Several years ago, I read an article about a fire that destroyed a private Christian school, forcing it to close down. Fortunately, nobody was injured or killed, but it took several months and a large sum of money to repair the damage. When the school finally reopened, one teacher was quoted as saying, “The fire was contained and Romans 8:28 says all things work together for good…so I believe that it all worked together in His timing.”
Her quote illustrates how people often turn to Romans 8:28 for comfort in the face of suffering and tragedy: “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” It is one of the most beloved passages of the New Testament, and for good reason.
Often, though, Christians use Romans 8:28 (inadvertently, I think) to minimize the reality of pain and suffering in the world. If we aren’t careful, this verse can become a cheap bandage that we try to stick onto our own or other people’s suffering. We quote the passage as if to say, “You shouldn’t be sad or grieved when terrible things happen. If you know Jesus, everything that happens is really good, even if it seems really bad!” Or, “Don’t worry about it! God will do something very soon to balance the scales of your life. Just wait!”
For example, we might imply that if a person loses their job, God will definitely provide a better one soon. Or that if somebody goes through a break-up, they can trust that a better romantic partner is just around the corner. “God has somebody better for you,” we might tell them. “After all, everything works together for good!”
But is that what Romans 8:28 really means? Is it a promise that the bad things that happen in this life are simply a prelude to something better in this life?
That understanding of Romans 8:28 is partially correct, but it’s also woefully and dangerously incomplete.
First, it’s important to notice that Romans 8:28 does not say that everything is good, but instead that God works everything for good. When bad things happen, our temptation is to always look for the silver lining. “Well, you learned a lot,” or “Well, this just paved the way for a new opportunity!” And sometimes those statements are true: Maybe we actually did learn a lot, and maybe a new opportunity really is coming soon. But not always! Some losses are never balanced out by an equal amount of good in this life. The Scripture doesn’t promise us that. For example, the death of a loved one is a very real and painful loss, one that we shouldn’t try to minimize with cheerful clichés.
It’s alright, and even proper, to acknowledge that the world not the way it is supposed to be right now. It’s appropriate for us to grieve that reality. When we try to paste false cheer onto real suffering, we prevent ourselves and other people from grieving as fully as we should.
If grief is wrong, then Jesus wouldn’t have wept at the grave of His dear friend Lazarus (John 11). Even though Jesus knew that He would raise Lazarus from the grave, He recognized that it’s appropriate to feel sad and angry about death and sin. He didn’t say, “Well, that’s alright! Lazarus will be alive again in a moment or two.” He told Mary and Martha about the hope of eternal life, while at the same grieving the reality of death.
We have to be cautious to never call evil good, or good evil. Death and suffering are not good; they’re the sad byproduct of a world that’s been broken by sin.
Second, we must remember that Romans 8:28 applies only to those who believe in Jesus. In the context of Romans 8, the scope of this promise that “God works all things together for good” is confined to “those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” In other words, this isn’t a general promise that everything will always work out alright in the end for everybody. It’s a specific promise for those who have been called and chosen according to God’s purposes in Jesus Christ. The promise is simply this: If we know Jesus, we can trust that our eternal destiny is secure, no matter what happens in this life. The “purpose” that God is working everything toward is our final salvation.
One day, those who know Jesus will live forever in a new and perfect world, free from sin, death, and pain (Revelation 21:1-5). Romans 8:28 offers something infinitely better than quick fixes; it offers the promise of an eternal and unchanging hope!
So what does this passage really mean, then?
Romans 8:28 tells us that no matter what happens to us in this life, God’s hand is never off the wheel. He is using everything in our lives for His purposes: to conform us to His image, and to write a story that has a very good ending for His people. Yes, God uses suffering and pain toward His good purposes in the end. Even the crucifixion of Jesus was used for God’s purposes (Acts 2:23-24). What evil men did to Jesus wasn’t good, but God used it for His glory and for our good.
God sees everything that is happening to us, and He also knows everything that is going to happen to us. He is working it all into His eternal plan. However, that doesn’t mean that we will always understand what God is doing, or that we will see the results of His plan in this life.
Instead, Romans 8:28 points us toward eternity. It reminds us that if we know Jesus, we can trust God’s eternal plan to make everything right. Death will one day be overturned, sin will be abolished, and pain will be eliminated.
In the meanwhile, we shouldn’t be ashamed to grieve the darkness and sin of this world. For those who know Jesus, though, we can grieve with hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13). We can trust that sin, pain, and death are having their way with us right now, but one day their reign will come to an end. One day, God will say, “Behold, I am making all things new.” And those of us who know Him will be resurrected to live forever in His sinless and death-free kingdom.
When that time comes, we will look back through history and back through our lives, and we’ll say with joy, “Look what God has done. He worked all things together for good! Everything fits into His perfect and eternal plan.”
Right now, though, we have to wait. And we have to simply trust Him. We live in the hope of eternal life, even while we’re walking through the valley of the shadow of death.