BCC Staff Note: You’re reading Part 1 of an eight-part series by Robert D. Jones.
Clay and Jill’s Story
Clay and Jill met with me because their fifteen-year-old son Joel had turned away from Jesus. His grades had slipped below C-level and his fistfight with another boy at school had landed him in the vice-principal’s office, along with a three-day suspension. Clay and Jill were committed Christians—with broken hearts. They needed help. We talked at length about their son’s struggles and behavior, and about God’s presence and promises.
In our second counseling session, I commended them for their faith and I asked them, “What has God been using to help you handle all of this?” Without blinking, Clay replied, “Romans 8:28.” We turned to that passage. He drew comfort from the fact that God was sovereign and would work all things together for good.
“Excellent,” I responded. “And what do you think is the good that God is working in all of this?” “For Joel to follow the Lord,” Clay answered.
I knew what I needed to say to bring God’s compassion to these hurting friends. “Clay and Jill, I am so sorry to hear about Joel. This must be incredibly hard for you to watch him not own the Savior you love. And I am glad you are finding comfort in God’s Word. In one sense, there is nothing that I want more for both of you, and for Joel of course, than for Joel to turn to Christ—to repent, believe, and follow Him. In fact, I want to join you in bearing that burden. I want to pray with you for the Lord to turn Joel’s heart to Him. And I want to help you learn some practical ways to talk to Joel and minister to him.” They seemed appreciative.
What Romans 8:28 Promises
But I also knew I needed to bring these dear friends to a more solid hope from God than an uncertain wish for their son’s conversion. So I turned the corner: “But, Clay and Jill, that’s not what this passage promises.”
We read it aloud, “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 8:28).
I continued, “The good news here is that God is assuring you that he will use this and every hardship—Romans 8 pictures all sorts of suffering we face in this fallen world—to bring about something good for you as believers in Jesus. And what is that good that the text promises?”
I paused as they looked down at their Bibles.
“Verse 28 doesn’t tell us what that good is,” I proceeded, “but verse 29 does: ‘For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” In other words, Jill and Clay, God promises to use the hardships in verse 28 for your good, and verse 29 then defines the good: to make you like his dear Son.
While Joel’s repentance is a good thing, and we will pray for it, the highest good God promises you here in his Word is to make you more and more like Jesus. While we have no guarantee that Joel will turn to the Lord, we do have a powerful guarantee that God will use this hardship to make you more Christlike.”
Two Problems with Our Use of Romans 8:28
Despite their relative Christian maturity—Clay was a leader in his evangelical church—this couple illustrates two problems with how we use Romans 8:28-29. First, the promise of “good” in verse 28 is not a blank check. We are not free to identify the good as whatever wished-for thing we want, even a very good thing like someone else’s repentance. While these parents understandably longed for their teenager to follow Jesus, God defines the good differently in this text. Amid many other possible goods, God prioritizes our own Christlikeness as our highest good.
The second problem may be more common: How? How, specifically, does God use hardships to make us like Jesus? We must not let Romans 8:28-29 become abstract. The rich truth that “God uses trials for his glory and our good” must not become a Christian platitude. We must labor to understand what that might actually look like in any given situation.
The Rest of the Story
In our upcoming posts we will suggest seven specific ways God might use our difficult circumstances to make us more like Jesus. Ask God to give you a heart that wants to better know God’s ways and grow in his grace.
Join the Conversation
How has Romans 8:28-29 (with the “good” defined as making you more like Jesus) helped you handle hardships? How might it help you next time? How might it help others you know?