A gunman enters a church and opens fire, killing nine members of a Bible study. A vicious brain tumor robs a family of their precious little girl before she could start kindergarten. A car accident takes two beloved grandparents from their family, eliminating two mainstay godly influences from their grandkids’ lives. A bold pastor is sentenced to nine years in prison for proclaiming the truth about his Savior. A newlywed husband is killed on his honeymoon, leaving his wife of just days a widow.
Suffering. We know it well. Each of these true stories makes our heart yearn for answers. With the psalmist we cry out, “How long, O Lord?” The presence of evil and suffering in the world is a stumbling block for many on the road to salvation. “How can such terrible things happen to good people?” they wonder. While we realize that none of us is “good” but God alone (Mark 10:18), that doesn’t stop even believers from grappling with this heavy and intensely personal topic.
For that reason, this post is a risk. I cannot do justice to such a difficult and weighty issue in a few hundred words (nor is that my goal). To pretend to be able to do so would be both arrogant and insensitive. This post is not a comprehensive treatment of suffering. If you read to the end, you will still have questions. You will still stumble. But maybe–hopefully–you’ll also walk away encouraged. So, with prayer and trepidation, we begin.
When you get news of a trial in a fellow Christian’s life, what do you do? Try to offer hope? Simply cry with, pray with, or sit with your hurting friend? Quietly listen to the hurt person’s fears, questions, and doubts? Or do you speak, reaching for a trusty verse for suffering? You probably know the one I mean. Romans 8:28. It goes like this:
And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.
This verse contains a promise that most believers cling to in the throes of adversity. However, when the hurt is the rawest, this jewel may seem like a fortune cookie written by Pollyanna—nothing but rose-colored optimism. For that reason, maybe you should wait before reminding your friend of this verse. However, when the time is right, don’t share verse 28 by itself. Share the whole paragraph. I’ll show you why.
Verses 28-30 form one paragraph toward the end of one of the greatest chapters in the Bible in which Paul is telling his readers about life in the Spirit. He’s reminding them that all of creation is under a curse, but we who have the Spirit think about this curse differently. We think with eternity in mind. That’s why we need the whole paragraph when thinking about suffering, not just v. 28.
Here’s the whole thing:
And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified.
Do you see what Paul does? He doesn’t just clap you on the back and say, “Buck up, buddy. Things’ll get better. After all, God’s working everything for good! Now turn that frown upside-down!” No, he reminds his readers of the glories of their redemption. Simply put, he reminds them that God is eternally invested in their good. He’s eternally invested in your good. And mine. The trial that you’re experiencing right now is part of His investment—and it’s guaranteed to pay off.
This investment began in eternity past. Verse 29 says, “For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son.” If you have kids, you understand this, at least to a limited degree. Your investment in your children began the moment you knew they existed, before you even met them. You got a crib, painted the nursery, purchased a hundred baby gizmos you didn’t actually need, and then went back to the store for diapers and other practical (but boring) necessities. Though as a teenager your son or daughter might accuse you of not caring about them, there is a wealth of evidence to the contrary. You have loved them longer than they even know.
This captures in a shadowy way how God has invested in us. His love didn’t begin when we were conceived. In fact, His love has no beginning. It always has been. Think about that. There was never a moment when God started loving you. He just always has. Always. Literally. But His love isn’t endless—and by that I mean it isn’t without a purpose. Notice that Paul says that He predestined us “to become conformed to the image of His Son.” Just as you raise your kids to grow up to be responsible, kind, independent adults, so God is lovingly invested in us to make us like His Son. Often it’s through suffering and adversity that He sovereignly accomplishes that purpose.
So, His investment never began. It has always been in process. However, at one point in time, He let us know about it. Look at verse 30: “And these whom He predestined, He also called; and those whom He called He also justified.” Calling and justification. That’s why you’re a believer. In case you forgot, you were once the enemy of God (the very One who has loved you forever), content in your rebellion and treason against Him. He, however, was not content; so He called you to Himself. And by the death of His Son (This is a costly investment!) He justified you.
But verse 30 doesn’t end with justification, does it? It ends with the final piece of God’s investment: “And these whom He justified, He also glorified.” Here we see the final tense of God’s great investment. He promises to glorify us and give us eternity with Him. This means He will love us forever too. Just as His love never began, so it will never end. Songwriters Matt Papa and Matt Boswell use the image of a “sea without bottom or shore.” I like boundaries and boxes, so thinking about a sea without a shore makes my brain hurt. Yet, that’s what God’s investment in you is. Totally, utterly, unfathomably boundless.
So how does this relate to suffering? All of it is an explanation for why and how God is working things together for good. God is eternally invested in you. From eternity past to eternity future, He’s invested. His investment cost Him His only Son, so He’s not just a silent partner. He is all-in. Because of that we know with utter certainty that He won’t allow any unnecessary evil to hurt His investment, nor will He neglect it for even a blink. Instead, in His sovereign goodness He orchestrates every circumstance to make His investment into exactly what He desires it to be—the image of His Son.
Friend, I don’t know your hurt, and I certainly don’t want to minimize it. But I do know that God knows and that He is still—as always—invested in you.