“I’ve got a theory that if you give 100% all of the time, somehow things will work out in the end.” — Larry Bird
“And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.” — Romans 8:28 (NLT)
“Don’t worry, be happy.” — Bobby McFerrin
During the life and ministry of Jesus, the city of Rome was home to about 40,000 displaced Jews. Most had been brought there forcibly as slaves, and while many still worked in servitude, some had gained their freedom. Given the opportunity to leave and return to Jerusalem, most stayed. Rome was their home.
To keep the Jews happy, Rome had granted them certain privileges, most notably the right to build synagogues and to freely worship their God. In return, the Jews contributed their skills and labor to Roman society and lived at peace — until Jesus.
In Rome as in Israel, Jesus’ works and his words, his death and alleged resurrection, spread into the heart of Roman Judaism, stirring up a great and heated debate. The peaceful synagogues were split into camps of Christ-followers and Christ-deniers, and these debates often spilled out into the streets.
To tamp down emotions, the Romans revoked the right of Roman Jews to worship in public, leading Christians to begin meeting secretly in homes. The strife continued until 50AD, when Emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome altogether. They wandered, longing to return, and when Claudius died the government relented and allowed them to come home… just in time for the great fire.
Nero was blamed for sitting on his hands (or playing his fiddle) while a third of the great city was destroyed. To protect himself, Nero shifted the blame to those people who were already blamed for so many of Rome’s ills, those believers in Christ, and thus began the great Roman persecution in which Christians were imprisoned, tortured, and slain for public sport in the Coliseum.
It’s at this very moment of terror, fear, and inconsolable grief in the Roman Christian community that Paul writes to remind them that “God will work everything out for good.”
It’s one of those things Christians sometimes say, with the very best of intentions, at the very worst times. Your baby dies, but God means it for good. You lose your job and get evicted for not paying your mortgage, but God will make something good of your homelessness. It’s our way of singing, “the sun will come out tomorrow…” We say it because we’re deeply uncomfortable with grief and sorrow.
But that promise in verse 28 is at the end of a long lament where Paul acknowledges the pain and suffering we all endure because of the effects of sin on creation. He talks about how creation, and we who live in God’s creation, are groaning as in the pain of childbirth, crying out for relief, sometimes with such pain that we can’t even form words to express our frustrations. And in that suffering, Paul reminds the Roman Christians that the Holy Spirit of God lives in them and prays to God for them, understanding and relaying our sufferings to our Father in heaven.
For those Jewish Christians who were killed for the emperor’s entertainment, it’s hard to say that things worked out for good. For the children whose parents disappeared into Roman prisons, I don’t think we can say their suffering and grief was a good thing, no matter how we stretch the language. And today, when we’re desperate to say something comforting in the face of a tragedy, we may not be supplying much comfort when we make flippant claims that God will bring some good out of tragedy.
Because the implication is that we will suddenly realize that the death of our child was really the best thing that could have happened to us, and them. If you go down that road far enough, it seems to me that you’re forced to conclude that God causes our sufferings to bring about some greater good. I can’t accept that, and I don’t think that’s the nature of the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ.
God is good. The Old and New Testaments make that claim over and over and over again. He is good in such a pure and absolute sense that we can’t even imagine what it means, even though “good” is a word we use and exhaustively overuse every day.
When we talk about good, we usually fudge and compromise. We talk about pretty good, good enough, but few of us are arrogant enough to claim to be absolutely good.
God is absolutely good. If hurt and grief and suffering were tools in his universe-management toolbox, how could we ever reconcile his goodness with his habit of hurting the ones he says he loves?
So what does Paul mean when he says “For we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purposes for them”?
I think we’re forced to look at the cross, where God’s Son volunteered to accept scorn, mockery, judgment, pain and death so that he could undo the curse of sin and the grip of Satan that holds creation captive in an unending cycle of misery.
I think we have to look at the cross as the foundation God has laid to his worldwide urban renewal project, a project that has as its ultimate goal the eradication of sin, of death, of misery, of suffering. We are in the midst of that project, somewhere on the continuum between demolition, reconstruction, and the grand opening. Our sovereign God, our good God, will one day rework all of this broken down creation into a new home where his goodness permeates everything and everyone.
But this promise in verse 28 is not necessarily for today. Right now, we don’t see everything working together for good. Right now, we live in brokenness and urban decay. God’s Holy Spirit walks with us through the mean streets, and he comforts and heals us when we’re mugged by life. But right now, just like Jesus, we carry scars on our bodies and in our hearts from life’s assaults.
Romans 8:28 is a promise that God, who is just and good, will not forget our suffering, and will not fail to transform our pain into something that brings honor to him and to us who have endured. And so that we might not lose hope, he gives us this promise:
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” – Revelation 21:3,4 (NIV)
Our good God is moving all of creation, all of history, towards that good day. Hold on to that promise, and in the midst of trials, let his Spirit comfort you and give you peace.