The other day I reminded a friend of God’s promise, “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (Rom 8:28). And then I heard myself say (and I know it was the Holy Spirit because I had never once even thought this), that this verse doesn’t say that God works together what we’re going through necessarily for our good. We must remember we are part of the family of God, and there are others who love Him who are called according to His purpose. I’ve been ruminating on this thought for a couple of days.

As believers in Jesus Christ as our Savior, we are to submit to Him as our Lord and the head of the church, of which we are a part (1 Cor 12:12-27). Whatever we are going through if we are submitted to His will, will be used for His purpose and we may never know why. “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Heb 11:1)

We who trust in Christ and have the Spirit of God are waiting with eager longing to the completion of our adoption as God’s children: the redemption of our bodies. “For we were saved in this hope, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one still hope for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with perseverance.” (Rom 8:24-25)

Our future in Christ, as God’s children and heirs of His kingdom, is everything we long for. Our present, though, is a life of longing, patient waiting, living in the hope of reality that has not yet arrived. We continue to suffer along with the rest of creation, to groan for the life to come. “Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.” (Rom 8:26) Through the Spirit, God provides for us in many different ways on this side of eternity. Generally, he helps us in our weakness.

In our longing for our eternal home, we live with a kind of endless groaning to be made whole by the redemption of our bodies. One way the Spirit helps us in our weakness is by taking our too-deep-for-words groanings, communicating them to the Father as prayers. “Now He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God.” (Rom 8:27) The Spirit intercedes for us. Paul calls God the Father the “one who searches hearts” (Heb 4:12-13). The Father and the Spirit are eternally connected. The Father in heaven knows the mind of His Spirit in us. Their connection remains ever unbroken.

The Spirit then forms our unspoken groanings toward God into prayers that conform to God’s will. God, ever in search mode, receives those prayers directly from our hearts. We don’t need to be overly anxious that we’re “praying wrong.” Because the Spirit is interceding for us to the Father and within His will, we are free to talk to God as little children talk to their fathers. “And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, ‘Abba, Father!'” (Gal 4:6).

Paul has been describing the life of Christians on this side of heaven as one of groaning as we long to escape the suffering of this life and to be with our Father God in person (Rom 8:18-23). We wait in the sure hope of the day our bodies will be resurrected and we will share in God’s glory (Rom 8:24-25). What about all the hard things that come along while we are waiting?

Paul seems to offer the promise of this verse as a comfort for us. “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (Rom 8:28). Crucially, this promise is limited to “those who love God”, and “those who are called according to His purpose”. The promise is for saved believers, who have placed their trust in Jesus Christ (John 3:16-18).

No matter our feelings on a given day, loving God and loving one another is part of what it means to live in Christ. That’s who we are, and each of us is also called to fulfill God’s purposes. This verse can’t rightly be applied to non-believers. Those who reject God don’t express their love for God by coming to Him through faith in Jesus. For those who die without Christ, things will not have worked out for the better; they will have rejected the opportunity to take advantage of this promise (John 3:36).

What is the promise? That, for those who are saved, all things will indeed work together for good. “All things” should be taken to mean each and every circumstance one might experience, even pain or suffering. “Work,” or “work together,” must be understood in light of God taking action in the world. He is the one who causes all things to work together or, perhaps, works in and through all circumstances toward a specific end. What is that end? “Good.”

The word “good” does not necessarily mean happy or painless or financially successful or our idea of the best possible outcome on any given day. God’s ultimate good for us is to glorify us in eternity (Rev 21:1-4).

Beyond that, God works in and through us toward an ultimate good that serves His purpose. The comfort of the verse is that nothing in this life of waiting and suffering is wasted. It is all meaningful for those in Christ, even if that doesn’t diminish our pain in the moment. And our pain may be used to bring others into God’s kingdom. “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.” (James 1:12) As a reminder, we are here for God’s purposes, and our reward is eternal life with the Lord.