What was your favorite Disney movie growing up? I grew up watching all the great Disney classics, but by far my favorite was Aladdin. It had swords and action and a flying carpet – the total package for a young boy. But, best of all, it had Robin William’s character, the Genie. Genie was great because he was cool, gave good dating-tips to Aladdin, and could magically morph into whatever he wanted to make a joke even funnier. But ultimately, Genie was awesome because he had unlimited power, and could give you whatever you asked (except for more wishes, of course). I don’t think anyone watched that movie and didn’t think, “Man! I need me one of those!”
Life is hard and often disappointing, and if we could, we would change a lot of things. Maybe change how we look, what’s in our bank account, who our friends are, who won the super bowl – stuff like that, right? If only we could have an omnipotent power at our disposal, who could point his finger at our problems and say “You got it, Al” and *poof*, the problems were solved. We know that Genie’s don’t exist, that’s kid’s movie stuff, but it does prod at a longing we secretly keep; a longing for some power or force working for our good.
Well, Romans 8 actually has something to say to that longing, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Rom. 8:28). This is one of the celebrity verses in the Bible – everybody knows it, everyone talks about it, you’ve probably heard it several times. Romans 8:28 is one of my favorite passages, by far, but it also very frequently misinterpreted and applied wrongly – which is a tragedy. I think it would be helpful if we take a quick look at why this (and other scripture) is often misinterpreted.
The Wrong Way
When I say that Romans 8:28 is often interpreted wrongly, here is what I mean: I mean that someone is making the text say something it is not actually saying, by bringing their own definition on top of the text, rather than letting the definition blossom from within. We want scripture to speak for itself and inform our worldview, not form our worldview, and then force the Bible to back our preconceived notions. And the quickest way to tell if this is being done is to look at the context that surrounds the verse. When people pull Romans 8:28 out of context, I think they walk away thinking it says “If you believe in God, He will always give you good things.” And I don’t think that is what the verse is saying.
For us to see this clearly, let’s look at one other passage that is often interpreted wrongly, that tends to reach the same erroneous conclusion:
- 4:13, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” You’ve probably seen this verse on social media, typically edited into a photo of someone working out or studying for an exam. When people quote Phil. 4:13, they often are thinking about it as God’s way of saying, “You can accomplish any goal you set your mind to.” But that isn’t what the verse is saying. If we look just a few verses back we see that Paul was actually talking about how he has learned “the secret of contentment” and that he is content “in whatever situation” whether it is “facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need” (4:11-12). Paul is saying that He has found the ability to have a hope and joy so secure and rock solid that regardless of eating well, or starving, he is content. And the “secret” he refers to is being united with Christ, “…through him…” Paul says that the way to live this life (which includes good things and bad things) is to find your strength in Him. The “strength” that Paul was talking about was not merely a physical strength; he was not talking about his new workout routine, or being able to do another crunch so he could look good for swimsuit season. He was talking about enduring the highs and lows of this life with a settled contentment in who God is, and that is what gave him the strength to remain joyfully content.
Now, I said that people tend to read Romans 8:28 as “If you believe in God, He will always give you good things”, and I said I believe this is an incorrect understanding of the verse. When I have seen this passage used in this way, people tend to view God like the Genie, or like Santa Claus or something like that. That if you believe in/love Him, He will reward you with blessings (money, health, popularity, romance, promotions, finding the best parking spots, etc.). I don’t just think this is just a wrong interpretation, I think it is wrong and extremely dangerous and destructive to those who believe it, as well as offensive to God. Why?
It hurts people because nobody ever gets everything they want in life, and those who preach this prosperity gospel know that, so if something didn’t turn out the way you wanted it to, they shift the blame on you. “You must not have believed enough, you need more faith” or “You must not love God enough, because if you did, He would be giving you blessings.” And while people are wrestling with the normal pain of life, they then have to deal with this added layer of the guilt and shame of “not being faithful enough.”
It dishonors God because it turns Him into a vending machine. He is no longer loved for who He is, but for what He provides. He is the butler that brings us what our heart’s truly love and cherish – we may appreciate him, have a warm sentimentality, but that is all. He is not our treasure, just the means to it.
The Correct Way
So, that is the incorrect way to interpret that text – bringing a very Americanized, cultural assumption on top of the text, rather than letting it speak for itself. And I hope to prove that to you by showing you what I believe to be the correct understanding of the text.
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
So first off, we see that this amazing promise is made to a select people, those who “love God”. God does not make this promise to every human being in the world. He qualifies this later as “those who are called according to his purpose.” I’ll explain later why this promise only makes sense to be good news for those who love God, and would be bad news if you didn’t love God.
What Do You Mean “All Things”?
Secondly, we see the scope of this promise: “all things”. This is huge. God orchestrates “all things” to work together for your good. This means two things: it means that regardless of the magnitude of the event, or the motives behind it, God will use it for your good.
- First, Jesus explains that a bird doesn’t fall out of the sky or a hair fall out of your head apart from God’s control (Matt. 10:29-30). Nothing is too insignificant, or too overwhelming for God not to use. This last week Hillary and I got a new puppy, her name is Lucy, she is half basset-hound and half Australian shepherd. She is adorable and cute, but if you have ever had a puppy you will know that they are essentially just a tornado of frustration. She wants to chew literally everything in sight, and when she isn’t chewing on something she is peeing on something else. She whines through the night, keeps us awake, and the worst part is, she has no idea what she is doing. She doesn’t have any kind of guilt complex because she doesn’t know anything is wrong yet, so she’ll sit there and poop on my shoe, and look at me with her tail happily wagging. Very frustrating. But you know what is comforting, I know that God has made a promise: He is using all things, even little puppies, for my good. Nothing is too small for God to be using in our lives for His purposes. I wonder how your perspective on your life would change if you kept in mind the idea of God’s purposes behind it all.
- Second, we see that whatever the motives are behind what comes into our life, sinful or righteous, God is still in control. We see this most clearly in the life of Joseph in the book of Genesis. Joseph is kidnapped by his brothers, sold into slavery, and is thrown into jail for doing the right thing and then forgotten there. He eventually rises to a place of power in the Egyptian government and through his diligence and faithfulness, sets up a plan to help save the entire nation from starving to death through a famine. And, lo and behold, eventually his brothers arrive to Egypt, hoping to buy food to survive the famine and end up running into Joseph, who they assumed was dead by now. Joseph, who has the authority to dish out vengeance on his wicked brothers, instead reaches out and forgives his brothers and invites them to come live with him. How could he do that? Joseph explains how in a conversation with his brothers where he explains, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” (Gen. 50:20). Joseph is able to reconcile with his brothers because He sees God’s sovereign plan working for good behind the whole scheme. The promise of “all things” in Romans 8:28 means that whatever sin has happened to you, is happening, or will happen to you is not pointless. This also means that whatever mistakes you make, are making, or will make are not pointless – God is in the business of redeeming and repurposing sin.
Now, to clarify, this does not mean when something bad happens to us we call it “good”. When someone sins against you, or when you sin, that is a bad thing. This is not an excuse to let someone take advantage of you, or for you to take advantage of someone else. It was an evil thing for Joseph’s brothers to sell him off into slavery. We do not look at the evils and injustices in the world or in our own hearts and say “Since God is sovereign, these are all actually good things.” They are absolutely evil and we should use all of our energy and might to stop these injustices and to repent of our own sin. But, there is no amount of evil that is done in this world, by us or by others, that God will not bend back around into the service of our good and His glory. Every arrow that Satan launches at us, God only permits so that He might redirect them around to pierce Satan’s schemes. And you know how we know that? The cross.
The Power of the Cross
Think about the gloating and celebration that must have gone on in hell at the day of Christ’s crucifixion. Satan’s greatest scheme: God had made himself vulnerable by becoming a man, so he took the opportunity to kill God – and it worked! God, hung on a cross, in humiliation and shame. Satan must have reveled in that sight; people mocking and flogging the Son of God.
But his satisfaction would not last long – three days to be exact. On the morning of third day, Christ erupts in resurrection power from the tomb and BOOM, He’s alive! And unbeknownst to the great serpent, through the death and resurrection of Christ He has now ransomed all of His children from the clutches of Satan’s grasp, purchasing them eternal life. Satan’s greatest scheme wound up being his greatest defeat! God took the worst evil that this world has ever known and turned it into the greatest news that has ever existed – so good, that when we reflect on the cross; the evil is overwhelmed with the good.
I don’t know why God allows certain things to happen, or why some people seem to suffer more in this world when others don’t. But I do know that there is no amount of evil that God cannot use to serve His divine purposes and our good. And that gives me hope.
So the “all things” of 8:28 means, quite simply, all things; good, bad, big or small.
What’s The Good?
Okay, there is one final point we need to make that is absolutely crucial, because everything I have just said could be said by the person who interprets verse 28 wrongly. Typically, that person will end their interpretation there and will leave the most fundamental element in the passage to be defined by their own assumptions. We need to know what the “good” is that Paul is saying that all of this is working towards. God has made a promise to those who love him to work all things – big, small, good or bad – work together for GOOD. The “good” is the entire destination of the passage, it’s the entire point! But, it is tempting to just breeze by that, thinking I know what good is. That’s easy, good is the opposite of bad. Bad is stuff I don’t like, good is stuff I do like.
This is where false teachers and heretics swoop in and load the word “good” with whatever they want – but what does the Paul define the “good” as? We see Paul explain it clearly in the next verse, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son…” (Rom. 8:29). Listen carefully, the good that God is working towards in every single event of your life, is that you would be conformed to the image of Christ. Let me say that again, the great goal and purpose of everything that God is doing in your life, all the seemingly insignificant events, all of your failures, all of the heart break, all of the suffering, all of the pleasures and joys – everything is working to make you more and more like Jesus.
This is the end to which you were created, an image-bearer of God (Gen. 1:27) – and now, in Christ, God is leading you to your original destiny. Paul explains in 2 Corinthians, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” (2 Cor. 3:18). This is purpose of God’s work in our lives, and will be totally realized after death upon seeing the Lord face to face (Phil. 3:20-21).
Do you see why this promise is only made to those who love God? This is only good news if your greatest love is God – if your joy is still wrapped up in money and status and comfort, this is no help to you. God as not promised that he will keep you safe from pain or difficulty; He has promised that whatever pain or pleasure, whatever difficulty or delight, He has sovereignly and lovingly planned for your good: becoming more and more like Jesus.
ISIS and It Is Well
So, when we see 21 Egyptian Christians kneeling in orange jumpsuits before black-hooded ISIS members, about to be beheaded simply for trusting in Jesus, we know that is an evil thing; a horrible evil that we pray would cease. But we also have confidence that ISIS is not ultimately in charge. We have confidence in a sovereign loving God who is working all things, ALL things, together for our good and his glory. Romans 8:28 is still true for those Christians about to lose their heads. Romans 8:28 is still true for their grieving families. Through the deepest pain and sorrow, God is still there, still working.
We are going to end with a song tonight, it is an old hymn that I am sure you have heard before. It is written by a man named Horatio Spafford, who lived in Chicago around 1870 during the famous tragic fire Chicago. He lost an incredible amount of money in his business through the fire, and was forced to make some last minute changes to a trip he had planned with his family to visit England. He had to stay behind and finish wrapping some things up, so he sent his wife and four daughters ahead and planned on catching the next ship and would meet them there. However, their ship almost immediately crashed into another ship and sank, his wife was able to survive, but his four young daughters all drowned. As Spafford rushed to his wife, he was sailing over the very place that his daughters lost their lives, he penned down the now famous hymn, “It Is Well”.
I’d like you to think about the words of this song as we sing them, and reflect on God’s sovereign goodness, in times of blessing and in times of suffering.