Here is one of the most inspiring yet also widely abused verses of the New Testament: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28, NRSV). As suggested in the previous post, Paul’s words are sometimes used to offer encouragement, but in a way that means something quite different from what Paul intended.
This is not a promise that God will end whatever suffering we face if we pray hard enough, long enough, or faithfully enough. Paul’s point, in context, is that God’s purposes are both eternal and good. In other words, God has a plan for his entire creation, the plan is gloriously good, and though the plan goes far beyond us, we’re still part of it.
The problem, of course, is that when we suffer, the “good” for which we pray is relief from suffering, and that prayer is not always granted. Is it enough for us to know that the pains we endure in this lifetime — Paul uses the metaphor of a pregnant woman groaning in the pain of labor, waiting expectantly for the birth of new life (Rom 8:22) — will eventually be redeemed by resurrection?
If we want to inspire hope, let’s stop misappropriating Romans 8:28, and marvel instead and what Paul says just before:
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Rom 8:26-27, NRSV)
Surely there have been moments, days, even seasons, in which we could no longer find the words to pray. Does it matter to know that the God we worship doesn’t sit atop some lofty perch waiting for us to “get it right,” but instead groans on our behalf, through the Holy Spirit within us?
We should not imagine that “unanswered prayer” signals God’s rejection or disinterest. Paul is not describing a God who turns away from our suffering, but one who understands it intimately, and who wants us to live in faith and hope even if the suffering continues.
Paul doesn’t promise that when we pray, God must demonstrate his love for us by giving us what we pray for. The promise is rather that we get God, through the ministry of his Spirit.
That, in itself, is already a miracle of great grace in the midst of a hard-knock life.