Over the past two days we’ve seen Paul address the issue of suffering while we wait for the next (and final) installment of what God has in store for us, his children. The central message is that the glory that awaits us is so magnificent, our present suffering is not even worth comparing with it. This is because God is in the process of doing something universal in scope: the renewal of all creation. In fact, all creation groans (along with us) waiting to experience the finished product, where we – as God’s image-bearers – take our rightful place at the centre of it all. (BTW, if you’re joining us today, you really need to read the past two days for the next bit to make sense.)
Today, Paul sums up what he’s been saying thus far, in a very well-known and oft-quoted sentence:
Romans 8:28 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.
Now it’s supposed to be an expression of God’s sovereignty that gives great comfort. Unfortunately, this great truth is sometimes misunderstood, and sometimes used in a way that can be a bit trite and insensitive. Because if this is the first thing you say to someone who’s suffering – or even the only thing you say – it’s not particularly helpful. “Oh well, all things work together* for good…” By itself, it’s just homespun wisdom along the lines of “every cloud has a silver lining.” And it doesn’t address the reality of the suffering that is going on now. My suffering now isn’t good – no matter how it may be working together in the future! That has to be acknowledged; we need to sit and lament with them, rather than trying to cheer them up by talking about some good that will come out of it.
The other problem is that we often apply it too specifically – in the granular details of life. Every specific thing that happens has a specific good that God is bringing from it. Our English translations don’t help, as they stress ‘all things’ – suggesting that each and every thing specifically works together for my good. But how does the death of my child work for my good? How does my ongoing, debilitating illness work for my good? In isolation, it probably doesn’t. It only works for my good because it’s part of the bigger picture. God is working good through each individual thing precisely because he is working in the entire cosmos for our good! My suffering is but one small part of the general groaning of all of creation, which God is working in to redeem all of his children.
And if we look at this verse in the context of what comes before, this is what Paul’s on about. The big picture. All of creation is groaning – we ourselves are groaning in our suffering – waiting for God to give us the full measure of what has been promised to us. When everything is made new. All is indeed working together for good – there is a goal, an end, a purpose to all the bad stuff in the world. God subjected creation to this futility in hope – with a purpose in mind; nothing less than the restoration of the universe!
This is primarily what this verse is about. All – all of the created order and all of history – all is working together for the good of those who are the children of God, who will be glorified in the coming age. In the cosmos, there is an unstoppable motion toward the redemption of our bodies!
The second great comfort we take from this verse – again, a big picture application – is that it’s a great testimony to God’s sovereign power. The fact that God’s so in control of his world, that he’s able to take all of the bad stuff we do and have done to us – and still manage to make good out of it. Like Joseph said, after God managed to do something spectacularly good out of his brothers’ evil intentions:
Genesis 50:20 You intended to harm me, but God intended for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.
It’s like someone who’s really good at doing children’s talks in church. (Bear with me on this analogy, it’s not as bad as it sounds.) Children’s talks scare me – I’d prefer to preach in front of 1000 adults than talk to a dozen kids. But for some people, it’s their gift. I love watching them work. Kids are so unpredictable – you never know what’s going to come out of their mouths. Sometimes they’ll give brilliant, insightful answers. Other times their answers go so completely off the track you wonder if the whole talk’s going to get derailed.
But not if there’s someone really good at it. They have this ability to take all of the bizarre, irrelevant answers and interjections, and not ignore them – but work with them. Turn them around. So that the talk almost miraculously ends up where it was supposed to go.
God is so in control of his world that he can take whatever bad we dish up, and still make the world end up where he wants it to go; still make good come from it. After all, we killed his Son and he used that to save the world!
When we step back and look at the big picture, it stops us from the often unhelpful practice of trying to find a specific good out of a specific situation. To find the silver lining in each and every cloud. (And then despair on the occasions when you can’t seem to spot one.)
Now it doesn’t mean that God doesn’t ever work specific good from specific situations. Of course he does! Frequently! But this verse points to a far more profound reality – that the entire universe and our entire existence is working towards the eternal and ultimate good of those of us who belong to God.
* Nerd-content alert. There’s a translational issue here. You might notice that the NIV translation we’re using put it this way:
(1) “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him…”
Yet there’s a footnote that gives an alternative translation (which more in line with how older English translations put it):
(2) “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God…”
The Greek is ambiguous about the subject of the sentence – that is, who or what is doing the working? Is it “all things” that are working together, or “God” who’s working “all things” together? Theologically it doesn’t really make a big difference as, from the context, it’s clearly God who’s doing it. But the second translation does make it a bit easier for the verse to be turned into a trite proverb – one that’s not far off “every cloud has a silver lining” or the great Aussie “she’ll be right!”
And I don’t find the NIV’s in particularly helpful, either. It’s not in the Greek. Both on grammatical grounds, and in terms of the context of the argument, I’d prefer to translate it:
(3) “And we know that, for those who love God, he’s working together all for good…”
Hyper-nerd alert: There are also several early manuscripts (from the generally-reliable Alexandrian family of texts) which explicitly add “God” in as the subject of “work together.” Was that original? Or was it a scribe adding it in to make explicit who he thought was (implicitly) doing the working? Either way, that’s how the NIV has taken it.