Life is filled with disappointments, grief, difficulty, trials, and strife. These things have touched each of us. It is the human experience. But in the midst of suffering, we cling to a promise found in Paul’s letter to the believers in Rome:
“For we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose.” Romans 8:28, NIV
Christians find comfort, encouragement, and hope in these words. And rightly so. Unfortunately, many of us have misapplied this well-known verse. Our understanding is shortsighted. We slap God’s promise on the current and temporal, expecting our physical circumstances to soon look “good” – better even than when things went awry.
Isn’t that what Romans 8:28 means? Isn’t our commonly condensed version of this passage – “all things work together for good” – accurate? Doesn’t God divinely control all the events and circumstances of our lives to make things turn out great for us?
In order to understand “all things work together for good” accurately, we must not only consider the entire verse, but also the context of the larger passage.
In Romans 8:18-39, Paul is comparing present, earthly suffering of believers with the eternal glory to come. (See Romans 8:18.) On this earth, we “groan” or experience difficulties because of the effects of sin. But God has conquered sin. In His sovereignty, He is working out His plan to save, sanctify, and glorify those He has “called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28-30).
With the larger context in mind, let’s discover the “who,” “what,” and “how” of Romans 8:28:
- Who is the promise for? – This promise is only for Christians, those who have entered into a saving relationship with Jesus. Not only did Paul write this letter to believers, but the verse itself defines the “who” – “those who love [God], who have been called according to His purpose.” We cannot apply this verse to all people.
- What is our “good?” – This is probably the most often misunderstood and misapplied part of this verse. “Good” does not mean our happiness, physical comfort, or material abundance. The larger context of the passage refers to our spiritual condition and sure hope of one day sharing in Christ’s glory. Verse 29 specifically says God’s purpose for us is to be “conformed to the likeness of His Son.” This is our calling, God’s goal – and “good” – for us. In His power and sovereignty, God is working through the circumstances of our lives to make us like Jesus and to bring us to our eternal glory.
- How does God accomplish it? – God works in and through our trials, difficulties, and pain and suffering to move us toward His will (Romans 8:27) which is conformity to Jesus and future glory with Him (Romans 8:29-30). (See Romans 5:3-4, 1 Peter 1:6-7, and James 1:2-4.) In order to be like Jesus and share His glory, we must also share His sufferings (Philippians 3:10-11). God uses and works through our physical circumstances to bring about the spiritual condition He desires in us.
God’s “good” for us is far greater than our temporary, physical circumstances. His plan is spiritual in nature and eternal in scope. God intimately knows our physical needs and cares greatly about each one (Matthew 6:25-33). But He cares even more about our spiritual condition. He wants us to be like His Son.
Is this understanding of God’s “good” for us different than you’ve understood it in the past? In what way?