One of the most popular, most comforting, scriptures in the Bible is found in Paul’s letter to the Romans.
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.
Some reading this may not know the Bible well and perhaps don’t know who Paul was. Imagine then, that you are a man who is highly intelligent and devout, having a set of beliefs about God that you not only cherish but defend. You are known as Saul of Tarsus by your Jewish brethren. You are a Jew and also a Roman citizen. From early childhood, you have spent your life studying the Torah, the written law of God. Your reputation is based on your beliefs. You have gone so far as to seek out heretics who are claiming that God has come in the person of a man from Nazareth, a carpenter’s son. Blasphemous! Later, you become a leader in the search for these heretics so that they can be brought to justice. You stand on the sidelines and watch as one of them is stoned to death. Then one fateful day, as you are traveling to a city called Damascus in your search, God stops you in your tracks. Literally. You are blinded. You fall from your horse into the dusty road and hear the voice of God: “Saul, Saul, why you are persecuting Me?”
Saul had been hunting disciples, or followers, of Jesus Christ, who had apparently proclaimed Himself to be the Son of God. Saul was known as “the Pharisee of Pharisees”. A Pharisee was one who was “separated from others” and they were often self-righteous and arrogant. You can imagine the outrage of such a man when confronted with people saying that this Jesus was supposedly God in the flesh.
There are 13 “Principles of Faith” that Orthodox Jews believe. The 12th states: “I believe with full faith in the coming of the Messiah. And even though he tarries, with all that, I await his arrival with every day.” There was a belief that a “Messiah” would come to liberate the Jewish people and bring world peace. He would be a powerful king, ruling here on earth! Yet when He came, instead of coming as a king here on earth, He came as a gentle, loving man who would say that His kingdom was not of this earth. Instead of being recognized as the Messiah, He would be mocked, beaten, spat upon, and crucified upon a cross. Then those who had been His disciples would be summarily hunted down and killed. And Saul was a leader of the pack of hunters pursuing them.
With that backdrop of a man who was vehemently against Jesus and His followers, how on earth is it possible that he would be the one who would risk his life innumerable times to tell the story that Jesus was, in fact, the Son of God? Wouldn’t God have struck him down with a bolt of lightning, killing him on that road to Damascus to show others what would happen to them if they persecuted and killed his followers? Wouldn’t God smite those who had killed His Son, Jesus?
God is God, and His ways are not our ways. That’s a very good thing indeed. Instead of killing Saul, He dramatically showed him the error of his ways and turned him from his path of self-righteousness and destruction to a path of true righteousness and salvation. Saul would come to be known as Paul, as his life would take a complete reversal in direction. He would go on to write many letters, revealing the story of Jesus Christ and declaring His message of love, grace, and sacrifice.
The longest of Paul’s letters would be to the Romans. It was when Nero was the Emperor. His letter to the Romans was written around 57-58 a.d., while Paul was most likely in Corinth. Paul had never met those he wrote to but knew of their faith in Christ based on the testimony of others. They were of differing backgrounds. Most likely there were Jews among them who believed in Jesus. Others would have been heathens who had also come to believe in Him. There would have been contentious beliefs about how to be a follower of Christ. Paul’s letter would be written to encourage them and instruct them on his inspired knowledge of the sinful nature of man, the sacrifice that Jesus made in our man’s behalf, and that salvation is through faith alone.
When we read that “God causes all things to work together for good”, we must recognize that this pertains to just one group of people. It is “to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” No such statement is made to those who do not love God and who are not called according to his purposes. Nor is Paul saying that we can cause things to work together for good. Only God can do this. “Looking on the bright side” may be helpful to us, but that is not what Paul is saying here.
What does the verse mean? How can we apply this in our life? First, we should love God.
There is a scripture in Mathew 22 in which Jesus had been asked a very important question by the Pharisees. When they hoped to entrap him, asking Him what the great commandment in the Jewish Law was, He replied:
“ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment.”
~ Matthew 22:37
In 2004, several months after the death of our son, Brian, I was in my car on the way to work. It was early morning and I was alone on a highway. I felt very alone indeed. My thoughts were of Brian and how much I missed him. I thought of Matthew 22. Understanding what it meant, knowing the scripture, was one thing. Being able to do it, I felt, was something altogether different.
Speaking out loud, I asked God “How is it possible for me to love you more than I love Brian, Daniel, and Katie? More than I love my wife? More than I love my mother and father, my sister? More than my friends? More than the amazing beauty of this world with its majestic mountains, rivers, ocean beaches, sunsets, and wildlife? More than starry nights, the twinkling of fireflies, the feeling when a large trout takes my fly in a Wyoming stream?” I stated emphatically “That is not possible for me God! I can’t just want to love you more than all that, it isn’t simply choosing to love. I have to really love You that much to obey that commandment!”
It would be misleading to say God answered me. More accurately, I believe He gave me a revelation that would change my understanding. I suddenly understood it as if He had said out loud to me: “John, every person and everything you just listed are gifts that I have given to you in your life. You love my gifts, can you not love Me, the One who gave you every good thing?” That was eye-opening for me. God had given me everything I had ever loved, ever cherished, throughout my entire life. And yet, here I was asking Him how I could love Him more than those people, those things. He had given me those things out of love for me. I was very appreciative of the gifts. But I had been missing the opportunity to love the Giver.
Cindy and I would see many evidences of God in our lives. We would be told that the forgiveness we had shown after Brian’s accident would be a blessing to others, and had even been shared by missionaries on trips to other countries. Cindy would tell the murderer of her brother to his face “I forgive you, I forgive you…” He would break down in tears as she said these words. He would also go to prison for many years. Perhaps her words would lead him one day to seek to know God, to surrender his life to the One who actually was in control of it? We would see God working, bringing good out of the loss of our son, out of the loss of her brother. Yet the pain was also real, and the healing took a long time.
My belief is that we take so much for granted in this life and our love for God is far too shallow. We have expectations that things will go well, especially if we think we are being “good people”. We have simplistic views on the things that really matter, such as where we will spend eternity and the purpose of our very existence. We must remember that God causes all things to work for good – “to those who love God.”
Can we not cry out to God to help us out of the depths of His love?
“Lord, help me first to love You in a more profound way!”
“Open the eyes of my heart Lord!”
“Help me to see beyond the material world and the daily grind of activities and chores, so that I can see You at work in my life and the lives of others.”
“Help me to understand the depth of Your love, a love that would cause You to sacrifice Your Son to save a sinner like me.”
“Help me to love others, to extend Your love to them, and to not be focused on myself.”
“But most of all Lord, thank You! Thank you for loving me and for all the gifts you have given to me throughout my entire life. I am eternally grateful.”
My encouragement to you is that, no matter what has happened in your life prior to now, you are free to choose to follow after Jesus Christ at this very moment. Humble yourself, recognizing that you really aren’t in control of much in this life. But you can make choices! You have the freedom even in the midst of the most hostile countries in the world to choose to believe in Jesus, that He is the Son of God who came to take away the sins of the world. My sins. Your sins. You can believe that He rose from the grave after three days and sits at the right hand of God. You are free to turn from sinful ways and follow Him, trusting Him with your very soul.
Blessings in Christ,
Photograph by John J O’Leary