In reading C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, do you come to a point of realizing that Aslan the Lion (who was a figure of Christ) wasn’t a safe lion, but was good.
This somehow seems easier for many people to accept when they are younger. But as we grow older and the challenges and scars of life become reality, some find it harder to see the biblical perspective found in the old saying “God is good all the time, all the time God is good.”
At your age and all you’ve been through (and possibly going through now) how can you explain that God is good?
To say that God is good is to say that within the heart of God, he is morally excellent and kind. His heart is true, his love is pure, and his kindness is seen in the goodness and mercy that he gives in abundance. For as David said at the end of Psalm 23:
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever. – Psalm 23:6
But this idea of God being full of goodness is often put to the test during the difficult times, and it brings to mind a verse that is often misconstrued and misunderstood even to the point where some have questioned the “good” nature of God himself. The verse is Romans 8:28, and it was written by the apostle Paul in what is perhaps one of the most glorious and familiar sections in all of Scripture.
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
So there it is: “All things work together for good.” But what does this promise really mean? Does it mean that whatever happens in life, everything is going to be fine?
When the doctor calls and the cancer has returned, is it true that all things work together for good? When the police officers show up at your door on your son’s prom night, is it true that all things work together for good? When you lose your job, your marriage of thirty years begins falling apart, is it true that all things work together for good?
Where do we find the good when the doctor says, “I’m sorry, there’s nothing more we can do but make her comfortable”? For many people, Romans 8:28 merely seems like an unkept promise, or worse, a flat-out lie.
Have you ever been in a bad situation where you found that verse or saying painful or offensive?
But coming to that conclusion — a false conclusion — stems from a misinterpretation of what Paul is actually saying. As always, it is important to take a closer look at the verse in context so that we can understand and apply it appropriately.
First, we should know the the apostle Paul is talking to believers, those who have trusted in Christ for their salvation and have been given the gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit. This will become even more evident when we direct the verse.
Thematically, in this section of Scripture, Paul has just set forth the idea that believers in Christ are set to receive an inheritance from God and are bound for glory, which puts our sufferings in perspective. In fact, Paul says the sufferings we experience in life pale in comparison to the future glory that awaits us as people of faith.
And we long for that time to arrive when Christ returns and both body and soul are delivered from the fallen flesh and eventually glorified. The Bible says we along with creation inwardly “groan” for it.
Yet until that day comes, we have to rely upon the Holy Spirit in all of our day-to-day weaknesses. During times when we don’t know how to pray about a situation, we have to rely on the Holy Spirit to help and intercede for us. But even though we don’t always know how to interpret our day-to-day struggles or even know how to pray about things due to our human limitations and weaknesses, there is something that we do know:
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
See the contrast here? There is much we don’t know, but there is one big thing we do know – all things work together for good. So the first question is: For whom? Do all things work together for good for everyone? No. It is very specific. Paul says this is a promise for Christians only. It is for those who love God, or saying it another way from God’s angle, those who are called (to salvation) according to his purpose.
This should tell us right away that not everyone is able to claim this promise, because not everyone believes in Christ. So Christians should be careful in using this verse as a promise for a friend or a loved one who is not a believer. Please be aware of that.
The second question is: What does it mean to say that all things work together for good? Is Paul defining the word good the way we might be tempted to define it today? Is good short for general success? Health, financial security, or personal happiness? If so, I have have news for Paul: God does not always seem to be working all things together for good for Christians in that way. As you well know, life can be full of tragedy, even for Christians. Loved ones die. People get cancer. Jobs are lost. Children get hurt. (Otherwise, everyone would want to be a Christian.)
So what then is the ultimate good that Paul is talking about? Well, the answer lies in the very next verse:
For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son. – Romans 8:29
There you have it. That’s the ultimate good for which God is weaving and working all things together. The good of making us more like Christ, or as Paul said it, being “conformed to the image of his Son.” This means that we as Christians have to junk our superficial fleshly definition of what’s good as defined in modern-day terms and trade it in for theologically robust definition of good. In other words, in this instance, our definition of good would be God’s definition: “to be conformed to the image of his Son” – being made more like Jesus.
In this sense, “all things” that happen in the Christian life are designed for this purpose – the ultimate good of bringing glory to God, of advancing his kingdom purposes, and making us more holy, filling us with love, bringing about humility, developing our patience, cultivating our trust in God… the list could go on. God is using these circumstances (remember, “all things”) to grow us spiritually and make us more like him until the day he calls us home to heaven or he returns to earth, whichever comes first (the day we are “glorified” – see verse 30).
Can you share a time when things seemed bad but you ended up being more conformed like Christ?
Essentially then, God is weaving the great triumphs and terrible tragedies all together for his sovereign purposes in the world, which includes changing us. The most dramatic example of this is found at the cross of Christ. Here is where Satan, the Evil One, thought he had won, but God had purposely woven together the actions of sinful men into something that was for our greater good (our salvation). Acts 4 captures it well. After Peter and John were forbidden by the Sanhedrin to preach or teach in the name of Jesus, they reported these things to their people and then prayed aloud in their presence:
27 Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. 28 They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen. – Acts 4:27-28 NIV
So this is the mystery. Bad things happen, but God works it for good. He already had a plan that Jesus would go to the cross, and evil men put him there. But this was his sovereign purpose, so that we, the ones who are “called to his purpose,” might receive the ultimate good that came even out of the height of human evil.
So we must remember, no matter what happens in life, God is at work behind the scenes:
He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. – Philippians 4:6 NIV
Even the worst evil that happens to us as Christians is for the greater good (once again – so that God may be glorified, his kingdom purposes advanced, and that we become more like him).
Real life, real pain, real sorrow, real victory
A little over fifty years ago, five missionaries form the United States traveled to the remote section of Ecuador to bring the gospel to the notoriously violent tribe known as the Auca Indians. The missionaries were Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Ed McCully, Roger Youderian, and Peter Fleming, and they began to make contact with these natives from their airplane.
Eventually they set up camp nearby and had a few friendly encounters with some of the natives in an attempt to build a relationship. However, over the course of their interactions a terrible misunderstanding took place and ten of the natives killed all five missionaries with spears and machetes. I’m sure the question at the time was: What good did God have in mind of all this?
Years later, Elisabeth Elliot (the wife of Jim Elliot) and Rachel Saint (the sister of Nate Saint) became further involved in continued missionary efforts to the Auca Indians. Through a young Auca girl named Dayuma, who had run away and been living in exile from the tribe, they were able to learn the language of the Auca Indians, and eventually went back with her to live with Aucas, leading many of them to Christ, even some of the men who earlier had killed their loved ones!
These women seemingly had every right to be grieved and angry over what had happened, yet the grace and love of God compelled them to forgive and to reach out – all in the name of Christ.
So what was the good that God brought from such a terrible tragedy? Simply this: Many Aucas came to saving faith in Christ. the women were used by God to share the gospel and gained a testimony of the power of forgiveness and grace. For the original missionaries who were murdered, their reward was the glory of heaven, and their story inspired hundreds of others to enter the mission field for the cause of Christ.
This is what it means to say that all things work together for good for those that love God and are called according to his purpose. Only God saw the big picture. He was the one who knew his ultimate good plan.
So even if great suffering and tragedy come to your door, please know that as a believer in Christ, God is orchestrating something for his and your good. And as he weaves his plan, we can rejoice in knowing that his plan is tailor-made for each one of us as he seeks to make us more like him. Life of the believer may not always feel safe, but it is good (both in this life and in the life to come). There is no greater security than know this.
The lesson this week is from the book: “The Most Misused verses in the Bible” by Eric J. Bargerhuff
The New International Version. (2011). (Mt 7:1–2). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.