Here is a message for those who find themselves in a storm of life or for others who will invariably sail into one soon.
“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. For whom he foreknew, he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom he predestined, these he also called; whom he called, these he also justified; in whom he justified, these he also glorified.”
I first encountered the power of theodicy at the bed of my grandmother when I was five years of age. My grandmother was a godly woman who suffered greatly and died in tremendous pain in her small home next to ours at our farm. The event brought me into difficult introduction to one of the great questions of life, “How can a good God allow suffering in the world?” This is a question that is as gripping to a five-year-old child as it is to a 95-year-old adult who is seen all of life.
Theodicy is our English word taken from a compilation of two Greek words meaning “God” (Theos) and “justice” (dik-e). It is a word that is concerned with justifying the good nature of God against the reality of evil and suffering. For some like Dr. Bart Ehrman, in his book, God’s Problem, there can be no justification. But for others, like Job (in his book, Job!), the answer is “God is God and we are not.” The Bible states the realities: “God is sovereign. God is good. The rain falls on the just and the unjust alike. There is a new heaven and a new earth coming. But not yet.” It does not try to sort these out. Mysteries are piled upon mystery an Gospel pronouncement is advanced not in spite of, but through the tension of the mystery. But ambiguity is not a comfortable place to live.
The apostle Paul takes up this question as he addresses suffering. In chapter 8 of his letter to the Romans, St. Paul, verse 18, addresses the suffering of those people who were living in the capitol of an increasingly antagonistic empire. After applying his thoughts to creation (verses 18 through 22), Paul pivots on the suffering theme to the inevitable subject of God’s people. In doing so St. Paul assumes the great theodicy question for all believers. His response is a potent and pastoral word for all of us.
In St. Paul’s teaching we can see how God transforms Providence — the Providence that is observed at the intersection of Christian living and inexplicable suffering — into praise.
The “Great Eighth” — Romans chapter 8 and particularly verses 28 through 30 — teaches us how Providence becomes praise. Providence becomes praise, in Romans 828 through 30 in three ways.
I. Providence becomes praise through God’s sovereignty over all things (Verse 28).
“All things work together for the good.” Not all things are good, but all things may be rerouted for good if the object is safely in God’s will.
A number of years ago my wife and I read a book by Steve Brown called When Your Rope Breaks. The book presented the doctrines that we are looking at today in a way that we could understand. It essentially said that we do not need to curse the darkness but embrace the light of Christ in the midst of the darkness. It helped me to see that events and, yes, even tragedies in life remain sad or even evil in their own right and yet can be used by the Lord for good.
To say that “all things work together for good” does not discount the pain of “all things.” Whether cancer, the loss of your job, an accident, or depression, the thing in and of itself will remain bad, but can be worked (by God, not us) for good. This is something altogether outside of our own experience or power. We are not being called to manipulate “all things” to our good. We are called to trust God in “all things.” The passage is pointing to the sovereignty of God and his power. The Holy Spirit takes this medicinal truth and applies it to our lives today to help us to trust in God, find dignity and meaning as a safe harbor in the swamp-water of suffering, and to see that “all things” can never be bigger than our God.
[The second way that God transforms Providence into praise is:]
II. God transforms Providence into praise through his chosen people. (Verse 29.)
It says in verse 28 that all things work together for the good for those who are called according to his purpose. In verse 29 it works out that statement by saying, “for whom he foreknew, he also predestined to be… That he…” It is saying that there is a purpose to our lives when we are in Christ.
I once heard an old Vaudeville comedian who was Jewish comment about his ethnicity and his peoples’ history of suffering: “Next time, Lord, could you possibly choose someone else?”
You might feel like that today. To be chosen according to his purposes does not disqualify us from suffering. To the contrary such a confession of faith has often increased suffering. Peter tells us that we should not suffer for wrong but for righteousness if we must suffer. But whether we suffer for our own sins, for the sins of another committed against us, or just because we live in a sin-infected world we can know this: God has a purpose in it all. He is not the author of evil. He does not willingly afflict the children of men. And yet, mysteriously and wonderfully, God is not absent from your heartache – your medical crisis, your families’ loss of income, or your child’s desperate search for meaning — God is with you. He is always, “Emmanuel.”
[The third way that God transforms Providence into praise in our lives is this:]
III. God transforms Providence into praise through our matriculation (verse 30).
To matriculate is to be enrolled in institution. Paul is saying that believers are enrolled — matriculated — into a divine course of study — the Christian life.
Paul uses rich theological language to describe the three stages of this divine course of study. We are called by God to repent and to believe. An “effectual” call happens when the Holy Spirit opens our heart and we received Jesus Christ as Lord. The second stage is justification. When we receive Jesus Christ we receive the pure, white-linen life of our Lord Jesus Christ lived for us. We also received the forgiveness of our sins and the atonement of our sins as faith in Christ actuates Jesus’ atonement for us, when our sins were positionally (and actually) placed upon the Lord Jesus Christ at Calvary’s cross. As a result of our lives being in Christ through repentance and faith we are justified — declared righteous before Almighty God on account of Christ. This is a magnificent Christian doctrine that is very practical. Each of these theological truths are worked out in our lives and must be worked out. The last phase of the school is glorification. We are called and justified and brought on a progressive sanctifying mission that ultimately brings us to glorification, which happens when we pass from this life into the presence of God. We are made completely whole in Christ so that we are arrayed in his righteousness. Called-justified-glorified. Here are the three great turns in the journey of the Christian life.
The Christian life is like Canterbury Tales, or John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. We are all on a journey moving through these three great phases of God’s seminary called the Christian life: calling, justification, and glorification. Where are you today? The power that begins to actuate Providence becoming praise begins with our calling.
This is singing “Amazing Grace” in the church where a murderer disrupted a service with a killing spree. This is the Haiti refugees singing “Blessed Assurance” in the ruin and ruble of an earthquake. This is the spontaneous hymn-sing in the ghostly white dust of 9/11 in New York City in 2001.
God is calling you even today to turn from your sin and from trusting in yourself or trusting in anything or nothing at all to trusting in the risen and reigning Jesus Christ alone. For some of you there is a specific call: God is calling you to go deeper in your service to him. Some of you may be called to the gospel ministry or to the mission field. God is still active today in calling men and women and boys and girls into his service.
Sometimes on long trips we know what little children say: “Daddy, are we there yet?” To be called of God and to be justified does not diminish the difficulty and the challenges in this life. But he does welcome us to bring our complaints—our heartaches, our anxieties— to him. “Lord, are we there yet” We are not there yet. But the storm-winds of suffering which cause you to be lost along the way are actually the fair breezes ordained by God to bring you home.
So we have seen today how God transforms Providence into praise. We have also seen how he does it in this passage. God transforms Providence — specifically, the Providence that involves our suffering in the world — in three ways:
1. God transforms Providence into praise through all things;
2. God transforms Providence into praise through his chosen people;
3. God transforms Providence into praise through our matriculation into the school of faith.
The vision of this sermon was demonstrated to me a few years ago when I visited a chemotherapy unit and a hospital with one of my parishioners, an oncologist. We visited from patient to patient and the kind physician introduced me to each of them. We had the opportunity to speak to them and listen to them and pray with them. I think that I will never forget the last lady he introduced me to. He paused before we approached her and said, “This lady is my favorite patient and I think that you will see why.” As we approach this dear lady with a bandanna over her shaven head, leaning back in the reclining chair with the IV of chemo going through her veins and into her weakened body, she looked up with a smiling, but gaunt face. After we were introduced this dear Christian lady told me that although the cancer had been the greatest challenge of her life it had brought her some of the finest of God’s gifts: she learned of the true and devoted love of her husband, which she admitted to have sometimes doubted in times past; the love of friends old and new, the love of her local congregation (she told of how she had returned to church after her diagnoses), the love of her physician, my friend; and, in all of these things, a new understanding of the deep, deep love of Jesus Christ for her personally. As she spoke I could see why she was the oncologist’s favorite patient. A severe Providence had become her source of praise.
My beloved in Christ this is not a call to confess a Pollyanna religion that fails to recognize the pain and suffering in this life. This is not a sermon that deigns to dismiss the vaporous mysteries of theodicy. The truth is: I do not need to justify God. He can take care of himself without me just fine. And I have learned that ambiguity can be a friend. I do not need to figure out every thing in this universe—nor will I—in order to trust, childlike, in the God who holds this universe in his hand. For the greatest theological mystery was the mystery of the cross. On the cross the God of all creation suffered and died at the hands of those he had created. He cried out for his Father and his Father would not answer him. For you see, “God’s problem,” to coin Dr. Ehrman’s title, is really our solution. For in the suffering, rejection, and crucifiction of God in Christ upon the Roman cross we are able to know the deep, deep love of Jesus for us.
This morning I invite you to bring your burdens and lay them at the foot of the cross where the question, “How could a good God allow such suffering?” is answered not with a philosophical debate, but with a kind word from God himself on the cross, “Forgive them.”
To receive this is to bless the cancer, be thankful for the accident, or to leave the judgment of another who hurt you to God without giving in to Stoicism, defeat, or bitterness. To praise God though beset by a painful Providence is sing a “doxology in the darkness.” Such praise is of the Holy Spirit, not you. And to do this is to learn how to sing “Amazing Grace” through it all.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.