Romans 8:28 New International Version
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.
Ok, so I'm behind the times a bit. Manifest aired on NBC in the fall of 2018, but I had never heard of it until it appreared in my Netflix suggestions a couple weeks ago. Given my affinity for shows with a mysterious premise, like Lost in the early seasons, Stranger Things, or The Man in the High Castle, I started watching. A few episodes in it became clear that the foundational premise of the show is built upon Romans 8:28, a fact the creators make clear with repeated referances to the number 828 and one episode where a character opens a Bible to Romans and reads the verse in question (but no more). As the series unfolds, God (presumably) sends a 'calling', that's the term the characters use, to various people who were on flight 828 through voices, visions, and general intuitive insights that enable them to solve crimes, protect the innocent, and battle against a sinister secret plot. While it makes for good drama, none of these manifestations of the hand of God have much of anything to do with what Romans 8:28 is talking about as both characters in the show, and viewers watching, are left asking, "What exactly is God's purpose in all this? Why is this happening?"
As a pastor, I've run into non-contextual interpretations of Scripture many times, Philippians 4:13 probably leads the pack on that score, but Romans 8:28 is right there alongside it. What is the common mis-interpretation of Romans 8:28, and what is the proper contextual interpretation?
Context free interpretation: On its own, without the verses that precede or follow it, one might assume that Romans 8:28 is promising that God is a generic force for good in the world. That he molds and shapes people and events to make things work out for the better, resulting in a world that is less evil and more beneficial to us than it would be otherwise. In this interpretation, God isn't much different than Superman. He has power that he uses to help people, here and there, saving the day unexpectedly, but not fixing the root problems that cause there to be people in need of saving in the first place. While this view of God is fairly common, and fits fairly well with ideas of an impersonal Force that controls the universe (like in Star Wars), in the end it leaves much to be desired. Why, if God has power, is he using it in such a limited way? Why helps some and not others, why prevent a tragedy here and there but let the others happen? Superman can only be in one place at a time, we know why he's more likely to save Louis than anyone else, but God can do more than this can't he? Without context, 'the good', and 'his purpose' are left nebulous, can we identify them, help them along, or is this just some mystery?
A contextual interpretation: First, let us broaden the view a bit.
Romans 8:18-39 New International Version
18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.
22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.
26 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. 27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.
28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.
31 What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? 33 Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. 34 Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36 As it is written:
“For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
This isn't bumper sticker theology. You can't fit the deep wisdom of this passage (and Paul's overall themes in Romans) on a poster. That may be while people prefer pithy but fruitless sayings like, "God helps those who help themselves" to what Scripture actually says, but non-contextual interpretation, and non-biblical aphorisms, are a dangerous game, we're much better off with the full medicine, kep the spoonful of sugar.
So, what is the larger point that Paul is making here that Romans 8:28 is integral to? God has a master plan, a plan for all of creation and humanity, a plan that involves calling individuals by the Spirit to accept his Son by faith, and then leading those individuals forward toward Christ-likeness in a process that cannot be derailed by any power because it is emeshed in the Love of God, and a process that he helps along by weaving 'all things' toward that very specific purpose. Something to that effect. I could make that run-on sentence into a paragraph, page, or chapter while still trying to convey the essence of Paul's words, but the original that he wrote will remain the most profound way to say it.
God isn't in the business of making this world a better place.
Thought I'd leave that sentence by itself to let it sink in. His redemptive actions in history will certainly have that effect, but that isn't the goal, but its treating the symptoms of the disease, not eradicating it. The goal is fellowship with humanity under his rule as Lord. God is working "all things together" in order to redeem out from humanity his chosen people, mold and shape them through discipleship toward Christ-likeness, and eventually present them before his throne holy and righteouss in his sight. God's purpose is far higher, far nobler, and far more difficult than simply making this world a better place. Jesus would not have taken upon himself humanity for such a lowly purpose, and certainly would not have needed to die upon the Cross, if making the world a better place was the goal. If that was all God had in mind he could have used people like the prophets of old to accomplish it. Moses, Elijah, Esther, even Jonah once he got straightened out, could 'make things better' with God's power. No, Jesus came to this earth for a much bigger project, a project he alone as the God/Man could accomplish. When Satan offered him rule over the kingdoms of this world, Jesus refused. Jesus as King of the World would have resulted in a massive improvement in the lives of everyone on this planet. Can you imagine a more wise and benevolent ruler? But Jesus isn't tempted, he isn't here to work through the systems of this world, but to overcome them, and destroy Sin and Death in the process. Jesus' sights are set much, much higher.
God's business is the making of a holy and righteous people
So, in the end, while Manifest has an interesting premise, and I'll finish watching the series, the God that it is portraying thus far isn't God enough, whatever the end game the series has for its characters, thus far none of them are actually living lives that reflect Romans 8:28, for none of them are being called to repentance, faith, and worship of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, and God the Father. Romans 8:28 is part of a powerful and profound promise to those whom God calls that whatever happens in this life, the hand of God will continue to work in us, and through us, to transform us to Christ-likeness. Manifest, like so many non-contextual interpretations, falls short of this glorious promise.