The problem is that probably 95% of the times this passage is used by Christians, it is used incorrectly.
You see, this passage has come to be the American Christian passage of comfort. If a tragedy or bad situation happens, it is invariable that one of our Christian brethren will say, "Remember...all things work together for good for those who love God." As though this will be comforting to the parent who just lost a child, or the breadwinner with three kids who just lost his job. It is essentially telling the person, "I know you are hurting, but God did it to you as part of a bigger plan."
Maybe that is comforting to some. Maybe it's never comforting. I don't know. What I do know is this: it isn't what the passage means, no matter how many pastors want to quote it that way.
First, a brief background. Paul's letter to the Romans up to this point essentially follows this outline:
* Greetings/Well Wishes (1:1-17)
* Man deserves God's wrath and punishment for sin (1:18-3:20)
* We can be justified before God by faith in Jesus Christ (3:21-5:21)
* We are sinful beings, but cannot revel in it; try to be a slave of God just like you were a slave to sin (6:1-7:6)
Continuing his discussion on the dichotomy of being born-again yet still a sinner, we begin the meat of our study. Beginning in Romans 7:7, Paul talks about struggling with sinfulness as a Christian. He builds to some of the most powerful verses in the whole Bible in verses 14-19, a passage which all honest Christians feel far too often. I think it is one of the most vulnerable, sincere writings I have ever read, perhaps the best description of the human condition ever recorded:
I do not understand what I do. ...I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, my sinful nature. For I have a desire to do what is good, but I cannot carrry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do -- this I keep doing.
As Paul says, his own wickedness of his flesh continues to get in the way of his spirit, which delights in God.
In chapter 8, Paul continues his discussion about the Christian struggle with sin by saying that God does not condemn you for these sins (8:1). He reminds us that we are no longer under sin's control (even when we fall), but have made ourselves slaves to God (8:10).
Now we get into some of the most quoted (and most taken-out-of-context) passages you will ever hear. These passages refer to suffering, and thus these are often used to comfort those who suffer. But Paul is not talking about suffering in the general sense. No, here he is talking about suffering in a specific case: how a Christian struggles with the sinfulness in their lives.
This is not a passage intended to be read by those who've lost a loved one. This is the passage to read when you feel that you cannot ever get close enough to God. That nothing you are doing is good enough. That you cannot succeed in your quiet times. That your prayer life stinks. That you read the wrong books. That you look at porn on the Internet. That you treated your kids wrong. That you were in a bad mood all day. That you took that extra drink as an alcoholic.
This is the passage Paul wrote for those who are at the end of their rope with their struggles to be a good, Godly person. Read it when you struggle with the fact that you are trying to be a good Christian, but you fail. And remember, when Paul talks about "suffering" or "struggles", he is specifically referring to our struggles with the fact that we sin despite our best attempts not to do so:
I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration not by its own choice, but by the will of the One who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to this time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we are saved. But hope that is seen is not hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. (v.17-25)
Paul here is saying that our present (inward) struggles between our saved soul and our sinful nature are not worth discussing in comparison to the glory that will be revealed when God fully adopts us, after our death. He says that creation is eagerly anticipating our rebirth, when we will have our bodies redeemed and no longer struggle with sin. He reminds us that we must wait patiently for God's timing...do not get ahead of yourself, Paul says. Continue to do battle against your sinful ways, and know that these struggles will seem unimportant to you once you are revealed in your full glory by God.
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 with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God's will. 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. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. What then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? 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? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is he who justifies. Who is he that condemns? 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. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? (26-35).
Continuing the theme, Paul writes that we need not fear, because every time we sin the Holy Spirit, given us by Christ, intercedes in prayer with God on our behalf. Do not fear God's wrath or your sinful nature, Paul says, because God chose you, and God justifies you. And nothing you can do can separate you from the love of God.
You see, then, why Romans 8:28 is generally being taken out of context? Paul is not saying that God intercedes to ensure the "best of all possible worlds" (as Voltaire would sarcastically interpret), despite what you may have heard preached at funerals. No, this is decidedly NOT the best of all possible worlds. The best of all possible worlds is what God created before man started polluting it with sin. The verses before this verse and the verses after are all about the Christian struggling with sin; yet this verse is frequently taken out of context and applied to tragedies in life.
No, what Rom 8:28 means is this: the reason we have convicted hearts when we sin is not because we lost God's love, but because God wants us to grow into more righteous people. As verse 29 makes clear, we undergo this struggle because God is working on us like a clay, to make us into the image of His Son.
Notice that context also makes clear verse 31--if God be for us, who can be against us? That verses is often misused to say that our enemies cannot conquer us. That is not at all what it means. What it means (see v.32-34) is that we need not worry about condemnation, for God has declared us good. And if God says we are good, then who has the right to condemn us?
Careful understanding of context is absolutely crucial to understanding a Biblical passage. In this case, Romans 8:28 is generally taken to mean that God is making a better world, and our suffering is somehow for the good. This is a painful thing to hear for one who has, say, lost a child: how is it comforting to think that God killed your child for the 'greater good'?
No, that is not at all what the verse means. Context makes it clear. The verse is far greater, far more important, than a tool for mourning a temporal tragedy. This verse is crucial, because it tells us that when we feel conviction and struggle with our sinful natures, understand that God is using this struggle to make you over in Christ's image. And that with God on your side in this remoulding of your soul, nothing--not Satan, not your sins, not those who falsely accuse you--can ever separate you from the love and salvation of God. (v31)