And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good,
for those who are called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28).
This is a difficult verse.
If we read it as a proclamation of tit-for-tat justice on earth, or even with the expectation that we can always discern the purposes of God, we are bound to be disappointed. We will project our own need for order and meaning upon a world which has in part been disjointed from its center.
Much better things have been written on this, such as Kate Bowler’s recent work. But we can safely say one thing: God can and does use all things for good for those who love him.
So in part, the problem is that we do not know what is good. Or rather, we do not, deep down, see that while there are many good things, there is only one that is Good–so surpassingly, inconceivably good that knowledge of him, love of him does hold the promise and seed of what will one day make all things well.
But let’s explore two modes of how we might think about this verse, even now, while the promise and seed remains often hidden from our eyes.
The Clarity of Exchange
I go for a walk and realize that $10 fell out of my pants pocket. Because of this, I retrace my steps and finds $100.
This seems to be the easiest way to think about God using all things, even the bad things for good. And this interpretation is often helpful.
That break up with the girlfriend, that early childhood abandonment–God uses these things to draw us to him. And in fact, some things we once perceived as loss will reveal themselves as gain.
But when we monetize each loss and look for the exchange, we risk two things:
a. We risk trivializing both the suffering and the good which God intends for us.
b. We risk seeing the universe and God as ordered around ourselves and worldly convenience.
That I did not get on an airplane that crashed, while others died, is not because God has a special love for me but not them. The good God is working for me is not merely another day of life or financial success. Although, these can all be blessings from his hand!
Further, if not getting on that plane was working good, so too must be getting on that plane! In other words, both those who died in the wreck and their relatives (if they love God), should, according to this conception of exchange or transparent-providence, be able to see the wreck as working for good.
The Christian faith is not so monstrous as to ask people who have suffered great loss to see this suffering as good in and of itself. We are not prima facie called to give thanks for the death of a loved one.
The Opacity of an Image
If we are honest, we need not deny that providence is at times transparent to us, but we must acknowledge its frequent opacity. In fact, Paul would not need to offer us Romans 8:28 if this were not often the case.
So let us consider a different image than the exchange of $10 for $100.
When a loved one dies, when a child is lost or seriously hurt, when there is cancer, or divorce, it may be tempting to gloss over our lives with the veneer of exchange and faith. But this really just hermetically seals in our sorrow and fear. It is actually a form of despair rather than faith or hope.
In such situations the idea of mere exchange is vulgar. (Job’s receiving a new family must be read both as a comfort, but also symbolic promise of heaven).
In these instances, it is not exchange that is promised to us, that is, that God will make it up to us, but transfiguration!
This only makes sense if the ultimate good promised to those who love God is God himself. The terrible reality of the cross is not its irradiation of injustice and loss, but that it is the means by which God himself enters into the absurdity of loss, injustice, and suffering. God transforms this world not by his presence, not by playing a shell game of exchange with our sorrows.
The great good we are promised to receive in all things, perhaps especially in our suffering, is God himself.
But even this can be impalpable and a mystery at times. This hardly seems like comfort! Your child died, but God is close!
I will say two things. First, in faith this truly does beget comfort one which does not eliminate loss, but enters into it and humanizes it.
Second, we can think of it like seeing a very terrible image on a very dark surface. The event, the loss, that which is almost, no, is, unbareable to gaze upon, is like some dark visage, some nightmare in blacks and browns on the surface of glass which has lost its transparency.
This image stands before us and though we cannot escape it, we hardly dare look. And yet we cannot not look.
Yet overtime, perhaps over years, perhaps over a lifetime, perhaps reaching even further, faith begins perceive that behind that lusterless surface a light shines, and that the image ever so slowly begins to glow. And as it glows, much like the glass images in church windows, it to becomes different, though not transparent.
What was terrible and unbearable begins to change, not wholly, not so that it does not remain awful, but such that the promise of something else in it or behind is made known to us in a mystery.
We discover deep down in our sorrow that a light has begun to shine, a light which has never ceased to shine, never has and never will, and we hope (in the true meaning of that word hope) to enter at last into a day which is fully filled by that light, and in which all such windows in our hearts are illuminated, and the true images of things made known for what they are and why they are.
Until then, it is only faith that can say such verses (Romans 8:28), and it is only faith that can trust them and know them to be true. All else is folly and pretension, or despair and presumption.