Unpacking and Rejoicing in the Most Powerful and Precious Promise in the Bible (1)
In the past few years we’ve all been confronted with a long list of tragedies, trials, and devastating events in our world. We’ve witnessed earthquakes and tsunamis and hurricanes and pandemics and racial division and economic hardships and recurring diseases and raging wildfires and military conflicts and political upheaval, and countless other issues.
It’s fascinating to observe how these sorts of events turn everyone into theologians! We all feel compelled to explain or account for the horrible things that happen on almost a daily basis. Everyone seems to have an answer to the questions: Did God cause it? Did God only permit it? Could God have stopped it? Is Satan responsible for it all? When these things happen, does that mean God isn’t really good after all? Or does it simply mean he’s incompetent and unable to do anything about it? Or do these sorts of tragic events mean that there is no God? Maybe he doesn’t exist after all.
The problem intensifies when these instances touch us personally. We can all speculate with the best of them until tragedy, be it large or small, affects us personally. We find ourselves more bothered by such things as a fender bender in the Wal Mart parking lot or when our credit card is maxed out or when a son or daughter rebels and refuses to come to church. Or it may be the loss of a job or an insensitive and impatient spouse or a recurring illness or the betrayal of a close friend.
When these sorts of experiences hit home more directly, we understandably turn to Scripture for help. And the one verse that we recite more often than others is Romans 8:28. Sadly, people often treat this verse either like a sledgehammer or a pacifier. In other words, in some cases we beat people over the head with it, bludgeoning them with the forceful reminder that they shouldn’t bellyache or complain too much because God is causing these events to work together for their good.
At other times we use this verse like a pacifier. We treat suffering Christians as if they were infants. We respond to their cries of pain and disillusionment by sticking Romans 8:28 into their spiritual mouths, hoping that it will pacify their pain and minimize their anguish. Whether as a sledgehammer or a pacifier we misuse and misapply this verse, hoping that it will help people get over their struggles and trust God more faithfully.
That will not be my approach to this passage of Scripture. I love Romans 8:28! I trust you do as well, even when people have used it to dismiss or minimize your pain and your problems. I genuinely believe that when properly interpreted and understood, this text of Scripture has supernatural energy to strengthen and sustain Christians through all manner of trial and tribulation. This one verse has the power to give life and joy and renewed confidence in God’s greatness and goodness.
In fact, this one verse may well contain the most precious and powerful promise in all of the Bible. It assures us that nothing, literally nothing, can derail God’s purpose to fulfill all his other promises to us. After all, what good is any promise in Scripture if the troubles and tragedies and devastating circumstances in life can plunge us into despair and disrupt that for which God has sovereignly chosen us? Here is how John Piper put it:
“Once you walk through the door of love into the massive, unshakable structure of Romans 8:28, everything changes. There comes into your life stability and depth and freedom. You simply can’t be blown over anymore. The confidence that a sovereign God governs for your good all the pain and all the pleasure that you will ever experience is an absolutely incomparable refuge and security and hope and power in your life. No promise in all the world surpasses the height and breadth and weight of Romans 8:28.”
So, when bad things happen in your experience, do you envision God as an active participant in your life or as a passive spectator? Are you quick to thank him when good things occur but curse him when the bad things come your way? And how might Romans 8:28 help us in answering this question?
As I said a moment ago, we often use this verse either as a sledgehammer to pound people into passive submission or as a pacifier to silence their cries of anguish. My view of Romans 8:28 is that it is more like a loving, profoundly concerned parent who takes a hurting child into his or her arms, whispering words of reassurance and affection. Or to use different imagery, every word in this verse is designed to function like a boulder on which we can put our full weight of confident trust in God. These words are like steel girders that uphold and sustain us through the most difficult times in our lives. What I see in Romans 8:28 is a necklace of seven pearls that shines and glimmers brightly in the darkness of human suffering.
In this article, and in the several that follow, we’ll unpack this remarkable text and closely examine each of the seven “pearls” that comprise it.
The first is found in the opening words: “We know.”
You might think that as Paul pondered how to address this issue that he leaned back in his chair, with furrowed brow, stroking his beard, wondering what he might say to encourage these Christians in Rome who were in such distress over their suffering. No.
Paul speaks here with complete and unassailable confidence. He says that we “know” that God causes all things to work together for good. There isn’t the slightest doubt in his mind about God’s role in our pain and in our pleasure. There are no questions, no second guesses. He doesn’t say “we wish” or “we hope” or even that we will “pray” for this outcome. He says without the tiniest tinge of doubt or hesitation: “we know”!
How does Paul know this? What is the source or ground of his certainty? I believe the answer is in the two verses that follow, vv. 29-30. There he tells us that since God’s loving purpose for our salvation stretches from eternity past into eternity future, there is nothing that can ultimately do us any spiritual harm. Nothing can derail God’s purpose for our lives. Nothing can undermine or interrupt his work in bringing us into greater conformity with his Son, Jesus. Not pain or persecution or financial disaster or disease or any trial or tragedy.
In other words, the reason we know that all things work together for our ultimate spiritual profit is that God loved us before the foundation of the world and predestined us to be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. And those whom he predestined, he called. And those whom he called, he justified. And those whom he justified, he glorified! God has an eternal and personal stake in your spiritual welfare and will not permit anyone or anything to interfere with his plan for your life.
You may rest assured that nothing comes your way, no matter how painful, no matter how persistent, that can ultimately do you any lasting spiritual harm. God is determined to bring you safely into his heavenly kingdom and nothing can thwart his purpose. That doesn’t mean you will always be able to “know” everything in life. Paul said in Romans 8:26 that we “don’t know” how to pray as we should. That is why the Holy Spirit is given to us, to intercede on our behalf. But if we are ignorant at times about how and what to pray for, we are never ignorant of the truth of God’s providential oversight of our lives.