Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about something I heard years ago. Someone was teaching about Paul’s letter to the Romans, and he quoted a verse that has always been a comfort to me: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” [Romans 8.28]
But it wasn’t just the verse that I remembered, it was what he said about it: not all things are good, but they will work to the good. In these days, when the love of many is growing cold, and people are claiming that health and wealth are signs of God’s favour, while poverty and illness are signs of a lack of faith, it is really vital to remember what Scripture says about these things.
The world is suffering from a great illness right now, and Christians may wonder why. It is easy to quote Scriptures in good time, and even more important to know them in bad times. This is a world in rebellion against God, and has been since the Fall. This is why there are floods, earthquakes, disease, and other “natural” disasters. But there are also famines, wars, environmental catastrophes, violence and terror, the things we do to each other as human beings, things that are not “natural” in the same way.
Christians are not sheltered from any of this, no matter what the prosperity gospellers tell you. These things that happen to us are not good, but we are promised that they will all work for good. Non-believers also claim that “it all works out in the end”, but that is wishful thinking. The fact is that millions do die through wars, famines, disasters of every kind. Christians, too, have suffered from these things, as well as from persecution and death at the hands of others. But our hope and trust is not in some vague wishful thinking that “it all works out in the end”. In that same chapter of Romans, Paul goes on to list the things that will work for our good, and it’s a shocking list: trouble, hardship, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, or sword. He sums it up: “As it is written: For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” [Romans 8.36]
Paul knew and wanted us to know that it is not just the human race that is in trouble. Long before our current awareness of the environmental disasters we have brought on ourselves, it pointed out that “the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” [Romans 8.20-22]
Peter also dealt with the issue of Christians suffering in this life: “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” [1 Peter 4.12] As long as we are in this world, we will know what Hamlet called “the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to”. So, in one way, we are all, Christians and non-Christians alike, living with these things. But there is a profound difference for the Jesus People, if we will know and trust him and what he promises. Not pie in the sky, not some promise of a future in heaven, though that is there for us too.
No, just read a few of the things that we are told in the New Testament. Before his disciples faced the trauma of the crucifixion, Jesus warned them and assured them: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” [John.16.33] His peace was for now, in the midst of trou- ble, not in some later heaven. The writer to the Hebrews reminded the Christians that: “Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions. So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded.” [Hebrews 10.33-35]
I don’t know why the Lord puts his people through many of the things they experience. I don’t always know what good comes out of those things. Paul tells us to rejoice in our sufferings, because “suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” [Ro- mans 5.3-5] But, in these days, we stand firm because, although there is trouble, hardship, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, and sword, Paul asks, can these things separate us from the love of God? His answer says it all: “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” [Romans 8.37]