Romans 8:28 is a frequently quoted, beautiful verse often used in very harmful ways:
In all things God works for the good of those who love him.
Though God does work in all things for the good of those who love Him, God’s goodness should never be used to justify or diminish suffering.
First, a story:
My family left our church for the ways they did not value the voices of women. Then we spent a year unexpectedly isolated by the pandemic. I was slowly working my way out of patriarchal theology, but a lot of the pain was still bottled up inside.
It was around this time that I stumbled onto social media where I witnessed Gary Thomas, one of my favorite authors, use his platform to block and silence the voices of women who raised concerns about his latest book Married Sex (co-authored with Debra Fileta).
I was devastated.
At the time, I had zero presence on any social media platform, so I decided the best way to voice my concern was to read the book and leave a review on Amazon. My husband decided to join me. He ordered his own copy, read it, and posted his own review. Turns out, Amazon does not allow multiple reviews from the same address, and they removed our reviews. Regardless of what I think about Amazon’s review policy, it was honestly traumatic to have my voice silenced once again when I tried to speak out about the ways church teachings were harming women.
I had toyed with the idea of blogging for years, but for various reasons, I always talked myself out of it. For my birthday, my husband gifted me with a blog to have a place to post my deleted Amazon review of Married Sex. Even if it was not what I originally envisioned for a blog, having a space to write about the pain of patriarchy in the church has been a balm for my soul. While I am thankful for a space to write about my spiritual journey, the reality is, it originated from something painful.
I wish my church hadn’t hurt my friends. I wish I would have spoken up sooner. I wish Married Sex and all the badly written Christian sex books that preceded it had never been launched into the world. I wish women’s voices weren’t continually silenced by the church.
I am thankful for the opportunity to write, and I am thankful for all the people who have supported and encouraged me. I hope you rejoice with me!
To be clear, I’ve experienced much worse things in my life than having a book review cancelled by Amazon. It’s a tiny example of God working something bad for good that I feel comfortable sharing, and also provides my readers with the painful origin story of my blog, a space where I enjoy exploring the mysteries of God.
Even though I know God has worked many painful things in my life for good—I’m more empathetic, I’ve been able to comfort others in similar circumstances, I’m less arrogant, etc.—it would still be better if the evil had never occurred. Goodness doesn’t need evil to flourish. God doesn’t need bad things to happen in order to create goodness. Our longing for evil to end is a good thing. That’s why we pray for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. We long for goodness to flourish and evil to cease.
I don’t use “never” much, but I advise never to look at someone who is mourning and use cliché phrases or Bible verses like “God works all things for good.” Mourn with those who mourn. Period. There is evil in the world. Mourning and lament are appropriate responses.
If a person harmed by evil some day wants to reflect back on their circumstances and the ways God wrought good out of something terrible, and they invite others to celebrate those good things with them, then rejoice with them. Rejoice with those who rejoice.
I do believe one of the beautiful things about the Christian faith is the idea that God can take something ugly and turn it into something beautiful. I put my hope in a God who can “bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes” (Isaiah 61:3).
Children’s fairy tales often wrestle with complex truths of living in a broken world. One of my favorite movies as a child was Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. I was TERRIFIED of Maleficent. I always hid under the covers when she makes her eerie grand entrance to the princess’s birthday celebration to curse the child.
I was always confused about why Merryweather couldn’t undo Maleficent’s curse, but only work with the curse. It seemed unfair that the “good” fairy’s powers were weaker than Maleficent’s.
As an adult, I see things very differently. Tyrants wield power to control and dominate others. It takes greater power to honor human agency and attempt to grow beauty from ashes. In Good News About Injustice, Gary Haugen writes,
When falling into the well of doubt about why God permits injustice on earth, I scrape my way out by standing first on the limits of my human knowledge. I grab on to the character of the compassionate Creator revealed on the cross. I step up to the mysterious foothold offered by the terrible gift of freewill, and lunge up to the dusty ground onto the hope of eternity. (134)
A good God works through the mystery of free will. God didn’t stay on a throne in heaven but joined humans in our suffering on earth. God took the ugliness of the cross and turned it into beautiful resurrection. If God can turn something terrible into something beautiful, imagine the beauty that can grow from goodness. In the parable of the sower, Jesus speaks of good seed falling on good soil and producing a crop 100x what was sown (Matthew 13:23). I think this is partially what Mark alludes to when he opens his gospel with an excerpt from Isaiah:
A voice of one calling:Isaiah 40:3-5
“In the wilderness prepare
the way for the Lord;
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
Yes, God can make beauty from ashes, but God also longs for a world of good soil. God works to create beauty in barren spaces, to turn deserts into gardens. God allies with those in the wilderness—the poor, the brokenhearted, and the oppressed—to bring healing and create good soil. The beauty and mystery of the cross is that the more we allow God to work in broken spaces, the more the fruits of the Spirit can take root, proliferate, and usher in the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. (Matthew 3:2)
I don’t have all the answers. I hope that Martin Luther King, Jr. is right, that the “arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice” (full sermon). I do know responding to people’s pain with clichés trivializes the scale of evil in the world. We need to leave space for the mystery. We need to leave space for anger and grief. God is Love (1 John 4:8), and love makes room for the full range of human emotion. An important phrase precedes Romans 8:28:
In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will. And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.Romans 8:26-28 (NIV 1984)
Though I believe “in all things God works for the good of those who love him,” I don’t believe we always see full fruition this side of heaven. Our souls carry groans that words cannot express. I know some of the pain and depravity we experience on earth will never fully heal while on earth. I hope to live a life of love where God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven, but I also long for the day when “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Rev 21:4)
When I shared a shortened version of this article on social media, several people pointed out that the meaning of Romans 8:28 is often lost in our most popular English translations. (I quoted the NIV in this article.) You can follow the conversation on twitter here: Translating Romans 8:28
For further reading on the mystery of suffering, I highly recommend The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone. This book is in my list of top five favorite books on Christianity.
Title image is The Crucifixion, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo
Holy Tension – many valid tensions exist within Christianity and tend to divide us
Finding My Voice (in the wilderness) – the beginning of my journey out of complementary/patriarchal theology
Patriarchy: Porn & Purity Culture – a reflection on my complex history with purity culture
Thanks for reading Holy Tension! Subscribe for free to receive new posts.