It's the most quoted verse at the funeral home. Certainly you've heard it before. Maybe you've even tossed it out as words of comfort. You know. The wording changes from translation to translation, but the gist is simple: "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." Or more commonly, "And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God..." Romans 8:28. The verse that springs to mind so easily, but which so many people find distastful while experiencing grief.
Reverend Mommy found herself dealing with a horrible situation in the Atlanta area. A older couple are dead from a murder-suicide at the local hospital. She blogged while dealing with many of the same emotions we all feel in the depths of tragedy. I know. I've been there. And somehow the comforting words of Romans 8:28 aren't all that comforting while wallowing in misery. We wish the people would just be like the early version of Job's friends and just sit there and keep their traps shut.
What is it about this verse that bothers the grieving? Do we mean to say that we don't believe what Spirit-inspired Paul writes in this verse? I think our quibbles deal with a couple of basic misunderstandings. And perhaps these wouldn't be misunderstandings if we felt like really breaking down the verse in question and doing a grammar study. I rarely feel like doing that when I feel happy, let alone when I'm overcome with sadness. But instead of doing some sort of breakdown of the Greek, let me just put forth these understandings as I see them and I as have lived them.
First of all, the word "good" is just plain offensive in the midst of tragedy. Certainly there can be no good in a horrible traffic accident taking the life of a popular teenager. How dare we mention "good" when a mother is killed and a baby must be brought up by other relatives. Where is the good in cancer, or in a murder-suicide? Of course when we are calm we can see that Paul is by no means telling us that everything that happens is good. He would have been either stoned to death or a full-time tentmaker if the early church would have taken that verse as a whitewashing of the evil in the world. Instead, Paul is noting that God uses the bad things for good. Like Joseph, standing before the brothers who had sold him to the Midianite caravan and declaring that God meant their evil for good, Paul is trying to get us to see beyond our earthly perspective.
But for those who are suffering, there is no good. There is no possibility of the situation being anything different than it is perceived -- tragedy. Something which God should have prevented. Instead, people throw out a verse which seems to suggest that not only did God not prevent the terrible thing from happening, but that He sees it as being good for us.
Growing up, I was told that the worst tasting foods were "good for me." Spinich, lima beans, liver and onions, rutabegas... this stuff was supposed to be good, but my little kid mind only saw the yucky taste. I argued that cake should be good for me because it was good. It didn't work then, and it doesn't work now!
But "good" in God's eyes isn't always good to us because we lack His perspective. You see, the other major misunderstanding with Romans 8:28 is that we want God to work things out for good for us NOW. After all, NOW is when I need a little "good" in my life. Thirty years from now is not on the mind of a person in the wake of tragedy. If there is going to be some good we want it NOW, but it doesn't come. Even a short smile at a funeral home soon turns to anguish again. The pain doesn't subside, even though we wish it would. Yet God's game plan doesn't often work on our timetable. The "good" which God works in us takes the shape of "hope" and "character-building" -- things which aren't exactly timed for our drive-thru, pop-it-in-the-microwave lifestyle.
I haven't really blogged much about our first baby; not because of shame or intense pain but really that the story hasn't been weighing upon my heart. The short version is that after a seven-month problem pregnancy, our son died just over 16 hours after he was born. My wife and I were left as a young couple with shattered dreams and questioned faith. I could see absolutely no "good" coming from the situation despite efforts of others to coach me in that direction. I don't remember anyone tossing out Romans 8:28 during the funeral or the visitation, but truthfully most of that time is all a blur. Nothing was going to console me. My son was dead.
It's been over 14 years now -- hardly a tick of God's mighty clock -- and today I have a thimble-sized dose of perspective. Don't get me wrong. I don't see my boy's death as "good" by any means. But again, that's not what Romans 8:28 says anyway. What I see almost a decade and a half afterward is how God has worked in the lives of both myself and my wife. He has used the pain we've gone through to bring the two of us closer together. He has used the pain we've gone through to bring us closer to Him. And He has used the pain we've gone through to reach out to other people who are hurting.
Am I at the point where I can say, "Yes, it was a good idea for my baby to die before living for 24 hours?" No. But I can see a thinning of the fog. I have an inkling how God can use the terrible to build our hope and our character. I now have a slight idea of ways God can use to break my pride and increase my dependence upon Him. And I see how I can trust Him in good times and in bad because He loves me with an everlasting love. Despite my shortsightedness and my rebellion, God uses what happens in my life for my good and for His ultimate glory. Amen and amen.