There are interesting pairs of words in Romans 8: 18-28. Some almost serve as antonyms: glory versus groaning; freedom versus bondage to decay; hope versus longing; Spirit versus bodies. Paul’s writing captures our attention because he describes a world that every generation has recognized. He closes this description of a conflicted world with a promise: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
Really?! Who is able to come up with just one example of senseless suffering? Paul takes on a topic that has led generations to question God’s goodness.
So let’s dig at this theological problem! The promise at the end of the passage identifies the recipients of God’s transformational goodness: those who love God and who are called according to Godly purpose. Doesn’t that seem exclusive? It does until we remember that God is ever-present, always willing to forgive our sin and reclaim us when we ask. No one is ever turned away from God’s presence. But, to remain in God, there are a few basic requirements—as there would be for receiving the hospitality of any person. We must love God. We must trust God. When we do this, we will obey God. We will live in God’s house with a willing acceptance of the house rules. If we want to live according to our own set of rules, we probably won’t want to stay with the house-parent who doesn’t tolerate our shenanigans! To those who accept the call to live in a way that embraces God’s purpose, they are summoned, they listen, they respond and ultimately submit to the Way of Jesus.
Don’t you love that word, submit?! Yikes!
Do we have the kind of relationship with our Creator that leads us to believe that God is good? If we can trust this promise, it will color our view on the troubles that inevitably come our way. If we don’t have a relationship with God, when something random happens, we will be the first to demand, “How can a good God can be in charge of things down here if this terrible thing just happened to me?” Magnify that angst to the struggles that whole communities are experiencing and Paul’s words jump off the page at us: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now…”
Amen! Preach it, brother Paul!
It’s interesting to me that people who have no real relationship with God nonetheless have no problem pointing the finger of blame toward heaven. Agnostics repeatedly use God’s name in vain even though they deny the very existence of God. It’s hard to find peace when you’re in the thick of the storm with no end in sight. And it’s nearly impossible to meet God for the first time when your world is falling apart. But we like to be able to hang the blame on someone for our trials so we disown the One who is not going to offer a self-defense: the very God who loves us for who we are!
So an important question for us to ask is what we think we are promised as children of God? As Christians we claim the cross of Christ for our symbol. The cross is where an innocent man died an excruciating, shameful, public death for the sake of a world that abandoned Him. So what does that tell us we can expect for following Him? Suffering. That certainly doesn’t sell. Not in this culture. We run from pain. We freely assign blame. We forget that our commitment to live a holy life in a secular world will be costly for us. We easily get angry with God that something didn’t go our way but we fail to notice or care about the extreme suffering of other folks, whole groups of people: refugees, political prisoners, hopeless women caught up in the sex trade, innocent children left in the care of the system since their parents have failed in their duties. You fill in the blank. To be a follower of Jesus means that we will look at the BIGGER PICTURE because it’s only in embracing our eternal destiny as a unified global family that we can even come close to the promise of GLORY.
I think of the words folks offer to someone in a rough time that are meant to give hope: “Well, you know, God will never give you more than you can handle.”
Have you questioned that in your lifetime? Have you wanted to scream at someone who has made that suggestion to you? It’s a mutation of a promise Paul made to the Corinthian believers in chapter ten of his first letter: “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.” (1 Cor. 10: 13) So how has this promise been misused?
I have this image of an Amazon warehouse distribution manager who has to decide which delivery people are going to deliver which packages. “Allison has recently had back surgery so I’ll give her a lighter load. Jeb is strong as an ox so I’ll give him the heaviest packages, a whole truckload of them. Gary’s wife divorced him so he’s not firing on all cylinders but I think it’s time he gets back in the groove. So I’m going to push him hard with his delivery route.” There’s a built-in assumption that we should only be given a load that we consider to be fair. The trite promise that God will never give us more than we can handle encourages that image of the Amazon Warehouse God. So then we think the problem must be with us if we’re not staying on top of things! If God will never give us more than we can handle and I am being crushed under this current load, I don’t have enough faith. Or God has it in for me. Or what I believed to be true about the universe isn’t true and God really isn’t in charge.
What is your unwritten, unspoken covenant with God? When have you gotten mad at God for breaking one of your rules?
I find that I have to play the role of advocate or defense attorney for God. Let’s review the terms of the contract! God gave us freedom. We Americans particularly cherish our freedom. We would not want a scripted, robotic life. So our choices and those of others in a sinful world will bring consequences. We see that in our children as they thrash their way into adulthood, sometimes learning from their mistakes and sometimes not. Believing in Jesus does not insulate us from struggles. Again, look at the cross! Paul, in his second letter to the Corinthians, speaks of his traveling team being tested far beyond their capabilities:
“We were so utterly burdened beyond our strength…” (2 Cor. 1:8)
I wonder if anyone said to him, “Well, God will never give you more than you can handle!”
They might have pointed Paul to the Psalms: “I lift up my eyes to the hills—from where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” (Ps. 121: 1-2) Or maybe Psalm 46: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;” Or we remember the beautiful promise made to the Israelites who had been overtaken and hauled off to Babylon as slaves for 50 years: “…those who wait on God shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” (Isa. 40: 31)
The promise made in 1 Corinthians 10 is that God will not let us be tempted beyond our ability when facing the inevitable trials that come our way. God will always provide a means of escape. So does that mean that POWs can expect their chains to fall off and their prison doors open in the night so that they can escape? Clearly not! What are we promised as believers? From what might we be given escape?
There are times in my ministry when I’ve needed to visit people in the hospital who have children with life-threatening diseases. I remember going to see a mother who was holding her young son in the oncology ward of the hospital. He was about four years old, completely worn down by chemotherapy and just resting in his mother’s arms. They were in one of the family lounges that you pray you never need to access, the room darkened and quiet. That little boy did not cry out, “It’s not fair. Why did God do this to me? Why me?” He was too young to have bought into the popular myth that our faith should protect us from hardships. All he knew is that he was loved in the midst of his weakness and that safe embrace was enough for him. I left that scene and barely kept it together until the elevator doors closed and I let out my tears. Because my adult heart was screaming out, “This is not fair. This is not right!”
What are we promised by the One who created us, who shaped this world for our home? Presence. A loving presence that will enable us to hold up in the tough times. Over the course of our adult lives we learn this wisdom. Tough times come. Usually tough times go. God’s path of escape is the knowledge that we are never alone. God’s goodness redeems the times of upheaval that violate our plans. We discover that the hard times are when God the Potter does the most shaping. I don’t believe in a God who sits around in a celestial distribution warehouse each day, deciding what challenging load of packages to send someone’s way. I do believe that God shows up with glory when we bring trials on ourselves, when someone else does us in or when the universe we live in sends some freak-of-nature challenge our way. Not everything is good in our world, right? But God works for good in everything, reminding us that this world is only a shadow of what is to come. God reminds us that we are shaped for eternity which is just on the other side of today. The ultimate goodness God offers us is freedom from the constraints of our earthly bodies that have heroically tried to survive in this groaning world. The promised escape from our temptations finally comes in a welcome to heaven where “Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” (Rev. 21: 4)
What are we promised as disciples of Jesus Christ? Maybe we better review the terms of the contract we drew up because God is near, loving, forgiving, redeeming. God works together for good, for those who love God, who are called according to holy purpose!