Do All Things Work Together for the Good?

Do All Things Work Together for the Good? May 14, 2023

Lacklustre spiritual lives are the result of confusing theology – if believers know that God is truly good, all the time, they will be grateful and generous vessels of love, joy, and peace. Tragically, many do not know about the goodness of God because their theology denies it. Such theology – that God sometimes blesses and other times tests us with suffering – leads to cognitive dissonance and the inability to trust God, making it impossible to draw near. This dissatisfying state is enforced by the imposition of poor interpretations of familiar verses, chief of which is Romans 8:28a

 

And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God

 

To interpret this carefully, we need to understand the context of the statement, as well as the meaning inherent in the Greek, because let’s face it, it’s not clear at first glance. Without proper study, it would be possible to impose all kinds of meanings onto the broad statement. This verse is most commonly quoted in times of suffering, telling ourselves that ‘God knows what he’s doing’ or ‘God is in control’, as if the Lord is busy choreographing circumstantial troubles for us to go through. For me, this is a catastrophic belief, because it makes God the author of our suffering.

 

I understand that the Lord helps us through challenges and hard times, using them as opportunities for our growth, but crucially, he is not crafting these circumstances as some kind of test. James 1:13-17

 

When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone…Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.

 

The word translated ‘tempt’ in this passage equally means ‘test’. It is literally the same Greek word, ‘peirazw’, meaning to test, scrutinise, entice, discipline, examine, go about, prove, tempt, and try.

 

God cannot tempt us with evil because he is not tempted by evil. Nor can he test us with evil because he is not tested by it – he cannot give us what he doesn’t have. The Lord does not change like shifting shadows, sometimes blessing and other times cursing us. This passage should be the final word on the idea that God is in control of all the hardships we face. He is not with the test; he is with us, helping us grow and overcome. Our understanding (or lack of understanding) of this truth defines the quality of our relationship with God.

 

If Romans 8:28 cannot mean that God is orchestrating our sorrows as part of a grand plan, what might it be saying instead? Let’s look at the meaning of the key Greek words:

 

  • ‘All things’ can be most simply understood as ‘the whole of reality’ – a primary word; all, any, every, the whole.
  • Strong’s Concordance expands on ‘work’ as ‘putting forth power together’ in order to assist. The tense and voice of ‘work’ are present and active, so this is a collective, continual, and present effort.
  • Good is defined by Strong’s as follows: 1) of good constitution or nature, 2) useful, salutary, 3) good, pleasant, agreeable, joyful, happy, 4) excellent, distinguished, 5) upright, honourable.

 

So far, we’ve got the entirety of existence actively putting forth continual power for the blessing, happiness, praiseworthiness, effectiveness, pleasure, and joy…of whom? According to the passage, this is all done for ‘those that love God.’ Please note, it does not say ‘all Christians.’ I’ll break down ‘those that love God’:

 

  • The word ‘that’, translated ‘who’ in the NKJV, is a causative conjunction, meaning ‘because’. In essence, this implies that all this co-operative, active working in our favour happens because/when we love God.
  • Lastly, ‘love’. Strong’s offers two expressions of the love being referring to here, but only one applies. The first is love of a person (i.e. God), and the second is the love of a thing or things. In terms of loving a person, the meaning is to welcome, to entertain, to be fond of, to love dearly. Again, the tense and voice are present and active.

 

In summary, this verse appears to be saying:

 

And we know that the whole of existence actively and collaboratively puts forth continual effort and power for the blessing, happiness, praiseworthiness, effectiveness, pleasure, and joy of those who welcome, make room in their hearts for, are fond of, and dearly love God.’

 

Admittedly, translating Koine Greek is a difficult undertaking and I’m an amateur, but even so, digging into the individual meaning, tense, and voice of each word reveals the building blocks of the sentence. There is not even the faintest hint or mention of circumstantial difficulty or personal suffering, nor of being tested and tempted, nor of some great divine plan involving the use of pain as an educational tool. The language is triumphant and also conditional – if we align yourself to God’s ways, we’ll receive the blessings God has always wanted to give us. Not because we’ve earned them, but because we get out of God’s way.

 

In addition to the inherent meaning in the Greek, the Bible is explicit on what it means to love God. John 13:34

 

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”

 

1 John 4:7-8

 

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.

 

1 John 4:16-18

 

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: in this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

 

Importantly, this tremendous flow of love we’re called to partake in does not begin with us; it begins with God. 1 John 4:10

 

This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.

 

The first step in obeying the commandment must be to receive the love of God, but how do we do that? 1 John 4:13

 

This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: he has given us of his Spirit.

 

Walking with the Spirit of God, listening to Him, communing with and following his lead, exposes any fear in our hearts to the love of God. Our relationship with the Holy Spirit is the only way to receive anything from God, but if a believer has never learned how to walk closely with the Spirit, they won’t receive, feel, or know God’s love in a transforming way. Instead, they’ll be stuck in carnality, busting a gut to please God when all they need to do is surrender and receive. Personally, I’ve made the journey from dry, conservative Christianity to a full and vibrant engagement with the Spirit of God, and the two experiences of a life of faith could not be more different.

 

Similarly, I’ve seen at least 50 people step into the things of the Spirit, and their lives have been utterly transformed. If you’re dry and dusty, rarely hear from God or feel God’s tangible presence, then please take this as a call to step out in faith. Find some believers who flow in the Spirit, whose lives evidence real joy, and pray with them regularly until you start to experience the closeness of the Lord for yourself. You will never regret it.

 

The process of transformation described in Romans 8:28 begins with receiving the love of God by the Spirit, which in turn awakens our love for God and each other. The rest is a natural flow of obedience, ever-growing closeness, and deeper connection. As our lives conform to love, we get out of our own way and the blessings of God can begin to flow. In the fullness of time, all things will work together for the good of those who love God, but even now we begin to see changes in areas where previously we were stuck. One aspect of existence at a time begins to put forth effort for our joy.

 

I’ll give you an example of how this might unfold. Let’s say I get myself into a particular brand of trouble with some regularity. It doesn’t matter what that trouble is, but it’s a (proverbial) pit into which I often fall. Perhaps it’s a communication issue that leads to tension with a loved one, perhaps a fearful response to a stimulus that tempts me to judge and become angry. Whatever it is, it’s a habit/behaviour that harms me and others (otherwise known as sin). The Lord has nothing to do with the trouble itself – that is of my own making – but he does play a role, and that is to help me change my ways. The outcome of God’s intervention (and my willingness to follow) is that I no longer fall into that pit; in that one area of life, knowing and walking with God has helped me move from trouble into freedom. By loving God in this way, a single circumstance is now working for my good.

 

Considering that God is always leading us in one matter or another, the disciple who walks with God and chooses love over fear will inevitably discover freedom in multiple areas of their lives. More circumstances will work together for their good, and then even more, as their transformation continues.

 

This is why all things work together for the good of the one who walks closely with God – because the increasing alignment of their life and God’s love moves them into ever expanding freedom. Obstacles are thrown aside, the path cleared, and godly, glorious outcomes are now a possibility. This is not something to boast about; it is a manifestation of grace.

 

Lastly, the context of this verse is one of the most triumphant chapters in the New Testament, promising that we will overcome all things in Christ. It finishes with a victory cry! Romans 8:37-39

 

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

 

As a whole, Romans 8 tells us that whatever comes our way, we are destined to overcome, both in our present circumstances and in the fullness of time. It does not promise us easy, trouble-free lives. Believers are called to suffer for Christ, but that suffering comes in two forms – persecution, and in service to others. It does not come in the form of a lost job, a health concern, or any other circumstantial difficulty we might want to comfort ourselves about. Clinging to the idea that our troubles are all part of a divine plan is no comfort at all, because it makes God the author of suffering (which turns the most innocent parts of our nature against him). The true comfort is that as we align ourselves with God’s love, and continue to be transformed, he will lead us to victory again and again. The world will be astonished and declare ‘Look what the Lord has done!’, and God will be glorified for his works. Isaiah 61:1-3

 

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,

because the Lord has anointed me

to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted,

to proclaim freedom for the captives

and release from darkness for the prisoners,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour

and the day of vengeance of our God,

to comfort all who mourn,

and provide for those who grieve in Zion –

to bestow on them a crown of beauty

instead of ashes,

the oil of joy

instead of mourning,

and a garment of praise

instead of a spirit of despair.

They will be called oaks of righteousness,

a planting of the Lord

for the display of his splendour.

 

Note from the author: There are many verses that I believe have been vastly diminished or otherwise misused to justify the status quo of conservative Evangelicalism. I will be addressing them one by one over the next few weeks, but if you want to get ahead on this, here’s a talk I delivered during lockdown that covers a broad spread of compromise we might hear from the pulpit:

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zlIfcJvTHZE

 

 

 

 

 

 

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