Providential Promise With Purpose
How Do We Know Whether What Happens In Our Lives Is Good Or Bad?
My son suffers from an acute form of psoriasis. We attempted to treat the problem with medical consultation. We brought Jed’s condition to God in prayer. A year went by as my son’s condition worsened. And we wondered, “Why isn’t the prescribed medication working? Why isn’t God answering our prayerful plea for help?” Yet in spite of the dead end treatment and our seemingly unanswered prayers, the question kept coming back to us, “How do we know whether what happened is good or bad?”
One day, my son announced that he was going to enlist with the National Guard. No doubt, this news came as a surprise. As parents, we were concerned with our son’s welfare especially when we learned that the country was sending the new unmarried recruits from the National Guard to the war zone in Iraq. No amount of human reasoning or prayerful pleas to God would change Jed’s mind. The young man was determined. When we got word that he passed his interview and written test with flying colors, we braced ourselves for the worst—our son would be placed in harm’s way serving in a war torn country far away. Again the question continued to haunt us, “How do we know whether what happened is good or bad?”
A week later, my son shared the results of his medical examination with us. The physician explained that he passed every test they performed on him save one—his acute case of psoriasis. Since the demands of military boot camp are severe, the high-stress training program would not only trigger, but also elevate the level of his condition. He was discharged from going any further in his pursuit of military service. As our son dealt with the discouraging news we asked him the question, “How do we know whether what happened is good or bad?”
From our limited perspective, we cannot know with certainty how to interpret life’s discouraging curve balls. Yet if we trust God with a childlike faith, we can be assured that whatever happens is for our benefit. In fact, we can altogether avoid asking whether what has happened is good or bad. According to Romans 8:28: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (NRSV).[i]
This verse has often been a word of hope, assuring me that in the end, “all things,” inclusive of the bad things, will somehow “work together for good” for the people who love God. In fact there was a time when I interpreted this verse to mean that there are really no "bad things" that happen to believers. Things may seem bad, but they are for the benefit of fulfilling God’s purpose in our lives—that the bad somehow transforms into good. After a quarter of a lifetime walking in the Lord, I have undergone some changes in my understanding of this verse. In this verse study in Romans, I’d like to share the three following things: (1) The fifth thing we ought to know—our place; (2) all things work together for good—our promise; and (3) a thing we are called by God to fulfill—our purpose.
OUR PLACE - The Fifth Thing We Ought To Know
In the letter to the Romans, Paul has already repeated the word phrase “we know” several times. In fact, the apostle mentions, “we know” for the fifth time when we come to verse 8:28.[ii] The “we” in “we know” refers to the recipients or beneficiaries behind the promise of this verse. What is a beneficiary? By definition it is (1) somebody who receives a benefit from something or (2) somebody who is entitled by a will, trust, or insurance policy to receive money or property. The fifth thing we ought to know from verse 28 is our place as beneficiaries of God’s promise. In order to qualify as a beneficiary, there are two biblical conditions that one must meet. The first condition of this promise is described as what the beneficiaries do toward God and the second as what God did toward the beneficiaries.
The First Condition. The first half of the verse says, "All things work together for good for those who love God." The beneficiaries of this promise are people who love God. If we read from the beginning of chapter 8, Paul is in fact, referring to “those who are in Christ Jesus” (8:1) freed from the condemnation of “the law of sin and of death” (8:2) and who “live according to the Spirit” (8:5ff). In the near context, the apostle is addressing the “children of God” (8:14,16,19,21)—the children who love God. This is the first and great commandment, that you love the Lord your God.[iii] No eye has seen nor ear heard nor anyone imagined what God has prepared for those who love him.[iv]
The Second Condition. Then, in the second place, Paul describes the beneficiaries of this promise as those “who are called according to his purpose." What does it mean to say that in addition to loving God, the beneficiaries of this promise are also called according to God's purpose? The answer to this question lies in the near context of this verse in which Paul refers to God's call of his chosen children and his purpose for them. The closest clue to those who are called is found in verse 30 where Paul says “And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.” What we learn from this verse is that God justifies everyone that he calls. He acquits them. He pardons them. They are treated as righteous. They are his children in Christ.
This brings us to the big difference between one who hears the gospel and one who is called by God. The truth is, not everyone who hears the gospel is called, justified, and glorified by God. If that were the case, then the multitudes that heard Billy Graham calling them to Christ through an evangelistic crusade are “called,” and should receive justification and glorification as promised in Romans 8:30. The invited guests to our churches and bible studies may hear God’s call, but fall short of being justified. Paul taught plainly in an earlier chapter “we are justified by faith” (5:1). Therefore not all who are called in this general sense have faith and are justified. Paul in Ephesians 2:8 reminds us “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this not of your own doing [but by God’s calling], it is the gift of God.” The call of God produces faith. Faith is a gift given by God that opens the eyes of the blind to embrace Jesus in love.
The call of God that Paul speaks of is not like the call of my pet dog: “Harley come. Come Harley. Come on boy.” Harley may or may not choose to come. In fact, my dog has often chosen to run away from my command. Harley leaves me in his dust crying out, “Harley, come back!” The call of God is like the call of Jesus to the corpse of Lazarus: “Lazarus, come out!”[v] The one who is called by the Creator of life cannot resist his powerful command. Contained in the call of the Father is the seed of our salvation, watered by the blood of his Son, and caused to grow by the Holy Spirit.
The beneficiaries of this great promise are those who once thought that we loved God only to realize that we loved a god of our own making rather than loving the one and only true God. “We love [God] because he first loved us.”[vi] He called us from darkness to light, from unbelief to faith, from death to life, and has rooted within us a love for him. God circumcised our sin-eclipsed hearts[vii] by causing the sun of righteousness to rise and shine within our beings bringing healing in its wings.[viii] In Christ we know our place. Therefore we are free to love the LORD our God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our might.[ix]
OUR PROMISE - All Things Work Together For Good
My wife and I had lunch at a new Chinese restaurant in San Marcos. After our meal, we were treated to Chinese fortune cookies. For those who are unfamiliar with a fortune cookie, it is a crisp Asian American cookie usually made from flour, sugar, vanilla, and oil. A small slip of paper containing one’s fortune is hidden inside the hollow portion of the cookie. My fortune read: “Remember three months from this date. Good things are in store for you.”
Our Definition Of Good. When we anticipate the good things in our future, what comes to mind? How do we define what is good for us? Winning the California Lotto? Traveling to exotic lands? Enjoying a healthy life? Launching a successful career? Finding one’s soul mate? Rebounding from the stock market? Surviving the Great Recession? Based on the promise of a fortune cookie, these are the good things we can hope to meet as our unknown future unfolds. To us, the good things are those that are easy, pleasant, and satisfying. If it were up to us we would never have to exercise a day in our life, we would never have to take a test or pay our taxes, and we would certainly never have to go through labor, visit the dentist or undergo surgery of any kind. Our shortsightedness causes us to choose the path of least resistance leading to momentary happiness.
But if we are to base our unknown future on a biblical verse rather than a fortune cookie, it is vital that we ought to know what is and what is not promised by Romans 8:28. First, it is important to note that the promise does not say “all things” are good. There are obviously many things in life that are not good. The bible never implies that war, pestilence, calamities, disease, divorce, deceit, abuse, heresy, murder, rape, injustice, immorality and so forth are good things. They are evil things. The bible does not tell us that everything is good. The “good” that God is working with is not according to our definition of good.
God's Definition Of Good. What then is God’s definition of good? God defines good as that which moves and makes us “to be conformed to the image of his Son,” Jesus Christ, as he has predestined us and prepares us to be in his eternal presence (8:29-30). This promise does not say that we will always see or understand the good that God is doing. I don’t know if I’ll ever understand why I didn’t land the dream job last January, why my dear friend died from cancer in July, why this perfect Christian couple got divorced over the summer, why a beloved pastor suffered a life-threatening heart condition last month, why the Philippine Islands had to undergo tremendous loss in the wake of a great flood this year, or why 57 Filipinos had to die in one of the worst political massacres in history? Yet just because I don’t understand, doesn’t mean these things are not being used by God however bad they might be. Therefore, it is best for us to understand that God is working in all things for the ultimate good of those who love God and are called to His purpose.
God, mind you, will not hesitate to do whatever it takes to make us conform to the image of his Son. When God sees us in our present condition, he sees the great potential of our becoming like his Son. That is God’s final goal for our lives. And he will not stop until he sees the semblance of his Son fully formed in our being. If you find yourself praying “God bless me with health, wealth, and prosperity,” you need to seriously rethink your prayer. The next time you kneel before God, allow yourself some time to process your prayer request. Will a spanking new racing red Ferrari help you conform to the image of his Son? Will a multi-million dollar mansion in an exclusive gated community make you more like Jesus? Will ownership of an island paradise in the Bahamas bring us closer to God’s goal of our becoming more and more like Christ?
If we define the good as only what we can experience in this life, then we have missed the whole point of this text. In fact, we have denied and defiled its biblical meaning. Western Christians, especially a distinct denomination of American Christians, are prone to pervert texts such as Romans 8:28. The prosperity gospel is the direct result of this belief. They preach comfort in Christendom rather than conformity to Christ. If our lives are comfortable, if we have wealth, good health, and a prosperous lifestyle to enjoy, then all is well with me and my God. Tragically, this is not the good that Paul had in mind when he wrote Romans. And it is nowhere near the goal of the Christian life.
What are the tools in God’s sacred shed that he will use to chip away and carve us into the image of Christ? If God did not withhold his own Son to bring about our salvation, what would stop him from using all the things[x] within his power to make us everything that Jesus is? God is using your present circumstance, however miserable it may be, to conform us to the image of his Son. What are the things that will attempt to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus? “Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? (8:35) Conforming to Christ causes us to suffer with him as we groan inwardly awaiting the day of our adoption, redemption and glory that is to be revealed to us. God will use every tool of suffering at his disposal to achieve his purpose in us—death, life, angels, rulers, things, powers, height, depth, and creation itself cannot separate us from his love (8:38-39). Take heart that we will not suffer in vain. Even though we may feel the hammer’s blow in difficult times, God is tempering our life purpose into something worthy and wonderful.
OUR PURPOSE - A Thing We Are Called By God To Fulfill
I am reminded of the day I spent with a friend. While doing his weekly chores, I soon noticed how he would drag an old, ugly chair around his home. It served as a stepstool to retrieve groceries in the upper cabinets or sweep spider webs high above. I got to examine that rundown relic up close. The finish was badly weathered. The joints were worn and unstable. Deep scars from misuse told a sad tale. I offered to restore the chair. Instead, it was willingly given to me as a gift. In my workshop, I turned the chair over only to find an old paper label still nailed to the backside. As I wiped the dust away its lost purpose came to light: Manufactured by High Point Bending & Chair Co., Pattern No. 5515.
I discovered that the chair had a maker and pattern number indicating that it was designed for a specific purpose. I stripped what was left of the old finish, sanded it down to the original wood grain, sealed the wood with a penetrating protective coating, and stained it back to its beautiful walnut finish. The chair was restored to its former glory and serves the purpose it was created for—not as an unstable stepstool but as a sturdy desk chair. I take comfort in knowing that God has called me. His steadfast love endures and restores my true purpose in life. While he may sometimes have to strip and sand and seal and stain me, I will finish the specific work he created me for.
In that picture I am assured of God’s promise in Romans 8:28 that everything we experience in life, good or bad, is not an exercise in futility nor does not go to waste. It is a promise that means those difficult years in keeping my business afloat allowed me to learn how to trust God, those trying days in raising rebellious kids caused me to see God’s hand work where mine was out of reach, these jobless months created quality time to spend with God, study his word, and sharpen my spiritual gifts, and the tragic deaths of those I loved enlarged my yearning and deepened my groaning for the time when God will make everything eternally new.
My mother so happens to be a fiercely independent woman. Throughout her years, she has always insisted on doing things her way. There’s no sense in waiting when the task is before her. And surprisingly, she gets the job done. As far as I can remember, a favorite pastime of hers was rearranging the furniture in her home on a regular basis. And there were times when she would actually pull this feat all by herself. I don’t know how she managed to move a massive three-seater leather sofa by her lonesome. The largest piece of furniture could never get in the way of her stubborn determination.
If you invited her to your home in her younger days and asked her, “What do you suggest we do to give the living room a fresh new look?” Those happened to be the magic words that would usher your living room through an extreme makeover. In a matter of hours, the entire furniture ensemble would be miraculously transported from one side of the room to the other. And my mom would be right at the helm, directing the furniture flow, setting the carpet, lifting heavy chairs and coffee tables, plugging the lamps, and pushing whole couches with all her might.
As we fast forward to her late sixties, she was still at it. We find her in her element, perched high atop a stepladder hard at work. Mom decided to move stuff into an attic above the garage. She commandeered the whole operation while her mesmerized house helpers went along with her plan holding on to the wobbly stepladder beneath her. That fateful afternoon, not even an aged and common sense defying woman, could hold her own against the certainty of time and gravity. All she could remember was missing a step and falling off the ladder headfirst in slow motion. Miraculously, she didn’t feel any pain as she simply blacked out before her head hit the concrete floor below. The house helpers screamed for help. Dad ran to the garage and was shocked to see his wife unconscious and sprawled on the pavement. He panicked and kept running around my mother in circles. There was a pool of blood beneath her and Dad just lost it. Help finally arrived as my mother was carried into my brother’s car and driven to the hospital. My father sat in the front passenger seat and kept banging the dashboard with his fist while crying out to God, “Why! Why! Why! How could this happen to her!” As the unfortunate incident was related to me over a long distance phone call, I admit asking God the Nathaniel-like question in my heart: “Can anything good come out of this accident?”
When my mother regained consciousness she couldn’t recollect the details of the accident. It was like a bad dream that was soon forgotten. During her recovery period she underwent numerous physical tests. Before she was released from the hospital, the doctor revealed his findings to her. Everything happened to check out fine save for the fact of one odd detail. When Mom fell, she apparently landed on the side of her head that affected her sense of smell. My mother was notorious for having a very sensitive nose that detected all sorts of scents. However, she was thankful that it was only her sense of smell rather than her memory banks that failed to function. And yet she too wondered to herself, “I tried to be as careful as possible. I have used the stepladder lots of times. How on earth could this have happened to me Lord?”
Six years passed and my father received some tragic news. He was diagnosed with a terminal form of cancer. Although my father was a show business celebrity, he was very protective of his private life. Dad refused to hire a nurse or medical aide to assist him. During the last six months of his battle with cancer, my mother assumed the role as his personal caregiver. She would watch over him, bathe and clean up after him. At times, my siblings confessed that the stench of cancer was unbearable. An industrial exhaust fan was installed in the bedroom and scented candles were lit at all times. The family wondered how Mom could cope with the cancer’s stench as she slept beside Dad every night. It was then that she reminded us that she lost her sense of smell after her infamous fall from the ladder years ago.
There are no accidents in God’s plan for our lives. Although my mother suffered from a near-fatal fall, God was preparing Mom to fulfill her final role in my father’s life. As the ladder wobbled and she missed her step, God orchestrated her fall in such a way as to land headfirst on the very spot that would shut down her sense of smell. In desperation, my father cried out to God, “Why! Why! Why!” In the last months of Dad’s life, God answered him, “This is why.” Just when my father thought that his world was caving in, God was in control. God knows what he’s doing. He’s attentive to the minutest details of our lives. He can see the end from the beginning. My father and mother’s future was always before him. He had their best interest at heart. And he had them exactly where he wanted them. “The human mind plans the way, but the LORD directs the steps.”[xi] God directed my mother’s fateful step upon that wobbly ladder that she may land the role as my father’s faithful helpmate in their last days together on earth. My mother never left my father’s side. My father never failed to thank and treasure her company until the day he died. They parted in an intimate and meaningful way. And God’s divine purpose in everything succeeded in making this all possible.
Did my parents love God? Yes. Were my parents called according to God’s purpose? Yes. Was my Mom’s near-fatal fall bad? Yes. Did my parents understand the reason for the accident when it happened? No. Did God abandon my parents in their time of need? No. Could we ever have guessed how God would ultimately use this bad thing in a good way? No. I pray that you come away from this study and story constantly reminded by the apostle Paul in Romans 8:28 that in good times and bad, calm or crisis, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
[i] In the New International Version, Romans 8:28 reads, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (NIV). “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose” (KJV). “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose” (NESTLE—ALAND).
[ii] In retrospect, these are the following verses: (1) “Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God” (3:19); (2) “We know that Christ, being raised for the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him” (6:9); (3) “For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin” (7:14); and (4) “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (8:22-23).
[iii] Matthew 22:38.
[iv] 1 Corinthians 2:9.
[v] John 11:43.
[vi] 1 John 4:19.
[vii] Romans 2:25-29.
[viii] Malachi 4:2.
[ix] Deuteronomy 6:5.
[x] Paul repeats the word “things” four times in chapter 8 as in: (1) “all things” (v.28); (2) “about these things” (v.31); (3) “in all these things” (v.37); and (4) “nor things to come” (v.38).
[xi] Proverbs 16:9.
© 2009, Gicky Soriano. All rights reserved.