I have often heard it said that Romans 8:28 is the wrong verse to bring to the attention of those who are grieving, that while it is true in our especially difficult moments, it does not necessarily become helpful until some time has passed. And while I can only speak for myself, it has been my experience that in my lowest moments I have feasted on Romans 8:28, I have run to it like a starving man runs to a meal and I have drunk from it like a parched man drinks from an oasis. I have needed Romans 8:28 and it has both comforted my soul and directed my grief.
The verse says, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” It is for good reason that this is one of the most familiar verses in the entire Bible and for good reason that so many have memorized it. And I wonder if you have ever paused to consider a world without Romans 8:28?
Without Romans 8:28 we would not have confidence that our experiences in this world “work … for good.” We might believe that some of what we experience works for harm, that Satan and God are cosmically slugging it out with first one and then the other gaining the upper hand. We might be tempted to believe that some of what we experience works for nothing, that there is an arbitrary element to life in which things happen that have no purpose, no meaning, and no redemption. We might gaze at our sorrows and sufferings and think, “There is no goodness in this and no way goodness could ever come from this.”
Without Romans 8:28 we would not have confidence that “all” things work for good. We might believe that some of the things we experience ultimately work for good while others ultimately work for our harm. Or we might believe that some things work for good while other things are empty and meaningless, black holes in God’s providence.
Without Romans 8:28 we might not see the hand of God working in our suffering, for where things “work together for good,” there must be someone who is working them. Work requires a worker! We might assume, as do so many today, that an impersonal force like the universe is ultimately behind our circumstances. We might even assume that there is no deity and no intelligent being who acts out his providence within this universe, but just cold impersonal fate.
Without Romans 8:28 we might neglect to meditate on the fact that our purpose in this world is to serve God’s purpose—that we have been “called according to his purpose.” We might fail to ponder the truth that if we are called to experience trials it is because God has purposes to accomplish through them and that we can bring glory to him if we meet these trials and pass through them with our faith strong and intact.
Without Romans 8:28 our suffering would be intolerable and we might rightly conclude that our sorrows are meaningless.
But we do have Romans 8:28. God has given it to us a gift of his grace. Of course, we need to exercise good judgment when we bring comfort to God’s people as they suffer. Of course, we need to choose the truth that fits the circumstance. Of course, we need to ensure we are not forcing a harsh or inaccurate interpretation of the passage as so many have done with this verse. But as for me, there are few verses more comforting and more encouraging than this one.
Because Romans 8:28 exists, those who love God and are loved by him can have confidence that he is working through all of life’s circumstances to bring good out of bad, light out of darkness, joy out of sorrow. It’s not that God is especially agile, a kind of cosmic PR man adept at manipulating circumstances, but rather that he is the Planner, the Engineer, the Designer who has ordained the means just as much as the end. He ordains the calm and the storm, the darkness and the dawn, the famine and the feast. This being the case, no event is meaningless, no situation purposeless, no condition ultimately hopeless. God is working out his good will not despite dark days, difficult trials, and broken hearts, but through them. Such circumstances are the raw material he uses to form and shape his good plans, his perfect purposes.
God’s specialty is not bringing good from good, but good from bad and Romans 8:28 gently tells me that if I trust him through my tears, he will give me reason to laugh; if I trust him through my pain, he will teach me to praise; if I trust him through my grief, he will afterwards show me all the good that came with it and through it. He will show me the precious flowers in the dry desert, the beautiful blooms against the sharp thorns, the gentle petals beneath the vicious skies. For behind every black cloud is a yellow sun, behind every dark night a bright day, behind every frowning providence a smiling face—the smiling face of the God who works all things for good for those who love him and are called according to his purpose.1