Unpacking and Rejoicing in the Most Powerful and Precious Promise in the Bible (5) and (6)
As we turn our attention once again to Romans 8:28, note well that Paul does not say all things are good, but that God is more than capable of causing them to work together for good. Nowhere does the Bible suggest that things like disease or poverty or pain are good things. God is not saying to us in this text, “Hey, those bad things aren’t really all that bad.” God doesn’t minimize or trivialize your hurts and the harm that comes your way.
Neither does he transform evil things into good things, in the sense that they cease to be evil once God has finished with them. What he says is that God can take something inherently evil and make it serve a higher, better, and more spiritually productive end. You may recall that Joseph’s brothers in Genesis intended to do him harm. They sold him into slavery. What they did was evil. Do you remember Joseph’s response?
“As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Gen. 50:20).
By taking something that was evil and providentially using it for good does not mean that it ceased to be evil or that those who perpetrated this sin against Joseph won’t be held accountable for it. But God sovereignly intended this particular “thing” in Joseph’s experience to “work together for good.”
The sixth thing of significance in Romans 8:28 is the one that I’m sure that most of you have been anxiously awaiting, namely, the “good” that comes from God’s providential oversight of our lives. Perhaps you have said to yourself, “It’s about time that God did something ‘good’ for me to make up for all the lousy and painful stuff he allowed into my life.” Perhaps you’ve been waiting patiently to cash in on the “good” that Paul confidently promises will come from the things over which God exercises his control.
In other words, many people have it in their heads that the “good” in Romans 8:28 is more money, worldly comfort, a long-overdue promotion at work, fame, possessions, power, consistently good health, or some such thing. Or perhaps you’ve read this verse to say that God causes all things to work together for the good that you want. No, much to your disappointment, that is not what Paul means.
Neither does this verse mean that if we lose one job God will always make certain that we get a better one. It does not mean that if we get sick this week, we will experience good health next week. The “good” that God brings out of the bad may not be recognizable as good, at least as we define the term. This verse is not a promise that God will bring riches out of poverty or laughter out of sorrow or pleasure out of pain. Paul is not saying that at the end of the day or at the end of life my ship will come in and I’ll get the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
The “good” that Paul has in view is clearly identified for us at the close of v. 29. There Paul says that God’s design is to bring us into moral and spiritual conformity to the image of his Son, Jesus Christ. God’s ultimate purpose in exercising providential lordship over the “all things” of our lives is to make us Christ-like! It is holiness, not merely health, and purity, not possessions, that God has promised. That doesn’t mean God won’t provide us with good health in response to our prayers. Many times he does. It doesn’t mean he won’t prosper us financially. Many times he does. But the primary “good” we get is becoming more and more like Jesus in what we love and hate and enjoy and understand.
Consider a silly game that we often play with one another. “Close your eyes and hold out your hand.” If people do so, it is often with fear and trembling. They are anxious and somewhat worried. Their hand shakes. They recoil, all because they fear that you will put something squishy or harmful or ugly in their hand. But God will never do this! We need never fear what he gives. It will always prove in the long run to be for our spiritual good. It may be painful. It may not be what we expect or want or think we need. But God assures us that it will work for our greater conformity to Christ.
One more thing before we look at the seventh and final thing Paul says. The worst thing you can do as you reflect on Romans 8:28 is to conclude that Paul is minimizing your struggles and pain. Paul is no Pollyanna who is incapable of understanding or looking realistically at the suffering God’s people endure. No one suffered more than Paul did. Don’t ever think that this is his attempt to pat you on the back and say, “There, there, now. It’s not all that bad. Don’t wallow in self-pity. Chin up! God is using this for your good.”
Well, yes. God is in fact orchestrating your suffering and your heartache for your spiritual good. But that does not mean life won’t hurt or that you should pretend that you are untouched or unaffected by the trials you are experiencing.
What we must remember is that for the Christian, for those who love God and are called according to his purpose, there is no such thing as pointless suffering. Your suffering and distress may be altogether random and unexpected. It likely will remain mysterious and unexplained. It may continue to be chronic and depressing, but it is never pointless. You may never in this life discover the point. You likely will not be told by God or someone else why it is happening. Don’t come to me looking for an explanation. But as I said earlier, knowing the point is horribly overrated. It won’t do for you what you think it would. That being said, let’s conclude with Paul’s seventh and final statement. To be continued . . .