"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, ESV)
We have all heard the phrase said: “Don’t worry; everything will work out fine.” This is the hopefulness that is born in the wishful thinking of the white house with the white picket fence and two and a half children of the American dream. All of us know it isn’t completely true, we know of children who were diagnosed with cancer, of drug addicts who came from good homes, or of people who lost their jobs. We know of countless tragedies and needless suffering, yet we repeat the lie to our children without blinking an eye: “Don’t worry; everything will work out fine.”
It’s not the first time we heard this statement; it did not start in modern times. The apostle Paul also said something like this. The difference is that Paul conditioned his statement with important qualifiers, and he defined the ‘good’ as other than health, wealth, and prosperity. In real estate it is said that there are three key things one must follow when buying a house: location, location, and location. In interpreting scripture, there are also three key things: context, context, and context. Romans 8:28 is no exception to this rule. If we look at it in its context, we will understand its intent.
The overall context of Romans 8:28 is one in which Paul addresses living by the power of the Spirit in the midst of suffering and pain. Paul was no stranger to suffering. In the immediate context, within the verse itself, Paul expresses prerequisites for the good to take place: “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28). Paul is not giving this promise to all people, but only to those “who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
What, then, is the good? It is defined for us, initially at least, in v. 29, one of the forgotten verses of scripture: “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 good is not our health, wealth, or prosperity. It is conformity to Christ! This good is then fully defined in the next verse: “And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” Ultimately, all things work together to bring each Christian into conformity to Christ, to bring each Christian to glory.
When we read Romans 8:28 in its context we can give a positive answer to the questions of pain and suffering in the world. We may see nothing good come of misery and disaster in this world, but this world is not the end. God is using the present, even the miserable present, to conform us to the image of his Son. If we define the good as only what we can see in this life, then we have missed the whole point of this text. For, as Paul said earlier in the same chapter, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18). Christians are prone to pervert texts such as Romans 8:28. If our lives are comfortable, if we have wealth, good health, that is fine and well. But it is not the good that Paul had in mind, and it is not the goal of a life lived for Christ.