It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
I’m sure most of you know where that comes from? It’s the opening sentence of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, referring to the time of the French Revolution.
In this, the week running up to my last Sunday at this present expression of Christ’s church, it seems to sum up how I feel. So much love and support from so many friends, some sadness, much anticipation – and one or two really annoying things to deal with too!
How about you? You may be going through some great times right now – I hope you are, in which case you can park this for another day – others are struggling along, somehow trying to make it through the toughest time of your life. Well this passage promises that our God can use how even the worst of times to do something to make the best come from them.
The famous verse is of course 8:28. And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according go his purpose. Sometimes (too often) it’s been used as a cure-all catchphrase, a Christian admonition to someone really going through awful gut-wrenching pain to just cheer up. We wouldn’t say that of course, so we misquote a snippet of this verse, “God will work something out for good.”
The chapter starts with great promise but is pretty rough going at times. Look at the list of adversities and adversaries in verses 35–36: recognise any?
…tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword… As it is written, “For thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
Not exactly going to figure in the wealth and prosperity gospel favourite passages is it? I recently reread Joel Osteen’s ‘Your Best Life Now’ book and at times just hung my head at its naivety. But Paul is 100% REAL about suffering and hard times – but does that mean he curls up in the foetal position and settles in gloom? No way! For example in verse 37 he declares, “No! In all these things we are more than conquerors.” Not just conquerors, more than conquerors!
These sufferings can’t separate us from Christ, the God who suffered for us on the cross.
We may go through (Paul certainly did!) all kinds of hard times, problems, trouble, hardship, persecution, lack of clothing or food, peril and sword. Christians around the world now are persecuted for the name of Christ as he warned us in the Sermon on the Mount we would be. Our Secret Service, MI6, has recently published an alarming report in the Sunday Express magazine revealing that 200 million Christians in 60 countries around the world are at risk of suffering persecution.
But here in this passage we’re told that ‘all these things’ are not just defeated; they are more than defeated: God is so incredibly sovereign, so infinitely powerful, so immeasurably wise, that all manner of things that happen to us are ordered in such a way that they serve our good. Not just nice things, but troubles are trounced, hog-tied and turned around – made to become servants for our good.
That is what many people’s all-time favourite verse is really saying. Our hope is not that we will never go through any problems, perils or persecutions – it’s not denial, but secure confidence that our God is always Almighty, always good, and will even make our hard times instruments of his mercy to do us good. Tribulation and distress and persecution and famine and nakedness and peril and sword all work together for the good of those who love God.
Let’s look at this amazing verse more closely and you’ll see it’s like a diamond that sparkles more brightly the closer you examine it…
For we KNOW
The Greek word there for know is in the perfect tense ; “We have come to know, we know now, and we will always know…” This knowledge is settled, secure and unshakable! Nothing can dent this knowledge, or we could translate that word knowledge as, “we understand, we perceive…” this is the way faith sees and understands…
Not fate, not chance, not touching wood. God is powerful, present and personally involved in our lives. We don’t go along with Doris Day philosophy that, “Whatever will be, will be.” People say, “I’m doing okay – under the circumstances.” But our God is above the circumstances and we can be too! We look beyond the changing circumstances to the unchanging God who Jesus told us is always working…
Causes all things to work together
You need to be careful of your punctuation there! It doesn’t say God causes all things. All kinds of things – we cause ourselves. People cause so much suffering and devastation. They ask, “If there’s a God why did he…” about all kinds of bad things – but don’t pause to thank Him or give him glory for the good things. God doesn’t cause all things. Suffering is a tragic, physical evil, a consequence of our living (for the present) in a fallen world. And we have an enemy.
Terrible things you have done or were done to you were not caused by God. God doesn’t bring cancer or credit crunches in our lives to teach us a lesson. We have a choice, to shake our fist skyward, or open our hands and ask for help from heaven, and we can receive comfort and consolation from knowing ‘all manner of things’ in this world can be redeemed by God. The word ‘work together’ is just one word in the original language. It means, “partner, fellow worker.” God didn’t cause the bad thing that happened, he may have allowed it, but he didn’t cause it. And he can work amazing wonders, even from bad material.
To them that love God and are called according to His purpose
Who is this promise to? Who are its beneficiaries? Is it AVAILABLE to everyone? It is APPLICABLE to everyone? Is it to you?
That depends. You should know the answer to that question. I would say that nothing is more important. Once you have stepped in by grace into the unshakable structure that is this promise – everything changes. You can have stability in your life – and confidence for an eternal future. The worst the world can do is huff and puff, but your house will not fall down! You can tell how strong a building is by how deep its foundations and the material with which is constructed.
Eventually, the storm and the wind come to every house. You know how Jesus put it – … everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”
John Piper writes : ‘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.’