ALL THINGS WORK FOR GOOD?

TEXT: Romans 8:28-39

"There is an old Taoist story about a wise man on the northern frontier of China. One day, for no apparent reason, a young man's horse ran away and was taken by nomads across the border. Everyone tried to offer consolation for the man's ill fortune, but his father, a wise man, said, "What makes you so sure this is not a blessing?"

Months later, his horse returned, bringing with her a magnificent stallion. This time everyone was full of congratulations for the son's good fortune. But now his father said, "What makes you so sure this isn't a disaster?" Their household was made richer by this fine horse, which the son loved to ride. But one day he fell off the horse and broke his hip. Once again, everyone offered their consolation for his bad luck, but his father said, "What makes you so sure this is not a blessing?"

A year later the nomads mounted an invasion across the border, and every able-bodied man was required to take up his bow and go into battle. The Chinese frontiersmen lost nine of every ten men. Only because the son was lame did father and son survive to take care of each other. Blessing turns to disaster, and disaster to blessing: The changes have no end, nor can the mystery be fathomed.

I found that story in a wonderful book I'm reading titled, Sabbath: Restoring the Sacred Rhythm of Rest by Wayne Muller. The Chinese wise man did have great wisdom in recognizing that we are not in a position to judge whether anything that happens to us is a good thing or a bad thing. But Paul, and subsequently the rest of the Christian faith, has taken this notion one step further.

The Christian faith begins with God creating the cosmos and calling everything within it "good." Hanging onto that key principle, Paul declares that God is still actively at work for good in the world. The Chinese man thought...well, it might be curse or it might be blessing, and life will be a continuous cycle of both. Paul says that while we may experience our share of sufferings, the cycle is not endless, and it will end with the good.

He starts back in verse 18 of chapter 8: "I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.

He goes on in verses 22-27 to talk about the groanings in the meantime and the help of the Holy Spirit in our suffering. But then he makes the proclamation in verse 28 that "In all things God works for the good of those who love God, who have been called according to his purpose." This is one of those passages of Scripture that has a checkered history. On the one hand, it has been the source of immeasurable comfort. I know for myself that when disaster strikes, which it does with regularity, this verse is always in the back of my mind.

But it is also a verse that, although comforting for ourselves, can feel like a knife in the back when quoted at others in crisis. There are few things less helpful when a friend is sobbing over a loss than saying, "Well, you know, all things work together for good." It's not quite as destructive as "If you'd just had more faith this wouldn't have happened," a sentence I hope you will strike forever from your vocabulary, but reminding people that things will all turn up good in the end rings hollow coming from someone who is not going through it.

And then for others, the whole premise just seems wrong. I would guess that there are a good many Kennedys and Bessettes that would question the idea that all things work for good. If it weren't for the strong Catholic tradition, they would probably rather chime in with the Taoist wise man...blessing, curse, blessing, curse, blessing, curse...the cycle never ends, the only certainty being that one will always follow the other.

Paul and the Christian faith may declare that things are working toward good, but what evidence do we have of that? How do we know that's not just wishful thinking? Is it Paul or Pollyanna talking?

The first thing we need to look at in order to deal with that is what Paul means when he says, "good." When we hear that we will be receiving something "good," we usually look for things that are pleasant and pleasurable for our earthly lives. But that is not what Paul means by "good." Paul means the good of the Kingdom of God. There is no promise that says we're going to have it easy. We are followers of the homeless guy whose radical teachings got him tortured and killed. We are asked to take up our own Cross and follow the suffering servant. You're missing sizeable chunks of Scripture if you think we are promised a suffering-free life.

The radical message of the Gospel is that suffering, when placed in the hands of God, can be our salvation. The witness of millions of Christians is that there is no happiness or comfort outside of life with God. I don't mean life with God in the hereafter, but now. There might be money and luxury, leisure and ease, but if you strive after those things, when you attain them you will discover they turn to dust. The treasures of the Kingdom of God are the only things that will satisfy the human heart...love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self control...and those things only come from intimate contact with the Spirit of God. More than that, it has been my experience that whatever I have of any of those has been born in me through suffering.

No, it doesn't follow that we should go out and inflict suffering in order to make people happy. But we need to realize that it is THAT good...the good of the fruit of the Spirit...that is the good God is promising to us. It's not a good of luxury and ease and getting what we want. Suffering will come...even to Christians...I would say most especially to Christians, but that is another sermon. Our solace is that through all of it, God will do a great work in us...if we will allow it...and in the end, we will look back at our lives and say, "It is good."

John Wesley's most famous prayer goes like this:

"Lord, I am no longer my own, but thine. Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt. Put me to doing, put me to suffering. Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee, exalted for thee or brought low by thee. Let me be full, let me be empty. Let me have all things, let me have nothing. I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal." It is a personal goal of mine to be able to pray and really mean every word of that prayer.

Wesley's words show the faith that I strive for...to realize that being used by God is the only good that there is. It might mean either comfort or pain on a personal level...it's all immaterial. Whatever God needs of me is good because God is at work for good...not just my good, but the good of all...male and female, Jew and Gentile, slave and free.

There is no fear in Wesley's prayer..."put me to doing, put me to suffering. Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee, exalted for thee or brought low by thee. Let me be full, let me be empty. Let me have all things, let me have nothing." It's an eloquent way of saying, "Whatever, God. Just use me. Any job is fine with me...hard, easy, painful, whatever...I only want to be of service." That prayer is my goal, because I think if I could really pray that and mean it, I would be free of sin. I don't know about you, but at least in my life, I can't think of a single time that I've sinned that it hasn't been out of fear of suffering. Maybe I was afraid of being embarrassed...afraid of hurting someone else...afraid of not having enough myself...afraid that my reputation would be tarnished...afraid, afraid, always afraid of suffering some way or other..

But if I could really look God square in the eye and say, "Put me to doing, put me to suffering." Wow. What would there be left to fear? If it really didn't matter to me whether I lived or died, suffered or was at ease...what could stop me from following God's will? I would consider it "good," if I could be free from sin. But I don't seem to be free from sin unless I could be free from the fear of suffering. And perhaps I can only be free from the fear of suffering when I have been led back to it again and again and again and found that "neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord."

Now all of that being said, it still doesn't answer the question of whether all of that is an empty promise...whether any good of any sort can actually be claimed in all things? Just where is the evidence that God is at work in the cosmos for good? Well, if you need hard facts, you're going to go home disappointed. Christianity is about faith, not facts. But the thing that has kept people coming back for 2,000 years now is that once we step out in faith, our experience bears out what the Scriptures have proclaimed.

In the glorious passage at the end of this chapter about not being separated from the love of God, Paul doesn't begin by saying "I have evidence to substantiate..." Instead he says, "I am convinced...I am persuaded..." and that persuasion came directly from his experience. Paul's experience was not a cakewalk, as he chronicles in several places. Beaten, scourged, shipwrecked, stoned...Paul knew suffering better than just about anybody. But his experience convinced him that through it all, God was with him, loving him, and working for good. And the Christian faith goes on because that happens again and again and again.

The beginning of this decade was not a happy time for me. In August of 1990 I brought home a parasite from a visit to the Soviet Union, landing me in the emergency room severely dehydrated. It was misdiagnosed and the medication further ripped up my intestines. While home and on clear liquids, with my husband away on business, I was still left with the task of feeding our sheep...not a congregation--I wasn't in ministry yet, the baaaa kind. So I took them a bale of hay...deciding that it was too far to take the hay around to the gate--I could just throw it over the fence. Crunch went my sciatic nerve and by nightfall I couldn't walk. For two months I couldn't walk. Others dressed me, bathed me, and fed me clear liquids because I couldn't eat yet either.

Well, the parasite went into hiding for a bit, and in January I was up in a Chicago hotel taking a theology class when it returned with a vengeance. Another trip to the emergency room, followed by the onset of panic attacks. I came home to doctors, psychiatrists and psychologists who managed to get the panic attacks controlled with medication, but I was unable to work and had to quit my job. By May I was feeling better and decided I could start coming down off of the medication. I had just started that when my husband sat down next to me and said, "Honey, I think I'm in love with someone else." He moved out a month later...and I stayed on the medication a bit longer.

That ten month period is not a time I feel nostalgic about. It began a dark period of my life that hardly saw a flicker of light for several years and has only seen bright sunshine now...in coming here almost ten years later. And yet, I too am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord." Why? Because it was true for me. When all else was taken away from me...my marriage, my home, my job...even in a real sense my sanity...the love of God never left me.

And you know what? Having come through it all, I am less afraid. While I still have a long way to go, I am closer to being able to pray Wesley's prayer...put me to doing, put me to suffering...because I know I don't go there alone. Now, there are times when I would like to say to God... "Enough good already! I'm as brave as I want to be for awhile." But I can't deny the reality of my experience...I could not escape the love of God, and the suffering worked for my good and God's glory.

I can't offer you proof that the cycle of blessing and curse will end with the blessing. All I can tell you is that in my life, the more I trust God, the more God proves to be faithful. Whether it is tithing my income, counseling with someone who is hurting, or enduring the sufferings of life with a word of praise on my lips...God's love has never failed and each experience has made me better...it has all been good...every day of my life.

If I could stand before the Kennedys and Bessettes today, I wouldn't say "all things work for good," as true as I know that to be. But I think I would stay with Romans 8 and remind them of the truth that lies behind it all..."For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height in the air, nor the depth of the sea, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord." At the times when we are separated from seemingly all else, we discover that such love is the only thing worthy of being called "good."

Amen.

1999, Anne Robertson


Return to AnneRobertson.com