Romans 8:28 is one of the great promises in scripture that reassures Christians that God is working all things together for their good. But this verse is often misunderstood, partly due to our reliance on pithy sayings, or because we have the urge to say something meaningful to friends who are going through trials. Here is how Romans 8:28 reads in the English Standard Version:

Romans 8:28 ESV

“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”

Unfortunately, the way Christians often apply Romans 8:28 resembles something like this…

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Often Christians are well meaning, but we end up saying things that are not helpful to other people in the midst of their suffering. Sayings such as:

“God can bring good out of this…”

“Everything happens for a reason…”

“Count your blessings, it could be worse…”

“Remember, God works all things together for good…”

There is an existential, emotional, and relational need that all people have when going through suffering. The last thing that person typically wants is for another person to quote a Bible verse–as if that makes their troubles immediately smaller.

Now the last statement above is closest to scripture, but it needs to be taken in context and explained more fully. Here are a few key questions:

Who is working? According to the passage and the immediate context, it is God the Father who is working, along with the Holy Spirit, to bring about in the life of a Christian the character qualities of Jesus. God the Father searches hearts, and He knows the mind of the Spirit, and the Spirit is fully in tune with God’s will. When we cannot make sense of suffering, or we are too weak to even pray, it is the Holy Spirit interceding to the Father on our behalf, and the Holy Spirit strengthens our hearts and our souls in real time.

You see, it is not ultimately our effort which determines how God works in our lives. We need to give God our effort, our energy, no doubt, as an act of worship. God is at work in the realm of our decisions, but He is also at work in the realm beyond our decisions. God can change the circumstances we cannot change. God can arrange events and other people in a way that is beyond our control and understanding. Only God sees the entire picture, and God is always working behind what we can see.

All Things? Yes, “all things”. God uses both the good things in our lives and the negative things, the joyful things and the sad things, the happy times and even the boring times, to refine us. When we are enjoying good things, we tend to assume it is due to our efforts, or that God has specifically blessed us because of our obedience. That may be partly true, but God sometimes takes away good things in order to get our attention and humble us, so that we rely on Him alone. For the follower of Jesus, everything that comes to us has already been filtered through the Father’s loving hands: that is our mental grid, our spiritual lens. We would do well to take a lesson from Job, “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive disaster?” (Job 2:10)

What is our ultimate good? The passage specifies that God works for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose. Verse twenty-nine then explains that purpose: “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.”

The ultimate good, for those who love God, is to be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the one who suffered for us, leaving us an example, that we should follow in his steps. We don’t seek out suffering; we are not eager to suffer, but the Christian realizes that difficult things happen to all people, and the purpose of difficult things in a Christian’s life is to make us more humble, more loving, more wise, and more thankful.

We mistakenly think that what is for our ultimate good is the same as what we desire in the meantime. We conflate the two. We assume that it would be “good” for our lives if we made more money, had more vacations, and more accolades from peers and colleagues. But what if all of those “blessings” from our perspective are not really blessings from God’s perspective? What if more money causes more anxiety? What if more vacations actually distance us from our family? What if more accolades and more influence only feeds our need for recognition and drives us to work harder?

Remember that God’s purpose is larger than just “cause and effect” reasons. We typically want to know the specific reason why something happened. “What did I do that caused this? What immediate reason is behind this job loss, bankruptcy, divorce, disease, etc.?” It is important for us as followers of Jesus to take the long view. That is, we look at our lives and give thanks for where God has brought us, and we give thanks for where he is taking us. But if we get too focused on where we are in the midst if some circumstance, good or bad, we become shortsighted.

God does not always provide us with specific reasons. But he does remind us over and over of his larger purpose for our lives- to become like Jesus in our journey of sanctification, knowing that we are secure in the Good Shepherd’s arms until we see him face to face.