Perhaps you have had someone use this verse on you in a casual, unthinking way. You have just gone through a very difficult time, and someone chirps, “Remember, all things work together for good!” Romans 8:28 can be misused with good intentions, but it is full of comfort for those who love God.
All things work together for good? Your experience might indicate the contrary. Bad things, sometimes very evil things, happen to God’s people. Paul is not excluding those evil things. In fact, in the context he writes of futility of creation and the suffering of God’s people. Yet he still writes, “all things work together for good.” Think of the vanity, the futility, the “wackiness” of the world that Ecclesiastes describes. Paul has all of that in mind. What about sinful actions? Are they included? According to our Old Testament Scripture reading, yes: “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:15-21).
Consistent Christianity does not minimize the evils in the world. Rather, it recognizes, even in them, “the will and hand of an almighty God, who is also a merciful Father. While Calvinism does not offer a solution, it invites us humans to rest in him who lives in unapproachable light, whose judgments are unsearchable, and whose paths beyond tracing out.” (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2, p. 395). Romans 8:28 is as much about the character of God as it is about your comfort.
Note the qualification: this promise is not a suggestion that every person lives in a user friendly universe. Rather, it is a promise made to those who love God. Don’t take that as some kind of salvation by works: if I love God well enough, he will work all things for good. Rather, keep in mind that your loving God is a deep sign of his favor. By nature you were born a rebel and were a hater of God, see Romans 8:7. You cannot be neutral. You either hate God or love him. If you love him, it is because he first loved you. If you love God, you also love the things he loves. You love his Word, his day, his people.
There is another side to this qualification: All things work together for good to those who are called according to God’s purpose. God’s call accomplishes what he sets out to do. It is never arbitrary or simply a reaction to human behavior. God’s purpose is his own glory. It includes your being shaped to the image of his Son, v. 29. God’s saving work is an unbreakable unit, as verses 29 and 30 make clear.
Only a sovereign God can take all things and work them for your good. Paul points you to him, and wants you to know (the first verb in the verse), to have the assurance that he is in control. C. S. Lewis grasped the comfort that flows from coming to know that Christ controls all for his purpose and for your good. In The Horse and His Boy Shasta, who considers himself “the unluckiest person in the whole world” describes the problems he has faced, including his encounters with lions. Aslan responds, “I was the lion,” and details his working at each crucial point in the young boy’s life. Lewis also points you to the appropriate response: trust and worship.