When others suffer unexplainably, we often want to provide encouragement with words of explanation. “Everything happens for a reason,” we hear people say. “It will all work out in the end,” others proclaim. In the aftermath of the earthquakes and tsumani in Japan, many Buddhist survivors may be told, “Your karma (destiny) is that you lived and you must honor and remember and live a life worthy of your having survived” (USA Today). Even for the best things of life, like love and marriage, we often hear, “We were destined to be together.” Impersonal forces such as chance, luck, or fate, however, do not control our lives. Naïve optimism in destiny may help us to stay positive for a while, but eventually, we need help making sense of the madness of our lives and our world.
When test results reveal cancer, when we’re fired unjustly from our jobs, or when our car gets totaled from a rear-end accident, we find that our wonderful, personal Lord allows both good and bad things to happen for a specific purpose. He alone knows what is best. In Romans 8:28, we learn that instead of trusting in fate, we can live by faith in a loving God who is actively involved in every aspect of our lives. Only God, and God alone, causes all of life’s puzzle-pieces to fit together to form a beautiful, complete picture.
“We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God: those who are called according to His purpose” Romans 8:28 (HCSB).
Next to John 3:16, Romans 8:28 may be the most well-known and oft-quoted verses in the Bible. The last 12 verses of Romans 8 may be unequaled anywhere else in the NT. Paul begins with five unshakable promises in vs. 28. He continues with five undeniable affirmations regarding God’s eternal purposes, and concludes with five unanswerable questions about theses promises and affirmations. Rather than trusting in fate, we can live by faith in a loving God who is actively involved in every aspect of our lives.
Consider Bethany Hamilton who grew up surfing on the island of Kauai, Hawaii. At age five, she chose to trust Jesus as her Savior and follow Him. When she was 13, a fourteen-foot tiger shark attacked her, severing one of her arms. Bethany returned to surfing one month later. A year later, despite her disability, she won her first national title. Bethany says, “it was Jesus Christ who gave me peace when I got attacked by the shark…and it was what God had taught be growing up that helped me overcome my fears…to get back into the water to keep surfing.” She continues, “My mom and I were praying before the shark attack that God would use me. God considered me faithful enough to appoint me to His service.”
Obviously, not every tragedy leads to winning a national title, but Bethany began where all of us can, by trusting God. In her case, with a support system of people having an biblical perspective of God’s ultimate good, she was prepared to face suffering when it came, and to emerge stronger by faith in Christ. Bethany’s inspiring story of trusting God’s greater purposes is coming to theaters this April 8 in the movie Soul Surfer with a cast of Helen Hunt, Dennis Quad, and Carrie Underwood. Bethany’s life testifies to the truth of God’s Promise that “all things work together for the good of those who love God: those who are called according to His purpose.”
As believers in Christ, we have the reliability of God’s Promise:
1. God gives us a definite promise: “We know…” “We know” is used five times in Romans and the word “know” is used 16 times. It refers to that which is common knowledge of believers. Paul says that we can know beyond all doubt that every aspect of our lives is in God’s hands and will be divinely used by the Lord to show His glory and to work out our ultimate blessing. Earlier in Romans 8, Paul said we know about the groaning of creation (vs. 22) and here he says we know of God’s providential care. Yet in vs. 26 he says we sometimes don’t know how to pray as we should. This juxtaposition is not accidental; it illustrates a tension in the Christian life. We know that God is ultimately in control in this life, but sometimes we don’t always know how all the pieces fit together. God’s definite promise forms one of the great paradoxes of the Christian Life: We are often the most certain about the ultimate when we are most uncertain about the immediate.
All through Scripture we have examples of those who learned to trust God through very difficult circumstances – and examples of those who ultimately saw the good that God accomplished. Job was a man who lost everything he had even though he was a godly man who feared God and shunned evil (Job 1:1). His property, his livestock, his possessions, even his children were taken from him through a series of disasters. Finally, even his health was taken from him. But thru it all, Job believed that the Lord gives and the Lord takes away and blessed His name. Through his life circumstances, Job gained knowledge of God that he had never had (Job 42:1-6) and was blessed far beyond compare.
2. God gives us a determined promise: “for the good of those who love God”. In the original word order, this phrase comes next. God is at work for the cumulative, ultimate good of His people. Since God is good, the work that He is doing for His people is good. We define our good in terms of what brings us health and happiness now, but God defines our good in terms of what draws us closer to Him by faith and what makes us more like His Son, Jesus (Phil. 3:7,10-14). Our ultimate destiny is conformity to Jesus Christ’s image, much more than just deliverance from sin and death (Romans 8:29). God accomplished this goal partially through believers’ justification. He is presently accomplishing it partially through our progressive sanctification, and He will accomplish it completely through our glorification. God’s determined plans for our good have eternity in mind more than simply temporary happiness.
Ten months after his son was killed in a car accident, Greg Laurie said, “What I wish is that I could have learned and grown and drawn close to the Lord just like I have, but that Christopher was still here.” The difficult things in life often accomplish God’s greater good in ways that only hardship and loss can.
Paul is not expressing a superficial optimism or simply wishful thinking, rather he uses form of the word “agape” (lit. the one’s loving), to describe the recipients of God’s determined, unwavering promise. “We love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19) Loving God, through faith in Christ, puts us in a distinct class of human beings, separate from all others. For those who love God, He works through all of life’s circumstances for the best according to His good and sovereign plans.
Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers. Rising to a place of honor within Potiphar’s household because of his faithfulness to the Lord God, Jospeh was falsely accused and thrown into prison where he was abandoned and forgotten. Later, he earned favor in Egypt by interpreting Pharaoh’s dream and he was made the second in command over all of Egypt. When he was ultimately reunited with his brothers, he saw that God had sent him ahead to prepare a place for Jacob’s family to survive the famine in Canaan. As he told his brothers when they realized with shame that Joseph had become their salvation, “You planned evil against me; God planned it for good to bring about the present result—the survival of many people” (Genesis 50:20).
3. God gives us a definitive promise: “all things” The all things of Romans 8:28 is totally comprehensive. “All things” means just that: all things. Taken in context, the promise allows for no restrictions or conditions. All things includes the sufferings of vs. 17 and the sighs of verse 23. In other words, all that is negative in this life is seen to have a positive purpose in the implementation of God’s eternal plan. Paul is not saying that evil things are good or excusing our sinful choices. Neither is he saying that God causes temptation or sin. Nor is Paul expressing faith in the goodness of all things but in the goodness and sovereignty of God! The Lord takes all that He allows to happen to His beloved children, even the worst things, and turns those things ultimately into blessings. No matter what our situation, our suffering, our sinful failure, our pain, our lack of faith—in all those things, as well as in other things, our heavenly Father will work to produce our ultimate victory and blessing.
Jacob reaped the harvest of his younger years through the pain of his children’s lives: Joseph was gone. Rueben was disgraced. Judah was dishonored. Simeon and Levi had broken his heart. Dinah was defiled. Simeon was in prison. His beloved wife, Rachel was dead. On top of all of his hurt, a famine in Canaan threatened their very lives. Then came the demand from Egypt that young Benjamin must appear there before its governor before any more supplies would be sent. Jacob felt that everything was aligned against him (Gen. 42:36). Yet all these things were working together to keep his family, and God’s promises alive for future generations.
4. God gives us a dynamic promise: “work together” From the Greek word for “work together,” we get our English word, synergy. Synergy is the working together of various elements to produce an effect where the sum is greater than the individual parts. For example, consider the individual ingredients of a chocolate cake. Almost everything that goes into a cake tastes terrible by itself. Flour. Baking soda. Cocoa powder. Vanilla extract. Raw eggs. But consider the remarkable metamorphosis that takes place when they are mixed together and baked together. The end result of the individual ingredients working together is greater than the individual parts. No matter how bitter the taste of the individual components of our lives, God can carefully measure out and mix all ingredients together, and raise the temperature in order to produce a wonderful final product.
It’s important to point out that Paul is not saying that all things will just simply “work out” on their own. God is not promising, “I will try to make everything work together.” It isn’t about God trying, it’s about God actually working together all things for our good. God is saying that He is the One who causes they synergy of all things happening in our lives. God is the One who stirs the mix and bakes the cake.
Jonah was called by the Lord to go to his enemies in Ninevah and preach against their wickedness and rejection of God. Instead of obeying by faith, Jonah jumped on a boat heading for Tarshish hoping to escape from the Lord’s presence. Thrown overboard from the ship, the Lord turned up the heat as Jonah was swallowed by a fish and was in the fish for 3 days and 3 nights. God allowed Jonah’s rebellion to bring him to repentance and a closer relationship with Himself (Jonah 2:6-8). God worked in Jonah’s life and through Jonah’s life to bring the people of Ninevah to faith in God. The individual decisions by Jonah, the King of Ninevah and the people of Ninevah worked together to complete God’s plans for all of them. And Jonah learned how much God cares for all the people He created.
5. God gives us a defined promise: “for those who are called according to His purpose.” There are two limitations contained in this promise. The first is from the human perspective “those who love God.” The second limitation to this promise of God’s sovereign plans is from God’s perspective, “those who are called.” From our viewpoint we are believers because we love God, but from God’s viewpoint, we are believers because we are called by Him to believe. Because God has called us as His children, all things have a purpose.
At a time when the Jews were about to be carried away into Babylon after the terrible destruction of Jerusalem, God gave them a promise through Jeremiah about their future, “For I know the plans I have for you”—this is the Lord’s declaration—“plans for your welfare, not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope” (Jer. 29:11).
As believers in Christ, we can also find peace in the results of God’s promises:
1. God fills our hearts with trust. God’s trustworthiness is based on His total, not partial, knowledge of the future. “I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and no one is like Me. I declare the end from the beginning, and from long ago what is not yet done, saying: My plan will take place, and I will do all My will…I have spoken; so I will also bring it about. I have planned it; I will also do it” (Isaiah 46:9–11). Romans 8:28 assures us that God intends life’s ordeals for our good—but there is a difference between immediate good and ultimate good. Seeing the difference requires faith.
2. God fills our hearts with thanksgiving. “Be filled with the Spirit: speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making music to the Lord in your heart, giving thanks always for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 5:18-20). “Don’t worry about anything, but in everything, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses every thought, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6–7). “Give thanks in everything, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” 1 Thess 5:18.
3. God fills our hearts with tenacity. “Therefore we do not give up; even though our outer person is being destroyed, our inner person is being renewed day by day. For our momentary light affliction is producing for us an absolutely incomparable eternal weight of glory” (1 Cor. 5:16-17)
In the mid-eighties, I was going through the life-changing transitions of college. I needed an eternal perspective for the earthly struggles all around me. My wife had recently lost her brother in a motorcycle accident. My dad had lost his job. I was trying to figure out where God was leading me in school and in my career. One of my close friends watched his parents divorce during his mother’s battle with MS. During those faith-stretching days, DeeDee and I found great comfort in a song written by Babbie Mason (Trust His Heart) that reflected the truth of Romans 8:28:
God is too wise to be mistaken
God is too good to be unkind
So when you don’t understand
When you don’t see His plan
When you can’t trace His hand
Trust His heart
He alone is faithful and true
He alone knows what is best for you
So when you don’t understand
When you don’t see His plan
When you can’t trace His hand trust His heart
There are still days that I face discouragement from personal disappointments, personal failures, personal pain. There are times I struggle to make sense of the hurts and pain of others. There are events like 9/11, earthquakes, or events in the Middle East that make me wonder what in the world God is doing? Rather than trusting in fate or blind faith, we have the privilege, as children of God, of thankfully trusting in a loving God while living life joyfully every day, never fearing the future or what it might bring.