How can pain and suffering be good? It seems whenever Christians talk about this subject, someone always quotes Romans 8:28. Is this verse literally true? I've seen Christians go through the same kinds of sufferings as unbelievers, and in most cases nothing "good" has come of it, at least not from my perspective. Can you help me understand this?
Everything depends on your definition of good. If you understand the word good to mean pleasant, comfortable, enjoyable, or fun, then you're going to have serious problems with Romans 8:28. In fact, you'll probably end up deciding that this passage of Scripture makes no sense and bears no relation to the realities of our everyday lives.
But the text never suggests that all things are good in and of themselves. It simply says that God works all things together toward a good end. In other words, even bad things have a place in God's long-range plan. Paul's point is not that pain doesn't hurt. It's that the Lord, in the mystery of His sovereign grace, somehow interweaves both dark and light threads so as to produce a beautiful tapestry. This is very different from asserting that there is no such thing as evil or that bad things never happen to God's people. If Romans 8:28 means anything at all, it means that the good often comes to us in forms we can't recognize. It slips up beside us under a disguise.
But how does it work? How does God's grace turn the dust and ashes of cancer and automobile accidents and miscarriages into honey and gold? In some cases the process is plain and simple enough. Paul spells it out in Romans 5:3 & 4: "We also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope."
James agrees: "My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. And let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing" (James 1:2-4).
Both apostles seem to be saying that the good that comes to us through bad experiences has nothing to do with feelings or circumstances. Instead, it's a question of becoming different than we were before our troubles began: stronger, more hopeful, more loving, more patient.
But what about those times when it doesn't pan out that way? What happens when, in the wake of some apparently senseless tragedy, life seems meaningless and the future looks absolutely bleak? In that case we have to hold on to faith and trust. We have to realize that, in certain instances, we may never get to see the finished product of our sufferings, at least not in this world. We may be required to follow in the footsteps of those Old Testament saints who "died in faith, not having received the promises." All of those people looked forward with great expectation to "a better, that is, a heavenly country," yet many had to endure "trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment" before receiving their eternal reward (see Hebrews 11:13-40).
For the time being, then, we may simply have to hold fast to the hope that "our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal" (2 Corinthians 4:17, 18).
If you have further questions about this, or if you'd simply like to discuss these ideas at greater length with a member of our team, don't hesitate to contact us. Focus on the Family has a staff of pastoral counselors who would love to speak with you over the phone. They are available at this number.
Gary Smalley demonstrates that trials, pain and suffering are designed to have positive fruit in your life if you are willing to allow these experiences to make you a more loving person.
When God Doesn't Make Sense (book)
The Case for Faith (book)
The North Face of God (book)
Christian Research Institute - An organization that specializes in refuting aberrations of the Christian faith and assists people in learning the true character of the God described in the Bible.
Insight for Living - Encourages people in the Christian faith and their trust in God.
LeeStrobel.com - An apologetics website.