Dr. James Dobson wrote a book in 1997 entitled When God Doesn’t Make Sense. The book was written for anyone struggling with trials and heartaches—the death of a loved one, disease, divorce, rejection—in the hopes of understanding the meaning of suffering in the world. He takes the reader through eleven chapters until he reaches his conclusion. It’s the conclusion we’re all looking for when it comes to hardships, trials and heartaches in this life. You know his conclusion? “I don’t know.” Eleven chapters, and he finally gets to point—I don’t know.
It’s the same answer I give when I’m asked any of the following questions:
- Why do we go through trials?
- Why do we face hardships?
- Why is there suffering in the world?
- Why does God allow evil?
With all my theological training, the best answer I can give is, “I don’t know.” There is a verse of scripture that is often quoted when trials come. It’s Romans 8:28: “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (NKJV). Too often, we do with that verse what we do with so many other verses. We take a single verse and form a deep theological answer to a complex issue. Oh, that it were so easy. It leads us to a shaky theology that fails us in times of hardships and difficulties. Scripture is like real estate. In real estate, three things are important: location, location and location. Well, in scripture, three things are important: context, context and context. If we want to understand “all things work together for good,” we have to understand all of what Paul was saying.
If we want to know what Paul meant when he wrote “all things work together for good to those who love God and are called according to His purposes,” we have to understand the verses around it, and we have to understand where it fits in the entirety of the letter he wrote to the Romans. I just would like to know, “Is God working in all this mess of a life of mine?”
The answer, for Paul and for us, is, “Yes.” Paul was no stranger to suffering; his several near-death experiences, beatings, imprisonments, and persecutions were enough to eradicate any “pie-in-the-sky” attitude that might have lurked in his heart. In the immediate context, Paul lists some qualifiers for the good to take place: “we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28, NET Bible). Paul is not giving this promise to all people, but only to those “who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
But what does this mean? Those who love God are, in this context, Christians, because they are called according to God’s purpose. We have to be careful to not say, “As long as you love God, things work out; but whenever you are not loving God, things do not work out for your good.” That’s bad theology. No, if we have faith in Christ, then all means all. Immediately after, Paul speaks of our conformity to Christ, our glorification, as the inevitable outcome of those who love God. And that is not dependent on how much we love God but on the finished work of Christ on the cross. Paul concludes this chapter by making explicit that nothing can separate us from the love of God (vv. 38-39), and by implication, that would include even our temporary lapses in our love for the Savior.
What, then, is the good? The good is conformity to Christ! Ultimately, Paul says, all things work together to bring each of us into conformity to Christ, to bring each of us to glory. Not only is Paul talking about all circumstances, but he’s also talking about all those who believe in Christ. Paul does not say “some of those” or even “most of those” when describing each stage of the salvation journey. From calling to glorification, no one who loves God misses the boat.
Great theology, preacher, but I need practicality. How do these trials and hardships work for good? Okay, here are four lessons to remember about trials.
- Trials are a short term reality. I love the theology of the unlettered maid who was great in the kitchen and an immaculate housekeeper, but her main strength was that she was never ruffled by anything. She was always calm and in control. When asked about her secret, she quoted a verse in the Bible: “It came to pass.” When told that this was not the complete verse she replied, “It is for me. It means that whatever comes, comes to pass. It doesn’t come to stay.” We may have short-term pain, but it’s working out a long-term gain. It’s like when we’re sick. We go to the doctor because we trust the doctor knows what he/she is doing. The doctor prescribes the treatment, and it’s painful or unpleasant, but it’s necessary for our ultimate healing. We have to endure a little more pain before we’re better. As followers of Jesus Christ, the better for us is God’s glory, and this short-term pain is working toward a long-term gain.
- Trials give us proper perspective. If we never had bad experiences, how would we know to appreciate the good experiences? Our problem is we interpret everything from our human, materialistic perspective. The good is not our comfort or wealth, or even our good health. The good is God’s glory. Part of my daily routine is a short devotional called Our Daily Bread. It recently had a neat prayer that read, “Lord, it is easy to let my circumstances change how I understand You. Help me to remember that You are good and faithful, even though I can’t see everything and may not understand how You are working.”
- Trials keep us forward-focused. We may see nothing good come of misery and disaster in this world, but this world is not all of reality. There is an ‘until’; there is a place beyond the horizon of what our senses can apprehend, and it is more real and more lasting than what we experience in this life. God is using the present, even the miserable present, to conform us to the image of his Son. If we define the good as only what we can see in this life, then we have missed the whole point of this text. For, as Paul said earlier in this same chapter, “For I consider that our present sufferings cannot even be compared to the glory that will be revealed to us” (Rom 8:18, NET). For Western Christians (especially American Christians), we are prone to think if our lives are comfortable, if we have wealth, good health, that is fine and well. But that is not the good that Paul had in mind, and it is not the goal of the Christian life. The famous preacher D.L. Moody told about a Christian woman who was always bright, cheerful, and optimistic, even though she was confined to her room because of illness. She lived in an attic apartment on the fifth floor of an old, rundown building. A friend decided to visit her one day and brought along another woman—a person of great wealth. Since there was no elevator, the two ladies began the long climb upward. When they reached the second floor, the well-to-do woman commented, “What a dark and filthy place!” Her friend replied, “It’s better higher up.” When they arrived at the third landing, the remark was made, “Things look even worse here.” Again the reply, “It’s better higher up.” The two women finally reached the attic level, where they found the bedridden saint of God. A smile on her face radiated the joy that filled her heart. Although the room was clean and flowers were on the window sill, the wealthy visitor could not get over the stark surroundings in which this woman lived. She blurted out, “It must be very difficult for you to be here like this!” Without a moment’s hesitation the shut-in responded, “It’s better higher up.” She was not looking at temporal things. With the eye of faith fixed on the eternal, she had found the secret of true satisfaction and contentment.
- Trials help us experience God’s presence. Again, Paul gives us the practical over the theological when he reminds us in 8:26: “And the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words.” As long as we trust, there are times we go through circumstances we don’t know how we got through them. We might say a person had a strong will or a strong character, but it was really the Holy Spirit interceding for them when they couldn’t pray, or didn’t know what to pray. And, God’s grace was provided in just the right measure at just the right time to meet the need. The Psalmist proclaimed, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me…” (Psalm 23).
“Well, pastor, you haven’t given me my spiritual ‘happy pill’ this morning.” No, sorry, I haven’t, but Romans 8:28 was never meant to be that—although it has been used as such. “So, give me a little hope, please. After all, I don’t want to be like the young man who went to the fortune-teller. She looked at his palm and said, ‘You’ll be poor and very unhappy until you’re 37 years old’.”
“What’ll happen then,” the young man asked? “Will I be rich and happy?”
“No,” the fortune-teller replied, “you’ll still be poor, but you’ll be used to it by then.”
Where do we find hope in the midst of the pain? Paul answers that, too. Paul closes this most beautiful passage of scripture with these words:
37 No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us.
38 And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. 39 No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.
All our hope is in Jesus Christ. All our life is in Jesus Christ. All our glory is found in trusting Jesus Christ. For Paul, all means all. Theologically, I can’t explain it, but practically, I can face all things because of the One who gave it all for me.
Until next time, keep looking up…