Have you ever watched a movie where the hero (or at least the scriptwriter) was smarter than the villain, and a pre-planned step saved the day at the very last minute? While there was plenty of danger (and maybe some pain and loss) for the eventual victors, things were going according to plan all along.
In that light, I suspect that you’ve heard the following verse before. Not only are there some translation alternatives (available as footnotes in many Bible translations), but it may be also one of the most mis-quoted or partially-quoted verses in the Bible, along with “do not judge” (from Matthew 7:1-5) and “God won’t give you more than you can handle” (possibly an exaggerated misinterpretation of 1 Corinthians 10:13).
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.
Romans 8:28 NIV
However, among the questions, there are truths that I hope all those who study the Bible earnestly can agree upon.
Let’s break up our discussion on this verse into two parts: what it does not mean, and what it does mean. This might still leave some gray areas that we’re not sure about, but I think that we’ll still appreciate what we do understand here.
First, what does this verse not say?
- It doesn’t say that everything is good. Sin is in this world, including the sins that each one of us has committed, and there are many things around us that are not good. We shouldn’t mis-quote this verse and say that evil, sin, and suffering are good. God can use bad things for good purposes, but they are still bad things.
- This verse doesn’t even say that everything that happens to those who love God is good. We can really hurt people who are suffering when we imply that they don’t have enough faith, or that somehow what is happening to them is a good thing. I don’t think that it’s wrong to look forward to the hope that this verse brings (along with other passages in the Bible that give us encouragement about Heaven), but sometimes we need to stop pontificating and preaching when someone is hurting, and just hug them and cry with them instead (see Romans 12:15).
- A commentator points out that God is not causing our troubles; rather, He is working through them (Cottrell, p.500). The same commentator also summarizes this well, I think, by differentiating between immediate good (which is not promised) from ultimate good (which will occur).
Now, what does this verse say or imply?
- God is working. The word of God isn’t outdated or dead. Instead, Hebrews 4:12 reminds us that it is alive and active. In the same way, God didn’t wind up creation and then walk away to let it all play out. He remains involved in it, and still personally interacts with human beings. Jesus didn’t go back to Heaven to let the church fend for itself. He sent the Holy Spirit to help us along the way. God is working.
- God is working for good. This is true even when things look like a real mess. In Genesis 50:19-21, Joseph explains how his brothers’ ill intentions resulted in good things through God’s intentions. God isn’t just working arbitrarily or selfishly (like a human being might do if one of us were to be given the power to do whatever we wanted). Instead, God is working for good. I don’t even see this as a choice on His part, so much as it is simply who He is: good. (See Mark 10:18, Luke 18:19, Psalm 143:10)
- God has a purpose. Have you ever known someone who did good things, but their passions were so scattered, random, and fragmented that they didn’t really accomplish much. Maybe this person jumped at every new cause, and committed to it for a little while, but then flitted over to the next thing. In the end, none of these causes really benefited much, because real change often requires significant time, investment, and commitment. The good that God brings is different, though: it is focused, aligned, and all working together as part of His goals that He sees throughout history (which some have referred to as, “His story”). While God’s plan is far more complicated than we see, and it has many facets, it is not random. We probably know at least part of Jeremiah 29:10-14, when God declares that He has plans for exiles in Babylon, which is a good example of God’s plan taking a path through suffering. (See also Philippians 2:12-13)
- God’s plan is connected in a special way to those who love Him. Now, exactly how our role and God’s plan work together may not be crystal clear, but here we find that something is special about those who love God, as they – we – are called out in this passage. Ephesians 2:8-10 tells us that God prepared good works for us to do, while 3 John 1:11 tells us that “Anyone who does what is good is from God.”. While we might not always know how much of the good of God’s plan is from Him and how much is our obedience, it’s better to be someone who loves God (as we can see elsewhere in Romans).
So, I hope that you are aligned with God and His plan, since these are what will prevail in the long run. If you aren’t, God invites you to join Him in doing good (no matter how much bad you’ve done in the past). If you’ve already started that journey, keep an eye out for the glimpses of God’s plan at work for good. It’s worth thanking Him for every day.
From Sunday School lesson prepared for February 20, 2022
- The Lookout, February 20, 2022, © 2022 Christian Standard Media.
- Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
- The College Press Commentary, Romans, Volume 1, by Jack Cottrell. College Press Publishing Company, © 1996.