Rethinking Romans 8:28 (It Doesn’t Mean What You Were Taught It Means)

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Many of us who grew up in Christianity were taught that life and human history is unfolding according to a master blueprint written by God.

Every action that happens, every event, is carefully orchestrated by God. Some of these events have an obvious purpose full of beauty. Some of these events are unspeakably painful, yet we still believe they were carefully crafted and controlled by God in order to lead to a mysterious greater good.

For those of us who grew up with this “blueprint” theology, it can be hard to let go of it– I get it. I used to be there too. Yet, I am so glad I have crossed over, as recognizing that God is not the source of all of my pain and suffering, but rather is the person who longs to sit in it with me and create something more beautiful, is a far more beautiful and hope-filled understanding of God.

I don’t believe that the fact I would have to say goodbye to three out of my four children, and never get to see them grow up, was some good and beautiful plan God had. I don’t believe it was by his hand that I had to sell their beds, their bikes, or that at Christmas time I am faced with a reminder that not all of the stockings need to come out of that box this year.

If that were God’s master plan, it was a cruel plan.

One of the key verses we often turn to when it comes to human suffering is Romans 8:28. It has been quoted to me over and over in my life, from losing a close family member to suicide, to the loss of three children. The verse goes like this:

“All things work together for good…”

You probably know the one I’m talking about.

We take a strange comfort in this verse because we assume it means that every crappy thing that happens to us in life is actually good, and for a good purpose. In that regard, it certainly can be comforting. One of the deepest, most primitive human needs is that of a narrative– we need narratives to help us understand and make meaning of our own stories. It is understandable that we would want to adopt a narrative that says, “everything in your life is intended for good, and every bad thing that ever happened to you was planned for your own good.” However, I don’t think that narrative is a biblical narrative.

This narrative takes the edge off the reality of suffering, the reality of sin, and the reality of genuine evil that impacts our lives. If God caused it for a divine reason, it almost lets us off the hook a bit, because we can just sit back and let God do his thing instead of doing the messy work of making beauty from ashes.

I like how Jessica Kelley handles this verse in her book, Lord Willing: Wrestling with God’s Role in My Child’s Death. She points out that not all translations render the Greek in a way that seems to say that God is the causing agent or master planner behind every act of suffering. Instead, she shows how translations such as the RSV leave one with a completely different understanding. The RSV version reads:

“In everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.” (Emphasis mine)

Can you see the major difference? In one rendering we’re led to believe that every event is working for good, while the other reminds us that regardless of how horrible of an event occurred, we can trust that God is still working for good, still longing to partner with us, and to bring something beautiful out of it.

There’s a big difference between “all things working together for good” and “God working in all things for good.” In one, God is the causing agent. In the other, God is relentless and unstoppable– he becomes willing and able to take anything you can throw at him, and still find a way to work for good.

Kelley goes on to write:

“According to New Testament scholar Timothy Geddert, the confusion lies around the Greek verb for ‘work together.’ He explains that this verb is not used to describe one person ‘working various ingredients together’; rather, ‘it is about more than one party ‘working together’ on a common project’…Geddert concludes, ‘Romans 8:28 is not about God fitting all things together into a pattern for our benefit. It is about God and those who love God working as partners, ‘working together’ to bring about good in all situations.’

The first interpretation can breed complacency toward evil or offer the misplaced assurance that all bad things are mysteriously working toward our earthly good. It can even compound a victim’s crisis with a crisis of faith as they struggle to accept that it was their heavenly Father who brought about their nightmare.

By contrast, this second rendering of Romans 8:28 can be seen as a challenge issued to Christians. It spurs God’s people to action—to finding ways to join in God’s good work. When we encounter people who feel separated from God’s love, we’re to consider ourselves “co- workers” with God, sent to assure them, as Geddert suggests, in “concrete and tangible ways that God still loves them.”

 The difference between how we approach this verse, and how we handle this issue of God’s role in our suffering, has huge consequences for Christian living. If God causes all suffering for some higher good that we just can’t understand, our role becomes sitting back, watching all the “predetermined” events unfold, and hoping we can eventually get a glimpse of what God was trying to do.

However, when we reject the idea that God is the causing agent behind our car accidents, our illnesses, and the loss of our children, but instead is a God who specializes in taking horrible events and brining goodness and beauty out of them when we agree to partner alongside him, we experience not a call to complacency and fear, but of partnership and hope.

Which is more comforting? Which seems most consistent with the revelation of God we see in Jesus? Is it that God causes all our suffering for some mysterious reason, or that God is constantly working with whatever horrible variables we may face, to somehow, someway, bring about good things for us?

I know which makes more sense to me.

Whatever pain and suffering you have experienced in life, whatever loss or devastation you are facing in this moment, you can have comfort in knowing that a loving God did not do this to you– this was not from God’s hand. Instead, our hope is in a God who longs to partner with us, to take all of our brokenness, our hurts, and our sufferings, and to find a way to create beauty from that mess– together.

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