If you're a Christian, you know that Christianity is supposed to be about joy. You probably also know that you're supposed to experience joy in spite of circumstances. The Bible clearly teaches that joy is available that should make us happy no matter the circumstances. There's a joy that the deepest trouble can't put out, and if properly nourished and nurtured, can even overwhelm the greatest grief.
When Jesus prays to the Father in John 17, he prays for us—his followers. He says, "I pray that they may have the full measure of my joy within them." One chapter before, he says to his disciples, "You will rejoice and no one will take away your joy." That's pretty amazing! He's talking to the twelve disciples, men who are going to be persecuted. They're going to be robbed of everything they own, tortured, and put to death. Yet Jesus promises to give them a joy that will withstand all that. Nothing—not disease or persecution or alienation or loneliness or torture or even death—will be able to take it away.
I often wrestle with that concept. I have to ask myself, Why do things affect me so much? Why is my joy not relentless? Sometimes I wonder, Do we have that kind of impervious joy? I'm afraid not. I don't think we understand the nature of this joy.
Romans 8 is all about living in a suffering world marked by brokenness. Paul talks about trouble and persecution and nakedness and poverty and how Christians are supposed to live in a world like that. In 8:28-30, he offers three principles for finding joy in suffering. Paul tells us that if we follow Christ, our bad things turn out for good, our good things cannot be lost, and our best things are yet to come. Those are the reasons for our joy.
Our bad things turn out for good.
Verse 28 says: "For those loving him, God works together all things for good." There are three implications of this first principle.
First, this verse says that all things happen to Christians. That is, the Christian's circumstances are no better than anybody else's. It is extremely important for us to understand this if we're going to experience relentless and impervious joy. Terrible things happen to people who love God. Many Christians explicitly teach—and most Christians implicitly believe—that if we love and serve God, then we will not have as many bad things happen to us. That's not true! Horrible things can happen to us, and believing in and loving and serving God will not keep them from happening. All the same things that happen to everybody else will happen to people who love God. "All things" means all things in this text. In verse 35, Paul says, "What can separate us from the love of Christ? Can trouble, hardship, persecution, famine, poverty, danger, or sword?" Those are terrible things. Paul is saying all the same things that happen to everybody else will happen to us, even if we love God. It's very important to realize that.
The second implication of this point is that when things work together in your life, it's because of God. Notice Paul does not say, "things work together for good." Things never work together for good on their own. Rather, if anything good happens, it is because God is working it together.
Earlier in Romans 8, Paul discusses how things fall apart because the world is burdened with evil and sin. Things are subject to decay. Everyone will eventually experience the decay of their bodies; that's the nature of things. The little grains of sand on the beach used to be a mountain. Everything falls apart; things do not come together. This verse tells Christians to get rid of the saccharine, sentimental idea that things ought to go right, that things do go right, and that it's normal for things to go right. Modern, Western people believe that if things go wrong, we should sue, because things ought to go right. But Christians have to discard that idea completely. Christians have to recognize that if our health remains in tact, it is simply because God is holding it up. If people love us, if someone is there to hug us or squeeze our hand, if someone loves us in spite of all our flaws—if someone loves us at all—it's because God is bringing all things together. God is holding it up. Everything that goes well is a miracle of grace.
The third implication of this principle is the most basic: although bad things happen, God works them for good. This verse does not promise that those who love God will have better circumstances. Nor does this verse say that bad things are actually good things. Rather, it acknowledges that these are bad things, but it promises that they're working for good. That means God will work them to good effect in your life.
The story of Jesus standing before the tomb of Lazarus is an endless source of insight for me. As he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead, Jesus was not smiling. He was angry. He was weeping. Why? Because death is a bad thing! Jesus wasn't thinking, They think that this is a tragedy, but no harm done! I'm about to raise him from the dead. This looks like a bad thing, but it's not. It's really a good thing! It's a way for me to show my glory. It's really exciting! I can't wait! He wasn't thinking that. Jesus was weeping at the tomb, because the bad thing he's about to work for good is bad. The story of Lazarus does not give you a saccharine view of suffering, saying bad things are really blessings in disguise or that every cloud has a silver lining. The Bible never says anything like that! God will give bad things good effects in your life, but they're still bad. Jesus Christ's anger at the tomb of Lazarus proves that he hates death. He also hates loneliness, alienation, pain, and suffering. Jesus hates it all so much that he was willing to come into this world and experience it all himself, so that eventually he could destroy it without destroying us.
There's no saccharine view in the Christian faith. The promise is not that if you love God, good things will happen in your life. The promise is not that if you love God, the bad things really aren't bad—they're really good things. The promise is that God will take the bad things, and he'll work them for good in the totality.
Keep in mind that verse 28 says all things work together for good. That doesn't mean that when something bad happens, we can decide to give God a week to show us how the situation is going to turn out for good. In fact, don't wait a month. Don't wait a year. Don't wait a decade. The promise isn't for a month or a year or a decade. The promise is not that we will see how every bad patch in our lives works out for our good. The promise is that God will make sure that all the bad circumstances will work together for your life in its totality.
The best summary of this lesson that anybody has ever come up with is John Newton's. He said, "Everything is necessary that he [God] sends; nothing can be necessary that he withholds." What John Newton and Paul are saying is that if God has withheld good things—things that you think are good—they would only be good in the short run. In the long run, they would be terrible. They would be good in the partial but not in the whole. On the other hand, God will only bring bad things into your life—things God knows are bad—in order to cure you of things that can destroy you in the long run. The premise is, the things that really hurt—foolishness, pride, selfishness, hardness of heart, and the belief that you don't need God—are the only things that can hurt you in the long run. In the short run selfishness and self-deception feel great, but in the long run they will destroy you.
Your joy will be impervious if you hold onto these three principles. Bad things will happen to you. We shouldn't be shocked or surprised when bad things happen. One of the main reasons a lot of Christians are continually overthrown is not simply because bad things happen to them. At least half of their discouragement and despondency is due to their surprise at the bad things that happen to them. Do you see the distinction? Fifty percent of the reason we get so despondent is we're shocked. We say this isn't how it's supposed to be. We may say life should be better, but that's not what the promise is. Or we say we love God, therefore, surely we will have more good circumstances. That's not the promise either. Until you understand what the promise is, you're going to be continually shocked and even overthrown.
Our good things can never be lost.
The second principle in this passage is that the good things we have cannot be lost. If you've been a Christian for any period of time, you know that Romans 8:28 is a very famous verse. People use it all the time. It's what I call a "blessing box" verse. A blessing box is a collection of verses you rip out of context and recite without concern for what came before and after the verse. It feels good, so you use it. For example, people use Romans 8:28 to assure themselves that when bad things happen, then surely good things will happen. You might think, I didn't get into the grad school I wanted to get into, but that's because there's a better grad school for me somewhere. Or, I didn't marry the girl or guy I wanted to marry, but that means there's a better one for me somewhere. That's not the promise.
There's a little word between verses 28 and 29 that indicates the verses go together. The little word is for. "All things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose, for those he foreknew he predestined to be conformed into the likeness of his Son."
God does not promise you better life circumstances if you love him. He promises you a better life. Grad school and marriage are circumstances. We're talking about a joy that goes beyond circumstances. How dare we interpret verse 28 as a joy that is dependent on those things! Here is an important principle: Jesus Christ did not suffer so that you would not suffer. He suffered so that when you suffer, you'll become like him. The gospel does not promise you better life circumstances; it promises you a better life.
Romans 8:29 tells us the goal toward which all our circumstances are moving us. Paul uses the word predestined. He's not introducing the word to confuse you—he doesn't intend to explain the doctrine of predestination or address the issues that arise when that word is mentioned. He uses this word to comfort us. Something that is predestined is fixed. What Paul means is that if you love God, you can count on a promise that is absolutely fixed, no matter what. That's all he's trying to get across.
What is it that is predestined? That we will be conformed. The Greek word here is morpha, from which we get the word metamorphosis. Paul is saying that God promises to "metamorphosize" us. He promises to change our very inner essence into the very inner essence of Jesus Christ. To be a Christian is to become passionately in love with the character of Jesus. You read about him in the Bible and are amazed by the truth and love you find in his life. You see wisdom and utter conviction. You see incredible courage, brightness, and radiance. The good that God is moving you toward through everything that happens in your life—whether externally good or bad—is your transformation into Christ's nature. If you love God, everything that happens in your life will mold you, sculpt you, polish you, and shape you into the image of his Son. He is making you like him. He'll give you Christ's incredible compassion and courage. God is working everything that happens in your life toward that magnificent goal. It's predestined. It's guaranteed.
One of the most astounding things in Romans 8:30 is this: "And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified." "Glorified" is in the past tense. Shouldn't Paul say, "The ones he foreknew he predestined, and justified, and will glorify?" Because the apostle is so absolutely certain that you are bound—that God is going to make you as beautiful as Jesus and give you all these incredible things—he writes of the glorification as an accomplished fact. He talks about it in the past tense because it's as good as done. God is not going to let anything in life get between you and that goal. You are predestined to be conformed to the image of God's Son.
In Romans 8:30, Paul calls Christ the firstborn among many brothers. That means we are all sons of God. We are all adopted into the family. When Paul alludes to adoption, he's talking about a practice that was common in the Roman world, but one that's quite different from the way we think of adoption. In the Roman world, most people who were adopted were adults. When a wealthy man had no heir and didn't want his estate to be broken up when he died, he would adopt an adult male, usually someone who worked for him whom he trusted. By adopting that adult male, he made him his son. The minute the legal procedure took place, their relationship was changed from formal to intimate, from temporary and conditional to permanent and unconditional. All the debts the man owed before his adoption were wiped out, and he suddenly became rich.
Being completely conformed to the likeness of God's Son is something that we look forward to in the future, although the transformation is happening now gradually. Being adopted among many brothers is something that we have now. The minute you become a Christian, you have intimacy of relationship. You have an unconditional relationship. You become wealthy, because everything that Jesus Christ has accomplished is transferred to you. You become beautiful and spiritually rich in him.
Some people are put off by Paul's language of adoption because it's gender insensitive. They argue, "Wouldn't it be better to say that we become sons and daughters of God?" It would, but that misses the whole point. Some time ago, a woman helped me understand this. She was raised in a non-Western family from a very traditional culture. There was only one son in the family, and it was understood in her culture that he would receive most of the family's provisions and honor. In essence, they said, "He's the son; you're just a girl." That's just the way it was.
One day she was studying a passage on adoption in Paul's writings. She suddenly realized that the apostle was making a revolutionary claim. Paul lived in a traditional culture just like she did. He was living in a place where daughters were second-class citizens. When Paul said—out of his own traditional culture—that we are all sons in Christ, he was saying that there are no second-class citizens in God's family. When you give your life to Christ and become a Christian, you receive all the benefits a son enjoys in a traditional culture. As a white male, I've never been excluded like that. As a result, I didn't see the sweetness of this welcome. I didn't recognize all the beauty of God's subversive and revolutionary promise that raises us to the highest honor by adopting us as his sons.
Our adoption means we are loved like Christ is loved. We are honored like he is honored—every one of us—no matter what. Your circumstances cannot hinder or threaten that promise. In fact, your bad circumstances will only help you understand and even claim the beauty of that promise. The more you live out who you are in Christ, the more you become like him in actuality. Paul is not promising you better life circumstances; he is promising you a far better life. He's promising you a life of greatness. He is promising you a life of joy. He's promising you a life of humility. He's promising you a life of nobility. He's promising you a life that goes on forever.
The best things are yet to come.
That brings us to the third point. Why can you be joyful no matter what? Your bad things turn out for good, your good things can never be lost, and the best is yet to come. If you understand what is to come, you can handle anything here.
What amazes me is that even Ivan Karamazov, the atheist character in Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, understood how knowing what is to come helps a person endure present circumstances. He said:
I believe that suffering will be healed and made up for, that in the world's finality, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, of all the blood that's been shed, that it will make it not just possible to forgive, but to justify all that's happened.
I don't want you to think that this talk about glory and about heaven trivializes suffering. In fact, Ivan Karamazov said that this hope is the only worldview that takes our brokenness seriously. Our souls are so great and our suffering is so deep that nothing but this promise can overwhelm it. Glory does not trivialize human brokenness. It's the only thing that takes it seriously. What else could possibly deal with the hurts of our hearts? Your soul is too great for anything but this. Don't you know a compliment when you hear it?
Timothy Keller is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. He is also the Chairman & Co-Founder of Redeemer City to City, which starts new churches in New York and other global cities, and publishes books and resources for ministry in an urban environment.