If God works all things for the good, why is there so much bad in my life?

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There have been no shortage of abuses and misrepresentations of Romans 8:28. People in the church often use it out of context to comfort one another through whatever crisis they may be presently experiencing as if Paul were basically saying, “If you’re a Christian, than no matter how challenging, difficult, or confusing life may seem, take comfort in the fact that God will make everything work out alright.” This has led many to think God will make all manner of things happen in one’s life ultimately to serve the individual’s own selfish desires in life’s present circumstance.

So, if there is financial hardship for example, they would claim God would give you finances in order to be financially stable. If physical illness, God would give you healing so you might have the ‘good’ of not experiencing said illness or affliction, etc. Not only have people in the church taken up this misrepresentation of Romans 8:28, but many Christian books and publishers have jumped on board to further abuse this verse which in truth is a priceless gem of Scripture and genuine encouragement regarding the goodness and faithfulness of God.

So, what does Paul mean when he writes, “… all things work together for good”?

The first thing to note is that Paul doesn’t mean our good or simply whatever desire we may have for ourselves. The ‘good’ Paul writes of is not our good, although it is good for us and to our benefit. For example, when a good, loving parent raises a child, the parent may provide things that the child presently desires such as candy or desserts or a toy, however, the parent will not give the things to their child whom they love all the time even if their child desires them all the time. A loving parent provides and withholds out of love for their child, that is, for their good. It is not good for the child to get what they want all the time, so a loving parent sees that a child receives things that will nourish it and help it to grow, that will keep it safe, and things that will make it feel happy, healthy, and loved. So it is with our relationship with God that we, not unlike small children ever needy but rarely wanting what we truly need, will ask God to give us the desires of our hearts and then become, like a child, frustrated and angry with God when we don’t get what we want.

Does this mean this verse is wrong and God doesn’t work all things for the good?

Absolutely not! It means that we have misunderstood the passage and misunderstood God. God is perfectly good, loving, and faithful. So, we can trust that if something doesn’t seem to work out in a good way in our lives that God, our Loving Parent, has a good purpose for it in our lives that we likely don’t see or recognize as good in our present circumstance. God is omniscient as well as omnibenevolent, so while we may think we understand our lives well as we live them better than anybody, our perspective in comparison to God’s (aside from being sinful and flawed, and God being perfect and sinless) is like seeing the shape, color, and size of our favorite flower and believing that we know that flower better than anyone when in reality God not only knows all we know of that flower but knows all the universe down to the subatomic makeup of the earth and every single flower in the past, present, and future from before time began as the Creator of all things and sustainer of all things.

When God’s greatness and power and love and understanding is then applied to our lives, we can begin then to grasp how things may not appear very good for us but also that God is working behind the scenes for our good which may not because of our selfish, sinful nature correspond with what is good to us in the moment. Our thinking is as one solitary flower when God’s is more vast than the universe, deeper than the subatomic, and as expansive as all of time past, present, and future, and even before time began, so we can most certainly trust God with the circumstances of our lives even when we can’t comprehend how something could possibly be for our good or even when something is clearly bad that God will use it for the good of His all-loving, all-benevolent, all-knowing purpose in our lives.

The ground for Paul’s statement in Romans 8:28 is in the following 2 verses in God’s activity in the past, present, and future in regards to conforming the follower of Jesus to the image of Christ. Now, the Apostle Paul doesn’t provide this encouragement without qualification. He begins, “… for those who love God…” which is to say those who have been bought with the blood of Christ, the redeemed, those reconciled ones who no longer are enemies of God, those who supernaturally have such a transformed heart that they can, by no power in and of themselves, but purely by God as His Spirit gives the ability can claim to love God.

As John writes, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins (1 John 4:10),” and later, “We love because he first loved us (1 John 4:19).” So, those who love God can only do so because God has changed their heart of stone to flesh (See Ezekiel 11:19) and by His Spirit caused them to turn from a life of sin to the Gospel of grace in Christ Jesus. The ‘good’ Paul writes about is for those who love God, but that is not the only qualification Paul provides in Romans 8:28. Paul also writes, “… for those who are called according to his purpose.” So, the ‘good’ that God works is for those who are called by God and works according to His purpose.

What purpose?

That is to be conformed to the image of Jesus for the glory of God the Father (vv. 29-30). The reality of a follower of Jesus being conformed fully to the image of Jesus will not come to fruition until after Jesus returns and brings about the new heavens and new earth where genuine followers of Jesus will dwell with God. Therefore, the ‘good’ is a future glory that awaits those who persevere by faith and it is certain indicated by the wording “glorified.” So, there may be a great deal of suffering and bad things that happen in the life of a follower of Jesus which should not be at all surprising, I mean, look at what happened to Jesus’ first disciples. However, the encouragement for the follower of Jesus is not in a change in their temporary circumstances that they may be facing as severe or harsh as they may be, but in the reality that as clouds parted and dissolved by the bright sun the bad that we face and experience will not last forever in that all we face is preparing us for a future glory where there is no more suffering, evil, tears, sin.

A ‘good’ that is beyond all present worldly comparison is a good that Christians can hope for and that doesn’t evaporate like the false interpretations of Romans 8:28 which anchor a hope in a change of present worldly circumstances being the ‘good,’ but rather in a ‘good’ that is fixed in the activity of God, that is certain, that nothing can change or take away. This is a hope that is imperishable, undefiled, unfading, kept in heaven, and more precious than gold (1 Peter 1).

The Mystery of How God Works

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“The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes… (John 3:8)”

The late Rev. Billy Graham once said in a sermon that also appeared in a popular dc Talk song, “Can you see God, have you ever seen Him? I’ve never seen the wind. I’ve seen the effects of the wind but I’ve never seen the wind. You see? There’s a mystery to it…” 

There are seasons of life when it can feel as though God is silent or absent, that even in the midst of your prayer life, attending church services, reading the Bible, and perhaps even reading good, life-giving, Gospel-filled Christian books that nothing seems to catch in the heart and you are left wanting, waiting, wondering…

Sometimes in these seasons you can wonder… is there something wrong with me, some deficiency that I can fix? There must be something I can do to change this? Or maybe you are asking other questions not so much about yourself, but about God like… what is God doing? Does He even care about me? Why is he letting this happen? Has He forgotten about me? Does He even care at all?

There is a mystery to how God works in our lives. At times, we can feel like we have a pretty good handle on Him and how He works, and at other times, we are left guessing. I believe there is a danger if we aren’t careful in relying too heavily on how we feel as God works in our lives and allowing our feelings of God working in our lives to be the normative measure by which to gauge our understanding of not only the reality of God working in our lives but perhaps the extent to which God is working in our lives.

What do I mean by that? Well, there are some good Christian songs out there by some Christian artists who intentionally make the Gospel of Jesus Christ echo throughout their lyrics so that one receives a good dose of Scripture and Gospel in listening to songs, but there are also some artists who base much of their lyrics not so much on the objective truth of the Gospel and the redemptive story of God’s plan in Scripture, but rather on how we feel in light of what God has done or is doing. This means that these songs are less about God and what God has done, is doing, will do, and more about us and how we can celebrate how we feel in light of what God has done. If we’re not careful with music like this, we can use lyrics such as this to frame the fabric of our relationship with God in our lives which can be based more on a transaction rather than based on grace.

When you walk into a coffee shop to purchase your coffee, you place an order, handover the money or your card, and then you receive your coffee in exchange for the money you provided. You were not given the coffee, but rather you purchased the coffee and your receiving of the coffee is simply receiving what is due to you. We can treat God in like manner. When we base our relationship with God off the things He gives and how He makes us feel, we can cultivate a relationship all about praising God for the gifts while neglecting to really and truly praise God at all. We lose sight of the Giver in light of the gifts. Music that bases it’s lyrics on how God makes us feel can teach us without our realizing it that we can rejoice and celebrate God for how He makes us feel. The problem therein lies in when we don’t feel good and there seemingly isn’t anything we’ve done to change that. We can think that God owes us the joy and satisfaction that come in the grace of God in Jesus, and when we don’t feel that joy and satisfaction we can get confused with God, angry, bitter, despondent. The trouble is that we’ve based our relationship on how God makes us feel and perhaps what we can get from God, rather than God Himself and His Word.

God’s Word doesn’t change, quite like God Himself is unchanging, but we are constantly changing just as our feelings change.

In New England, the weather can go from rainy in the morning to sunny around noon to snowing by the afternoon to clear and sunny and back to raining by the next morning. This is why there is a saying, “If you don’t like the weather, just wait 5 minutes.” What a great metaphor for how often our feelings can change. One moment we are happy eating our favorite food or listening to music we enjoy, and the next minute we are honking a car horn in traffic angered at how somebody can change lanes and not see that we are there (another common New England experience by the way). One moment we are hot, the next cold. Our feelings are changing all the time just as the experiences that we have cause us to change ever so slightly. Basing our faith on our feelings about God or on how God makes us feel rather than on His unchanging Word is a dangerous, shaky, constantly changing foundation that over time will leave you feeling as though perhaps God has abandoned you, or that God is not being faithful, or that maybe you’ve done something wrong for God to ‘make you feel’ the way you do.

The truth is that God hasn’t changed. The good news is that God is unchanging and always faithful to His Word. A reality that is hard for us, if we’re honest, to wrap our minds around as we are basically the opposite. There will be seasons of your life when you feel like your heart is overflowing with joy and gratitude, and there will be seasons when you feel isolated, alone, and perhaps numb to the things that once gave you so much joy and seeming fulfillment. What is important in both good times and bad is that we aren’t basing our ultimate hope and joy on our feelings, but rather on God’s Word.

When you look at the Psalms or when you think of them, perhaps you immediately think of the highlights where such great imagery is provided about the attributes of God or the more prophetic passages detailing the coming and experience of Jesus’ incarnation and crucifixion. However, not all the Psalms are full of joy and gratitude. There are Psalms that are honest to God about the times when we feel alone, isolated, weak, vulnerable, and numb to things that used to give us joy in life. There are 150 Psalms, but in the 30s you get highlights like ‘joy comes in the morning, ‘blessed are the forgiven,’ some about the ‘steadfast love of God,’ ‘taste and see that the Lord is good,’ ‘great is the Lord,’ and then you have Psalm 38 which is an honest to God plea to God for help. It is a pouring out of one’s soul to God. The Psalmist David writes that he is feeble and crushed, that all his longing is before God and his sighing is not hidden from God, that the light from his eyes is gone, there is no soundness in his flesh, his strength fails, his friends and family are distant or removed, adversaries seem to be thriving, and all there is is waiting for the Lord to help. David has confessed his sin to God and yet he is mourning. Mourning is something you do when you experience loss. However, the state of his heart was that of mourning. David begins his Psalm boldly claiming that God’s wrath is the source of his pain, but also that God’s wrath is justified because of his own sin. Yet, David is pursuing good, he is penitent before the Lord, he is mindful about his sin and lays it before God, and he is looking to God for help. The Psalm doesn’t end with highlights about God’s attributes or great rejoicing, but ends where it begins with a desperate plea for help and feeling helpless, weak, vulnerable, and alone. David acknowledges that God is able to save him by calling God his salvation and is obviously looking to God in his prayer which is right, but he hasn’t experienced the salvation he is seeking. He is left wanting.

Perhaps closer to the mark is Psalm 88 which comes after the source for the famous hymn Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken (Psalm 87) and just before a Psalm about singing of God’s steadfast love forever which sounds like a more contemporary worship song (Psalm 89). However, Psalm 88, a psalm from the Sons of Korah, the psalmist writes that his soul is ‘full of troubles’ and that they feel like someone who is dead. The writer feels like they can’t escape and as though everyone is shunning them and that they are in a pit. He writes that every day he calls upon God but seemingly gets no answer. They feel utterly cast down and in a dark place where no light seems to be able to break in. He writes he feels helpless, dead, and ironically asks the question, “Do you work wonders for the dead? … Is your steadfast love declared in the grave?” Let’s look for a moment at Psalm 88 and think about how difficult a place the writer is in. Perhaps you have been in or are experiencing a difficult place in your life as well…

“O LORD, God of my salvation,
I cry out day and night before you.
Let my prayer come before you;
incline your ear to my cry!

For my soul is full of troubles,
and my life draws near to Sheol.
I am counted among those who go down to the pit;
I am a man who has no strength,
like one set loose among the dead,
like the slain that lie in the grave,
like those whom you remember no more,
for they are cut off from your hand.
You have put me in the depths of the pit,
in the regions dark and deep.
Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
and you overwhelm me with all your waves. Selah

You have caused my companions to shun me;
you have made me a horror to them.
I am shut in so that I cannot escape;
my eye grows dim through sorrow.
Every day I call upon you, O LORD;
I spread out my hands to you.
Do you work wonders for the dead?
Do the departed rise up to praise you? Selah
Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,
or your faithfulness in Abaddon?
Are your wonders known in the darkness,
or your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?

But I, O LORD, cry to you;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
O LORD, why do you cast my soul away?
Why do you hide your face from me?
Afflicted and close to death from my youth up,
I suffer your terrors; I am helpless.
Your wrath has swept over me;
your dreadful assaults destroy me.
They surround me like a flood all day long;
they close in on me together.
You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me;
my companions have become darkness. (Psalm 88, ESV)”

Life isn’t always ‘rainbows and butterflies,’ but it’s hard. We go through times when something goes wrong and we are looking for a break, and then something else goes wrong and then something else goes wrong, and when we think to ourselves that nothing else could possibly go wrong or get any harder, somehow, it does. This is also why I love reading the Psalms because the Bible isn’t full of surreal examples of magnificent faith by perfect individuals who never experienced any of life’s problems or hardships, but the Bible comes to us from flawed people who experienced real life, the ups and the downs, and the Bible testifies about One who experienced all that we experienced, who suffered what we suffer, and who lived a perfect life and died so that we who are dead in our sins, incapable of saving ourselves, might have life in Him by faith in the Gospel of Christ.

The author of Hebrews writes, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:15-16, ESV)” So we may experience seasons where we feel distant and alone, isolated from God and others, but we can take comfort in the fact that God knows what we are going through not simply because we believe He is omniscient, but that God has willfully out of sheer grace and love and compassion for sinners come into this world Himself to experience the suffering that we experience. God knows our suffering because He has suffered Himself. God has experienced the hardships that we face and the temptations that we face and has overcome them. God’s steadfast love has been declared from the grave and for those in the grave in Jesus Christ dying for our sins and rising from the dead in order to provide hope, peace, love, and mercy to those who are dead in their sins, hope beyond the grave. The good news of the Gospel is that God does work wonders for the dead. God does cause dry bones to live and come to life. The first evidence of this is what God has done in Jesus Christ, but there is also what God has done in and through Jesus Christ for those who believe in Him. The shackles of guilt and shame because of sin fall off, and we are free to live in light of the Gospel of God’s grace in Jesus whereas before we were once incapable by our own power and effort to do anything to save ourselves. God has provided our salvation in Jesus.

There are seasons in our lives when we may feel helpless and alone and isolated or perhaps even that we feel dead and that we are in a pit like the psalmists, but we can take comfort in that God hears our prayer, God is still there, God is still faithful to His promises and Word, and although we may not feel great joy and gratitude from things that once caused our hearts to overflow, we can cling to God who is faithful and to His Word which is unchanging, timeless, and true. Our feelings may not comfort us, but God’s Word can transcend even our feelings in times of darkness and allow us to see the light.

I’m a surfer. There are times when I am surfing and I go out and have a great time, catch many waves, and have many memorable moments. There are also times when I go surfing and get incredibly frustrated with the conditions being not half as good as the forecast and not half as good as last time or as good as they could be, or my board doesn’t seem to be working for me. I can end a surf session and feel like it was nearly a waste of time. Maybe I didn’t catch many or any waves like I normally would, however, what I have found is that on the days that where conditions aren’t good and I still go out, I might not have the most fun, I might not catch many waves, and it might feel like I’m paddling in the water against the current as though somebody were literally holding me back from catching any waves, but when conditions are better and actually good everything is much easier and I am far better for having gone through those days where nothing seems to be going well. The same is true in our lives. We don’t see how a circumstance and experience of a dark season is going to or how it could possibly benefit us at all, but God sees far more than what we can see. We see a centimeter of our lives, God sees a mile. God sees the whole thing and He saw it before we were born or even a thought in our parents’ minds. Hard times and seasons of life test faith. They cause all that clouds and fogs our hearts and minds to be laid bare before God, and all that we truly believe to come to the surface. Some of it is good, some of it, often, is pretty bad. However, like the psalmists it is important that we keep looking to God and that we trust in God’s Word.

How God works is often a mystery and we might not know what or why God is allowing something to happen in our lives, but we can take comfort in the reality that God is still good, that God still loves us, that we haven’t been forgotten, and that God has a good purpose for what we are facing even if we can’t see it. We know all these things about God because God’s Word says so, but we also know these things when we look back over the history of God’s faithfulness in our lives. God’s people often had to remember how God had been faithful to them as a people because when faced with hardships they would forget. Remembering God’s faithfulness and love are crucial in seasons of hardship, when you feel like you are in a pit of despair (not The Princess Bride pit but an actual place of hardship).

I don’t know what you are going through or facing, but if your life is anything like mine or that of any other human being, know that you are not alone. That we all suffer. However, we have One we can look to in our pit of despair and darkness who can sympathize with our troubles because He has experienced suffering and hardship Himself. We have a God who is compassionate enough to come into time and space, to step into His own creation, to enter into our problem of sin and death and all that is wrong in the world in order to make all things new and to turn death on it’s head through the cross of Christ. Jesus suffered. Jesus wept. Jesus died. He didn’t partly die or come close to death, He actually died and He died willingly in order to save sinners like you and me. He died because He loved us. He loved us before we were born. He loves us even now. In the world we will experience trouble and we may like Job have things stripped away from us, but one thing remains that nothing in heaven or on earth can take away, and that is God and His love for us. Who we are in Christ might not feel full of joy and fulfilling at certain times, but we have to trust God’s Word over our mere feelings. To trust God’s Word we have to look to God’s Word and that means looking to God’s Word when we don’t feel anything or don’t feel like going to it at all. It’s funny how we have a hard time hearing God speak to us at times, but it’s often in those times that we aren’t listening to God either. Go to God in prayer. Go to God at His Word. Your situation and circumstance might not change. Bad things can and will still happen. I mean, Jesus was put to death and He did everything right, so we can’t trust our efforts to save us. However, we can find comfort in God and His Word. We might not leave the pit, but we can find Light enough to endure it.