It’s so familiar; and it is so misunderstood and misused. When we pick and choose which statements from the Bible on which to hang our hats, we inevitably arrive at false conclusions about what God does. There’s probably no clearer example of this than the uses to which the first part of today’s text has been summoned. Romans 8:28-39:
28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 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.
We have all heard people of good intentions use the first verse of this passage with the belief that they are providing comfort to someone who has suffered a significant loss of one kind or another. Indeed, if the full context is kept in mind, beginning with Chapter 8 or earlier and continuing through its conclusion, there is reason behind the hope that is suggested.
But all too often we hear the passage used in such a way as to change the character of that hope. Instead of seeing “the good” as that which makes all afflictions unworthy of comparison (v.18), we are sometimes led to consider a more temporal “good” as that which God needs to vindicate His allowance of such suffering in the lives of those whom He loves. If we cannot identify such a temporal good we are stumped. And we lose sight of the fact that those evil things that really do befall the just and the unjust alike do not always allow for a temporal outcome that is self-evidently good enough to justify the suffering.
It is difficult to imagine a typical suburban American Christian, freshly filled with (un)biblical platitudes about God’s protection, encountering a believer in Sudan, or presently in some corners of Egypt and elsewhere in the world. Let’s just see how the “it will all be okay, and you’ll be glad it happened” mindset plays out with those who are even now experiencing the very real conditions listed in v.35. And if it doesn’t fly there, why would we expect it to fare any better with the family that has just lost a child to death or to abuse? Or has lost its home and/or income? Or its health and the money that will go to doctors and lawyers and insurance executives for the rest of their lives? There is no earthly “good” that will prove adequate as compensation.
But that’s not what Christian hope is about. Christian hope is for the redemption of all things when the creation will rejoice with the children of God. And it is that hope which not only sustains the suffering ones, but encourages them to participate in the world with an attitude of hope rather than despair. We really ought to repent of settling for anything less.