Romans 8:28 Sept. 10 2017
I’ve called this message “Theological Vexations.” By that I mean what some people believe God is and what God does vexes me. Drives me nuts.
Here’s a posting on Facebook earlier this week.
“Those of you that have turned your back better pay attention!! Tornadoes this summer, hurricane headed up the east coast and a 5.9 earthquake in Virginia felt all the way to NYC and Boston along with one in Colorado! Texas with record flooding! Los Angeles wildfires! Not to mention the North Korea mess !!! And people are fighting to take God out of everything, seems to me God is sending an awfully loud message!!!!!! If you agree copy & re-post PUT GOD BACK WHERE HE BELONGS!”
As Hurricane Harvey has just left its wake of devastation in Texas and Hurricane Irma sweeps through Florida even now, that Facebook posting becomes even more diabolically interesting. If you parse it out, what it’s saying is that God is punishing the world with hurricanes, earthquakes, and wildfires because we have ignored God and taken God out of life.
When you are convinced that everything that happens in this world is the will of God, then there’s a lot of bad stuff you have to explain.
If we can say anything about the recent climate disasters, they are divine punishment for scientific denialism.
To help us with our theological vexations I want to lift up one of the most arresting verses in the Bible. It’s Romans 8:28:
JB Phillips: 28-30 “Moreover we know that to those who love God, who are called according to his plan, everything that happens fits into a pattern for good.”
Look carefully at the wording of this verse. “We know that to those who love God those who are called according to his plan, everything that happens fits into a pattern for good.”
And notice what this verse does not say, It does not say, as the KJV wrongly translates it that “All things work together for good.” The original Greek is a little confusing here, but it doesn’t say that everything that happens works for good. We don’t need to be a Bible scholar or theologian to know that a lot of things that happen to us and happen in the world aren’t good, aren’t working for good, will never, ever turn out good.
Over the years I have stood with many, many family members who have lost loved ones. Sometimes, and those were the easy cases, sometimes the death came for someone advanced in years, as was my mother, and in those cases when a friend says to us, “It was a blessing, we respond, “Yes, it was.”
But I’ve heard other responses, some of which are stupid and downright cruel: “God needed her more than you did.” “God gives his hardest battles to his bravest soldiers.” Clever, but not good.
“We don’t always understand God’s ways.” That’s for sure.
Maybe the best thing we can do when suffering and hardship strikes a friend is to say nothing, absolutely nothing, and respond with a hug or tear.
In 1971 I moved to Philadelphia and became pastor of a church just north of the city limits. Our Clerk of Session there was a man by the name of Al Maul. He was a man old enough to be my father. We were polar opposites. When he would say stop, I would say go; when he would say yes, I would say no. I was young, impetuous, and aggressive. Al was older, careful, and conservative. I was determined to come in and shape and shake that church up. I’m sure Al Maul, who had seen a succession of young ministers come and go over the years must have said to himself, “This, too, shall pass.”
Yet, in all of this I respected Al Maul, for he was a good man, and he loved the church and loved our Lord.
In January, 1975, my father had a massive coronary and died before he could get help. He was 53 years old, and up until the last day of his life, had been in good health. On the Sunday I returned to Philadelphia after the funeral service, I stood in line shaking hands with the people. When Al Maul came through he gripped my hand with both of his hands. He looked at me. There were tears streaming down his cheeks. He said nothing. He didn’t have to.
And over the months that followed, the care and the concern of those people at the Melrose Carmel Presbyterian Church helped thin out my sorrow, and helped me recover from grief. Now the Melrose Carmel Presbyterian Church will never be counted as a great congregation in our denomination. It was too small in membership and budget, and too isolated in location. But it will always be great to me, and I think it will always be great in God’s eyes because it was a church that ministered to its minister in the worst thing that every happened to me.
Have you ever found yourself, in the midst of unimaginable grief, pain, heartache or despair, wondering how you are going to make it through another day? Wondering where your next breath is going to come from? Your world has crumbled beneath you and you are left feeling shattered, empty and hopeless.
And then a well meaning friend or family member comes along and drops the infamous “Everything happens for a reason” bomb. You smile kindly and nod—that’s all you can do to keep yourself from punching them in the face.
You can’t possibly imagine a reason for what just happened.
The more you stew about a possible reason for your pain, the angrier you become. You try desperately to make sense of a situation that won’t ever make sense. You reach for answers but none come.
You can spend years searching for answers, “Why did this happen? You think if you can find a logical reason for this awful event, it will end your pain. If you can find the cause, you can treat the condition. But I want to tell you through years of experience that sometimes there are no answers. Sometimes bad things happen for no reason other than we are human beings living in a fallen world.
“How could this possibly be God’s will?” a woman asked me when her daughter was killed by a drunk driver. I told her this isn’t the time for a theological lesson. But I will come back in a few weeks and we can talk about your question. But for today let’s just read a few passages of scripture together and pray.
When I came back I told her something like this: “
I don’t believe that everything that happens, particularly bad things, are God’s will. A lot of stuff happens that goes against God’s will.
God’s will is not the path we walk, but rather how we walk the path.
God’s plan is never for someone to have cancer. God’s will is not for an innocent child to be brutally murdered. God’s will is not for a teenage girl to be raped. God’s will is not chronic pain, illness, disability or death.
God’s will for us is to walk with Him through the cancer. Through the abuse. Through the death. Through the illness. God’s will is for us to draw close to him in the midst of pain. God’s will is for us to use our painful life events to carry his message of hope, grace, forgiveness and mercy.
Not everything happens for a reason. But in everything that happens, there can be a reason to bring help and healing to others. God can use our pain for a greater good if we choose to let Him in. I love this wonderful quote from the end of Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms”: “The world breaks everyone, then some become strong at the broken places.”
The heart of our faith is this verse from II Corinthians 5. “God was in Christ.” That means that Jesus is the human face of God. What Jesus is like, God is like: compassionate, vulnerable, responsive. . What vexes me is the incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that God doesn’t go around this world with his fingers on triggers, his fists around knives, his hands on steering wheels. God is dead set against all unnatural deaths. And to demonstrate that Jesus spent a significant part of his ministry delivering people from paralysis, , leprosy, and mental illness.
The one thing that we should say when tragedy strikes someone is: It is the will of God.” Never do we know enough to say that. My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that my father died far too young. When he pulled his car over to the side of the road that January night in 1973 and took his last breath, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.
We went to see the movie “Wind River” last week. It’s main character is a man named Cory Lambert who is a Fish and Game Warden in Landek, Wyoming. He has a lot of Native American friends, and one of his best friends is a man named Martin. Both Cory Lambert and Martin have lost teenaged daughters. Murder victims.
“I’d like to tell you it gets easier, but it doesn’t. If there’s a comfort, you get used to the pain if you let yourself, I went to a grief seminar in Casper. Don’t know why, just, It hurt so much, I was searching for anything that could make it go away That’s what I wanted this seminar to do, make it go away. The instructor come up to me after the seminar was over, sat beside me and said, “I got good news and bad news. Bad news is you’ll never be the same. You’ll never be whole. Ever. What was taken from you can’t be replaced. You’re daughter’s gone. Now the good news, as soon as you accept that, as soon as you let yourself suffer, allow yourself to grieve, You’ll be able to visit her in your mind, and remember all the joy she gave you. All the love she knew. Right now, you don’t even have that, do you?” He said, “that’s what not accepting this will rob from you”. If you shy from the pain of it, then you rob yourself of every memory of her, my friend. Every one. From her first step to her last smile. You’ll kill ’em all. Take the pain, Take the pain, Martin. It’s the only way to keep her with you.”
Let me tell you what I have learned over a life-time of ministry, found from people who have walked through the valley of the shadow of death. Even when our pain is deep God is nevertheless good. I realize that when our pain is most dreadful, God seems far, far away. “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Yes, but at least, “My God, my God”; and the psalm only begins that way, it doesn’t end that way. As the grief that once seemed unbearable begins to turn now to bearable sorrow, the truths in those Biblical passages begin to break through to us:
“Cast thy burden upon the Lord and He shall strengthen thee”;
“Weeping may endure for the night but joy cometh in the morning”;
“Lord, THOU Hast been our dwelling place in all generations.” “Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.”
“For thou hast delivered my soul from death, mine eyes from tears, and my feet from falling”;
“In this world ye shall have tribulation, but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world”;
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
So let us all seek consolation in that love which never dies, and find peace in the dazzling grace that always is.