"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
A few weeks ago, Trey and I journeyed with our moms to the high risk doctor's office, where we would receive a level 2 anatomy ultrasound and an echocardiogram of our daughter's heart. With all of the prayer we had focused on this day in the weeks prior, we were hopeful in the Lord for good news. We were hopeful for a perfect ultrasound that indicated that her body is doing just fine, like a baby who is free from any chromosome abnormality.
Initially, the appointment seemed to be going well. The pediatric cardiologist spoke rapidly as she described the anatomy of Alisa's heart. We were relieved to hear that Alisa does not have the major hole in the middle of her heart that is common in babies with Down syndrome. I honestly thought we were out of the woods at this point, until out of nowhere the cardiologist said, almost apologetically, "Now, I can't get a great view of this region because of the way the baby is positioned, but I do think I am seeing a small hole in the lower chamber." It felt like the bottom fell out beneath me. The more she searched, the more confirmation she got that there were, in fact, not just one small hole, but several medium-sized holes.
Talk about a punch to the gut. The cardiologist was very encouraging, with the holes being located in a region where they have a great chance of closing on their own or getting smaller. The necessity of immediate surgery after birth is not likely, and surgery may not be needed at all. But as a mom, I will tell you, all of the encouraging news about these holes could not wipe away the grief I felt as I considered the reality. My baby has holes in her heart!
There is a saying common in religious circles that God works everything for our good. I personally have referenced this saying in various blog posts, which comes from Romans 8:28, without specifying what exactly I mean by it. Let me start by stating the obvious: for someone walking in the lowest and most painful trials of life, the promise this verse holds certainly doesn't feel true. As parents, the journey we are walking with Alisa right now doesn't really feel like the situation is working out to our good or to our daughter's good. I know those who have buried children, parents, spouses, and friends would all agree that these tragedies don't feel like they are in any remote way going to work out to anyone's good. Individuals whose spouses demand divorces without hope of reconciliation do not feel the hope of things working out to their good. Fill in the blank with whatever trial you have walked or are walking through, and the conclusion is still the same: these painful trials usually feel just downright hopeless and rotten.
So how do we interpret this promise in Scripture in the face of realities that are often a stark contrast to anything "good"? The verse sounds clear enough: "And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose."
There is no mistaking what the Apostle Paul is getting at here, right? We can stick our thumbs in our chests, lift our chins proudly, and say with confidence that everything is going to turn out for our good...right?
What I'm really getting at is this: does God working things to my good mean that I will always like the outcome in my circumstances?
The problem with interpreting this verse is that it is often lifted out of its greater context within the book of Romans, and instead it is used as a stand alone promise. When done this way, the verse loses all of its depth and instead gains a sense of superficiality in the face of reality. Tell that mom whose son was killed by a drunk driver that all things will work out for her good, and she might spit in your face. Mention that promise to the wife whose husband has been unfaithful throughout the course of her marriage, or to the child who grew up in the foster care system without ever finding a forever family, and they might stop talking to you altogether. Hope that is false and only surface deep is not really hope at all.
Really, it all comes down to defining what "our good" is. And to find that definition, we must answer this important question: to what end did Jesus die for our sins? Understanding what God considers "our good" can be found as we look at what "the problem" is. If He died so that we can enjoy long and happy lives on this earth, then interpreting Romans 8:28 as a blithe promise for things always working out in our favor is appropriate. Many popular inspirational speakers and "health and wealth gospel" preachers ascribe to this view. In their opinions, faith in Christ should guarantee that all things work out for our good, and that we are promised all of the health and wealth we can claim in this life. One major problem with this kind of teaching is how we explain the tragedies that inevitably come our way in spite of our great faith in God.
On the other hand, though, what if Jesus' death and resurrection were for a purpose even greater than our temporary happiness on this earth? If our problem with sin is that it interferes with our happiness and success in this life, then the former interpretation may work - maybe Jesus did die so that we can succeed and find contentment in what this life has to offer. But if the problem is that sin brings death and an eternal separation from God, then the former interpretation becomes tragically inadequate. It means that Jesus' salvific work was not about our earthly happiness but about our eternal standing before God.
Stepping into the Romans narrative, we find the Apostle Paul addressing a topic proliferate throughout scripture: sin. Our problem, according to Paul, is that sin has separated us from God. Christ ultimately answered that problem through His work on the cross, that anyone who calls on His Name will be saved from sin (Rom. 6:22-23). But even after our initial point of salvation, our struggle with sin does not immediately go away as we struggle with our sin nature in this life (Rom. 7:7-25). If we are honest, every genuine follower of Christ can relate. Though we all long to do what is right and pure, our flesh still desires to satisfy the cravings of the sinful nature. We ultimately stand before God forgiven and pure, but we are also still in the process of being saved (sanctification) from the sin condition in our present lives. We are not yet fully set free from sin's hold in our lives, not because Christ's work is inadequate, but because our hearts still cling to their sinful ways.
But, as always with Christ, there is still more hope. With the same power God used to raise Christ from the dead, defeating death and sin, He delivers us from our slavery to sin. However, He does not deliver us from sin so that we can continue sinning and doing as we please in this life; instead, He delivers us from sin so that we can live according to the spirit, His Spirit to be exact. As we struggle to overcome our sinful desires in this world, we realize that whatever this world may offer becomes rubbish in comparison to the glory of Christ that we can now know. We are adopted as children into God's family. We are coheirs with Christ, having available to us every spiritual blessing God has to offer (Rom. 8:8-16).
And then, because he suffered tragedy just like we all do, Paul says this: "For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us" (Rom. 8:18). Notice what he does not say, that the present sufferings will go away now so that we can be happy. He does not say that we will be free of any more suffering on earth because God won't allow it in this life. Nope. Instead, he says that whatever sufferings we face in this life pale in comparison to what we will have in Christ once we enter eternity. In fact, in the verse prior to this, Paul explains that as true heirs with Christ, we will "suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him" (Rom. 8:17).
Did you catch that? Christ did not die so we can be happy in this life. Instead, we will actually face suffering, just like everyone else. The difference, though, is that our suffering will have purpose. Our suffering will draw us to Him so that we may be glorified in Him. Even our suffering will end in our good.
So how is this hope? How do I take this stuff and apply it to my grief as we walk a high risk pregnancy and a diagnosis for our daughter that has many unknowns? Paul doesn't leave that question unanswered:
"For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience..." (Rom. 8:24)
What is my hope? It is not a hope I can see yet. This hope is that I am a child of God, adopted into His family, and that one day, I will be completely free of any hold sin has on my life (Rom. 8:19-23). This hope is bound up in the promise that I stand before the Holy God without condemnation for my sins, not because of anything I've done or will do, but because of Christ. This hope means that I have access to God the Father through His Spirit, who intercedes on my behalf because of the work of Christ, so that the Lord can sustain me in any and every trial I face in this life (Rom. 8:25-27). This hope, you see, is not determined by the outcome of circumstances in this life. This hope in Christ is eternal.
It is with all of this truth and hope flowing through his pen that Paul finally penned these famous words: "And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose!" (emphasis mine)
The good that God is working in me is not dependent upon my circumstances. He chose me in Christ for salvation; He has justified my sins through Christ's perfect sacrifice; and now I will be glorified in Christ at the end of this life (Rom. 8:29-30). But Paul does not stop there in describing our hope, for he makes sure there is no doubt of the depth and reach of God's love. "If God is for us, who can be against us?" he asks. "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?" (8:31-32). I have hope because no matter how desperate and broken I become in this life, God is always there to sustain me. In the extreme highs, the extreme lows, and the everyday in-betweens, I have opportunities to know God more and to become more like Him. And it is here that true living - eternal living - really occurs.
The wonderful hope of this passage ends with a resonating call to the victory and security we have in Christ. Paul concludes with these words:
"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. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? ...No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 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."
By all means, I fervently believe that God will work all things to my good and to His glory. Only, His good for my life may not be what I expect it to look like. My spirit longs for life to be easy and predictable, to be free of pain and suffering. But God's good for me is that I know Him better and look like Him more as each new day comes, and it is of this good that I am guaranteed as a genuine follower of Christ.
This is my hope today, that in every trial in life, I have the opportunity to know God better and to be stripped of the sin nature further. Nothing is secure about my future on this earth. I have no promise of tomorrow. I have no guarantee that my husband, my children, or any of my loved ones will live long and happy lives. But what is secure is my standing before God in Christ. What is secure is that nothing I face in this life, no matter how treacherous or painful, will compare to the glory I will find in Christ once I step into eternity. Therefore, what is more important to me than Alisa being born without Down Syndrome; what is more important to me than my husband having a well-paying job; and what is more important to me than my religious freedom in America, is that those I love and come into contact with may know Christ through a genuine salvation experience. What is more important to me than my children having happy, "normal," and pain-free lives is that no matter what struggles they face, they will know God and follow Christ without reservation, because I now understand that this is the good I want for them. I want that eternal good for my children.
I don't know what life will be like when Alisa is born. I don't know what tomorrow will be like for believers in America. But what I do know is that God truly is working all things for the good of those who love Him, because we will all one day stand free from any hold sin may have on us in this life. And that is a hope worth writing home about!