Is it really good that my parents got divorced? Is it good that my childhood friend was sexually abused? Is it good that my buddy lost his job? Is it good that my brother's girlfriend died in a car wreck? Is it really good that all this bad stuff is happening?
When I was younger, I didn't know what this verse meant. But I knew it didn't mean everything was good.
After studying biblical languages and principles of biblical interpretation, I revisited Romans 8:28 as a graduate lecturer teaching Romans. As I followed chapter-by-chapter the development of Paul's thought, the meaning and implications of this verse materialized clearly.
In the broader context, Romans 8:28 is returning to the same idea introduced at the beginning of this section in Romans 5. Much of what we find in the latter half of Romans 8 (about the certainty of justification, the internal experience of God's love, and the sufferings of this life) mirrors the content from the first half of Romans 5. Specifically in Romans 5:3-4 Paul encourages people to celebrate difficult circumstances in life. He says, "Celebrate the good parts of life's troubles," sometimes translated "exult in tribulations." Why does that make sense? Because tough times force you to persevere, and perseverance produces character. Life's hardest moments to endure can produce good results in who we are.
The 11 verses preceding Romans 8:28 all talk about the pain and suffering of this broken world. How do we handle it and hold on to hope in the midst of it. Romans 8:28 is putting a capstone on Paul's advice. This world is corrupted (Romans 5:21) and bad things happen all the time, but God can form who you are in the worst of circumstances. People who love God and are chasing his call to be like Christ can redeem the most painful experiences. The brokenness of this world can be the birthplace of your character.
"The brokenness of this world can be the birthplace of your character."
Too often we pray for God to take away our suffering. We beg for difficult situations to be resolved. We even believe God's promise is a trouble-free life.
That path leads to disappointment in an unbiblical God. God isn't passionately orchestrating a pain-free life. He isn't rooting out problems so you can float through life. He is going after the sin in your life. His good purpose is to shape who you are. A good life isn't a trouble-free experience. It's resolute character in a shaky world.
Romans 8:29 continues this message from 8:28 when Paul reminds us of the original destiny for human beings: conformity to the image of God's son. We are to embody his faithfulness in a faithless world. Christ followers persevere when others shrink under pressure. We return evil with love. We give while other people just demand. We reenact the way of Jesus.
So let's stop trying to escape from problems in life. Trying times have the power to break us down so we can be built back up like Christ. Let's stop asking for tough times to end quickly when perseverance is what God wants. The easy life won't give us the good God is working toward. The good character God is forming in us takes shape in difficult circumstances.
So the next time you quote Romans 8:28 (or any other verse for that matter), make sure you start with a statement about the context. Then you won't be giving people false hope that God is working to solve all their problems and prevent future tragedies. You'll give them the truth. God is working to form people in the middle of a broken world with all its problems and unresolved pain. That's the good.