The Christian Experience of Suffering (2)
A second passage that deals with this subject is Romans 8:28: ‘We know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are called according to his purpose.’
The promise contained in this verse is very definitely limited. It refers only to a certain class of people – those who love God, and have been called according to His purpose. Only with regard to these is it true that all things work together for good. The passage gives no countenance to the fatalism in terms of which it is universally acclaimed that ‘all is for the best.’ There are myriads who, despite experience of suffering, lose their souls – for whom, in the last analysis, nothing works for good. It is important therefore that we should be able to identify the class to whom the promise belongs. Here we must content ourselves with the barest outline. The emphasis lies, not on gits, nor on experiences, but on character – they love God. Secondly, their virtue is God-centred – they love God. Despite all their reverence for the commandment to love their neighbours, Christians have not moved to the humanist position, in which love for man is primary. The first commandment is to love the Lord our God – we stand committed to another-wordly orientation of the good life. Thirdly, the emphasis lies on the present; they love God now. The criterion is not what people were, nor what they once, perhaps long ago, experienced. The present is the decisive authentication of the past. And we may complete our characterisation by casting our net a little beyond the confines of this verse; in Romans 6, where we learn that these people died to sin and came alive to righteousness, and that for them to contemplate continuing in sin is an absurdity; in Romans 7, where we learn that they regard themselves a wretched men because of vestigial sin, and yet thank God for progress towards victory through Jesus Christ our Lord; in the earlier verses of Chapter 8, where we learn that they are in Christ Jesus, and walk not after the flesh but after the Spirit; and, finally in Chapter 12, where we see that, constrained by the mercies of God, they are not conformed to this world but to the will of God, and offer their bodies, in the fullness of vigour and endowment, to Him, as the expression of an unqualified gratitude. It cannot be too strongly emphasised that only for this constituency is there a healing and a sanctifying power in ‘all things.’
Secondly, we must be very careful as to how we understand the ‘good’ indicated in the statement, ‘all thins work together for good.’ Similar ideas occur in Psalm 23:1, ‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want for nothing;’ in Psalm 34:10, ‘They that seek the Lord shall not lack any good thing;’ and in Romans 8:39, No creature ‘shall be able to separate us from the love of God.’ In our interpretation of these promises we must be guided by the hard facts of Christian experience – and that means the valley of the shadow of death (Psalm 23:4), the many afflictions of the righteous (Psalm 34:19), and ‘tribulation, distress, persecution, nakedness, peril and the sword’ (Romans 8:35). On the very threshold of Christian commitment we are asked to reckon with the fact that much awaits us which is not joyous but grievous, and our discipleship is depicted as a cross-bearing, an identification of ourselves with Christ in His relationship to the world, the flesh and the Devil. Hence, the ‘good’ promised in Romans 8:28 is a good within cross-bearing, so that, once again, emphatic negatives are in order. We are not promised ease and comfort – we must endure hardship. We are not promised immunity from those ills which, in the present order of things, the flesh inherits – instead, God takes special care to discipline His own. And we are not even promised that the sense of God’s love will always accompany us – the God-fearing may for long walk in darkness and have no light (Isaiah 50:10).
The key to the interpretation of the promise lies in the description of Christians as those ‘called according to his purpose.’ What is that purpose? It is, ‘to be conformed to the image of his Son’ (verse 29). In other words, the good for which, in the case of the Christian, all things work together is Christ-likeness. This is all that we have a right to expect from providence, that it will conform us to Christ, perfecting us in the spirit of sonship, making us dependent, prayerful, grateful, obedient and patient. And, conversely, the only providence with which we could conceivably quarrel would be one that did not sanctify.
We should note, in the third place, the absolute character of this statement. All things work together for the good of them that love God. Nothing is exempted from the obligation to co-operate with the purpose of redeeming love. All things are ours (1 Corinthians 3:22). This includes the hostility of the godless world – tribulation, distress, persecution, martyrdom – the afflictions which are the leading characteristic of the present time. It includes, again, those providences which suggest that God does not care; that in the Highest there is no knowledge of things below; famine, nakedness and peril. And it includes temptation, not simply in the sense of testing, but in the sense of that process by which Satan entices and seduces to sin. This is true, I dare say, even when that process issues in our falling.
But this suggests another point to which attention must be drawn – it is together that all things work for good. The tendancy of the single event, especially in the case of temptation, may be quite different; it may seem to point in the direction of apostasy and despair. But when life is taken as a whole, when its various elements are seen to be interrelated and juxtaposed, the cumulative effect is sanctifying. Paul’s thorn in the flesh was in itself a messenger of Satan; but in the context of his prayer, of God’s answer and of Paul’s acceptance of the divine arrangement, the messenger of Satan became the messenger of God. Similarly, in the case of Peter’s denial, the incident itself, being sin, absolutely ought not to have taken place – it was absolutely under the ban of Almighty God, and its native tendancy was to the detriment of Peter’s spiritual life. But, when related to the pride that preceded and the contrition which followed it, it becomes clear that the denial was an important element in that process by which the mage of the Son of God was wrought consummately in the Apostle of the Cicumcision. We must, then, take a total view. The spiritual value of an event is not to be judged in terms of itself alone, but in terms also of our response and re-adjustment. Both Peter and Judas fell, and each went to his own place.
One final qualification must be made. The suggestion that the authentic text is, ‘God works all things together for good’ (rather than ‘all things work together for good’), must, I think, be accepted. This presents us with a contrast between the things in themselves and the same things as taken under His control by the Lord. Affliction by itself does not sanctify: it exhausts and embitters, it depresses and entices. It is the presence of God and the use made of it by Him, as He relates to our lives as a whole and attaches it to His saving purpose, that make adversity salutary. It works for the good only as He enables us to react spiritually to it, and as He consecrates it to our salvation as the concomitant of foreordination, election, calling, justification and glorification.