“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
In Christian circles, this verse gets thrown around a lot – especially when something bad happens and we don’t understand why. It feels like anytime a Christian asks “why,” somebody chimes in with a Romans 8:28 response. Social media is the worst. How many times have you seen somebody post about a struggle only to have someone else respond, “Everything happens for a reason! Hang in there! Praying!” Wait. Hold up. Is that supposed to actually help?!
There is a similar verse in the Old Testament. Joseph, thrown in a pit and left to die, sold into slavery instead, falsely accused and forgotten in prison, says to the brothers who started it all, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” But I wonder . . . If someone would have said to him while he was sitting in jail for a crime he didn’t commit, “Hang in there. It looks bad now, but everything happens for a reason. God will work it out.” Would that have helped? Would it have given Joseph renewed strength? Certainly, Joseph’s story turned out well. He was given a prominent position in Egypt and was reconciled to his brothers. But he didn’t know that would happen. I wonder if he ever questioned how everything could have gone so wrong when all he ever tried to do was the right thing. I wonder if someone tried to cover up his pain with a band-aid.
But what if Joseph had known the outcome. Would that have lessened his pain? We have this crazy misconception that if we have a reason, then somehow that makes what we are experiencing worth it, or at least more bearable. I don’t know if Job would agree. After all, he lost e-v-e-r-ything – his livelihood, his children, his health, his wife turned her back on him and his friends accused him. What did he have left? For a long time, even God felt distant. You know, God never gave Job a “why” (check out Job 38- 41; it’s pretty incredible). But what if He had? What if God told Job all the really awful, heartbreaking loss he experienced was so that one day others might be given grace and courage in their own suffering? Would that have been enough? Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think Job would have signed up for that. “Okay, God. Yes, you can take my kids and my job and my health and leave me abandoned by my wife and friends so that someone else can benefit from my story. Yes, I volunteer.” Nope. I’m not buying it. No one chooses to write suffering into their story. Our human, finite minds cannot fully comprehend a good that outweighs the bad (see 2 Corinthians 4:16-18). And no matter how good the reason, it still doesn’t take the pain away.
Back to Romans 8:28 . . . The New Living Translation puts it this way: “And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them” (emphasis mine). Do you know who wrote these words? The Apostle Paul, formerly called Saul. And do you know what God said His purpose was for Paul? “Saul is my chosen instrument to take my message to the Gentiles and to kings, as well as to the people of Israel. And I will show him how much he must suffer for my name’s sake” (Acts 9:15-16 NLT, emphasis mine). That’s right. Paul’s purpose was to suffer. Oh my word, who signs up for that?!!! All those times people quote Romans 8:28 thinking it will be encouraging, when really maybe what it is saying is that God has called them to a path of suffering. It’s not wasted suffering. God uses all things for good. But it is still suffering nonetheless.
In the very same chapter where Paul writes how all things work together, he also writes to remind believers, “In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God’s glory, but if we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering” (Romans 8:17 NLT). We ALL want to share in God’s glory, but no one, NO one, signs up for the suffering. We all want the victory of David over Goliath but who asks for the heartbreak of Job?
It’s true, sometimes we experience an ending like Joseph. While here on this earth, we witness the miraculous – restoration and healing. God can do that. He absolutely can do that. But we must not forget His sovereignty. Paul did not experience the ending Joseph did. He spent the last years of his life in prison and died a martyr. Here’s the thing we miss if we aren’t careful: God was good in both stories. He loved them both. That doesn’t change the ending. The miracle of Joseph is still powerful. The suffering of Paul was still very real. It doesn’t change the ending, but it does give hope and comfort to the hurting. At least it has in my life.
The writings of Paul are some of my most favorite in all of Scripture. I love how he acknowledged deep, deep pain and at the same time recognized a glory he had yet to fully fathom. Paul never sugarcoated his sufferings. “We were completely overwhelmed—beyond our strength—so that we even despaired of life itself” (2 Corinthians 1:8 CSB). But Paul also recognized that we live in a broken world that is not as it should be. He believed in a God who could allow the suffering to continue and yet still comfort. And Paul knew that no matter what we see and experience here and now, this is not the end of our stories. We have been given the Holy Spirit as a foretaste of glory but we still groan for our suffering to end (see Romans 8:23), and when that day comes, when the suffering ends, the glory will far outweigh the anguish we experience now (see Romans 8:18 and 2 Corinthians 4:17). Oh, I cannot comprehend it but my heart leaps at the thought!
Truthfully, knowing there is a reason for our suffering doesn’t offer me much comfort. Band-aid answers, clichés and verses we learned as children but have yet to actually live, only frustrate me and perpetuate the pain. I find my comfort in the knowing that we have a good, good Father who deeply loves us, and nothing, I mean NO-thing, can separate us from that love. It is Reckless Love on repeat. When it comes to Romans 8, I find far more comfort in verses 35 and 37 than I do in verse 28. That isn’t to take away from anyone who has been or is encouraged by Romans 8:28. It is still absolutely true. But when God we have prayed and fasted and obeyed and trusted, and the answer is still no and my heart breaks for the thousandth time, I need to hear this:
“Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean that he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us.”
Romans 8:35, 37 NLT (emphasis mine)