Sunday, November 28, 2004

Five Things Working Together for Your Good

A favorite passage for many Christians has been Romans 8:28, “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.”

The common understanding of this text has generally been that all things, whether they be good, bad or indifferent, all work together in the plan of God to bring about good for those who love Him.

I would like to challenge that interpretation. I think it has brought about a great and virulent misunderstanding of the text.

Yes, I know that there are some translations that render it as, “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good” (NASB), making God the subject of this verse. But that is not found in the majority of the Bible manuscripts or lectionary readings in the early Church. The majority of texts have “all things” as the subject.

In other words, this verse is not about what God does in all things, but rather what “all things” do.

(Two things to note here in passing: 1. The “things” (as in "all things") is not necessary to the translation. We may just as well simply say, “all work together for good.”2. The working together of all things is present tense, that is, what "all things" are at work doing for us right now.)

What difference does it make? Well, it means that we do not have to tolerate, accept, bless or be thankful for any of the bad or evil things that happen in our lives, as if they are somehow necessary for our good (they are not), or that they somehow add to the quality of our lives (they do not).

Certainly God can take a bad situation and bring good out of it. After all, that is what our redemption is about, God buying back and setting free that which has come under the power of evil. But that is not at all the same as evil somehow working to bring about good.

Certainly God can also teach us in the midst of evil things that may happen to us. But evil is not in any way our teacher. God is the teacher, and He has given us the Holy Spirit to teach us whatever we need to know.

Evil is about bringing about evil, not about bringing the good. Even if evil could work together with good, the result would not be good, but a mixture of good and evil, and that is essentially evil, because evil is the lack of good. Even a little lack of good, as in a mixture of good and evil, is still a lack of good, and therefore ultimately evil.

No, God is good, and He does not cooperate with evil to bring about good. Rather, He works to deliver that which is good from that which is evil.

So, if the “all things” of Romans 8:28 is not about evil things as well as good things working together for the good, then what are they about?

Well, I’m glad you asked. I believe the “all” here is speaking about the things that Paul has already talked about earlier in Romans 8. Here is what I find working together for good, and they are all in themselves good. Although there may be many things trying to work against us for evil, there are also many other greater things working together for our good:

1. The earnest expectation of Creation. “For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God ... For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now” (Romans 8:19, 22) When God created the heavens and the earth, and everything in them, He pronounced them “good.” Though they have been subject to the Fall, there are laws still present within Creation for bringing about the good. For example, there is a law of sowing and reaping: If you sow evil, you will reap evil. But if you sow good, you will reap good.

2. The firstfruits of the Spirit. “Not only that, but we also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body” (Romans 8:23). We have the fruit of the Spirit and gifts of the Spirit at work in us. The Church received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the “Feast of Firstfruits.”

3. Hope. “For we were saved in this hope, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one still hope for what he sees?” (Romans 8:24) The Greek word for “hope” is elpis, and refers to a positive expectation, a joyful anticipation. Because it is oriented toward the future, it helps us stay on track in the present.

4. Patience. “But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with perseverance” (Romans 8:25). If we are oriented by hope, then we also need to have perseverance. The Greek word for “perseverance” is hupomone, and means “constancy, endurance, patience.” Hope and patience work together.

5. The Holy Spirit helping our weakness. “Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. Now He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He makes intercessions for the saints according to the will of God” (Romans 8:26-27). The Holy Spirit intercedes for us, and His intercessions perfectly express the will of God for us.

Which brings us up to verse 28: “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.”

So this is not about good working together with evil to produce good (which is logically impossible to begin with). This is about all the things Paul has already mentioned — the groaning of Creation, the fruits and gifts of the Holy Spirit at work in us, hope, patience, and the Spirit Himself interceding for us — it is all these things which are working together for good to those who love God and are called according to His purpose.

These things have a specificity to them which we can lay hold of by faith, and they are more than adequate to deal with any adversity we might face.

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