God promises never to leave us, to fulfill His purpose in us, and to work all things together for good for those who love Him. We read account after account, in His Word, of God fulfilling His promises, so we have every reason to believe His Word is wholly true and can be relied on in our lives.
Some Bible verses are harder to believe than others. These passages are just as true and worthy of our belief as all the others and on our good days, we have full faith that we understand their meaning. On our worst days, though, it’s easy for doubt, life’s pressures or the whispers of the enemy to cause us to wonder if we’ve understood them clearly. “All things work together for good” is one of those verses that we receive well on our good days but question when life begins to unravel.
Christians know God’s Word is true, but we also know that we “walk by faith, not by sight.” (2 Cor. 5:7). Romans 8:28 NKJV (emphasis added) is true but often requires faith to lean on when times are hard. It promises this: “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” This is a powerful assurance for us and can be an anchor for our souls in the midst of one of life’s storms, but only if we understand it in context and in light of eternity. If we misunderstand it, this verse can feel like a cruel taunt, a broken promise, or a sign that maybe the Bible is not to be trusted.
In 60 years of life, I’d be hard-pressed to choose my worst day out of a compilation of some real doozies! The years from age 10 to 18 were one long string of worst days. I’ve had some worst days as a wife, a mother, and an adult daughter. I’ve had the worst days as a Christian, a church member, a friend, an American, and as a citizen of the world. I’ve had myriad opportunities to meditate on and study what this verse means and to press into that understanding in real-time.
I’ve also seen this verse misused. I’ve been on the receiving end when others tried to toss it at me like a comfort grenade in ways that made me feel as if they were dismissing my pain or diminishing the magnitude of my trauma. If you’ve been paying attention at all in life, you know this verse isn’t intended to promise that only good things will happen to Christians so then, what exactly does it mean?
What Does 'All Things Work Together for Good' Mean?
In understanding any Bible passage, there are some key principles to practice.
First, the Bible was written in an original language and it likely wasn’t the one you and I speak today. Because it was written largely in Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic, it’s good practice to utilize a tool like a concordance that helps us understand the words used.
Second, each individual verse must be understood within the context of the entire passage in which it’s found, so we read the surrounding verses and we even consider the style, setting, and author of the entire book in which it’s located.
Third, we ask if there are other Bible passages that help us understand this verse—some that reinforce or deepen its meaning.
If we consult the concordance for Romans 8:28 and look into the original Greek in which it was written, we find the words in Greek mean what they mean in English. It’s a very straightforward translation. This is also verified if we compare all the translations side by side. There are slight grammatical variations but primarily, they say virtually the same thing. This is a great sign that what we read in English is what God means to say.
What is it this verse says? That God works everything (all things in life) together for good (a benefit) (Don’t stop there. Keep reading.) “to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” This verse is a promise to Christians—to those of us He has called to live for Him and who have answered that call. It is a promise that no matter what happens to us, the final word on that happening will be God’s and it will be for our good.
What Is the Context of Romans 8:28 and All Things Work Together for Good?
Romans 8 is a powerful and much-loved passage of Scripture. The apostle Paul expounds in detail on our freedom in Jesus Christ, the difference the Gospel makes in our lives, the work of the Holy Spirit, and the relentless power of God’s great love. He references suffering as a fact of life on this side of glory. Romans 8:18 (emphasis added) says, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” He implies in verse 17 that we will suffer because of our association with Christ. He talks about agonizing in our weaknesses and needing to call upon the Holy Spirit. In fact, he speaks about all of the creation groaning, longing for deliverance. In verse 35, he even references persecution—“Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?”
At the same time, the tone of the chapter is hopeful, bracing, and triumphant. Paul describes the numerous ways we will suffer in this life but assures us that nothing will separate us from the love of God. Nothing. It is within this context, the surety of suffering on this side of glory, that Paul assures us that God will work all things together for good for those who love God.
So, the context of the passage helps us understand that this isn’t a promise that all we encounter will be good things. As we read the rest of the Bible, we can see from the lives of those who followed God faithfully—Noah, Abraham, Joseph, David, Daniel, Ruth, Esther, John the Baptist, Elijah, Elisha, Mary, Elizabeth, the disciples, and even Jesus—that all of them experienced a measure of suffering, hardship, unanswered prayers, and trial. They didn’t only experience good, and they didn’t always see the good that God was working out from what they were experiencing—not in the moment. We even have an assurance from Jesus in John 16:33b that “In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”
This context within the chapter and within all of Scripture emphasizes that we will have trouble. We will face hard times. We will suffer. We will not encounter only good. There will be times when we must walk by faith. BUT, God will work everything that happens for our benefit and for His glory. And He promises to be with us through it all.
What Are Some Ways Christians Misinterpret 'All Things Work Together for Good'?
This seems very clear but still, we find ways to misinterpret or misapply this verse.
First, understand this verse isn’t saying that everything that happens to us is good. Wars, abuse, death, addiction, conflict, moral failure, assault, racism, and betrayal are not good things. We experience many, many situations or conditions that are not good and God working them to bring about good for us doesn’t change them into good things. For instance, it wasn’t good for Joseph’s brothers to sell him into slavery, but God did work it out for good. It can be devastating for someone undergoing a painful trial to be wrongly reassured that it’s good because God will use it in their life. We can honor someone’s pain and validated that what has happened is bad while assuring them that God is with them and will, down the line, work this wrong out for good.
Second, this verse doesn’t teach that “all things happen for a reason or purpose.” When someone is mourning the loss of their toddler to a pool drowning, it’s cruel to say that all things happen for a reason. There is a purpose behind all that happens but sometimes that purpose is that the enemy of God wants to kill and destroy. We don’t always experience evil because “we have to learn something from it.” Evil is chaotic and opportunistic. We can assure people, based on this verse, that God has the final word on our suffering and that He will work it out for good and not for our destruction. But we need to be careful not to use it to dismiss or diminish people’s pain. There are times God instructed His people to grieve and to lament.
Third, this assurance of all things working together for good is not for everyone. It is specific to “those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” Not all things work together for good for people who ignore God, defy Him, or who deny His existence. Sometimes bad things harden, sour, or break people. This promise is for those who love Jesus Christ. It’s unkind to offer this assurance to people operating outside of the faith because then it is false and hollow.
Fourth, this verse doesn’t promise that we will immediately see the good God works out in what is happening. Joseph spent years in slavery and even in prison before He was privileged to see the good that God brought out of his brothers’ betrayal. Romans 8 is a call to endure all that occurs with full assurance that in Christ, we are free, we will overcome, and He is present with us. But we must often endure long stretches of suffering before we receive the outcome of His promise.
Four Ways to Have Assurance That God's Plan Will Work Out
We can trust that God’s plan will work out for us based on at least four things: His character, His Word, His Son, and the testimony of those who came before us.
God’s Character: God does what He promises. He promised a flood, and it came. He promised never to destroy the world by flood again, and He hasn’t. He promised a Messiah, and He sent Jesus. He promised to preserve His people, and the nation of Israel exists despite the number of times enemies of the Jews have tried to destroy them. God is not always quick to fulfill His promises, but He always does.
God’s Word: God promises never to leave us, to fulfill His purpose in us, and to work all things together for good for those who love Him. We read account after account, in His Word, of God fulfilling His promises, so we have every reason to believe His Word is wholly true and can be relied on in our lives.
His Son: God is so secure in Himself He sent His only Son as an infant to a poor family in a nation oppressed by Rome. King Herod determined to destroy the child from his birth, and God’s enemy sought to tempt Him and thwart Him at every turn, but God prevailed, even through the ultimate destruction of death on the cross. Jesus had to suffer many things, but God worked all that together for good.
Testimony of Those Who Came Before: We have the testimony of biblical figures, the saints of the early church, and countless Christians who have endured terrible times but triumphed in Christ to fortify our faith in God and in the assurance of this verse. Read the biblical accounts of great followers of Jesus. Read biographies of early Christians, modern missionaries, and those who are even now facing persecution. Be strengthened by their testimonies to God’s faithfulness in all things at all times.
This verse is powerful and true. It’s so powerful, in fact, God’s enemy finds ways to twist it or obscure its message. Read it carefully. Read it in context. But lean on its truth in good times and in bad. God is at work in all things in the lives of those who love Him.
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Lori Stanley Roeleveld is a blogger, speaker, coach, and disturber of hobbits who enjoys making comfortable Christians late for dinner. She’s authored four encouraging, unsettling books including Running from a Crazy Man and The Art of Hard Conversations. She speaks her mind at www.loriroeleveld.com.
This article is part of our larger resource library of popular Bible verse phrases and quotes. We want to provide easy to read articles that answer your questions about the meaning, origin, and history of specific verses within Scripture's context. It is our hope that these will help you better understand the meaning and purpose of God's Word in relation to your life today.