And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. – Romans 8:28 ESV
This is one of the most frequently quoted verses in the Bible; but, sadly, it is too often one of the most misquoted and misused verses in the Bible. It seems to be the one verse we all bring up when we encounter someone who is struggling or suffering. We reach into our Bible Band-aid Box and pull out what we hope will be something to soothe the pain of our brother or sister in Christ. The problem is that this verse can end up sounding hollow and empty when quoted to someone who is knee-deep in difficulty. What it says may be true, but that doesn’t mean that it will bring comfort to the individual who is smack-dab in the middle of a difficult situation. While we may mean well when we throw around this verse like some kind of secret elixir or cure-all, we can actually end up aggravating rather than alleviating someone’s pain and suffering. Our efforts can do more harm than good.
Part of the problem is that we lift this verse out of its context. Paul has been talking about “the sufferings of this present time” (Romans 8:18 ESV). He describes us as groaning inwardly “as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:24 ESV). He tells us we are weak and do not know what or how to pray. But he says, “The Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Romans 8:26 ESV). We are surrounded by suffering. We have to constantly battle our own sin nature and “put to death the deeds of the body” (Romans 8:13 ESV). We have to remind ourselves daily that we are children of God and heirs with Christ (Romans 8:16). And our very existence as sons and daughters of God puts us at odds with this world and with Satan, the prince of this world. And while “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18 ESV), they are still real and difficult to handle at times.
But as we suffer and pray, struggling with uncertainty and seeking to understand God’s will in all that is going on around us, Paul tells us “we know…” We know what? That “God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them” (Romans 8:28 NLT). This does not mean that everything works out perfectly. It does not mean that God removes all our pain, heals all our diseases, or eliminates all our suffering. It means that our pain, sickness and suffering have a divine purpose behind them, because God is in control. He is sovereign. This is not to say that He is the cause behind our pain, sickness and suffering, but that God is not thwarted by or somehow limited by them when it comes to accomplishing His good in our lives.
The phrase “all things work together” is all-encompassing. It means ALL things – the good, the bad and the ugly. We may not understand how good can come out of the bad experiences of life, but the Holy Spirit is there to remind us that God is sovereignly at work in our lives, using each and every moment of life to accomplish His divine will. There is a story in the Old Testament that speaks of this very truth. Joseph had been sold into slavery by his own brothers. They hated him and were jealous of him, so they pawned him off on some slave traders then told Joseph’s father that his son was dead. Joseph ended up as a slave in Egypt. His life is one of constant ups and downs. There are incredible highs followed by unbelievable lows. At one point he gets falsely accused and imprisoned. But the next thing he knows, he finds himself occupying the second-highest position in the land, subject only to Pharaoh himself. And when his brothers arrive in town and discover that their long-lost brother is not only alive, but in a position to punish them for all they did to him, they panic. But Joseph tells them, “now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life” (Genesis 45:5 ESV). He surprises them by saying, “it was not you who sent me here, but God” (Genesis 45:8 ESV). And then he drops the bombshell, “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20 ESV).
God had worked “all things” together for good – not only for Joseph, but for the people of God. He took all the bad things that happened in Joseph’s life and used them to accomplish His divine will. God didn’t just turn Joseph’s apparent bad luck into good luck. He orchestrated the whole affair, having sent Joseph ahead of time into Egypt in order to preserve life. And everything that happened from the moment Joseph arrived in Egypt was part of God’s plan. But sometimes we don’t see His plan until we have the opportunity to look back in retrospect. It’s then that we perceive the sovereign hand of God in our lives.
You see, God had a bigger plan in store for Joseph and for the people of Israel. And He has a bigger plan in mind than just our own comfort and personal convenience. God is pushing all things toward the ultimate fulfillment of His divine plan for mankind. Yes, we must suffer for this present time. But there is a time coming when all our suffering will make sense to us. Yes, we have to live in these bodies of flesh, but there is a day coming when we will receive new bodies. Yes, we have a lot to cry about right now, but we have been promised an eternity with no more tears, sorrow or pain. Yes, we have to daily struggle against our sin nature, but there is a time coming when sin will be no more. All things will work together for good. If not in this life, in the one to come. There is a reason for our suffering. There is a purpose behind our pain. And if nothing else, it should drive us to Him for comfort and teach us to trust Him for a good and godly outcome.