In his book Holy Sweat,1 Tim Hansel coined the phrase “turn your theology into your biography.” That’s an interesting concept, and by stating it, Hansel implies that our theology (what we believe about God) doesn’t normally match up with our biography (the actual course of our life). This mismatch can create a great gap between our expectations about what we think life should be like and our experiences in reality. In this gap can grow the roots of great disappointment—roots that grow into the question How do you explain death and suffering in a world where an all-powerful, loving, and just God exists?
As we’ve stated earlier, the question is not just a smokescreen that unbelievers put up to avoid facing the gospel (though many do so quite frequently); it’s a question believers wrestle with to a great extent as well.
For some reason, many Christians have picked up the notion that everything should begin to work out the way they want now that they have given their lives to Christ. But when reality doesn’t match expectations, disappointment and disillusionment are the result.
Theologically, we know that God is, and we know that He is good. But when we look at our biography, we see a trail of pain and suffering (not exactly the way we would expect a loving Father to treat His children). So philosophically speaking, the problem of evil turns out to be a problem for the believer as well. Desperately we seek reconciliation between the pain and evil we experience and this loving God we believe in. We can now clearly see that sin is the root cause of suffering and death, but somehow, this evil has to be compatible with God’s goodness.
God created everything, knows everything, is all-powerful, and exists in all places. He is also the embodiment and definer of “good.” Somehow, our theology and our biography must be meshed on this point. Some people (like Turner and Darwin) change their theology in the face of difficult events. But since God is unchanging (Malachi 3:6), and the inerrant Word of God clearly tells us who He is, the only thing we can rightly change is our attitude and our perspective toward evil.
With that in mind, I’d like to turn to a well-known and well-worn passage of God’s Word, Romans 8:28:
And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.
I bring up this portion of the Bible with some hesitancy. Too often it has been used as a superficial Band-aid, slapped on gaping wounds as a quick-fix for deeply rooted pain and difficulty. These words are not some cure-all cliché to be thrown at someone who is hurting. This is the Word of God . . . something to be seriously considered and applied, recognized for what it says and also for what it does not say.
First, it’s important to notice that the verse does not say that all things are good. Paul is clearly acknowledging in this passage (as he does in many, many others) that bad things exist and bad things happen. The passage simply says that “all things work together for good.” Secondly, this passage is reserved for those “who love God and are called according to His purpose.” This passage does not apply to those who have rejected God and are continuing to live in independence from Him. An entirely different fate awaits them.
So what this passage does say is that God causes all things—even evil events—to occur for reasons that are morally commendable and good. Bahnsen said this:
If the Christian presupposes that God is perfectly and completely good—as Scripture requires us to do—then he is committed to evaluating everything within his experience in the light of that presupposition. Accordingly, when the Christian observes evil events or the things in the world, he can, and should, retain consistency with his presupposition about God’s goodness by now inferring that God has a morally good reason for the evil that exists. God certainly must be all-powerful in order to be God; He is not to be thought of as overwhelmed or stymied by evil in the universe. And God is surely good, the Christian will profess—so any evil we find must be compatible with God’s goodness. This is just to say that God has planned evil events for reasons which are morally commendable and good.2
Theoretically that’s not too difficult to understand. Practically, however, it’s often very tough to accept. When we stare evil events in the face—feeling their full weight and implications—it’s difficult to believe Romans 8:28. Thankfully, we don’t have to rely solely on our own biography to see that this verse is true. Numerous examples from the Bible illustrate that evil events have been planned by God to work for the good.
From Bad to Good
The account of Esther is a powerful example of God’s omniscient plan that causes all things to work for good. The event takes place in the days of King Ahasuerus, who reigned from India to Ethiopia. The king was searching far and wide for a new wife to be his queen, and that’s when he discovered Esther.
Now there was a Jew in Susa the capital whose name was Mordecai . . . who had been taken into exile from Jerusalem with the captives . . . whom Nebuchanezzar the king of Babylon had exiled. And he was bringing up Hadassah, that is Esther, his uncle’s daughter, for she had neither father or mother. Now the young lady was beautiful of form and face, and when her father and her mother died, Mordechai took her as his own daughter (Esther 2:5–7).
The king was initially unaware that Esther was a Jewess. But after a huge selection process, he chose her as his queen. Sometime after Esther had become queen, a wicked man named Haman plotted to have all Jews killed. Because Esther had access to the king, she alone was in the position to petition the king to save the Jews. But according to the laws of the land, if Esther approached the king on this matter, she would likely be killed.
When Mordecai sent a message to Esther (urging her to petition the king) she sent him this reply:
All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that for any man or woman who comes to the king to the inner court who is not summoned, he has but one law, that he be put to death, unless the king holds out to him the golden scepter so that he may live. And I have not been summoned to come to the king for these thirty days (Esther 4:11).
You can imagine the tension as Esther struggled with what she should do. Still, Mordecai saw beyond the initial threat. He saw not only the urgency of the situation, but he also saw God’s hand in placing Esther where she was . . . and he exhorted her with these words:
Do not think that you in the king’s palace can escape any more than all the Jews. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place and you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this? (Esther 4:13–14, emphasis added).
Mordecai not only realized the powerful position Esther was in, but also challenged Esther to think in terms of God’s sovereign plan for her life. Could it be that all the circumstances of the past—circumstances that had resulted in her being queen—were planned by God just for this vital occasion? I’m sure Esther thought about her childhood and all that had happened to her. Then she stepped out in faith to save her people.
During that time, the king also read a record of Mordecai’s past actions revealing that Mordecai had saved the king from an evil conspiracy. These events became entwined in a fascinating and twisted series of circumstances that revealed the plot in which Haman had attempted to manipulate the king to eliminate the Jewish people. When the king realized the truth, Haman ended up being sentenced to death.
I’ve often wondered what was going through Mordecai’s mind after the Jews were saved. I’m sure he pondered the past events surrounding his niece Esther—the events that so long ago had brought them together “for such a time as this.” Perhaps he and Esther understood that it was the death of Esther’s parents which ultimately led to the saving of an entire nation.
The details of Esther’s parents have been lost from history. Were her parents killed? Did they die at an early age from some horrible disease? We do not know. Did people look at Esther and say, “Why would God allow this beautiful little young girl to lose her parents and why would that happen?” And yet, as we now stand back and see her place in the big picture, you can see the morally commendable reasons that God had. Through the tragic death of her parents, God brought Esther into the home of Mordecai in circumstances that led to the saving of an entire group of people.
In addition to that, Esther’s life and actions have been recorded and made a part of the Holy Word of God for all eternity. How many millions and millions of times has the Book of Esther been read, changing hearts and lives? At the time of her parent’s death, I doubt that anyone would have imagined that God would “cause” those tragic circumstances to “work together for good.” From a human perspective, it would have only seemed to be grossly unfair.
A similar situation exists with my dad and the death of my grandfather. There’s no doubt that my father had an unusual love for the Bible. Years after his death, I still remember when I used to walk into the house and see him sitting in his favorite chair with his reading glasses on, a pen in his hand, and his copiously marked Bible in his lap.
Dad was a teacher, and, as a public school principal, was transferred to many different towns around the State of Queensland. Dad and Mum started Sunday schools and ran Bible studies everywhere they went. They hosted missionaries and sponsored outreach programs to reach children and adults. (In fact, it was at one of these programs in Innisfail, North Queensland, that I went forward at a meeting to make a commitment to be a missionary for the Lord.)
Dad hated it when the Bible was knowingly compromised and would always stand up for what he believed, regardless of the persecution he would receive. One Sunday, for example, we were in church and the pastor preached about the boy who provided the five thousand with the few loaves and fishes. The pastor said that what happened wasn’t really a miracle, but that because a little boy took out his loaves and fishes, he set a great example for the others to follow, and they then took out their own food and shared it with each other. My father was furious! At the end of the service, he led the whole family up to the pastor and began rebuking him from the Bible, proving conclusively that this was, indeed, a miracle. He would preface his statements with “It is written . . .” as he expounded on the Bible’s account of this event.
Many years later, as Dad lay dying in a hospital, Robert asked him, “Dad, why did you have such a love for the Word of God? What was it that caused you to stand so strongly on Scripture?” I had never asked Dad about this, and my heart raced—I couldn’t wait to hear the answer.
Dad told Rob that when he was only 16 years old, his father died. It was a great personal loss to a young lad. But because he no longer had an earthly father to turn to, he turned to his Heavenly Father, reading His Word over and over again, becoming more and more committed to its message and more and more convinced of its authority. As I listened to Rob, I became rather choked up. Yes, it made sense. Dad seemed to be always reading the Bible—he really loved God’s Word, and that love emerged out of tragic circumstances.
This love overflowed into our family, influencing our entire upbringing. My dad’s passion for the Bible is one of the major reasons Rob had such a love for the Word of God and worked so hard to tell others about the gospel. (Rob was also a “chip off the old block,” as people say.) He was like Dad in so many ways, never compromising the Scriptures, always standing up for what he believed was right, regardless of the consequences. And there’s no doubt in my mind that I would not have started Answers in Genesis (a ministry that now reaches multi-thousands of people on a daily basis) if it weren’t for my father and mother’s stand on the Word of God. Who would have thought that a young teenager’s father’s death would be used by God to cause millions of people to hear about God’s infallible, authoritative Word and the gospel?
I’ve recalled these events in my mind many times over the past years, particularly as I’ve thought about what happened to Rob. As I pondered these things in my heart, something became very clear to me—something that has been of great comfort in the midst of terrible sorrow: God does cause all things to work together for good.
The death of Esther’s parents and the death of my grandfather are only two examples of God using suffering, division, and death to work for a greater good. In Acts 15:39–41, we see how God used a bitter disagreement between Paul and Barnabas to cause a split in their ministries—a division which resulted in both Cyprus and Syria being reached with the gospel. Similarly, persecution faced by the Antioch church was used to disperse them throughout the surrounding region, preaching about Christ as they went (Acts 14:5–7). The story of Joseph, of course, is a classic example of God using the sinful intent of his brothers for great good. Read this amazing story for yourself in Genesis 39–50. You’ll see the unmistakable hand of God leading Joseph into great injustices in order to bring him to a position where he saved countless lives from starvation. When he faced the brothers who had caused him such strife, Joseph actually comforted them with these words:
Do not be afraid, for am I in God’s place? And as for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive (Genesis 50:19–20).
By anyone’s standards, Joseph endured great hardship and betrayal (in spite of the fact that he continually chose to live uprightly in all situations). Looking back it’s clear to see that God had planned the evil against him for morally commendable and good reasons.
Sometimes the good that comes out of suffering is quite incidental to the circumstances, proving that God shows infinite creativity in causing all things to work for good. Think about the suffering of Job. While Job was dealing with the onslaught of suffering and loss in his life, I’m sure that the last thing he was thinking about was the possibility that a book would one day be written outlining all the details of what happened to him . . . a book that was to be incorporated into the holy written Word of God, used to teach generation after generation necessary truths that God wanted us to understand.
I often quote the Book of Job in my talks on Genesis. In Job 40:15, while using creation as proof of His power and control, God describes an animal that could very well have been a dinosaur. It’s circumstantial evidence that man and dinosaurs co-existed, and thousands of children and adults have benefited from this teaching as an important piece in the big picture of history.
One of my favorite verses of the Bible is also found in Job 38:4, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.” God rebuked Job with this question when he questioned God’s role in the ill that had befallen him. I teach children and adults all over the world to ask the same question to secularists who claim that life has evolved over millions of years: “Were you there?” I have heard so many testimonies from parents who say this has helped their children combat the false teaching regarding origins and the age of the earth. As a result of Job, many children have asked evolutionary scientists, “Were you there?”—and then they watch them fumble for a response!
From the Vantage Point of Time
We are not told of the events surrounding the death of Esther’s parents. Perhaps they died of some horrible disease or were tragically killed by the invading army that forced the Israelites into exile. At the time of their death, some Jews might have questioned why God would allow a young girl to lose both her parents. Maybe even Mordecai questioned in his heart why God would allow such a seemingly terrible situation to befall such a lovely young girl as Esther.
At the time of the tragedy, no human being could foresee the future; yet God was working out a plan beyond what anyone could have imagined. Esther was being placed in circumstances such that she would be used by God to save the Jewish people . . . but no one could see it at the time.
When my father’s father died, those close to the situation grieved greatly. Some may have even commented that it didn’t seem fair that a young lad like my dad would be left on this earth without his father. Some might even have been angry at God, or perhaps some might have mocked Christians who believed in a holy, loving, and just God in the midst of such a situation.
However, many years later, we can look back and see the good that God worked—good that no one would have even come close to guessing at the time. The situation that caused my father to turn to his Heavenly Father (and ultimately igniting his passion for the Bible) resulted in a godly family who stood on the authority of the Word of God. Rob became a preacher of the Word. I was instrumental in founding a ministry that has grown around the world. Others in the family have been involved in various Christian ministries. All of this put new meaning into the verse of Scripture many often quote when tragedy strikes, “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, declares the Lord” (Isaiah 55:8).
The contemporary worship song In His Time puts these truths to music with these words:
In His time; in His time He makes all things beautiful in His time. Lord, please show me every day As You’re teaching me Your way That You do just what You say In Your time.
Nowhere is this timing more evident than in the events surrounding the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Without question, his brutal death on the Cross was the most unjust event in the history of all humanity . . . an absolutely sinless and perfect man beaten to a pulp, hung with spikes through His own flesh, left gasping in the hot sun while the jeers of the mocking crowd filled the air. . . .
Those closest to Him hid in fear and disillusionment. The hopes of the masses (who thought Him to be the chosen Savior) were buried with His broken and bloody body, sealed in despair as the rock was rolled across the opening of the tomb. From anyone’s perspective it was a horrible, devastating event—but time would prove differently.
Just three days later the unthinkable—the unimaginable—had happened. The tomb was empty and rumors circulated of the impossible: He was alive! The sunrise that Sunday morning revealed that the Son had risen. As the reality of the news was confirmed by His appearances, the whole of human history was altered forever.
Still in shock over their loss, the followers of Christ realized that the most evil of deaths had resulted in the greatest victory conceivable: The perfect sacrifice had been given for sin. Victory over the grave was now a possibility. A new covenant of grace and freedom replaced the bondage of legalism and slavery to religion. The price of redemption had been paid, sealing the promise of forgiveness and opening the door to an intimate relationship with the Creator once again. God had caused horrible circumstances to work together for good, and as a result the most evil of events was transformed into the most glorious of realities.
From the perspective of time and the Resurrection, we can even see death itself as a moral good. Death is properly called the “last enemy” (1 Corinthians 15:26). But in a strange and obvious way, it is also a blessing for mankind. Ultimately, without death, humanity would have no way of experiencing complete reconciliation with God. Confined in our bodies of sinful flesh, our separation from Him would be eternal, but for those who believe in Christ, death is the doorway into a glorious future.
Peace in the Midst
Yes, Romans 8:28 is far from cliché. Those who are willing to consider the deeper implications of this truth, looking to examples in the Bible for support, will find the hope and faith to carry on in the midst of suffering and death. That has certainly been the case for me . . . even with my brother Robert. The circumstance behind his illness and the loss caused by his death sent shock waves through my soul. But I believe that we will see God work this for good, both now and from the perspective of eternity.
In many ways, I can see it already. Rob’s story has been read by many thousands in a previously published book called Walking Though Shadows. Hundreds of thousands have been touched by his example as I have spoken around the world. Many people have written to me to tell me that they have read many books on death and suffering . . . but they say that Robert’s story has helped them because it is “real life”—down to earth reality—that is dealt with head-on with the Bible, starting in the Book of Genesis.
Already, I realize that my brother Robert has ministered more to people in his death than he did in his life.
Already, I realize that my brother Robert has ministered more to people in his death than he did in his life. Lord willing, many thousands more will read this book as well, finding answers, hope, and eternal salvation. Was his death “untimely” and “terrible”? Most certainly. But the God who is in the business of taking evil and using it for good has orchestrated it for reasons that are clearly morally commendable.
Even though it doesn’t stop the grief—and I must admit I still heave a sigh and shake my head in disbelief—it has been a great comfort to be reminded that God is still working through the circumstances surrounding Rob’s illness and death. Maybe something even greater than Esther’s situation could come out of this—who knows?
God’s Word is clear, and examples from the Bible and contemporary life are plentiful. With a little faith we can begin to see good in many of the circumstances we face in this fallen world . . . and that faith gives hope and perspective.
Though it is often difficult to see the good while the bad events are happening, it doesn’t take too much imagination to see the potential for good in all that happens, particularly when we look not just at the outward circumstances, but when we focus on how God uses the outward struggles to conform us to Christ on the inside. Almost always, the good He is causing becomes more evident when we are willing to wait so we can look back from the vantage point of time passage.
In most situations, when we look at evil with the big picture in mind, God’s working for good will be visible—even when we can only glimpse small slivers of His light in the midst of the darkness. But what are we to do when we can’t see the good at all? In those times we must bend the knee before our sovereign God, trusting that from the perspective of eternity His goodness in the midst of the evil will be revealed.
Questions for Group Discusion:
- If, indeed, God uses the suffering and death of some individuals to bring blessings to others, do you think He is being fair? Why or why not? Can you give examples?
- What situations can you think of where God caused something to work for good, even though it was evil? Use both contemporary and biblical examples. Was His goodness apparent at the time of the event?
- When people face suffering and death, how might their emotional response (depression, anger, joy, peace, etc.) reveal their level of belief in the truths of Romans 8:28?
Questions for Personal Reflection:
- Many times, the good that God is working out through difficult circumstances results in inner changes of character and faith that make us more like Christ. In what ways has the suffering and death you’ve experienced resulted in inner change? In most situations, do you tend to reject or embrace these changes?
- What current situations are you facing that seem to be evil or wrong? Are you able to see God’s goodness at work, or do you think it will take the perspective of time to see the result of His purpose?
- Are you willing to accept by faith the suffering and death as something that God can (and is) working out for good? If so, spend some time praying, thanking Him for every circumstance that surrounds you.
Bible Verses for Contemplation and Memorization:
- 2 Corinthians 4:7–18
- James 1:2, 12–18