We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.
I was serving as a chaplain in a hospital, spending the night on call. It was late in the evening when the beeper went off, and I called in. Martha was a cancer patient, and she had been in the hospital before, but was having a really difficult time tonight, in the early hours of the morning. The staff had helped her try and call her church’s pastor, but they had not been able to reach him. Could I come and talk to her?
Martha and I shared a few moments with introductions and she quickly began to open up about her story. She had had cancer twice, and prayed hard both times for God to remove it. Thankfully, she had indeed gone into remission twice, and she thanked God for the healing! Not only that, but she believed that her disease had been an opportunity for God to use her – to tell her story and help others come to faith in a healing God.
But this time, things seemed different. The same doctors who had encouraged her to fight the cancer the first two times – even prayed with her before the treatment – were now telling her that it had come back with a vengeance. This time, treatment didn’t look like it was going to work. She was undaunted, and went home to pray, to add herself to every prayer list at every church she had a connection to. But the cancer still grew. And her symptoms grew worse. She was in the hospital for the fourth time in two months even now.
And so, now late at night, she was struggling to know what to believe. What was God doing in her life now? As I struggled to figure out what to say in response, help came in the form of her church’s pastor. Apparently he had just listened to the voicemail and had rushed up to the hospital. I breathed a sigh of relief. As a chaplain, I supported the ministry of a patient’s own clergy, because they would be there long after the patient left the hospital and my ministry ended.
But my sighs turned to groaning – at least inwardly – as he began to speak. It was one platitude after another – easy answers to what was a hard problem. “You know, Martha, that everything happens for a reason. Paul tells us in Romans that all things work together for the good of those who love him. And so our job is simply to love God and believe in him. God is going to fix this cancer of yours, because he has done so in the past, and I believe that he can do it again. Do you believe?”
We both waited on Martha to respond. The look on her face told me that she felt put on the spot, and wanted something more, but she smiled and told him that he must be right and his words were a helpful reminder. Unsure how to rebuke her pastor in front of her, and not sure what I would say in the place of his platitudes, I asked him if he would say a prayer and we all went our separate ways. But as I lay on that hospital bed in the on-call room that night, I stared up at the ceiling, and wondered if there was more I could have said.
How many of you understand Martha’s perspective? How many of you have been there? Unfortunately, many of us have. We have found ourselves staring into the face of something that makes us feel helpless. Hopeless. Want to cry out for someone to fix it. And so often, all we hear from people is empty promises, vague platitudes, or failure to really name our pain. We hear that: “Everything happens for a reason.” But what if it doesn’t?
Tim Lawrence, in his blog post titled “Everything Doesn’t Happen for a Reason.” Claims that this phrase is more than just unhelpful. He calls it, “emotional, spiritual, and psychological violence.” That when we say those words to someone in pain, what we are doing is invalidating their pain and oversimplifying the solution. And it becomes more problematic when we prooftext Scripture into that platitude, like the phrase from Romans 8: “All things work together for good for those who believe.”
Because, in my experience, just like the story I told to open the sermon, these words can cause real spiritual damage to someone. And I have seen people who have heard these words and have thus left the church or even abandoned any type of relationship with God. “If God is behind this pain, that he caused me this pain just so that I could grow from it, or someone else could grow from it, or because he needed another flower in his garden, then I have no desire to worship that God.” And there are empty pews today because uncomfortable pastors and uncomfortable Christians, not sure what to say in the face of deep pain and grief, have taken the easy way out. They have offered empty platitudes and simplistic catch-phrases, leaving people to believe that the church and God have nothing substantial to offer them in their pain.
But what if that wasn’t what Paul was talking about at all? What if Paul wasn’t telling the Romans that “all things work together for good?”
This passage is notoriously difficult to translate, as many of Paul’s letters are. Paul had this tendency to write these long, complicated, rambling sentences, and it isn’t always clear from the Greek who or what he is talking about, since the subject or object of the sentence may have been thirty words earlier. And if you have your Bible open to this passage, you can see the trouble that translators have with this verse. Most modern versions have a footnote, explaining that there is an alternative way to translate the verse, and it is complicated even more by the fact that even the earliest translators had the same trouble, and so there are variations in the texts that we have to translate from.
And so, when our translation says, “all things work together,” the subject of the sentence is “all things.” The connotation becomes that each thing that happens is a good work of God. Thus, everything happens for a reason.
But look what happens if you change the subject. What if the subject is not “each thing,” but is instead “God,” which textually makes as much sense, if not more. Instead of the focus being the things – the pain of life – the focus becomes God. And instead of “each thing” acting as the subject of the sentence, God is the focus. In other words, this present suffering that we experience is evidence of a fallen world. And yet, even in the midst of such suffering, God is at work in a much larger sense. God is not the one causing the pain, but instead God is working in spite of, in response to, and above and beyond the pain. That instead of the micro, God is working for good in a macro sense, in an eternal, ultimate, eschatological sense. Which makes much more sense, given the context. After all, in a book designed to encourage the faith of a new church in Rome, would Paul really be telling them that the God he wanted them to worship was actually the one behind all of their pain?
And so, the message of Paul is actually very different than it is often translated. For us, then, I believe that there is this new level of good news that flows from the text. And, on a very practical level, a guide for us to respond to the pain and suffering that we see in the world. And it comes in two parts.
Part One: it is absolutely appropriate that we groan about the unfixable things in our world. Back up a couple of verses and hear now verses 26-7:
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
Paul is saying here that God knows our heart anyway, so we might as well name the pain in our lives. Even more, Paul says, the Holy Spirit helps us name that pain. We don’t even have the words for it, and so the Holy Spirit groans for us. Theologian Steven Paulson says that the Spirit is our own personal groaner. The Spirit groans for us when we don’t know how to name the unfixable pain in our world. Because even our groaning isn’t enough.
- When cancer fills the body of someone that we care deeply about and all the doctors and chemotherapy and prayers that we offer don’t work, we groan.
- When a tragic accident takes the life of our child or our sibling or anyone in life that we care about, we groan.
- When our friend lies on the bed, suffering the debilitating effects of Lou Gehrig’s disease and there is nothing that we can do to help, we groan.
- When our sister or our daughter or our friend is the victim of a sexual assault, we groan.
When these things happen, we don’t shrug our shoulders and blandly say, “well, everything happens for a reason.” We don’t say, “everything is working for good.” Because it isn’t. It isn’t good when someone that we love is taken from us. It isn’t a work of God. It is an example of a fallen world and I don’t believe that it is what God wants. And so it is our job as those who see that to groan and ask the Spirit to groan for us.
But, according to Paul, the groan is not the end of the story. The groan is part one. But the Gospel is part two. The Gospel only makes sense after the groan, but the groan is not enough. The rest of the story is that God and God’s love are the subject. They are the subject of a Gospel story that in the long view has a happy ending. In the macro, God is taking all of this, all things, everything, and bringing it to a conclusion of love. And God’s love is present in the end, meaning it is injected every step of the way until the end – in the micro. And so, we can survive whatever pain is in our life, not because we think God is at work causing that pain for some unknown reason, but because we know that God is at work over and against that pain. Above and beyond that pain. And will always be at that work.
Because, as again Tim Lawrence says in his blog, “there are some things that cannot be fixed. They can only be carried.” And Paul points us to the One who does the carrying.
After a mostly sleepless night, I woke up determined that there was more to the conversation with Martha, and so I went first thing to check on her again. I asked how she was doing after the night, and I could tell that she hadn’t slept well either. “I know that I am supposed to believe. But it just hurts so bad. I am afraid. What if I don’t get to see my daughter’s wedding? What if I never get to see my grandchildren?”
And so, I tried again. This time, I acknowledged the groan and the Gospel.
- And this time, we talked about the Psalmists, who believed that faith was not weaker but stronger when they named the injustices and anger and lament on their hearts.
- This time, we talked about Job, who in the face of his friends telling him that everything happens for a reason, he believed that complaint to God in the midst of his pain was the measure of his faith.
- This time, we talked about Jesus Christ himself, who groaned out in pain and agony from the cross. But the story didn’t end there! And because of the hope of Resurrection, because God is above and beyond even the power of death, there will be healing – in this life or the next!
And this time, I read the rest of the story:
What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,
‘For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced 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.