“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)
There have been many times in my life when I hated this verse.
It was given to me by other Christians when I was in the middle of something difficult as a response to whatever suffering I was facing.
My head held underwater by crushing depression and anxiety in the aftermath of toxic relationships, drowning: “You just need to focus on the good that God’s doing in your life, and the depression will go away. God works all things together for the good of those who love him.”
In my anger and disappointment after my first miscarriage: “This doubt in God’s goodness sounds like you’re losing your faith. Don’t be angry, just look at the good. Remember, God works all things…”
On week eight of hospital bed rest during my son’s complicated pregnancy: “Don’t be discouraged, just look for the good God is doing here. Remember, God works all things…”
Every time, each of those well-meaning Christians was trying to give me some hope and encouragement. Each time, this verse fell on my heart like a judgment: don’t grieve, don’t doubt, don’t rage, don’t weep. Put on a good Christian joyful face.
Their intentions were not wrong, though perhaps we throw around this verse too easily to those who are suffering as a way to get past sitting with them in their pain and moving directly into the hope and joy on which we would rather focus. When faced with someone in deep pain, we don’t know what to say, and so we hand out platitudes in the hope that our words work like a magic pill and ease the suffering, making us look wise and helpful in the process.
This verse is not just some quote from a motivational poster either, though. It is from the Word of God, and therefore “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). We are also told to “encourage one another and build one another up” and to “encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all” (1 Thess. 5:11, 14).
So then this verse often leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of the suffering not because of the intentions of the Christians giving it or the verse itself, but something else. I think it comes down to a fundamental misunderstanding about the relationship between hope and pain in the life of a Christian. Whether directly or indirectly, we have often been taught that we cannot be both hopeful and suffering. That to be truly hopeful, to truly believe in the good that God is bringing about, we must abolish all negative emotion. That nothing is truly to be seen as evil or bad or worth our grief, because all things will be made good in the end.
But this approach rings false in the reality of our pain. Many Christians experiencing deep suffering with this type of understanding go one of two ways:
1. They create a mask of the happy, joyful Christian, all while stuffing down their doubts and anger and grief until they’ve created a sort of false faith which never goes very deep and reacts defensively to the doubts and questions of others or
2. They become bitter and angry toward God and see the only honest way through the pain to be the rejection of the religion that asks them to pretend they aren’t hurting.
I have been both of these types of people at different points in my life. I have seen friends go both directions. I have seen the way that loved ones have been shaped over decades to respond in these ways. But isn’t there a better response, one that holds together our hope and our suffering in both honesty and faithfulness?
I am reminded of the story of Jesus at the tomb of his friend Lazarus (John 11). Jesus could have gone to his sick friend and healed him before he died, but he chose to wait. He reminds Martha and Mary that he is the resurrection and the life, and that anyone who believes in him will never truly die. He goes to the tomb knowing that he will raise his friend back to life again sooner rather than later. And yet…he weeps. Jesus is overcome with grief at the gravesite of his dear friend, for the fact of the brokenness of the world and for the hopeless despair of those people around him who did not recognize or accept the hope his presence offered. Even knowing the outcome of the good he is going to bring about, even knowing most intimately his own power to work that good, Jesus mourns over Lazarus’ death.
This story about Jesus should show us that even when we deeply trust God’s good plan for us, we are still allowed to acknowledge the pain of the evil we suffer in this current time. It is not hopeless or faithless to grieve death or illness or brokenness or abuse. Rather, it is a faithful acknowledgment of the very state of things for which Christ came to die: the evil of sin has pervaded our world and our lives and we are all in desperate need of a Savior.
This past Sunday, Pastor Paul talked about how the story of Joseph should illuminate Romans 8:28 for us, because even after all his suffering Joseph was able to trust in God’s ultimate sovereignty and goodness rather than becoming bitter or vengeful. This is our goal as well, to suffer with a perspective that is focused on the character of God rather than nearsightedly on our own pain. I wonder, though, how Joseph maintained that life-altering perspective. I’d like to think that it was not by telling himself that his suffering did not exist because God would use it for good, but rather by bringing his heartbreaking cries of abandonment and injustice and loneliness to the feet of the One he trusted could see and hear him.
This is our hope: that as Christians our suffering is not the end or the defining characteristic of our story, but that we have a God who loves and sees and has been working since the fall of Adam and Eve to bring about the redemption of all things. But brother, sister, if you feel like this hope means you cannot cry out at the feet of your Savior, think again. He weeps for you and the pain you are feeling as a result of this broken world of sin that he hates more than you do. He even came and suffered himself and died and rose again so that you might have a chance to be freed from the destruction that rules our current age.
Our hope and our pain coexist; indeed, they cannot be separated. We acknowledge what is broken as we hope for its repair. As Paul writes in Romans 8, the context of our key verse, “we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (verse 23). I groan and hope with you, brothers and sisters. Let us lean on each other, to weep and to rejoice in our redemption, as we wait eagerly for the coming joy.