Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Misfortune, Mystery, and the Almighty

Top 12 Scripture Texts: Number 4B
Romans 8:28
Bob Rakestraw

On “The Benediction Project” earlier this month we started to consider Romans 8:28—one of the best known verses in the Bible. This is the scripture passage where we find the well-known words: “all things work together for good for those who love God.”

But what do the words “work together for good” mean? First of all we find that “all things” are not doing the work. The subject of the sentence, while not stated directly in the text, is clearly God. The literal translation of the scripture is, “And we know that to the ones loving God, He [God] works together all things for good.” The idea is, “he works together,” not “all things work together.” There is deliberate, purposeful activity on God’s part. Much of the time—perhaps most of the time—we are not able to see this “working together.” Outward circumstances may not appear to be any different for the follower of Jesus than for the non-Christian. But, as I and many of God’s people have learned over the years, with eyes of faith and hearts of love for God we know God is at work.

The word “good” raises problems, however. Are we using “good” to mean something of inherent worth, value, or moral rightness, or are we thinking of it as something that contributes to one’s health, welfare, or happiness? Those who use the word in the latter sense may have big struggles with Romans 8:28, because so many of life’s circumstances do not bring us happiness or benefit at the moment. Rather, all things may seem to be working together for our misery!

In Greek, the original language of the New Testament, the word “good” (agathos) has a strong moral quality to it. The word is used of God (Luke 18:19), God’s will (Romans 12:2), and a conscience pleasing to God (I Timothy 1:5). In today’s society, when someone asks us how we are doing, or if we would like more to eat, we sometimes say, “I’m good.” This is a popular way of saying, “I’m feeling fine,” or “I’m satisfied.” But the word “good” in Romans 8:28 is a much deeper, much more meaningful word. It means morally honorable, pleasing to God, and for our lasting benefit. God is working our circumstances—some pleasant, some neutral, and some terrible—for our everlasting good. He is almighty God, not only as Creator and Redeemer, but also as Sustainer and Friend.

What if you are attacked and robbed? Is this good? Romans 8:28 does not say that bad actions in themselves are good. An evil action, such as cursing someone, defrauding them of their money, or sexually assaulting them, is always wrong, never good. God never orders such things. But in this chaotic world of good and evil, where God allows people to make free choices, awful things happen. Because God generally does not block the freedom of his created beings, and because he regularly allows the natural world to operate according to natural laws, we experience the effects of drunken drivers’ mistakes, the sufferings of an unjustified divorce, and the tragedy of cancer. These are not good in themselves, but God with his own loving hands, declares that he is shaping these events into a mosaic of eternal good. In some situations we can see it or sense it happening right away, while in other circumstances we cannot. This is a realm of great mystery, to be sure.

I am struggling these days, trying to keep my mind and soul stable and satisfied. Since my heart transplant of 2003 I have had more difficulty than at any time in my life staying well-grounded and whole. Due to rejection problems with my new heart, I had to retire from teaching theology and ethics in 2005. It has now been over three years since that time, and I have been learning continually how to maintain a sense of spiritual, psychological, and bodily equilibrium. How do I think about myself and my usefulness on this earth? How do I spend my days, when I have fewer and fewer segments of time each day in which I have some strength to work? What do I do when lying down, sitting, standing and walking are all increasingly hard to do? Just “being” is difficult.

Although I become weary of life this way, without the activity and ministry I once had, I find that God assures me daily of his presence and purpose in my life. Daily meditation on one or more of the scripture texts in this series of blogs (as well as other scriptures), interaction with key people in my life, communion with God throughout the day (especially with praise and thanksgiving and some potent reading materials), and trying to accomplish some good for others each day, are some of the ways I keep going.

While life is tough for all of us at times, Romans 8:28 is intended for all who love God and are called according to his purpose. This latter part of our verse is the topic for our next posting.

May God comfort, strengthen and guide you with his steady hand and loving Spirit. Thank you for reading; I welcome your comments in reply.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi, Bob,

I think I shared with you while we were together this week, the comment by Marshall Shelley : Our life's purpose extends beyond our lifetime. God is up to something bigger than our lifetime can contain. Those words strengthen and encourage me as I continue occasionally to ponder the puzzle of Don's dying when and as he did. Surely it has relevance as well for those of us who "desire a better country" (Heb 11:16)!