For the more Biblically literate, there is a Bible verse that occasionally pops up when confronted with the pain and struggle of suffering. It is a verse that is true, a verse that does have some the ability to help people in their struggles but it is not a magic verse–invoking it does not automatically make everything better. In fact, like the rest of the Bible, this verse needs to be properly understood and used wisely to be of any value.
The verse is found in Romans 8.28, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (NIV). It is a powerful verse, promising God’s active presence in all of life, even at the most painful and difficult times. The message found here can be very positive and valuable to people, provided it is interpreted and used properly.
And so, I want to begin looking at this verse from the perspective of what it doesn’t say and what not to do with it–I have always worked on the principle that we need to know as much about what not to do as what to do.
So, while this verse makes great promises, we need to realize that it doesn’t tell us that God causes everything or that everything is good. I mention that because I have had occasion to hear people twist the passage enough to get those meanings out of it. The message here is meant to be applied after things happen–God doesn’t send the stuff we are worked up about–but he promises to be there and to be working to bring something good out of the process.
The passage doesn’t tell us that we will immediately see and understand the good. I have heard some people quote the verse and then immediately begin speculating on what the good in the pain is or will be. In the end, their far-fetched or pietistic speculation is at best boring and at worst condescending and insensitive. God works in God’s way and in God’s time and that means that we may or may not see immediate good in any particular situation. It may also mean that when the good God promises to bring out of the situation actually comes about, it will likely be clear and hard to argue with rather than vague and open to interpretation.
I am not sure but it may be that the good that comes from the situation may not necessarily be a personal good for those involved. God sometimes uses the suffering of one to bring about the good of another–Jesus’ suffering on the Cross provides a good example of that reality. And so even though there is a promise of good coming out of the situation, it might not be a personalized good for those in the midst of the suffering.
There is also a major restriction on this verse. While a great deal of the Bible is applicable to believer and non-believer, this particular promise is valid only for those who are followers of God through Christ. For we who have accepted God’s love and grace in Christ, God promises that no matter what happens in our lives–good, bad or indifferent–he will be at work, using his divine power and wisdom to bring about something positive and good from the situation. But the promise, great as it is, isn’t made to those who don’t yet follow God.
Theologically and practically, I think we are safe to say that God can and will use less than positive events in the life of a non-believer to bring about some good for them, such as their salvation. We can also say that God doesn’t turn his back on people who haven’t yet accepted his grace when their lives are in turmoil and even more will offer them grace and help and whatever he can–but this promise in Romans is made to those of us who believe. God promises that no matter what we deal with in life, he is there and even more, he is at work, using all his power and ability and wisdom to bring something good out of the suffering and pain we are dealing with.
For all the limitations, it is a great and wonderful promise, a valuable tool that God has gifted to his people. But like any tool, we need to know how to use it–and that will be the focus of our next post.
May the peace of God be with you.