For Good? (A reflection on Romans 8.28ff)

“We know that all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to God’s purpose.”

“If God is for us, who can be against us?”

“Who can separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? … No.”

“In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”

“I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

The epistle reading this morning reads like a catalogue of Christian motivational posters. Paul has spent the bulk of Chapter 8 of his Epistle to the Romans elaborating on the idea that there are two paths in life: the path that leads us towards God and the path that leads us away. This is a common idea in the Scriptures, from Moses’ two ways in his farewell address in Deuteronomy, to the trees and the chaff of Psalm 1, to the fruitful and unfruitful trees and the sheep and the goats of Jesus’ teaching, to Paul’s discussion here of two laws, or forces acting within us. It’s a powerful rhetorical image: there is a fork in the road, a choice to be made, two wolves we can feed. Which way will we choose, now, and in each and every moment of each and every day?

Here as he wraps up this section of his letter, Paul launches into a stirring exhortation to the Roman church to remain faithful. Why? Because Christ is with them. God is providentially on their side, working all things for their good. God holds nothing back in working out their salvation, and nothing can separate them from his love. They are in fact more than conquerors in all things. Hooray!

This is awesome! Who wouldn’t want to be a Christian if this is that it means!

But of course we know that what is truth from 10,000 feet looks very different from the ground. And what God may know is true from God’s eternal point of view, looks very different from what we experience in time and space. God’s providence working all things for good rarely feels good. And it’s certainly not about material comfort or wealth.

I have lived by all accounts a privileged life: I’m a white male who grew up in a middle class family in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. I had access to good education, clean water, and never went hungry. And, I “accepted Christ as my Lord and Saviour” in good evangelical fashion at seventeen. By Paul’s account here, I should have had it made, right? But life isn’t that simple. While all these things are true, even my privileged life hasn’t been easy: I have had to reboot my life twice as an adult, I had a twenty-year agonizing spiritual struggle with my sexuality, I had to be confronted with brokenness in my family relationships, I witnessed a beloved faith community tear itself apart and a beloved friend and father-figure descend into the abyss of depression, I experienced a true Dark Night of the Soul and spent countless nights screaming into the darkness in vain for God to answer me, and when I stepped out in faith to defiance of all the limiting beliefs and anxieties I had absorbed over the years, the world pushed back with a strength that almost did me in, reinforcing all of those narratives and ideas I had worked so hard to overcome. Even now, I find myself called to a life I cannot create on my own and up paths even as most people I know seem to be running in the opposite direction.

But here’s the thing: While every one of those past situations tested the limits of my faith (and occasionally overwhelmed them) and left me spiritually and emotionally battered, bruised and even defeated, looking back, I can say with all honesty that God was working all things for good within them and that none of them — nothing — could separate me from God’s love, even and especially the ones that felt like they did.

The point is, when Paul lists all the things that could potentially separate us from God, he wasn’t joking. Life in our broken world is hard and that’s a guarantee for everyone. Violence, mental illness and distress, war, poverty, hunger, grief, oppressive and broken systems — these are all realities of our world. The promise of God’s providence isn’t an easy life but that, no matter what, no matter how strong the forces of the broken world feel against us, there is an opposite force, a holy and healing force working with us and for us and within us to transform us within our circumstances so they cannot defeat us. And so we are “more than conquerors” in all these things in and through God’s love, mercy, and grace.

We can’t undo the past and we can’t predict the future. But we can live today, no matter how ‘right,’ absurd, or terrifying today feels, choosing the next right thing, in confidence that we aren’t alone and that in some mysterious way God is working all things for good and that, in the words of Julian of Norwich, “all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”

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