The assurance of the love of God in our suffering
For the last three weeks we have been looking at Romans 8.
It is a magnificent chapter. If Romans are the Himalayas of the Pauline letters, chapter 8 is the Everest of Romans. And today we come to the summit, particularly looking at verses 28-39.
They speak of
1. The inevitability of troubles
V28: ‘And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good’.
Those ‘all things’ are listed later, in verses 35-37: ‘Who shall separate us from the love of God? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things, we are more than conquerors ..’
These are the sufferings that come from living in a fallen world: the sufferings that come to all people that are caused because this world is subject to decay and death.
But they are also the sufferings that come when we walk with God in a fallen world.
And Paul knows his stuff. He spoke out of experience. He had been through all these things (cf 2 Cor 11:24-27), all except the sword. But that was to be added to his CV. Several years later he was beheaded by the sword.
If you live for God, with God, in a world that is opposed to God, in rebellion with God, it is like driving the right way up the motorway when everybody else is going the wrong way. There will be smashes and you will get hurt.
And please don’t think that as a Christian, life will go a little bit better for you than if you were not a Christian. Please don’t think that tragic accidents won’t happen. I am sure that there was more than one Christian on that Malaysian flight who had prayed for a safe journey. Prayer is not an extra pill that we can take that will take away the suffering. Prayer is, as verses 26-27 show, the calling from heart to heart, from our heart to the heart of God, by the Spirit. Yes, we do see some wonderful answers to prayer. William Temple said, ‘When I pray coincidences happen’. But there are many times when in the mystery of God what we pray for does not happen.
But that is not a reason for despair, or for abandoning our faith. Because these verses go on and speak of:
2. The inevitability of the triumph of God (verses 28-30)
Note the emphasis here on God
It is God who works ‘all things’ for good.
We need to resist shallow interpretations of this.
It is not saying, as some Christians say, ‘Something I wanted didn’t happen, but it was OK, because what I got was better’. It is the stories that we hear about the person who said, ‘I couldn’t have children, but God worked it for good; we had IVF and now I have the most wonderful twins’ or ‘I was deeply in love, but they married somebody else. I was heartbroken; but it was all for good because I met somebody else who was just right for me’. Or ‘I was made redundant from work, but it worked out for good because I got this fantastic new job’. Those stories are great, and they show us that God is merciful, but they are not the stuff of Christian testimony. We need to remember that for every person who couldn’t have children, but who did miraculously have a child, there are many more who never had a child. And there are many who did miss out on that love or on promotion, and never did meet anybody else or get another job.
But those stories are not what this verse is talking about.
When this verse says that God works for good, it is not saying that God wants to give us better circumstances in life. It is saying something much more radical. It is saying that God wants to give us a new life. And as a result of this new life, whatever circumstances come our way here and now, whether it is glory or a cross, we can face them with joy and peace, patience and hope.
That is why verse 28 comes before 29. It is a bit of a clue! It cannot be taken in isolation. The good that God intends for us is bound up with the foreknowledge, predestination, calling, justification and glorification which are spoken about.
Today is not the place to discuss God’s foreknowledge (his election) and predestination. I have done that elsewhere. The emphasis here is that it is all about God and what he does.
And because it is about what God does, these verses emphasise that what is promised here, is that if you love God, if you seek to put him first, either because you delight in him above all things, or because you desire to delight in him above all things, there is a cast iron, rock solid guarantee that God will transform you into the image of his Son.
You will become like Jesus Christ. You will know God the Father in the same way that he knows God his Father. You will be filled with his love, compassion, wisdom, courage, radiance and glory.
This is all about the triumph of God. It is so that (v29) Jesus might be the ‘firstborn’: first in human time, first in honour, first in precedence of many brothers.
And as an aside, just in case you struggle with the reference to us being ‘brothers’ or, elsewhere in the bible, that we are all ‘sons of God’, please remember that the bible is read in many different cultures. And in our sin-ridden world there are many places where daughters are considered to be nothing. Tim Keller tells of the Indonesian woman who said that as a girl she was nobody compared to her brother. Everything was invested in him and he was the one who would inherit everything. And she spoke of the wonder of reading the bible and discovering that as a follower of Jesus she, who was in her own eyes a mere girl, a nobody, was not going to be a daughter of God, but a Son of God: a full heir, with full dignity and full privileges.
3. The inevitability of our victory (verses 31-39)
We will all suffer. Sorry! I repeat, if you think that prayer means that you will experience less suffering than what you would have done without prayer, get real!
But there are three promises here that you can hold on to:
v31: If God is for us who can be against us.
v37: In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
v39: Nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God.
It was because Jesus knew the love of God that he was able to stand firm against the accusations and lies. Satan challenged him, ‘If you are the Son of God throw yourself off the temple .. and God will rescue you’. That little word ‘if’ is repeated by the authority figures and the soldiers as Jesus hung on the cross, ‘He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!’ (Luke 23:36f)
And for us, it will be those lies, ‘Do you really belong to him? You are not good enough or working hard enough to please him. You don’t really love him do you? He couldn’t love you. You do realise that you are very insignificant?’
And it was because of the conviction of the love of God that Jesus was able to go through with the cross ‘for the sake of the joy that was set before him’. He didn’t buckle. He didn’t resort to violence, which could have saved him. He knew what he had to do and he did it.
And for us, it is the assurance of the love of God that will enable us to go through the fire when it comes; it is the assurance of that love which will enable us to stand firm in the face of temptation and fear.
And notice here in v34, the grounds of our hope and conviction: it is not our feelings but the love of Jesus Christ. This passage speaks of the love of Christ.
a) He died for us. Verse 37 speaks of ‘him who loved us’. It is in the past tense, ‘loved’ because when Jesus went to the cross he already foreknew us. Even though you were not to be born for another 2000 years, he knew you then and he died for you.
And so Jesus is not going to say, ‘I died for you, but you are a worthless sinner; I gave my life for you but I am not going to give you strength in times of trial; I went through the agony and the separation from God for love for you, but now I am going to drop you into the pit and abandon you’. Of course not.
b) He was raised. Even death cannot separate us from the love of God. In the book of Maccabees, the saints are on trial. They are sentenced to death by the amputation of their limbs. They say to their persecutors: ‘It doesn’t matter. Chop off our arms and our legs, because in the resurrection we will have new ones’.
c) He is at the right hand of God. He has all authority
d) He is interceding for us. Jesus is praying for you right now.
When, many years ago, Alison and myself were going to work in Russia, we went on a two week preparation course together with others going overseas to work as mission partners. One couple were there who were going to Uganda. They had a two year old child, Thomas. Sarah, the mother, spoke of how she had heard news that an 18 year old son of someone working in Uganda had been shot and killed. She spoke of how fear had gripped her for her child. She had asked for prayer. People prayed that the family would be protected. But the fear remained. And then she came across these verses that we have looked at today. And they spoke to her in only the way that the Word of God can speak. They spoke deep within her. And she discovered a tremendous peace. It was not that God guaranteed her that nothing bad would happen to Thomas – rather it was the affirmation that even if the worst happened, it would not separate her or her child from the eternal love of God.
I know that some of you are walking through great troubles: Some of you are paralysed by fear. For some you are struggling with a relationship that is breaking down, a child that seems lost, a hope that is constantly frustrated. Some of you are living with deep anxiety or constant pain. Some of have had your heart broken or see no hope for the future. For some here today life seems unbearable.
Please be reassured.
1. The fact that you are going through it does not mean that God has abandoned you. We are told that troubles will come.
2. God’s purposes and victory are inevitable. You are predestined to be transformed into the image of Jesus Christ. One day you will be like him.
3. We are more than conquerors through him who loved us; we are on the winning side, through him, through his death, resurrection, exaltation and prayers.