Misunderstood, misapplied, and misused verse #1
How many times do people say only part of Romans 8:28 and that out of context?
Scripture must always be interpreted in context and in its entirety. The first mistake with this misunderstood quote is that it only uses part of the verse. Here is the whole thing:
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
There are a couple of caveats even just with reading the whole sentence: for those who love God and for those called to God’s purpose. That alone is sufficient to discredit the faulty misinterpretation that no matter how hard things are God will make it good. Sometimes bad things happen because we live in a fallen world. Evil is a reality. Illness can be devastating. Tragedy strikes without regard to a person’s faith (or lack thereof.) The common extension of this misapplication, that “everything happens for a reason” is equally untrue.
“Those who love God” is the first caveat, God’s calling is the second. The greater context offers illumination. Paul is writing about future glory for believers (those who love God), not present circumstances. The section of this letter immediately preceding this verse is about suffering, intense suffering. And not only personal suffering, but the suffering of all of creation waiting to be restored to its original state. Paul wrote, “We wait eagerly for… redemption of our bodies, for in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all” (Romans 8:23-24). The good God has for those who love him and are called according to his purpose is not necessarily this side of eternity, but it is a promise for future glory.
Reading scripture through the lens of eternity helps make sense of suffering. In this present world, we all suffer, regardless of our spiritual status. Every one of the apostle (save John) were subject to repeating imprisonment, beatings, and ultimately, execution. They were the ones who loved Jesus the most and were called to do his work personally. Their lives were hard. Suffering was a regular experience for them. In a purely material sense, their suffering was not for their own good. However, in the scope of eternity, their suffering has worked for good–our good. Their obedience to the call of God meant horrific suffering while they lived, but the work they left behind glorifies God even now. We know the love, grace, and mercy of God through their words and their acts.
Similarly, believers who suffer today may never see how God will make good from their calamity. Believers around the world are still tortured and jailed because they love God and are called to serve him. They become living sacrifices as they are transformed by the renewal of their minds (Romans 12:2). The persecuted Christians around the world in the 21st century may ever see any good come from their trials, but they continue to build on the foundation laid down by the saints who have gone before in preparation for those yet to come.
Does God work out all things for good? YES. But the lens for understanding is eternal. The good is the glory of God, not the comfort of humans. At the end of time we will understand our small roles in the unfolding of God’s plan. We will be among those whose robes are washed as we enter the New Jerusalem, holy and undefiled because of Christ (Revelation 22). All thing will work together for good in that day. And we will rejoice and be glad.