. Sorrow reveals our inabilities and weaknesses and, in so doing, drives us back to the one who answers our anxiety with his peace (Philippians 4:6-7). God cares for us (1 Peter 5:7). Therefore, we can run to God when we hurt and find rest in his love.
The Psalms remind us that sorrow will not have the final word. There we read the cries of those who wrestled with pain yet who also saw God’s hand at work. Let us remember the words of the psalmist, who wrote, “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Psalm 30:5). Let us not run from sorrow, but trust God to use it for good. And let us be people of joy who, though we may mourn, yet live with hope in a God who causes all things to work together for good.