SCRIPTURE – Romans 8:26-39
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 through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God. And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who[i] have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 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 these things? 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 God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. 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? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Emphasizing the “If”
July 24, 2011
This is one of my favorite passages in the Bible. It comes right in the middle of Romans, at the end of Paul’s long argument about why we have all fallen short and are in need of God’s grace given to us through Jesus Christ. At times his words were sharp and even critical. “Tough love,” we might call it. Sometimes such words need to be spoken to get someone’s attention, and Paul wanted to make sure the Romans were listening.
When we get to Chapter 8, Paul decides to step back from his argument and remind the Romans that the good news of Jesus Christ is truly good, the divine trump card that overcomes anything they could ever fear. We often hear this passage read at funerals as a word of comfort and assurance that not even death can separate us from God’s love. We are more than conquerors.
But in the midst of this powerful affirmation, Paul slips in a paragraph that has been the cause of much controversy down through the centuries. After reminding the Romans about the Spirit’s role in their prayers, he assures them that “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.” This is one of the greatest promises in the entire Bible, and also one of the most misunderstood ones.
Let’s start with the last part first. This is one of the passages used to support the doctrine of predestination. The popular understanding of this doctrine is that, before time began, God ordained that certain people would believe and that others would not believe. Some were predestined to faith and others weren’t. This doctrine was formulated by St. Augustine and picked up by John Calvin.
Obviously, this raises some questions about the role of free will and about whether I’m in and you’re out or you’re in and I’m out. That’s why most churches tend to interpret this passage a different way. They believe that what God foreknew was whether or not we would choose to believe. Based on that knowledge, those who God knew would believe were then predestined to be conformed to the likeness of Christ. That allows room for us to make the commitment to believe or not, but still helps us see how we all fit into God’s plan.
OK, that’s a lot of theological rambling to make this one simple point: Most of us here have chosen to believe. We’ve made that choice. When we were baptized, when we were confirmed, we said, “Yes” to our call to believe. God knew we were going to do that. So God is at work in our lives, the lives of those who love him, to accomplish his purpose, which is to conform us to the likeness of his Son. We were created to become like Christ, that’s our destiny in God’s plan. You were created by God for the specific purpose of being like Christ, and each decision you makes moves you closer to that ultimate goal.
But sometimes life gets in the way of that, doesn’t it? We try hard to live good, Christian lives, and yet life throws us these curveballs that we just don’t know how to handle, and we begin to wonder where God is. Where is God when a loved one unexpectedly dies? Where is God when the doctor walks into the room with that solemn look on her face? Where is God when our children make self-defeating choices? Where is God when evil seems to be winning?
We return to the beginning of our passage: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him.” I misunderstood this passage for a long, long time, and it caused me to be very mad at God. I read this passage to say, “God causes everything to work out the way I want to.” I thought it said, “God makes sure there’s always a happy ending.” And when there wasn’t a happy ending, because not every ending is a happy one, I would call God a promise-breaker. “How can you say you are working to bring about good if my parents are divorced? Where’s the good for the homeless man or the starving child?”
But as is often the case in my relationship with God, the blame rested not on God buy on my unwillingness to pay attention. This passage doesn’t promise a happy ending here on earth. It doesn’t promise that if we love God, nothing bad will ever happen to us, as if the universe rearranges itself to keep us from experiencing bad things. What this passage does say is that in the midst of the bad things in our lives, God is there and God is at work. God is not resting idly by, watching as a detached observer as we suffer. God is standing beside us, suffering with us, crying with us. Even though we may not be able to see it, even though we may not be able to understand it, God is there, and if God is there, good will come out of it.
In all things, God is working, and we are called to trust in that promise, even if we don’t understand it. When I first went to my MS doctor, he told me he was going to prescribe a medication for me. “How often do I have to take it?” “Every day.” “OK, that’s not too bad. Are there any side-effects?” “Usually only a rash at the injection site.” “OK, I can deal with that. What about….injection site?” “Yes, it’s a shot.” “A shot? Like, with a needle?” “Yes, that’s usually how shots are given.” “A daily shot? Are you sure this is going to work?” “Trust me.”
“Trust me.” That may be the hardest request someone can make of us. A doctor prescribes a course of treatment that is unpleasant or even painful, so the patient must trust the doctor’s skills and knowledge. Similarly, when we go through unpleasant or even painful experiences, we can trust in God’s knowledge and presence, in the promise that God is at work in this situation.
I think the challenge for me personally is not being able to see the big picture. I become bogged down too easily in each individual incident and forget the promise that God is working through ALL things. Rick Warren uses the analogy of baking a cake. To do so, you need flour, salt, raw eggs, sugar, and oil. Now, would you choose to eat a plate full of any one of those? Separately, these things taste pretty bad. But when you put them together and bake them, they become delicious. God can take our distasteful, bitter experiences and work them together for the good. Our journeys are full of stories of bad experiences that led to even greater blessings. That’s the big picture that God can see, even if we can’t.
Even the difficult circumstances we face have a place in God’s plan for us. God wants us to be more Christ-like, which includes enduring hardships in our lives. Even Christ felt as if God had forsaken him as he hung on the cross. But what Paul wants us to understand is that, even when we feel alone, God never, ever forsakes us. Even when we feel like God is not there, nothing can separate us from God’s love. Nothing.
Paul lists ten forces that might threaten to separate us from God. For Jews, ten was the number of completeness, so this list represents every single kind of force that seems to detach us from God – neither death nor life, angels nor demons, the present the future, any powers, neither height or depth. Paul’s tenth item, “nor anything else in creation,” is a catch-all, as if Paul is saying, “just in case I forgot anything, that can’t do it either. Nothing can separate us from God’s love.”
And yet, at times we feel that way, separated from God, because, I believe, we make the mistake of emphasizing the wrong part of God’s promise. In v. 31, Paul says, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” Too many times in life we put the emphasis on the “if.” If God is for us, who can be against us? That leaves God’s presence open to question. In this difficult situation I’m facing, is God really for me? It doesn’t feel like it. I wonder if God really cares. If God is for us.
But that’s not now that verse is supposed to be read. Instead, you should read it like this: If God is for us, who can be against us? If the Creator of the universe is on your side, name me an enemy that can compete. You can stand up to anything if God is standing beside you. Through God’s presence and power, we aren’t just conquerors over the forces that conspire to hold us down; we are more than conquerors. Alexander the Great was a conqueror. Napoleon was a conqueror. We are more than conquerors. God is for us. That is the promise that we simply cannot afford to forget, especially when God seems furthest away.
So what kind of list would you and I make to remember that not one single power can separate us from God’s love? Neither broken-down cars nor malfunctioning computers, neither daily shots nor malignant tumors, neither airline delays nor overcrowded schedules, neither being too busy nor having to wait too long, neither death nor anything else in life can keep me from God’s grace and love. And just in case I forgot anything, that can’t do it either. Nothing can separate us from God’s love.
Not only can those things not separate us from God, but if we are open to it, they can make us more aware of how God is working through them. What can we learn about God through those experiences? Delays can teach us patience, failure can teach us humility, illness can teach us thankfulness, death can teach us acceptance. Each time we look adversity in the face and say, “God is here,” we become closer and closer to our destiny. We become more like Christ.
This passage doesn’t promise that all things will work out. What it does promise is that God is at work in all things. There’s nothing that we experience that God can’t use to bring about his glory in us. Even in our most difficult, most challenging circumstances, God is there, working for the good. Nothing is stronger than God’s love for us. If God is for us, then we are not just conquerors; we are more than conquerors. Thanks be to God.