Romans 8: 28
Do all things really work together for good? Consider the following - A seemingly healthy 12-year-old girl develops severe migraine headaches. On Friday she is taken to hospital; on Saturday she dies. Her father calls her “the sunshine of my life.”
A young boy goes with his church youth group on an outing. That night he comes down with a fever. The next morning he has trouble breathing and his mother calls the doctor. By the time the ambulance gets there, he has stopped breathing. The doctor does everything he can, but the boy dies from a bacterial infection.
A man feels the call of God to go into the ministry. He leaves his good job to enter seminary. His wife takes a job to help him make it through. He’s in his last year now. In just a few months he’ll take a church somewhere and begin serving the Lord. But one day his wife comes in and says, “I’m leaving you. I don’t want to be a pastor’s wife.” She walks out and never comes back.
A policeman stops a man known to be a drug dealer. There is a struggle and somehow the drug dealer grabs the officer’s gun. He shoots him, at point-blank range, in the face.
Do all things work together for good? Can we still believe in Romans 8:28? KJV - “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” We have at least 2 problems -
1. They promise something we have trouble believing. “...we know that all things work together for good.” Paul, how can you be so sure about that? Most of us are not that sure. We hope all things work together for good; we believe they do. But do we really know that to be true?
2. They include things that we think ought to be left out. “All things work together for good” - seems too definite for us. We might go as far -“some things” work together for good. We understand that out of difficulty we learn great lessons of faith. Yes, some things clearly work together for good. But can we be sure it is really all things? Perhaps these words are true in theory or as a statement of faith. But are they true to every part of life? Romans 8:28 - one of the most loved verses in the Bible. You know that. You were sick, and this verse was like medicine to your soul. You lost a loved one, and these words somehow carried you through. You were crushed and beaten by the winds of ill-fortune, and this verse gave you hope to go on.
But for many who hear this verse it seems like a mocking, cruel joke. They say, “What do you mean by good?” Sickness is not good. Murder is not good. Divorce is not good. Suicide is not good. The death of a child is not good. This verse is often misused by well-meaning Christians who throw it in the face of those who are suffering as if it could answer every question of life. When it is misused that way, it produces an effect opposite to that intended by Paul. But like it or not, it’s in the Bible. Which brings us back to the basic question: Can we still believe in Romans 8:28? There are 4 perspectives we need to keep in mind as we read this verse.
1. We Must Start With God
Look at the 1st phrase in 3 different versions: KJV: “All things work together for good to them that love God.” NASB: “God causes all things to work together for good.” NIV: “In all things God works for the good of those who love him.” Did you catch the difference? KJV - God is at the end of the phrase. Other 2 versions God is at the beginning. There is nothing wrong with the traditional version, but the modern translations bring out a proper emphasis. We will never properly understand this verse as long as we put God at the end and not at the beginning. Some people look at life that way. They believe that life is like a roll of the dice - sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. They believe that after a tragedy, God shows up to make everything come out right. God is there at the beginning, He is there at the end and He is there at every point in between. God is at work. Not luck, or chance, or blind fate. That answers the question, “Where is God when it hurts? Is he there at the beginning, or is he there only at the end?” The answer is that Romans 8: 28 begins with God. He was there before it all happened, he is there when it happens, and he is still there after it is all over.
What do you say when a little child dies? Or when a cop is killed by a drug dealer? Or when a man dies on the mission field? Or when a woman is cheated out of her inheritance? Or when a friend dies of AIDS? Or when your marriage falls apart after 38 years? It is hard to see how these things are good. When we look at these situations, we must at all costs resist the cheap explanation. It’s too quick, too easy. Sometimes tragedies happen and people say, “That’s not a tragedy. It only looks that way. Just have faith.” If you believe that tragedy is not really tragedy, you will probably lose your faith altogether.
If I have an accident and take my car to the panelbeaters - man says, “Friend, you haven’t had an accident. Your car has just been rearranged.” I turn and look at the cracked grille, the crumpled fender, the twisted bumper and the shattered windshield. I say, “Buddy, you’re crazy. This car isn’t rearranged. It’s wrecked.”
The Bible never asks us to pretend that tragedy isn’t tragedy or to pretend that our pain isn’t real. We must see the active involvement of God. What happens to you and to me is not the mechanical turning of some impersonal wheel. It is not fate or karma or luck. God is actively at work in your life!
Is Paul saying, “Whatever happens is good"? No. Is he saying that suffering and evil are good? No. Is he saying everything will work out if we just have enough faith? No. Is he saying that we will understand why God allowed tragedy to come? No.
What, then, is he saying? He is erecting a sign over the unexplainable mysteries of life - “Quiet. God at work.” How? We’re not always sure. To what end? Good, and not evil.
Little children are often afraid at night. Scared because they can’t see in the darkness. They cry out until Daddy comes. He sits on the bed, takes them in his arms, holds them -“Don’t be afraid. I’m right here with you." The fear goes away when Daddy comes. Even so, the darkness of life frightens us until we discover that our heavenly Father is there. The darkness is still dark, but he is there, and that makes all the difference. Can we still believe in Romans 8:28? Yes, but we need to start with God.
2. We Need a Long Term Perspective
So many things in life seem unexplainable. Why does a tornado destroy one house and leave another? Why does one brother excel while another struggles all his life? Why does a tumour come back when the doctor said he thought he got it all? The list of questions is endless. Seen in isolation, they make no sense whatsoever. If there is a purpose behind such tragedy, we cannot see it.
Our danger is that we judge the end by the beginning. We judge what we cannot see by what we can see. When tragedy strikes, if we can’t see a purpose, we assume there isn’t one. But the very opposite is true. We ought to judge the beginning by the end. Paul says, “And we know that all things work together for good.” We get our English word synergy from it - the combination of many elements to produce a positive result.
God causes all things to “work together." Many of the things that make no sense when seen in isolation are in fact working together to produce something good in my life. There is a divine synergy even in the darkest moments - produces something positive. The “good” that is produced could not happen any other way.
God begins with the raw materials of life, including some things that seem to serve no good purpose. Those materials are acted upon by pressure and heat - then bent, shaped and joined together. Over time something beautiful is created. Not by accident, but by a divine design. Nothing is wasted. That is how we must look at life. We must not judge the end by the beginning, but rather the beginning by the end. Can we still believe in Romans 8:28? Yes, we can. But we need a long-term perspective.
3. We Must Define the Word “Good”
This is the crux of the matter. Paul says that “all things work together for good.” But what is the “good” he is talking about? For most of us, “good” equals things like health, happiness, solid relationships, long life, money, food on the table, meaningful work and a nice place to live. In general, we think the “good” life means a better set of circumstances.
That’s not necessarily the biblical viewpoint. Paul defines it for us in the very next verse: “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son” (8: 29). That makes it very clear. God has predestined you and me to a certain end. That certain end is the “good” of Romans 8:28. It is that we might be conformed to the likeness of Jesus Christ. God’s good and our good are not the same thing.
God is at work in your life making you like Jesus Christ. He has predestined you to that end. He is at work in your life making that happen. Anything that makes you more like Jesus Christ is good. Anything that pulls you away from Jesus Christ is bad. Paul is not saying that the tragedies and heartaches of life will always produce a better set of circumstances. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. But God is not committed to making you happy and successful. He is committed to making you like his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Whatever it takes to make you more like Jesus is good.
So it is in the providence of God that we learn more in the darkness than we do in the light. We gain more from sickness than we do from health. We pray more when we are scared than when we are confident. Everything that happens to you - the tragedies, the unexplained circumstances, even the stupid choices you make - all of it is used by God for His loving purpose. He will not give up even when we do. God is at work in your life. Right now, you are rough and uncut, and God is patiently chipping away at you. But remember this: He will never intentionally hurt you. In the end, you will look like the Lord Jesus Christ.
This is our greatest problem with Romans 8:28. Our good and God’s good are not the same. We want happiness and fulfilment and peace and long life. Meanwhile, God is at work in us and through us and by everything that happens to us to transform us into the image of his Son. Does that include the worst that happens to us? Yes. Does that include the things that hurt us deeply? Yes. Does that include the times when we are heartbroken? Yes. Does that include the times when we sin? Yes. Does that include the times when we doubt God? He is always at work. He is never deterred by us. Nothing happens to us outside his control. There are no mistakes and no surprises.
Paul says, “We know.” We know it because we know God and he has said it. His word is trustworthy and that guarantees it. Indeed, his character rests upon it. We know it not by looking at the events of life, but by knowing God. We know it not by studying the pattern of the cloth, but by knowing the designer of the fabric. We know it not by listening to the notes of the symphony but by knowing the composer of the music. There are many things we don’t know. We don’t know why babies die or why planes crash or why families break up or why good people get sick and suddenly die. But this we do know - God is at work, and he has not forgotten us. Can we still believe in Romans 8:28? Yes, but we must properly define what “good” means.
4. We Must Understand the Limitation of This Verse
It is a promise to “those who love God, who have been called according to his purpose.” That is an all-important limitation. This verse is true of Christians and only of Christians. It is not a blanket promise to the whole human race. Why? Because God’s purpose is to make his children one day like his Son.
Therefore we can ask 2 simple questions: 1. Have you ever responded to God’s call? 2. Are you part of God’s saving purpose? You either answer “Yes” or “No” to those questions. There is no middle ground. Until you can answer “Yes”, this verse does not apply to you. So we come back to the basic question: Can we still believe in Romans 8:28? It sounds good.
We want to believe it. I say that we can believe in Romans 8:28 as long as we keep 2 things in mind –
2 Important Qualifications
1. We must not try to explain the unexplainable.
Sometimes in our enthusiasm, we try to explain why bad things happen to good people. That’s almost always a bad idea. We are like little children looking into the face of an infinitely wise Father. It is not possible that we should understand all he does. It is enough that we love him and know that he is there. We don’t need to “protect” God. He can take are of himself.
2. We must understand that God’s values and our values are not the same.
“We must understand that we will often not understand at all.” We are not called to praise God for evil, sin and death. But we can praise God for the good he can work in the darkest days of life. Romans 8:28 is not teaching us to call evil good or simply to smile through the tears and pretend everything is OK. But it is teaching us that no matter what happens to us - no matter how terrible, no matter how unfair - our God is there. He has not left us. His purposes are being worked out as much in the darkness as they are in the light.
God knows what we are going through for he, too, has been there. He watched his own Son die. God knows what it is like to lose a Son. Therefore, we can say with the apostle Paul, “We know.” Not because we see the answer, but because we know him, and he knows. He knows, and we know him.
Can we still believe in Romans 8:28? Let me answer that question with another. What is your alternative? If you don’t believe in Romans 8:28, what do you believe in? Fate? Chance? The impersonal forces of nature? Yes, we can - and must - believe in Romans 8:28. It is teaching us one great truth: All things ultimately contribute to the ultimate good of those who love God. That does not answer every question. But it does answer the big question: Does God know what he is doing? Yes, he does, and we know him, and that is enough.