And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose. Romans 8:28
When I am trying to answer a question like this one, I like to start from the negative, because I think there is much confusion on the part of Christians about this verse in Romans. In other words, I want to start defining this verse by explaining what it does not mean. It does not mean that everything is rosy in this world, and that all things will work out in every situation. I have heard my friends misquote this passage during their times of hurt. Particularly, I am thinking of when they have experienced the loss of a loved one, and then they will sort of aimlessly throw this quote into the air, and act as if they believe it, but they are about as credible as an atheist swearing on the Bible. Life has brought them more trouble than they know what to do with; they are swimming in pain, and yet they know the goodness of God, and they desperately are reaching for something to assuage their grief and reconcile the goodness of God with their horrible hurt. The trouble is that this verse is not about life possibly going seriously wrong, and the promise gets misapplied in their great need.
Perhaps it would be beneficial to turn to an Old Testament example to explain what I mean. Joseph had eleven brothers, ten of whom were a problem for him. Joseph and Benjamin were what we today would call full brothers, that is, they shared the same mother and father. They got along well, and loved one another. The other boys were half-brothers. They had a different mother, but they all shared Jacob as a father.
Joseph was 17 and had a dream. The dream was okay, but the problem was that Joseph told the dream to his half-brothers, and they hated him for it. Remember the dream? They were binding sheaves of grain, but Joseph saw his sheaf rise and stand above all the others, and the others bowed down to it. Now, Joseph was already the favorite of his father, and naturally his brothers despised him for it. But when he proclaims the dream to his brothers, they hate him even the more.
They plot to kill him, but because of the conscience of Reuben, they sell him into slavery instead, and carry back a bloody coat of many colors to his father, who then grieves for his son. Joseph is sold into slavery, and ends up in prison. Can we apply Romans 8:28 to him, and say that all things work together for good? Not quite yet.
It is only when the Pharaoh has a dream and learns of Joseph’s gift of interpreting them that things begin to work out for Joseph. Ultimately Joseph is reunited with his father and brother, and the very dream that he started with is fulfilled as his brothers bow down to him, the second in power in all of Egypt.
The Bible records the saying of Joseph here, and the very reason I think the story is so pertinent, is because of what he said. The half-brothers, still lying and with unrepentant natures, make up a story about Jacob’s deathbed wish. Joseph is supposed to forgive his brothers. I believe Joseph not to be at all fooled, but he weeps anyway, and proclaims, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”
Thus we have it. God is able to take the evil actions of others, and fold them into the sovereign plan for overall good. In this case, the good took a decade or more to work out, and there was plenty of evil along the way. But God sovereignly rules over even the evil events of the world. There are no surprises for God. If he were able to even be surprised once, the certainty of the outcome of the world could not be known. Yet the Bible has written the end in the beginning for all ages to read; God tells us that he laughs in derision at the kings of the earth who plot vainly against him (Psalm 2).
What is to be learned from Joseph’s statement? First, I would say that all that happens is not good. It was not a good thing to be hated by your own brothers. It was not a good thing to be sold into slavery. It was not a good thing for Joseph to be thrown into prison because of false accusations. But every thing not good is woven beautifully into the magnificent tapestry of God, and one day soon, God willing, we will see that tapestry and appreciate its grandeur.
Joseph’s example needs to be applied to the grief-stricken person who has lost his loved one. Is that good? Should he be claiming that death is good? By no means! God tells us that precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints. Death is brutal, and God never intended death for man in his original plan, and death we are told, is the last enemy, and shall eventually be abolished itself. Indeed, there have been multitudes in history who have been persecuted and have been killed because of their faith. Is that a good thing? By no means!
Yet, even the death of a saint can be folded into the plan of God. How so, you may ask? In history, Christians have long noted that the blood of martyrs is frequently the seed of the next-generation of Christians. Sometimes, as in the example of China today, the persecution and killing makes the nation as a whole begin to seriously look at this man, Jesus, and that has caused revival to break out in one of the most godless nations in the world.
But also, we must remember that we but see the bottom side of the tapestry, with all its many strings hanging down, and we frequently think it a total mess. God’s ultimate design is only visible from the top side, and I think it rare when we on earth see the top side. This we know—that God tells us that he has reserved a very special place in heaven, honoring those martyrs who gave themselves to their Lord. Revelation tells us that God intends to especially honor those martyrs with much recognition (7:14). Their eternal state is going to reflect the honor that God has designated for every saint that undergoes martyrdom, and it would be a mistake for us to judge the evil death of martyrs without first seeing his precious care of them.
So there is a sense in which everything in the world works together for good, because ultimately it works into the final plan of God, who is quite capable of turning evil to fit into his plan of good. While our hearts die a little bit with each of the martyrs that we hear about, the plan of God will take even this great evil and turn it into a good plan. There is a sense in which the grieving saint that we talked about at the first is correct when he cites the verse—God is bringing ultimate good even when death occurs. But the act of death itself is not good, just as it was not good for Joseph to be sold into slavery, or cast into prison. Faith in his goodness depends on the long term viewpoint, not giving up the recognition that much is wrong in our world today, not pretending that all is well even when we see something awfully wrong, and instead realizing that we desperately need our savior and our king.
One thing more. There is a very real sense in which we are in a “no-lose” proposition. Paul the apostle, I believe, recognizes this when he declares that we are more than conquerors through Jesus. Nothing will separate us from God—neither death, nor suffering, nor wickedness, nor even Satan himself. We cannot lose because God will not lose. Those that wait on him will see longings fulfilled in a literal tree of life.