Chapter 1.
Cheap Cliché or Precious Promise?

Grace: You know that everything happens for a reason.

Bruce: See, that I don't need. That is a cliché. That is not helpful to me. "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush" ... I have no bird, I have no bush. God has taken my bird and my bush.

—from the movie Bruce Almighty

I'm writing these words shortly after returning from the graveside of a little boy named Samuel, an unborn child who mysteriously died in the womb days before delivery. I've known the extended family for many years; they joined my church not long after I came as pastor, nearly thirty years ago. Like any family, they've had their share of hardships, but this was an unusually heavy blow. Samuel's mother had expected to be nursing him in her arms today, but instead she buried him in the cold earth. A tiny coffin replaced the crib.

Samuel's grandmother, Kerry, has been a wonderful friend, and we've often shared prayer requests regarding similar burdens in our lives. As we walked among the graves back to our cars, I reached for her hand, and, fighting back tears, she said to me, "I know that good will come from this, somehow, someway. God works all things together for good, and I'm just holding on to that promise."

Driving home, I mulled over those words. Everything happens for a reason. Good will come from this. It'll all work out in the end.

Mere clichés?

No, clichés are not helpful. Instead, these are soul-bracing realities that flow from a central truth of Scripture succinctly stated in Romans 8:28: "We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God: those who are called according to His purpose."

It's arguably the most powerful promise in the Bible. Clichés and platitudes are temporary bandages, but Romans 8:28 gives complete and ultimate healing to both our souls and our situations.

Human courage and internal fortitude take us only so far without a stronger wind to our backs. The French philosopher Voltaire once defined optimism as "the mania of maintaining that everything is well when we are wretched." Some people are blessed with an upbeat personality that allows them to view life through rose-colored glasses and "make the most of all that comes and the least of all that goes," as philosopher Sara Teasdale once put it. But even sunny-souled people can't ward off all the shadows, not for long, certainly not forever, not without a sure word from an omnipotent God.

Sooner or later, even the upbeat soul gets beat up by life.

We need a higher power, a deeper strength, a wider mercy, and a mightier word. We need a promise so broad in its scope that nothing is excluded and so infallible in its application that on its sheer word alone we are consoled, energized, vitalized, and innervated during life's toughest moments.

We need a heartening word during life's smaller battles, too, for we have our share of both. Unbalanced checkbooks. Speeding tickets. Cancer scares. High blood pressure. Car payments. Car wrecks. Gas prices. Foreclosures. Prodigal children. The death of a pet. Chronic pain. Stubborn addiction. Pharmacy bills. Broken arms. Broken marriages. Broken hearts. Broken heirlooms.

Problems come in all shapes, sizes, and levels of intensity. Some are mind-numbing and earth-shaking. Others are two-bit trifles; yet sometimes the smaller problems upset us more than the larger ones.

I've had my share of ups and downs in life; they aren't over yet. As long as we're breathing air, we're going to have good days and bad ones. And sometimes the bad ones are very bad. I know what it's like to be jolted awake at 2 a.m. with news you never wanted to hear. I know what it's like to face debilitating family illness and to encounter a string of disappointments. I've struggled with cycles of despondency and seasons of anguish. And like you, I've felt the sadness of standing by freshly dug graves.

Thankfully, I can say that in my experience thus far, the bad days have been exceptions rather than rules. But that's not always the case for everyone. Some people face a lifetime of adversity, and for most of us, the problems grow harder as we grow older.

During such times, we're swimmers drawn toward open water by powerful undertows of doubt. We brood. We fume. We feel sorry for ourselves as we battle waves of discouragement. We grieve and weep and sometimes feel we're drowning.

But consider this: What if you knew it would all turn out well, whatever you are facing? What if Romans 8:28 really were more than a cliché? What if it was a certainty, a Spirit-certified life preserver, an unsinkable objective truth, infinitely buoyant, able to keep your head above water even when your ship is going down?

What if it really worked? What if it always worked? What if there were no problems beyond its reach?

Would that make a difference to you? If you really believed it, would it shore up your spirits? Brace up your heart? Gird up your strength? Beef up your attitude? Put a bounce in your step? Put sparkle back into your eyes?

Romans 8:28 is all-inclusive, all-powerful, and always available. It is as omnipotent as the God who signed and sealed it. It's as loving as the Savior who died to unleash it. It can do anything God can do. It can touch any hurt and redeem any problem. It isn't a mere platitude but a divine promise. It isn't a goal but a guarantee. It isn't wishful thinking but a shaft of almighty providence that lands squarely on our pathway each day and every moment.

The Lord moves heaven and earth to keep this promise. He puts His eye to the microscope of providential oversight and scans the smallest details of our lives, working them into a tapestry of blessing, making sure that goodness and mercy follow us all our days. He turns problems inside out, transforming bad things to blessings and converting trials into triumphs. He alone knows how to bring Easters out of Good Fridays.

I thought of this recently as I read the autobiography of songwriter John W. Peterson, who has given us such wonderful hymns as "It Took a Miracle," "Heaven Came Down and Glory Filled My Soul," and "Surely Goodness and Mercy."

When John was a teenager, he had a remarkable singing voice and was in demand as a performer. His greatest aspiration was to be a successful vocalist. "Only in singing did I feel competent and confident," he wrote. "Here was at least one place where I could excel. I knew it, and I made the most of it."

John became known as "the singing farm boy." Local radio programs were featuring him, and his career was very promising. One summer he found a job in a factory, working at a machine that made canvas wheat binders. It was a noisy factory, and John's machine was really loud. He couldn't hear anything else; he couldn't even hear himself think. So he spent every day singing at the top of his lungs, making up melodies and pretending he was on stage.

Too late, he realized he was abusing his voice and ruining his vocal cords. There was nothing the doctors or speech therapists could do. "I put such a terrific strain on my faltering voice through overuse and inexperience," he wrote, "that I damaged it beyond repair. When I realized fully what had happened, that my voice would never again be beautiful, I suffered such an emotional shock that it took months before I recovered. Singing, I had had the power to thrill people, and suddenly it was all gone."

That's when Romans 8:28 kicked in.

All things—even a ruined voice—work together for good to those who love the Lord. Peterson later wrote, "But if that had not happened, I might never have developed as a writer. With my voice damaged, I turned more and more to writing and that talent was allowed to emerge and develop. What at first seemed a tragedy was used for good, and the course of my life began to take shape in a quite unexpected way."

Peterson lost his ability to sing as beautifully as he wanted, but he has put a song in millions of other mouths and created a reservoir of music that will glorify God for generations to come.

Think of the problems, burdens, heartaches, and disappointments of your life. Is any one of them beyond the reach of Romans 8:28? Can there possibly be a trial that isn't covered by those three wonderful letters a-l-l?

No, not one.

For we know that every last detail of our lives works together for good to those who love the Lord and who are called according to His purpose.

That's God's guarantee for you and me and for all who love Him and are called according to His purpose.