I know one thing I will not say. I will not quote Romans 8:28 to any of them! Before you brand me a kook, hear me out. When I was 18, I found out my dad was a drug addict. Still. I thought he had taken care of that when I was younger. His "drugs of choice" were painkillers. The easiest way for him to get his fix was cough syrup with codeine. Long story short, there are limits as to how much of that stuff you can by in a 48 hour time period and pharmacies track those purchases. Dad went back to one pharmacy too soon and got busted. At 18, engaged, getting ready to start my second year of college, it felt like someone had pulled the rug out from under my feet. I went to college - a Christian Liberal Arts institution by the way - and my life continued to get shaken up. Some "friends" just stopped talking to me after telling me that my dad could have just stopped if his faith had been more sincere. Some people who I thought were mere acquaintances became deep, abiding friends as they hurt with me and for me. Others, with the very best of intentions, drove me crazy quoting Romans 8:28: And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them that are called according to his purpose.
Do I believe that verse is true? Absolutely!! Do I think it's appropriate to share it with those who are hurting? Depends. Truthfully, I would avoid it for quite some time.
First of all, I think we misapply this verse when we say that scripture is talking about one specific person's specific pain (I may COMPLETELY misguided in my opinion but hear me out!). The verse refers to "them that love God" not "the one who loves God." Is it possible that this verse is talking about the overall scheme of things? That everything that happens to the body will serve to draw people to faith and bring God glory?
Secondly, let's say you share that verse with a friend whose mother is gravely ill. Let's say the friend's mother succumbs to her illness and dies. Are you trying to tell your friend that he/she should see this as a good thing? Or is it possible that information was gleaned during her treatment that will allow for better treatment and maybe even a cure someday? Maybe someone watched this family struggle and has grown in their faith because of how this family handled their suffering. It doesn't make the loss of her mother "good" but it does allow the family to find some comfort in the good that came out of such a dark time.
I believe that too many Christians - very well-meaning, I'm sure - throw this verse out as a "spiritual" way of saying "Everything's going to be okay." There is no happily-ever-after in this life. If there was, why would we ever want anything more! Bad things will happen to those who follow Jesus. Godly women will miscarry. Loving, praying mothers will watch their sick children die. Men of God will watch their wives abandon the home in search of "fulfillment".
I believe that Romans 8:28 is meant to be a reminder of a statement made in the very first sentence of a book that has become well-known in Christian circles: It is not about you. We may never know why we suffer certain things in this life time and God does not owe us an answer for any of it. The truth of Romans 8:28 does not change even if we feel like what's happening to us is not good at all! God will do good things in and through the church and he will do it even when we suffer. We cannot see how our little piece of history fits in the scheme of eternity and it's arrogance to even attempt to do so.
I'm reminded of a poem my mother loves, entitled "The Weaver." I apologize to the author for not including his/her name as I was unable to find it:
My life is but a weaving
Between my Lord and me;
I cannot chose the colors
He worketh steadily.
Oftimes He weaves with sorrow,
And I, in foolish pride,
Forget He sees the upper,
And I the underside.
Not till the loom is silent
And the shuttles cease to fly,
Shall God unroll the canvas
And explain the reasons why
The dark threads are as needful
In the Weaver's skillful hand,
As the threads of gold and silver
In the pattern he has planned.
He knows, He loves, He cares,
Nothing this truth can dim.
He gives His very best to those
Who leave the choice with Him.
So what do you say when you don't know what to say? How about being truthful? Tell the person that you don't know what to say but that you are there for whatever they need - a shoulder to cry on, a hot meal, a time of prayer . . . whatever. A hurting friend doesn't need pat answers or well-worn cliches. They simply need a friend.