Paul wrote that “all things work together for good” in Romans 8:28. But what does this wonderful promise mean—especially when bad things happen?
Joe looked up from the cell floor as the warden slammed the door shut. As his eyes adjusted to the dim lighting, he once again wondered: What did I do to deserve this? How could this be happening? What possible good could come from this turn of events? Where was God?
Myrtle was seemingly alone in her thoughts. The very real threat to her extended family weighed heavily on her. Surely, this wasn’t the plan. How could things have gone so wrong? Was this really happening? Why didn’t God intervene?
Paul gingerly tested his footing as he slowly straightened his back and stretched. It had been another bruising day. How had it come to this—the increasing regularity of these brushes with violence? There seemed to be no end to it—different day, different town, same abuse.
Such stories highlight the ongoing cycle of trials so commonplace today. The frequently quoted adage “that which has been is what will be . . . and there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9) seems fitting when describing the difficulties encountered by people like Joe, Myrtle and Paul.
These three individuals were biblical heroes—individuals of real faith, conviction and dedication to God. Despite their devotion to God, they each faced monumental obstacles—serious, life-threatening difficulties.
Joseph, the favored son of Israel, was sold into slavery by his own brothers (Genesis 37). He was entrapped and falsely accused by his master’s lustful wife. Because he spurned her advances, he was put in prison, where he was initially forgotten by those he helped (Genesis 39-40). Yet, despite the compounding nature of his trials, he remained faithful to God.
Myrtle, a translation of her real name, Hadassah, was taken from her family at a young age and pledged to a pagan king (Esther 2). In one moment, her personal dreams, aspirations and future were erased because of her youth and beauty. Later, as Queen Esther, she witnessed the genocidal conspiracy designed to wipe her people from the earth. Yet she persevered and maintained a faith in God.
Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ, faced recurring adversity. Paul’s account shows it was severe: “In stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often. From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers . . . in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness” (2 Corinthians 11:23-27). Yet he continued onward in his mission to serve God.
A profound understanding
Incredibly, these individuals remained faithful to God, enduring prolonged, agonizing trials with conviction and hope. How did they manage such a feat? They all embraced a spiritual understanding that served to anchor them during trials and unsettling times.
Paul was inspired to record this principle: “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28).
This principle is a statement of faith. Paul declared, “We know”—not we suspect, we think or we theorize. Rather, we know “all things”—all the joyful and frustrating experiences—work together for a productive, positive purpose! That is a powerful, affirming statement about God’s providential plan and purpose.
This encouragement frames the good, bland and ugly parts of life within the context of the end result. The end result of all things, for those who love God, is for good. This requires adopting an eternal perspective while navigating this physical life.
Embracing this principle frees individuals from the shackles of worry, despair and doubt. We are not required to figure out every twist and turn of life in advance. We are not expected to manipulate events or people to our advantage.
Those who love God
Surely, everyone would want to benefit from this concept. Is it open to anyone? God offers it to those He calls—though only a few at first, eventually all mankind (John 6:44; 1 Timothy 2:4; see our blog post “Is God Calling You?”). Paul also limits this marvelous benefit to “those who love God.” This freedom, peace and contentment is available for those who truly love God. But what does loving God mean?
Loving God involves choosing to govern how we live within the parameters of His guidance. The apostle John explains: “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3). John understood that our ability to love God grows from a wholehearted desire and determination to seek His will and obey His instructions.
This, then, is the challenge for everyone in the human family. The peace, trust and faith experienced by Joseph, Esther, Paul and so many others require thoughtful choices on our part. Jesus stated plainly, “If you want to enter into life, keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:17). For more information on how to love God, see our online article “Heart, Soul and Mind: Three Components in Loving God.”
This principle for living involves more than just sitting around waiting for life to happen. Instead, the Bible portrays this way of living as robust, exciting and forward-leaning. Loving God requires a daily, ongoing choice to apply ourselves. God encourages those who want to obey Him, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might” (Ecclesiastes 9:10).
Like Joseph, Esther, Paul and those who truly loved God throughout time, Christians will face difficulties and challenges that may leave us groaning at times. But the end result is worth it.Along the way, Christians will inevitably make mistakes and experience shortcomings. Joseph, Esther and Paul did. Our mistakes and sins bring bad consequences now. God makes provision for that as well, and though it would be better if we didn’t sin, when we repent, He can work even those things for our eternal good. For encouragement, examine our article “True Christianity: Imperfect People Striving Toward Perfection.”
Groaning while we wait
Unfortunately, some have misread Romans 8:28 as “only good things will happen to those who love God.” This misreading has been a source of discouragement and doubt when individuals face trials and roadblocks in the Christian life.
Some have even misquoted Romans 8:28 to formulate a health and wealth gospel, wherein Christians will always have perfect health and financial abundance. This reduces the relationship with God to a barter/appeasement system. And, it is wholly incorrect.
To be clear, Romans 8:28 does not say that everything that happens to a Christian will be good.
Jesus explained, “If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:18-20).
Hate and persecute are bold words. They are rarely expressed in good actions.
Paul prefaced Romans 8:28 by commenting that we Christians “groan within ourselves” and “eagerly wait for it [the coming Kingdom] with perseverance” (Romans 8:23, 25). Like Joseph, Esther, Paul and those who truly loved God throughout time, Christians will face difficulties and challenges that may leave us groaning at times. But the end result is worth it.
Be of good cheer
Jesus provides this encouragement, “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33, emphasis added throughout).
The Romans 8:28 principle is alive and well today.
Sometimes Christians may come to see the good—whether the experience was joyous or gut-wrenching. But God does not promise to always grant that. Instead, we are told to be of good cheer because it will “work together for good” in the end.
Take Joe. Later in life, he came to understand why God allowed such harsh trials in his life. When addressing his brothers, Joseph commented, “But now, do not therefore be grieved or angry with yourselves because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life . . . So now it was not you who sent me here, but God” (Genesis 45:5-8). Joseph came to see that God’s long-range plan was for good, despite the difficulties Joseph had endured.
At other times, the good may not be readily apparent or fully revealed in this life. In dealing with his challenges, Paul observed, “I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:11-13).
So, where does that leave you and me?
Our perspective should be one of looking for the good, at times groaning for the future, and faithfully persevering in the interim. We do this by truly loving God, “knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Romans 5:3-4). And that hope—the hope of eternal life as children of God—is priceless!
And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.