How Can All Things Work Together for Good When There Is Suffering in the World?
There’s a phrase that finds its origin in the Bible and is commonly used for better and for worse, in conversations about suffering. Found in the Book of Romans, the Apostle Paul says something profound that still resonates within the Christian community today.
“We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)
This bold statement suggests that everything that happens in life is ultimately used for good. This specifically occurs for those that love God. We know through Jesus that to love God is not just to believe, but to abide by His commandments just as Jesus did (John 14:15). When Paul says “all things,” he is encompassing all positive and negative experiences in life. The thought that even negative experiences can be used for good is counterintuitive without further knowledge of Scripture.
Paul goes on to mention a second qualifier in this verse with those who are “called according to his purpose.” When we follow God’s commandments, we can be used for His purpose. Again, Jesus serves as the example as He performed works on behalf of the Father (John 14:12). If Paul is to suggest that God uses all things for good, then how exactly does God make a negative experience “good”?
Having faith in God is easy when life feels both comfortable and blissful. In these seasons we often feel as though God is near. Naturally, we interpret these good experiences as good. However, the times where life feels uncomfortable and problems abound, we feel disconnected from God. These are not moments that feel good, and often create a desire within us to escape the problems.
To better understand this verse and how God makes all experiences good, we have to take a deeper look at the chapter of Romans 8.
What Does 'All Things Work Together for Good' Mean?
Chapter 8 of the Book of Romans begins with Paul laying down a contrast between people who live according to the Spirit and according to the flesh. His audience is the Christian church in Rome. One benefit of living according to the Spirit is that Jesus’ sacrifice acted as a “sin offering” for believers (Romans 8:3). Therefore, as he opens, believers will not face condemnation from God because of their faith (Romans 8:1). In a contrast, he mentions that living according to the flesh means living against God (Romans 8:8). Not only is God displeased with this sort of behavior but, death follows when we live according to the flesh (Romans 8:13).
Though Paul highlights these issues, his focus is on the benefits of following the Spirit. The main point here is the offering of salvation for believers. That is the primary benefit while believers also get to experience that he mentions in verse 28. Since all things work together for good, Paul has concluded that suffering doesn’t matter in the end because we are being prepared for a future heavenly home (Romans 8:18). This references our access to heaven through salvation. Our sufferings are temporary, but the kingdom of Heaven is eternal.
While Paul does a great job highlighting the benefits of following Christ and even detailing God’s love at the end of the passage, we have to look elsewhere in the Bible for how God uses all things for good. And we have Paul to thank for that explanation too which appears earlier in Romans 5.
How Does God Work All Things Together for Good?
“And not only that, but we also boast in our afflictions, because we know that affliction produces endurance, endurance produces proven character, and proven character produces hope.” (Romans 5:3-4)
In this verse, Paul mentions the benefits Christians receive from suffering. We grow in our endurance, character, and ability to hope. He adds that the hope produced in us is hope we have in God, and that hope never disappoints (Romans 5:5). What’s most compelling in Paul’s writing here is that he suggests we “boast” in our afflictions. To boast is to brag about something, typically something someone feels prideful about. Afflictions are difficult problems, but Paul suggests boasting, not complaining.
He is able to say this because of the benefits that accompany suffering. These benefits are the reasons he can say that all things work together for good. God uses both positive and negative experiences to improve upon our character. With each improvement, we are conformed further into the image of Christ. Thus, every circumstance in life works for our good, the believer. And the more we are formed into the image of Christ, the more we can act like Jesus and do the Father’s work (John 14:12).
What If I Can't See a Purpose in Something?
Though we may understand that God uses all things for our good, there are certain problems in life that seem to fall outside of this truth. These situations may include problems that are long-lasting or issues that simply have no logical meaning. When a natural disaster tears a third-world country apart, is God able to use that for good? Or when someone suffers from addiction, attempted murder, rape, is God able to take these situations too and use them for good?
Trauma has a way of surfacing in our lives following an unfortunate circumstance. Additionally, time does not always erase the impact of that trauma. Paul’s words may seem to exaggerate God’s ability, but his words are true. We can find evidence of this by looking at Paul’s life. He once persecuted the church (Galatians 1:13). This included killing Christians (Acts 26:10-11). Despite this sad truth about Paul, he ended up being used by God as one of the Bible’s primary authors.
His testimony has stood the test of time and continues to inform us today. Paul’s conversion to Christianity reveals God’s redemptive ability. God can take a person who committed atrocities against Him and use those bad actions for good (Acts 26:17-18). This applies to us today, whether we are the ones committing the terrible acts or are the victim of such. Therefore, if we ever find ourselves doubting this knowledge of Romans 8:28, we can remind ourselves of Paul’s past and future identity. There are other characters in the Bible too who also found themselves redeemed after sinful acts, or vindicated after being victims.
Is There a Right or Wrong Time for Christians to Comfort Others with This Verse?
Though this extraordinary and profound verse from the Book of Romans carries much meaning, sometimes Christians find themselves using it callously. True, God uses both our moments of intense blessing and intense suffering to mold us into better people. However true Paul’s words are, this verse in no way minimizes the impact that suffering has on the lives of believers. The Bible in itself is replete with stories and psalms that indicate the intense nature of suffering.
Psalm 13 is a plea for deliverance where David asks God, “Will you forget me forever?” (Psalm 13:1). And Lamentations 3 likens God to a lion waiting to attack (Lamentations 3:10). These passages inform us that followers of Christ will experience suffering intense enough to make them cry out to God for deliverance. Sometimes they may think God is against them. When we encounter such people in our lives, we do not need to silence their cries by simply telling them all things are being used by God. That knowledge doesn’t erase the hurt.
Passages like the two previously mentioned speak to both suffering and trusting God. This reveals we can trust God while still suffering emotionally. The pain of hardship is very real. Quoting Paul without any sympathy for someone’s suffering is bound to add to their hardship. Instead, before we remind people that all things work together for good, we should identify whether or not the person knows that. If someone upright says that their suffering is for a purpose, but they hurt, then we know they don’t need a reminder.
If someone asks why they are suffering, then we can take that as a sign to gently remind them. Whatever we do to comfort people, let us do so with a keen focus on love and treating others the way we would want them to treat us in that circumstance (Matthew 7:12).
- Apa.org, 'Trauma'
- Bible-history.com, 'The Book of Romans'
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Photo credit: ©Getty Images/naruedom
Aaron D'Anthony Brown is a freelance writer, hip-hop dance teacher, and visual artist, living in Virginia. He currently contributes work to iBelieve, Crosswalk, and supports various clients through the platform Upwork. He's an outside-the-box thinker with a penchant for challenging the status quo. Check out his short story “Serenity.”
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