Over the last few months, I have experienced some difficult times. It would not be an exaggeration to say it has been the most trying time of my whole life up to this point: one of those seasons of life where the stress makes your fingernails grow funny and the pain makes you start to ask, “Why?”
You are probably going through difficult times. If not, either you just did, or you’re just about to. And in those times, well meaning people often quote this passage:
“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).
I will preface what follows by admitting up front that I believe this verse to be true. I believe the whole Bible to be true. And yet I have been puzzled by this verse for years. In times of hardship it is dispensed to us like a blanket promise for all believers at all times and places that everything is going to be just fine. You know God is working everything out for our good.
But we know that all of our hardships don’t always resolve themselves inside half an hour like a rerun of The Brady Bunch. Difficulties go on for years, and sometimes are never resolved, from what we can see. People get sick, and they die. Families disintegrate. People get injured in accidents. There are tornadoes and earthquakes. There is war, famine, and pestilence in this fallen world. And it is not unreasonable for the believer to look at all of this and ask, “How is this for my good?”
I promise that this article is not intended to be as much of a downer as you may think at this point. Because my Bible tells me that my God cannot lie (Titus 1:2). It further tells me that if man disagrees with God—even if all of mankind unanimously disagrees with God—He is still in the right.
“[…Y]ea, let God be true, but every man a liar […]” (Romans 3:4).
Thus, I must believe that He is working for some greater good, even when it doesn’t feel that way. But, the question remains: What is the good He is talking about? The next verse gives the answer.
“For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren” (Romans 8:29).
It has always been God’s plan, from before the foundation of the world, to redeem a people unto Himself. And His plan for us after salvation has always been that we should grow to be more and more like Christ.
To paraphrase this verse: When He knew we would trust in Christ for salvation, He decreed that we would be molded and made to resemble Christ in our character.
The blanket promise of a good outcome isn’t all that comforting because it doesn’t seem realistic. And it doesn’t seem realistic because it is not actually what God promises. We are told instead, that all of the circumstances we go through, the joys and the struggles, the mountains, the valleys, and the interminable plateaus of boredom, are designed little-by-little to whittle away the excess of me and help me to grow to be like Christ.
And this rings true, as some of our greatest spiritual growth seems to come in the face of the greatest obstacle. We don’t have the first idea how to love as Christ loves, until we are faced with the task of loving those who hate, despise, and curse us (Matthew 5:44). We can’t say we forgive as He forgives until we have been so wronged that even the most loving around us say that the person doesn’t deserve our forgiveness, and we choose to do it anyway. We can’t say we know how to sacrifice as He sacrificed, until we are faced with the opportunity to lay everything down to follow Him.
I am a flawed, imperfect man; I am a long way away from anyone mistaking me for Jesus Christ. But in the grand scheme of things, it is less important for God to make everything good for us than for Him to make us like the only One Who is good.