Five reasons why “God works out all things for those who love him” is awful advice

badcardI recently received this letter:

John,

I am a follower of your blog as well as a huge fan of Unfundamentalist Christians.

I was raised in an Evangelical home and was schooled at an Evangelical Christian school for most of my life. I have slowly begun to discover my own faith, as opposed to just simply believing what I had been told all my life.

That being said, I often struggle with particular Biblical verses.

One of the scriptures I have the most difficulty with that is used over and over again is, “God works out all things for the good for those who love him … ” [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.] This scripture seems to so often be used within the context of one “believer” telling another, “God will work out your problems for you, because you love Him.”

I feel myself tense up whenever I hear that, because of the exclusionary element—as though God will not, and cannot, work things out in people’s lives unless they love him. (The subtext of that message always being “unless they love him the way I believe acceptable and appropriate.”)

I would love it if I could get your take on this scripture and its often used translation.

It goes quite nicely with your “Love me or I will throw you in a lake of fire forever” sentiment. [I believe she's talking about the meme above, which Dan Wilkinson was recently  kind enough to design out of something I wrote somewhere.]

Thank you so very much for being strong enough to voice truth when it is much to easy to tuck our tails and live in our safe little box.

Dear person who wrote me this:

Thanks for those kind final words. I appreciate that.

As a statement of faith, “God works out all things for the good for those who love him” is great: it’s a solid and encouraging affirmation. As advice for anyone facing any particular challenge in their life, however, it’s awful. Here are five reasons why:

1. It turns God into an egomaniacal cretin. “God works out all things for good for those who love him” implies that God contentedly allows for the suffering of all who don’t subscribe to one particular strain of one particular religion. That theological position makes a lot of sense—if you’re a child. For adults it’s ridiculously immature.

2. It’s blaming. The implication is that the person wouldn’t have the problems they do if they loved God the way they’re supposed to. “You’re being punished by God because you deserve it” is a despicable message to send.

3. It absolves the person saying it of personal responsibility. “Don’t worry: God will fix everything” is just another way of saying, “Good luck.” That’s hardly a Good Samaritan’s response to need.

4. It reduces God to being Mr. Goodwrench. Our lives aren’t mechanical; our problems are almost never reducible to a simple cause-and-effect. God doesn’t fix our lives the way Mr. Goodwrench fixes our carburetor.

5. It’s unsympathetic. A suffering person needs an arm put around their shoulder, not a book dropped into their lap.

Again, I do believe that God works for the best of all people; I do not believe that God works towards the peace and happiness of Christians exclusively. God is God. People are people. I believe that, in one way or another, the relationship between God and every person is ultimately resolved. How exactly that happens, or what exactly that looks like, no one on this side of the veil can know. I think God designed it just that way, so that each of us would have to choose to respect the ways of all those who seek only personal growth and harm to none.

Print Friendly

About John Shore

John Shore (who, fwiw, is straight) is the author of UNFAIR: Christians and the LGBT Question, and three other great books. He is founder of Unfundamentalist Christians (on Facebook here), and executive editor of the Unfundamentalist Christians group blog.  (In total John's two blogs receive some 250,000 views per month.) John is also co-founder of The NALT Christians Project, which was written about by TIME,  The Washington Post, and others. His website is JohnShore.com. John is a pastor ordained by The Progressive Christian Alliance. You're invited to like John's Facebook page. And don't forget to sign up for his mucho awesome monthly newsletter.

  • http://listencloselyproductions.wordpress.com Liz Massey

    Wow. I’m the first commenter – I feel honored!!!

    This exact meme is one of my biggest issues with “traditional” (read: evangelical) Christianity. (I was raised in a mainline denomination and this was not what was taught or presented.) Grace is reduced to fire insurance in the afterlife. God becomes a big slot machine that pays out for those who’ve “paid in” by believing the right things and joining the right church.

    The arm around the shoulder is the biggest thing people need when they are suffering. And mostly for us to shut up and listen to what’s actually going on with them before we start in with the pat answers that are mainly intended to make US feel better.

    Another great post, John.

    • Soulmentor

      *****Grace is reduced to fire insurance in the afterlife. God becomes a big slot machine that pays out for those who’ve “paid in” by believing the right things and joining the right church.*****

      Wow! Gotta love THOSE metaphors. So right on. I’m saving them.

    • Jill

      Exactly this. Religious platitudes are the ultimate in avoidance and denial of being God’s hands and feet. Of the options, silent witness is much more productive.

  • http://thethreews.wordpress.com Ken Leonard

    Under no circumstances should that verse ever be recited to a person who’s in pain. Ever. At all.

    Everything you said certainly applies. Let’s spend one minute looking at the real world, too. Do people really suggest that Christian communities in, say, Uganda don’t really love Him enough and therefore He won’t solve their problems, but that we First Worlders are more devoted?

    Really?

    What the verse says is that God works EVERYTHING together for good for the world as a whole (or those who love Him, … whatever). Not for any individual. Certainly not for you or me. That’s some serious big-picture thinking. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t people who really love God whose lives are really, really going to suck.

    It is a huge disservice to misapply this verse.

    • http:allegro63.wordpress.com sdparris

      I like that Ken, even though I have a hard time reconciling the concept to the scope of tragedy and pain that surrounds this whole “being human” entails. However, I think that God has a lot more going on for our benefit than we can see right now.

    • Anakin McFly

      “Do people really suggest that Christian communities in, say, Uganda don’t really love Him enough and therefore He won’t solve their problems, but that we First Worlders are more devoted?”

      I don’t see the verse as implying that at all, actually. To me, it’s a verse about the indefinite future – i.e. things will get better, without making any judgement whatsoever on the present circumstance, let alone suggesting that if things suck right now it’s because you don’t love God enough, which is debunked elsewhere in the Bible.

  • Barbara Rice

    It’s right up there with, “God has a plan” for the worst kind of “comfort” Christians use.

    • Anakin McFly

      I’ve found it pretty comforting, actually, but that’s just me. So far it has held out true – many of the worst moments of my life eventually ended up leading to the best, so it does reinforce my faith that if things are horrible right now, one day I’ll look back on it and realise that everything happened for a reason. And that if things aren’t wonderful at the moment, it just means the story isn’t over yet.

  • Todd Reeder

    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. I always think of the obverse of it. If that is the correct word. Meaning things won’t work together for good if you don’t love God. If you are not called according to his purpose. If you are not one of the elect or predestined all things working for the good does not apply. Meaning you are going to have trouble because God did not choose you.

    • http:allegro63.wordpress.com sdparris

      Did you even read the list?

    • http://Fordswords.net David S

      Hi Todd,

      In all sincerity…can we really pretend to know God with this level of certainty? Isn’t it possible that God chooses everyone with a belly button?

      To me, the troubling implication of this kind of exclusionary thinking is that the suffering of non-Christians serves no purpose other than to punish their disbelief. I don’t buy that line of thought; it doesn’t jive with my belief in the sanctity of each life.

    • Mike

      Todd’s reasoning is what I find so perplexing about Calvinist theology — that you can take a passage that so beautifully reinforces God’s work of redemption and restoration, and instead make it into a club to beat someone over the head with, saying that for the un-elected it sucks to be you; life is hard, then you die, and then you get thrown into the lake of fire for eternity because you were not chosen.

      I like John’s post and there seems to be general consensus that we shouldn’t use this passage as a cop-out platitude to the suffering. I also try to remind myself that God wants *me* to be someone to bring good out of a bad situation. God working all things for good is not just some cosmic hocus pocus; God works primarily in and through people.

  • http://coolingtwilight.com Dan Wilkinson

    Wow that IS a terrible Hallmark card!

    • Elizabeth

      LOL, Dan. I once gave my mom a Mother’s Day card specifically because it used the second person. She always talks in the royal plural. ;)

      • http://Fordswords.net David S

        HAR! I only use the royal we when talking in the mirror. For reals.

        • Jill

          If only to be a fly on that wall…

  • Sharla

    My take on that verse is that God has a way of working in and through any situation, and can redeem even our worst mistakes or the worst tragedy that a person can go through. What I would NEVER do is tell someone in the midst of suffering or tragedy that “God will use this for your good.” It’s impossible to see such things when you’re in the midst of the situation. At that point what we need is to know that God loves us and is with us, and as has been said, God’s people to put loving arms around the people who are suffering. Later, after some time has elapsed, the person who’s gone through the tragic time might look back and see how God was at work during or after it. Might. We might help them process, but the truth of God’s presence is for them to see for themselves. And they may or may not ever get there. If they don’t, we keep our loving arms around them.

  • http://Fordswords.net David S

    This is one of my favorite chapters in the entire canon. I think Romans 8:28 is not a trite platitude as it’s often used. The preceding verses talk about the Holy Spirit interceding with “wordless groans” when we are despairing. I’ve so been there… more than a couple of times.

    When we talk about the nature of God, I’m not sure that we can call Him just or benevolent in the way that we understand those concepts. I can, however, have faith that my actions, informed by my lived experiences (both good and difficult), are contributing to reconciliation. The person I’ve become is making unique contributions to God’s yet unseen whole.

    That’s what I take from these verses…I hope that’s not too “out there”.

    • Jill

      “The person I’ve become is making unique contributions to God’s yet unseen whole.”

      – This is what I keep reminding myself that I’m doing everyday.

      There is so much wisdom out here, it’s beautifully insane.

  • Lymis

    I agree completely with John’s post. And with the people who say this is a horrible thing to use to try to “comfort” someone in pain, or to smugly use to hammer someone whose life isn’t working and who conveniently doesn’t live according to your own view of what God wants.

    And that’s the way such things are usually used, and it’s despicable.

    I also don’t feel any particular need to justify everything in the Bible and reconcile things that are clearly unloving so that they sound nicer, rather than simply being okay with the human authors of the Bible just getting some things wrong.

    For me, though, this passage really does work, but not the way most people try to make it work. God is manifestly far more concerned with us as people, and as immortal beings whose destiny is in eternity, not here on earth. So, “working out all things for the good” is obviously (to me) not going to be focused on life going smoothly, nasty things never happening, and everything having a human happy ending. The world clearly doesn’t work that way, so God clearly doesn’t work that way.

    But if that’s true, what could this passage mean? I know in my life, my faith in God has helped me get through some of the toughest things I’ve faced, and in the process of picking up the pieces and going forward, finding meaning, and finding strength to go on, believing that God is there for me has helped me create new meanings and develop new strengths because of it.

    Because things didn’t always “work for the good” in the objective sense, I’m a far more compassionate, balanced, and tolerant person. I’m far more okay with ambiguity and confusion. I’m better able to let others do things their way, seeking their own paths and finding their own meanings. I’m far better at letting go of bad outcomes and picking myself up and moving on. I’d be an insufferably spoiled brat if everything went my way, and I’d be a much more horrible person if I didn’t have to worry that my choices have consequences for myself and for others. I’m more careful and more loving, quicker to forgive, and more aware that we all don’t do things the same way.

    And that’s just within my human life. I have no real way of even conceiving of how all this might apply in eternity.

    • gregory

      Bravo! Amen! and Awesome! There is no question, for me, in my life, that God has most deeply, beautifully, tenderly, richly, emotionally, powerfully – been revealed to me, and IN me, in my darkest hours of insufferable sorrow and bruising pain. I truly believe one can only “feel” joy and happiness in the exact same proportions as one can access tears, and pain.

      Yet I shudder to think I was once amongst that pharisaical, judgemental “church” … that could turn plowshares, into amuniton!

      It is difficult for me to see how one could not be humbled, more empathetic, tolerant and compassionate by the difficulties we all must face in the journey of our lives.

      I am certain the heart of god is saddened by the misuse and outright ABUSE of the scriptures, often “in God’s Name”.

  • Soulmentor

    What bothers me about this verse and so many other “christian” platitudes is that it anthropomorphizes God. I have a serious problem with such an immature, simplistic approach to God. The ancient gods were actually little more than humans with human emotions but special powers; gods made in the image of Man. They were fickle and, of course, false. When Christians speak of God as “Him” or “He”, they are doing the same thing. I suppose it may be comforting somehow in the absence of REAL arms and hugs, but ultimately, there’s no there there. I need, and I give Jesus with skin on, for instance.

    I do believe God exists, but the reality is that no living human has any way of knowing what God is beyond it’s very definition in the Bible and what Jesus and many others have shown us; that “God is Love”, and to anthropomorphize God into a mere superhuman with human emotional responses to ourselves, is preposterous. From that approach we get what John illustrates in today’s blog which is, ultimately, nothing. God is something INSIDE of us, not outside somewhere. With Love, WE are God with skin on to each other.

    • Jill

      Another Soulmentor comment, bookmarked for future reference. So good!

    • Soulmentor

      Thanks to Jill and I want to clarify my sentence: “From that approach we get what John illustrates in today’s blog which is, ultimately, nothing.” The subject referred to here is the “approach”, not John’s blog.

  • Gregory Smith

    Thank you for this. Thank you.

    Last night I was talking with an acquaintance about my current life situation which includes having been laid off almost a year and a half ago because of an emergent health situation that arose. Health has slowly improved but finding a job has been all but impossible for a plethora of reasons.

    The response of the acquaintance was that I don’t have it so bad because there are people who have it worse than I do and that I should remember them the next time I am feeling sorry for myself.

    The judgmental attitude of a casual observer of a situation and their arbitrary, uninformed decision on how bad off an individual is means absolutely nothing. The fact that someone else may have cancer and has to be in a wheel chair in NO WAY negates the fact that I often do not eat because I cannot afford food. It in NO WAY reduces the stress of almost daily phone calls from bill collectors demanding almost $500,000 in medical bills – NOW (and no income.) It in NO WAY reduces the disappointment and frustration when even Walt-Mart and McDonald’s wvehiclon’t hire me because “You won’t be here very long” or “You are overqualified.”

    As you say, John, every time I hear that I feel blamed for my circumstances, feel even worse about myself, wonder why I even try any more, and angers me when I see on the individual’s update that they have bought yet another redundant, luxury vehicle to add to their collection. The price they paid for that automobile could ensure my basic food and lodging needs for a year or two.

    • Don Rappe

      Maybe we don’t have the “best health care system in the world”.

      • Matt

        As someone who works in that system, nope. Not by a long shot.

    • Soulmentor

      Yeah, I’d like to tell you “It gets better”, and for most it does, but that platitude does not work for everyone. That’s why we need each other. Wish I could help you but I’m retired on very low income and food stamps myself plus I’m making sacrifices to help a dear friend in prison.

      Look up this passage: 2 Corinth 4: 8-9. It’s not just a platitude and it sustained me thru some very hard and painful times.

      And always keep in mind that “This too, shall pass.”

    • Kate Noonan

      Gregory Smith, please email me at kayte99@gmail.com. I would like to help if I can.

  • Don Rappe

    John responds well to the question asked him. Chapters seven and eight provide an adequate context for understanding the verse. I focus a little more on the possibility of misunderstanding the phrase “those who love Him”. It seems to refer to the principle commandment “Love God”. Those who enter into a covenant relationship with One who will be our God and we agree to be his people. Even though we are spiritually weak and do not know what we ought to pray for, God’s mighty arm encompasses everything and responds as though we had prayed a better prayer than is humanly possible. This is Paul’s hope. And as he points out, we do not hope for what we can see, but for what is beyond our vision. This phrase is not intended to divide us, since it is offered also to gentiles.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X