This post is meant to offer guidance to common “what now” questions that could emerge from Pastor J.D.’s sermon “Hope: The Greatest Chapter in the Bible, Part 3; Romans 8:18-30,” preached at The Summit Church Saturday-Sunday July 27-28, 2019.

The case study below is the introduction to my article in The Journal of Biblical Counseling, “Making Peace with Romans 8:28” (Full PDF Article Here) and is meant to help you wrestle with an often misunderstood or sloppily applied passage of Scripture.

You’re about to read a difficult account of suffering. Imagine yourself hearing this unfolding story from a friend. For the moment, restrain from offering perspective, answers, or potential ways that God could possibly redeem this situation. Simply let yourself listen. Enter her world. Hurt with her. Cry with her. Question with her. Maybe even come to that place where a “good answer” that makes things “better” feels like it might dishonor her pain.

Natasha[1] and her husband longed for a child and finally conceive after five years of trying. They learn their child is a girl and decide to name her after Natasha’s mother, who died when Natasha was an infant. Throughout the pregnancy they read every book on “what to expect” and prepared a dream nursery, complete with initials on the wall in large decorative letters. Everything was set.

But… their daughter is born dead, suffocated by the umbilical cord that got wrapped around her throat. The only visual memory they have is of her blue, still body. They are haunted that they didn’t know she was in trouble and couldn’t help her. Not knowing how to deal with the pain, their marriage quickly deteriorates.

The questions that flood their minds either trigger conversations so upsetting that the volatility tears them apart, or conversations so “safe” that their aloofness only adds to the emotional drift.

Their marriage silently suffocates, not unlike their child, with no one hearing the muted cries for help. The husband begins to have an affair at work. He finds “life” in conversations with a co-worker that have been so long absent from his marriage that he’s convinced himself they never existed. When Natasha finds some questionable emails, he lashes out, blames her, leaves, and promptly files for divorce.

Within a year he is remarried and has a child—a little girl. Natasha’s dream life is being lived by another woman. Then, as she drives home from her part-time job as a waitress that supplements her full-time job as a teacher’s aide, Natasha is in a car accident. Not only was the car totaled—something she could not afford—but she also crushed two vertebrae in her lower back. This requires surgery—more money she doesn’t have—to fuse the vertebrae together. For the rest of her life, she’ll experience limited mobility, chronic pain, and be labeled “disabled.”

Now the cry of an infant, the sight of a child the age her daughter would be, the sound of squealing tires, or the possibility of running into her ex-husband in a store are all triggers of intense anxiety and despair. She lives with a hyper-vigilant sense that something catastrophic is about to happen. She never feels safe. Peace and hope—words that once had beautiful, biblical meanings for her—have become the equivalent of words like unicorn and leprechaun. She knows what they mean and she knows they don’t exist. People who believe in peace and hope seem blissfully naïve. She no longer has that privilege.

“What could I have done to deserve all this?” she asks herself. She feels a heavy load of shame. She longs to figure out how she has sinned so she can repent. Perhaps then God would forgive her and remove this burden. At times she is relieved when she sins, hoping the sincerity of her repentance will “work” this time and help her life get better.

Other times she is angry because she feels condemned by God. A few people have reassured her with Romans 8:1, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” But while they can refute the words with which she articulates her emotions, this truth doesn’t seem to touch the place where God feels so painfully absent. Is she abandoned by God? Rejected? Cursed? Does it matter? Does she care anymore?

But Romans 8:1 is more bearable than Romans 8:28—“we know that for those who love God all things work together for good”—or its slightly kinder sequels.[2] When friends try to comfort her with these passages, she knows that they simply do not understand. Sometimes she gets angry. Other times she pities their simplicity. Other times she envies their innocence.

Isolation becomes her form of self-protection. It works for a while because people can’t scrape her wounds with their truths. But the isolation from people becomes emotional insulation and keeps the feelings of being unknown, unloved, and confused painfully hot in her soul. Now that she has drifted from church, her only contact with Christian teaching is the material her friends retweet or post on Facebook. Periodically, she sees some version of “We should be more bothered about our sin than our suffering” or “God won’t protect us from anything that will make us more like Jesus.” These statements only solidify her view of God as uncaring, even cruel.

In the midst of her pain—physical, emotional, and spiritual—the emptiness drives her to talk to you. She says she doesn’t expect you to fix anything. Honestly, she’d be happy if you just didn’t make things worse. She shares her story, looks you in the eye for a brief moment, and sighs. Her gaze settles back to the floor.

What do you do next? What do you say? Which way is hope from here? Where does ministry start? What does sanctification look like? What needs to be healed? What facet of the gospel needs to be seen? How “practical” can you even be with struggles that appear to have no fixes? How do you serve as an ambassador of a God who isn’t trusted?

These are questions we will wrestle with in this article. I say wrestle with because to say I will answer them feels too bold. Whether it’s formal counseling or a friendship, ministering in a situation like this involves joining someone on a hard journey rather than simply giving directions. To equip you for that journey, I will first consider the issue of suffering by calling attention to five false beliefs that are commonly held by Christians. I will then explore Romans 8:28, highlighting how we can approach the verse in such a way that hurting people, like Natasha, will hear it as God intends—as truly comforting words.

* * * If you want to read the full article, here is a PDF copy of the article.

[1] This is not the story of a particular person, but a fictional case study meant to illustrate how suffering can quickly cascade in someone’s life. The English name Natasha sounds like the Hebrew word שַׁטָנ (naw-tash’), which means “forsaken.”

[2] Passages such as 2 Corinthians 1:3–5, Romans 5:3–5, James 1:2–4, and 1 Peter 4:19.