Question: "What does it mean that God works in mysterious ways?"
Answer: God works in ways that are often deemed “mysterious”—that is to say, God’s methods often leave people totally bewildered. Why would God tell Joshua and the children of Israel to march around the city of Jericho for a week (Joshua 6:1–4)? What good could possibly come from Paul and Silas being arrested and beaten without cause (Acts 16:22–24)? Why would God allow Joni Eareckson, a talented, vivacious girl of seventeen, to break her neck in a diving accident and spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair?
The processes God uses, the interplay of human freedom and God’s sovereignty, and God’s ultimate summations are far beyond what the limited human mind can understand. The Bible and the testimonies of Christians down through the ages are brimming with true stories of how God turned situation after situation, problem after problem, life after life, completely upside down—and He often does it in the most unexpected, astonishing, and inexplicable ways.
The life of Joseph is a good example of the mysterious way God sometimes works (Genesis 37:1—50:26). In Genesis 50:20, Joseph says to his brothers, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” In this statement Joseph summarizes the events of his life, beginning with the evil his brothers did to him and ending with his recognition that it was all part of God’s beneficent plan to rescue His covenant people (Genesis 15:13–14).
There was a famine in Canaan where Abraham’s descendants, the Hebrew people, had settled (Genesis 43:1), so Joseph brought all of them out of Canaan and into Egypt (Genesis 46:26–27). Joseph was able to provide food for them all because he had become governor of Egypt and was in charge of buying and selling food (Genesis 42:6). Why was Joseph in Egypt? Joseph’s brothers had sold him into slavery some twenty years earlier and were now dependent upon him for their sustenance (Genesis 37:28). This irony is only a small part of what happened in Joseph’s life; God’s paradoxical movement is obvious through all of Joseph’s history. If Joseph had not been governor over Egypt and moved his kinsmen there, there would be no story of Moses, no exodus from Egypt four hundred years later (Exodus 6:1–8).
If Joseph would have had a choice whether or not his brothers sold him into slavery, it’s reasonable to assume Joseph would have said “no.” If Joseph had been given the choice whether or not to be imprisoned on false charges (Genesis 39:1–20), again, he probably would have said “no.” Who would willingly choose such mistreatment? But it was in Egypt that Joseph was able to save his family, and it was in prison that the door opened to the palace.
God “declares the end from the beginning” (Isaiah 46:10–11), and we can be sure every event in the life of a believer serves God’s ultimate plan (Isaiah 14:24; Romans 8:28). To our minds, the way God weaves remarkable events in and through our lives may seem illogical and beyond our understanding. However, we walk by faith not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7). Christians know that God’s thoughts are above our own thoughts and God’s ways are higher than ours, “as the heavens are higher than the earth” (Isaiah 55:8–9).