In his book “Trusting God” (which I’m currently reading) Jerry Bridges says this:
Romans 8:28, “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,” is an oft-quoted verse. But we often fail to note that the following verse helps us understand what the “good” of verse 28 is. … The good that God works for in our lives is conformity to the likeness of His Son. It is not necessarily comfort or happiness but conformity to Christ in ever-increasing measure in this life and in its fullness in eternity.
I can’t deny that the statement is true. God is sovereign and wise and good. Thus it makes good sense that the “goodness” God desires for us is our continuing conformity to Jesus. Still, I found my heart shrinking back. Where is the joy and delight to the prospect of such a “goodness”? It’s like my mom reminding me that vegetables are “good” for me. That might be true, but it doesn’t improve the taste of broccoli (that takes prodigious amounts of cheese:-). So is the “good” of Christlikeness like grudgingly eating your [name of vegetable that literally makes you gag] and supposedly, in a vague, ethereal sort of way, you’re suppose to appreciate the goodness that your body will one day enjoy (and I say that the jury is still out on asparagus, lima beans, and cauliflower, at the very least). Is this the way we are suppose to feel about becoming more like Jesus? Below are some thoughts about Romans 8:28 that helped me enjoy it more thoroughly.
Christlikeness is better than you think.
God’s promise to “work all things together” for the good of your Christlikeness is not referring to a mere improvement in your behavior during any given difficulty (a.k.a. WWJD Christlikeness.) While this improvement may happen, you are only more faithful in doing good because God has been working on you from the inside to be good. The promise of Romans 8:28 is to make you into a person like Jesus right now. And what is Jesus like? Well, Jesus is the epitome of love, Jesus is the most joyful person you’ll ever meet, Jesus has the most peace of anyone who ever lived, and Jesus is most wonderfully kind, etc. For the believer, the full promise of Romans 8:28 is that when you face situations that would crush a normal person, it will not destroy you, rather it will make you into person with a higher capacity for such things as “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal 5:22-23).
Christlikeness is better than the alternative.
If you were given the choice of winning the 700 million dollar powerball (from a ticket that some random stranger bought and gave to you for no apparent reason whatsoever :-) or going through a battle with lung cancer, which would you choose? I would choose the lottery every time. Think of all the good it would bring into my life! I would be happy if I had lots of money! I would be at peace if I had lots of money. I would be generous if I had lots of money (who hasn’t dreamed of giving away half of 700 million—oh the sacrifice:-). Yet, deep down, we know that wealth alone doesn’t have the capacity to make us any of those things. Consider this, if God allowed you to get cancer instead of allowing you to win the lottery, it’s because in your life, cancer is the best tool for God to use in making you more joyful, more peaceful and more generous. While pitting the lottery vs. cancer is a little extreme, look at your own life and see those times when God chose a confusing path for you. Instead the ministry you planned for, he gave you another one. Instead of the physical health you anticipated, he gave you an impairment. Instead of being married at 24, he gave you singleness until 34. Instead of four children in six years, he gave you three over the span of fourteen years. Instead of staying close to family, he moved you away from them. Instead of a tax return, he gave you a tax bill. In short, Romans 8:28 says this: If that thing you thought was “good” (i.e. the lottery, that job, that health, those children, etc) was truly the best way for God to make you more like Jesus, then he would have given it to you. Can you give that thing up? Ask yourself this question: Would I rather have X, or would I rather have the characteristics that make me look like Jesus? It is a heart-wrenching question and most of us answer “no” on the first go around. However, God anticipated this doubt and in scripture he gives promise after promise to in order to give us the courage to trust and believe.
Christlikeness is better in the long run too.
Now we circle back to the vegetable analogy. Perhaps one reason that the vegetable trope lacks power is because the so called “benefit” is unimpressive. Eating something that you find disgusting will provide you with marginal health gains before you die an unhappy death (unhappy because death and vegetables are unhappy). Which is why I end up questioning the value of vegetables! One of my pastor’s recently spoke on Romans 8 and a point in his sermon drove home the message that Romans 8:28 comes after Romans 8:18 (see also 2 Cor 4:16-18). I was reminded that the gain of heaven is easily worth the pain of your most horrific trial (see my post “A Penny, Fort Knox and the Eternal Weight of Glory” for a longer discussion about this encouraging truth!) Our present suffering is real and it is painful. But it is no match for heaven in scope.
Becoming more like Jesus gives us the things that we actually want. Deep down, we want to have those qualities that we most admire in our savior, his love, compassion, peace etc. We often run to poor substitutes, thinking that they will bring us happiness. But when God takes those substitutes away and instead brings us something unexpected, we are increasing (paradoxically) able to find genuine joy and happiness in God. Though the cost of changing into Christ’s image may seem high at times, never stop believing the promise that “everything works together for good” always, no matter what.