At Good Shepherd San Diego, the parish where I serve, our lectionary is taking through a continuous reading of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. This coming Sunday the text is from Romans 8, verses 28-39. The opening verse is something most every Christian has heard and maybe even committed to memory, and it’s worth repeating:
And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.
What a wonderful word of promise. In studying these 12 verses I caught myself breezing over this verse without giving it much attention. But, I backed-up to look deeper and found a treasurer-trove of comfort therein. In life, things don’t always go as planned. Conflicts erupt with other people, bad news from the Doctor comes or way, surgeries that don’t fix what ails us, problems with family members along with a vast number of other types of suffering dot the landscape of our lives. But here in this verse, we have a powerful promise from God.
So, what does it mean? As a way of illustration, let’s look at a powerful story in the Bible about Joseph (Genesis, chapters 37 through 50). To put the best construction on his situation, his brothers treated him poorly. They plotted to put him to death (Gen. 37:18). They threw him into a deep hole and left him for dead until foreigners came by which enabled the brothers to sell Joseph into slavery. Time passed with a series of exciting events for Joseph, and it all culminated in Joseph’s rise to power, basically becoming the second in command of Egypt, just under Pharaoh. Joseph’s visions and wisdom directed the country to stockpile food supplies.
This decision served Egypt well, especially when a famine spread over the known world a few years later. In Genesis 42 Jacob learns that there is grain in Egypt, so he sent his sons (Joseph’s brothers who left him for dead) to purchase some in order to survive the famine. When the brothers arrived in Egypt Joseph recognized them, but they did not recognize him (42:8). What happens next is really like a soap opera, and reflecting upon the supposed death of Joseph years earlier the brothers said to one another:
Truly we are guilty concerning our brother because we saw the distress of his soul when he pleaded with us, yet we would not listen; therefore this distress has come upon us. Reuben answered them, saying, “Did I not tell you, ‘do not sin against the boy’; and you would not listen? Now comes the reckoning for his blood.” (42:21-22).
Joseph overheard what they were saying amongst themselves, and turned away from them and wept (v. 24). Then Joseph gave orders to fill their bags with grain, to return their money, and to make sure they had provisions for their journey home. The soap opera continues, as Joseph kept one brother in custody to ensure that they return with the youngest brother, Benjamin. Following some consternation from their father upon returning home, they came back to Egypt with their youngest brother as demanded by Joseph. They were then escorted to Joseph’s home where a meal was prepared. When Joseph saw Benjamin, his brother from his mother, he couldn’t keep his composure and exited the room to weep again.
As the pages are turned we come to chapter 45 and the point of this illustration. In chapter 45 Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers, in verses 1-3.
Then Joseph could not control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried, “Have everyone go out from me.” So there was no man with him when Joseph made himself known to the brothers. He wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard of it. Then Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph! Is my father still alive.”
Pharaoh heard that Joseph’s brothers had come so he gave instructions for them to get their father and move to Egypt, as the famine had another five years to go. What’s amazing after everything his brothers did to him, Joseph comforted them by saying,
God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant in the earth, and to keep you alive by a great deliverance (45:7).
Joseph’s father and his family moved to Egypt as Pharaoh gifted the land of Goshen to them. Much happened in the next four chapters, concluding in chapter 49 with Israel’s death, Joseph’s father. Chapter 50 outlines the embalming of Israel, his transport back to Canaan, and burial. Now that their father “was gathered to his people” (49:33), Joseph’s brothers began to worry that he might seek revenge because of what they did to him years before. But Joseph said to them,
Do not be afraid, for am I in God’s place? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive (50:19-20).
What an emotional story. The point of it all for us is that even though we may be suffering right now, or in the recent past (maybe in the future), even in our groanings (Rom. 8:23) we know that for the ones loving God, all things will work together toward good, for the benefit of those who are called. The “good” that Paul is talking about here is looking toward to future, to the end of time. In fact, Paul says
That the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God . . . For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren (Rom. 8:21, 29).
Bad things happen in this sinful world to us and to those around us. But for the Christian, even in the face of even the direst of circumstances, the Bible affirms that God’s control over evil is so complete that he could even claim it for his own purposes, and He does.
So be of good cheer as you cling to this Word of promise and comfort when curve balls, even evil comes your way. Remember the story of Joseph. And remember what our Lord said,
Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near (Luke 21:28).