Cable TV is bad for your health
There is a popular teaching that says God wants us to be happy and will only allow good things in our lives. Just skim the Christian nonfiction bestseller list or Christian cable channels and you’ll see what I mean. Based on these alone, you would think that the Christian’s highest goal ought to be characterized by significance, power, answered prayer, perpetual defeat over the enemy, blessings, favor, and God’s best for us – now.
I don’t think a plain reading of the Bible bears this out, nor does the life of the average Christian today or at any point in history. If we ought to expect only good, then the vast majority of Christians in the past 2000 years should be seen as abject failures.
Is God concerned with our good?
One of the verses that people of this thinking will hang their theological hat on is Romans 8:28. Before reading it, see which of these paraphrases best communicates what you remember hearing of this verse:
a) God wants you to have all good things
b) God will give you only good things
c) God wants good for you, but it’s up to you
c) This is a desperately broken world
d) None of the above
Well, none of the options gives us the full picture, but I think (D) gives us the best starting point. Let’s start by looking at the verse in question:
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. – Romans 8:28
Let’s first look at what it doesn’t say, (though I’ve heard all of these supported with this verse):
- It doesn’t say God will give (or allow) us only good things
- It doesn’t say God will make everything good
- It doesn’t even say that all things will ultimately work for good
You know where we’re going now. Let’s rewind to the top of the chapter to see where Paul’s head was when we penned this line. It’s worth reading for yourself, but here’s a review:
The curse is broken. Those who follow Christ are no longer slaves to sin and destined to die. We could not meet the standard required by the law, but He did so on our behalf. If you follow Christ, then you will no longer be devoted to or controlled by your own desires, but rather you will be devoted to and motivated by His desires. They will be one and the same. This “living in the Spirit” means our lives are in accord with His and we will live eternally with Him. This devotion you show to Him won’t be out of duty, but out of love.1
The life we live now is full of suffering, but this doesn’t even compare to the eternal life we have ahead of us. All creation groans. This world is desperately broken, as if it remembers how things once were and longs for how it will be. And we feel the same echoes within us. In our spirits we feel something has gone horribly wrong, but we wait patiently in hope of what will be.2
In this life, the Holy Spirit has been given to comfort us. He also prays to the Father on our behalf because we often don’t even know how to pray.3
So what is it that we pray for? What is it that we hope for? It is this: “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” We have hope that these things will work for our good.
When? Maybe in this life – maybe in the next. That’s where the patient waiting comes in.
Remember the beginning of the chapter? In verse one Paul is quick to say he is addressing “those who are in Christ Jesus”. This is unexpected given the normal use of Romans 8:28. Quoted by itself as it is usually paraphrased, you would think that God is something like King Midas, magically changing everything from bad to good. But it doesn’t say that. Even in v28 Paul is careful to reinforce what he has already said – twice! He clarifies that this principle applies to “those who love Him” and is only effective for those “who have been called according to His purpose”. So there you see a snapshot of salvation. It starts with God’s call to us and ends with our response to Him. And it is to those who enter into this relationship that God works things for the good.
That’s a good question. I suppose it could refer to a number of things. One commentator4 says that they (all our various trials and sufferings) work toward the good in that “They take off our affections from this world; they teach us the truth about our frail, transitory, and lying condition; they lead us to look to God for support, and to heaven for a final home; and they produce a subdued spirit. a humble temper, a patient, tender, and kind disposition. This has been the experience of all saints; and at the end of life they have been able to say it was good for them to be afflicted.”
Teresa of Ávila5 suggested that, “From heaven even the most miserable life will look like one bad night at an inconvenient hotel.” Her point is that God uses our suffering here to refine us for his purposes in the afterlife. And if we are to reign with Him one day6, doesn’t it make sense that in this life we will have trials7 to train us for our future service?
Some Additional Clarification
This verse does not say that God will use our sin for good. It doesn’t say that He will right every wrong. It doesn’t give us grace to act badly. It is not a “get out of suffering free” card. It is a message of comfort. Life will be hard. Christ has overcome the world. Yet we will remain here for a time, and we will suffer. BUT – it is not in vain. We do not suffer without hope. When we go through difficult times they will be used toward our betterment and toward God’s purpose. Even in adversity, remember that God is faithful.