02 August 2016

“God makes all things work together for our good.”

Romans 8.28.

“You make all things work together for my good,” goes the bridge of the 2008 Jesus Culture song “Your Love Never Fails.” (Or are you more familiar with the 2013 Newsboys version? No? Doesn’t matter.) It’s a common variation of a popular idea, borrowed from Paul in Romans, which goes like so:

Romans 8.28 KJV
And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.

Frequently people drop a “the” in quoting it, and end it, “to them who are the called according to his purpose.” More like the ESV has it. But however we remember it, the problem is why we remember it; and this being a “Context” article you can bet it’s about wrongly remembering it.

Together with “Everything happens for a reason!” this is a myth we Christians use to comfort ourselves, and one another. When we’re going through a rough time, we like to imagine God’s permitting or allowing or even causing these trials, because he has a greater good in mind. We just gotta trust God, and ride it out.

But this is an idea Calvinism teaches. Not the scriptures. It’s based on the Calvinist belief God sovereignly micromanages everything in the cosmos. They say he’s actually behind all things—even evil things—so of course he’ll work ’em out for our good. But we gotta stretch the scriptures beyond their breaking point before they state any such thing.

You do realize there’s an entire book of the bible dedicated to the existence of meaningless things, right? Not everything happens for a reason! It’s why Qohelét, the author of Ecclesiastes, started his book with “Vapor of vapors. It’s all vapor.” Ec 1.2 KWL

I won’t go as hardcore as Qohelét did, and claim we can’t find meaning in anything. Certain things definitely have meaning. Sometimes we grant the meaning to them; sometimes God does. But Qohelét was dealing with a culture which—like our own—tries to find meaning in everything. A random accident upends our lives, and we go out of our minds playing mental connect-the-dots, trying to find anything deep or truthful or profound in it. So to give his culture a solid slap in the face, Qohelét pulled out the stops: Nothing has meaning. Nothing makes sense. All sorts of stuff that’s “supposed” to happen, doesn’t. Stuff that should be fair, isn’t. Life sucks.

For these people, Ecclesiastes is a bummer, so they avoid it. We don’t wanna believe it. We way prefer the idea God has a grand plan, and these random accidents are secretly part of the plan. We imagine every irrelevant, minor thing triggers a butterfly effect, with great, life-altering consequences. Every decision matters. Every action counts. Every time we talk about God, we plant a seed which never returns void. You know, the usual hyper-optimistic crap.

You know, the usual hyper-optimistic crap. And don’t get me wrong; Christians ought to be optimistic. Jm 1.2 But not delusionally so. We live by faith, not wishful thinking.

The context already.

In Romans 8, Paul wrote about how we Christians need to be patient while God sorts out the world. He’s saved us, but he still wants to save the entire world, though it’s plagued with sin and needs a lot of work. But that restoration—that redemption—is what we and the whole of creation have to look forward to.

Romans 8.18-25 KWL
18 I figure the present-day sufferings aren’t worthy of worry,
compared with the glory about to be revealed to us:
19 The eager anticipation of creation, the revelation of God’s children, awaits!
20 Creation was unwillingly inflicted with meaningless things,
but throughout the infliction, with the hope 21 creation itself will be freed—
from the slavery of decay, into the freedom of the glory of God’s children.
22 We know all creation has been groaning and suffering together till now.
23 Not just that: We ourselves, the firstborn of the Spirit, groan as we await adoption—
the redemption of our bodies. 24 We’re saved with this hope.
Visible hope isn’t hope. If people can see it, who hopes anymore?
25 If we don’t see it, we hope. We wait with enduring patience.

Yep, right there in Romans Paul wrote creation has been inflicted with meaninglessness. How do Calvinists miss it? Well, they reinterpret it the same way John Calvin did: They figure ti mataiótiti/“with emptiness, vanity” means creation will be brought to emptiness—in other words, it’ll pass away. They assume this is a statement about the future, not the present: Creation will die. This despite Paul referring to it in verse 21 as tis duleías tis fthorás/“the slavery of decay”—which’ll be replaced by the glory of the age to come.

We, like creation, are awaiting God’s coming, finished kingdom. Meanwhile we pray, “may your kingdom come,” Mt 6.10 and wait. Patiently. Well, as patiently as we can. Praying.

Romans 8.26-27 KWL
26 Likewise the Spirit supports us in our weak spots.
What should we pray for? We don’t always know.
Then the Spirit steps in for us, with inarticulate noises.
27 The One who searches our hearts knows what the Spirit’s thoughts are:
As God desires, he steps in for his saints.

We pray for lots of things, but we don’t always know what to pray. Sometimes it’s because we don’t understand how God thinks, and we’re trying to. Sometimes we can’t articulate our feelings or thoughts. Many Christians teach this is why we pray in tongues: Sometimes we don’t have the words, so we let the Spirit provide them.

And now we reach the verse in question.

Romans 8.28-30 KWL
28 We know that for those who love God, for those who’re invited by his proclamation,
everything works together into a good outcome:
29 Those whom God foreknew,
whom he already decided would share the image, the likeness, of his Son
—him being the firstborn of many sisters and brothers—
30 those whom God already decided, he also invited.
Those invited, he also justified. Those justified, he also glorified.

Yep, the “everything” (KJV “all things”) doesn’t refer to everything in the cosmos. Paul wasn’t writing about how God will work out every circumstance. He was writing about how God will work out salvation. God knew us already; knew we love him; decided he’d save us; invited us to come to Jesus; justified us once we put our faith in Jesus; and he’s glorifying us right now.

When we’re making those inarticulate noises with the help of the Spirit, this is what the Spirit is having us pray for: He wants people to come to Jesus. He wants us to follow Jesus. He loves the world, Jn 3.16 and wants everyone to be saved. 1Ti 2.4

But as you can see, this passage is about eventually being saved when God restores creation at the End. Not getting bailed out of bad stuff in the present day. Not knowing that God’s gonna give meaning to the meaningless things in the world.

But isn’t he working out “all things” for my good?

Like I said, people don’t wanna believe there are meaningless things in the world. They hate the idea. If the roof caves in at a church, and kills everyone inside, they can’t stand the idea it was an accident, and has no meaning. There has to be a meaning—people can’t have died for nothing! So they look for a meaning, and assign one where there isn’t.

Maybe, they figure, the people of that church sinned. Not all of them, but just enough so God felt he had to smite them all, innocent kids included, ’cause for some reason God’s less precise than our military’s drones.

Or maybe, they figure, God wanted to punish the families of that church. Or the contractors who built the roof, who’re definitely getting sued. Or he wants to warn other churches to get their roofs inspected. Or he took the people of that church “before their time” because something worse was coming. Maybe maybe maybe.

Maybe not. Unless God tells someone what the meaning is, there isn’t one. (And if God “tells someone” after the fact, I’ll be blunt: You don’t know whether that’s actually God, or whether it’s some nut who really believes his own theory, who’s preaching his prejudices instead of actually prophesying. Ignore such people.)

Ecclesiastes 9.11-12 KWL
11 I came back. I saw this under the sun:
The fastest don’t win the race. The veterans don’t win the battle.
Even the wise don’t earn bread. Even the intelligent don’t get rich.
Even the experts fall out of favor. Dumb luck happens to them all.
12 More: Humanity doesn’t know the future,
like fish caught in a dragnet, like birds caught in trap,
like human children in a rough time which suddenly fell on them.

When the Siloam tower fell and killed 18 people, Jesus didn’t pass judgment on them; he only used the reference to point out we’re all gonna die—so repent. Lk 13.4-5 Towers fall. Buildings collapse. Dumb luck happens to us all. Better be sure you’re right with God when that happens.

And we Christians are not the exception to this rule. We’re so quick to point out Romans 8.28 refers to “those who love God,” so we conclude it’s not about God working things out for everyone’s good: Just ours. ’Cause we’re his favorites. ’Cause we love God. Buildings will fall, but not on us. Lightning will strike, but miss the Christians and hit the sinners.

But meaningless things happen to us Christians too. Ecclesiastes was likewise written for people who love God—it’s why it’s included in our bibles! Sometimes the wicked get better treatment than the righteous. Ec 8.14 Sometimes they have the power and money, and we Christians are oppressed and poor.

Part of the reason Christians don’t realize this, is because when we live in the United States—where so many Christians are wealthy, where laws largely ban people from persecuting us—we assume that should be the status quo. We’re seriously disconnected from the rest of the planet, where neither peace nor security are guaranteed, where Christians really are suffering.

Because Jesus didn’t promise us peace or security, but suffering. If we follow God, we’ll suffer persecution. Mt 5.11 I know; American Christians don’t like to hear this, and if it ever appears to happen here, they’ll shout bloody murder. (In some cases, even threaten to commit bloody murder.) They don’t wanna die for Jesus, but by God they’ll kill for him. They fully expect God to help them out when they feel the need to revolt. And he promised he’d do no such thing.

Yes, God has the power to take scenario and restore them. We like to point to Judas Iscariot, the Judean senate, and Pontius Pilate getting Jesus killed—and how God turned it round into salvation. Or Joseph ben Jacob, whose brothers sold him into slavery, but he became the vizier of Egypt and rescued his unwitting brothers, ’cause “you thought of evil, but God thought of good.” Ge 50.20 KWL God can easily swap beauty for ashes. Is 61.3 But he won’t always. Not even for those he loves.

Whenever I say such things, I get accused of being hopeless, of making it sound like God has abandoned us to the whims and scourges of the universe. Far from it. Look at everything else I’ve written; I firmly don’t believe God abandoned us. He’s here, speaking to us, encouraging us, empowering us to do good. We can put our faith in him.

But our faith has to be based on who God actually is, what God actually said he’d do. Not what we’d really like him to do. Not out-of-context scriptures. God isn’t offering us a suffering-free life. Life is suffering. Jn 16.33 But Jesus is Lord.

But isn’t he gonna bail me out?

In most cases where I’ve heard people misquote Romans 8.28, the suffering they’re undergoing… is the result of their own sins and poor choices.

They wrecked a relationship. Bungled their finances. Got themselves addicted to alcohol, gambling, porn, meth, whatever. They’ve fallen under others’ manipulation. And they’ve been Christians for years—but they never bothered to find out what God wants of ’em, and that’s why their lives are so horribly buggered.

Sometimes the consequences are huge. Like poverty, unexpected pregnancy, job loss, prison… and instead of the forgiveness and grace they’re used to receiving from fellow Christians, now they gotta pay the piper. So they cry out to God. Because God can bail them out. Isn’t that what Jesus’s death is all about? Utter forgiveness? No penalty?

Yes, absolutely. But.

Utter forgiveness applies to only two things: God’s judgment, and God’s penalty. Natural consequences and society’s penalties: We still gotta deal with them. God will forgive you for cheating on your spouse, but your spouse may not, and you won’t talk your way out of divorce, joint custody—or no custody. God’s not always gonna bail you out of such things. Sometimes he does, Da 3 but far more often he doesn’t.

That’s why the scriptures warn us. It’s why Paul warned the Romans to submit to and respect government authority. Ro 13.1-7 You figure you can defy these authorities because “the Lord is on my side”? Good luck. Unless he tells you so personally, God promised no such thing. And he warned us so. This isn’t just an Old Testament thing:

Colossians 3.25 KWL
One who does harm: What he harmed will come back upon him.
There’s no favoritism.

Not when it comes to sin. Actions have consequences.

Yeah, Christians think he’s on our side… but they’ve presumed upon him. They’re not really defying authority on God’s behalf, like when the Hebrew children wouldn’t bow to Nebuchadnezzar’s idol. (And even they knew God may not bail them out. Da 3.18) They’re demanding political freedoms for themselves, or special government exceptions and exemptions. They consider their desires greater than human laws. And ’tain’t necessarily so. If the cops told you to stop parking the church van in a red zone, it has nothing to do with your freedom of religion, and they’re totally justified in impounding it. The only thing God might work out towards your good, is you need to learn a little humility.

So, whether they’re legitimately done for God or not, we gotta suffer the consequences of our actions. Just like Paul had to get beaten and imprisoned because he preached the gospel. And if that counts for anything, God’ll keep it. But if it doesn’t: Again, he never promised to turn it into something good. Actually, he said he’d burn it up. Seriously.

1 Corinthians 3.10-15 KWL
10 By God’s grace given me, I laid down a foundation like a wise head contractor.
Others build on it. Each of you: Watch how you build!
11 No one can lay down a foundation besides what lies there—which is Christ Jesus.
12 If anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, expensive stones, wood, grass, or straw,
13 each one’s work will be revealed: The Last Day will make it visible.
It’s revealed in fire, and fire tests the quality of one’s work.
14 If a certain work built on it remains, they get paid.
15 If a certain work burns up, they lose everything
they’ll be saved, but like someone who was saved from a fire.

If all we’ve done are useless, meaningless things, God’s not gonna “work them together for our good”: Out they go. They’re not transformed into something good, made part of God’s plan, turned from junk into jewelry. They’re put to the torch. They go from useless, to nothing.

Me, I think this is better news. Sometimes a redeemed mess is discouraging. If I write a crummy article, and an editor comes by and revises the heck out of it, I don’t always think, “Wow, what an improvement!” Often it’s, “It’s still awkward. I need to rewrite it from scratch.”

Same with God. When he fixes something, it’s usually because it wasn’t all that broken. Looked that way, but God’s a pro. But just as often, God rebuilds things entirely. When we’re resurrected, he’s not patching up our old bodies: He’s giving us new ones. New Jerusalem isn’t gonna be new-improved old Jerusalem: It’s a brand-new creation. Not the old work with a fresh coat of paint.

So if you’re going through rough times, God’s not always gonna turn those rough times into good times. He’s gonna destroy those rough times. He’s gonna create brand-new good times. Your mistakes will burn. He’s not using our trials to build character: Either you’re already growing in character, or you’re growing bitter, and trials are the fire which reveals what you really are.

Not everything happens for a reason. But everything God does has a reason. So live in God, escape the meaninglessness, and live in reason.