There are times in life as believers when we see a lot of things all jumbled up and confusing and so very uncertain but in due time we see that everything turns out all right. There are other times when the outcome seems to be anything but for our good. So how are we to take the scripture that says, "And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose." (Romans 8:28)
It sounds awesome doesn't it? Sickness, death, losing a friend or a loved relative or even your own child, falling over and nearly killing yourself, food-poisoning, bellyache, insomnia, getting fired from your job, a psycho hunting you down and the refusal of a bank loan to repair your house all amounts to our good we are told. But is that really so?
Let us give this whole, amazing idea some context. Here was John the Baptist living his ordinary life and in the process was doing enormous good to many people and the sceptical and stiff-necked Israelis, perhaps not in keeping with their unruly tradition, regarded him as a man of God and one to be respected. John offended one man in particular, an adulterous demon king called Herod by telling him it was not lawful for him to have his brother Philip's wife. In the meantime Philips' wife, Herodias, went ballistic because some commoner like John dare to deny her and Herod. In revenge, as a prize for her daughter's dancing, asked the king for John's head on a platter. You can get all the details by reading the account in Matthew 14:1-12.
Now here is the profound question. How did John's brutal beheading worked for John's good, and how did it work for the good of others especially those who loved God?
One impressive example is good but in this case two are better. A godly woman of middle age was going to work one morning and met with an accident that left her permanently paralyzed. Her husband could not live with that predicament and divorced her. Her two very young dependent children were unable to cope on their own and so had to be taken into Local Authority care and were eventually sent into private foster-care. The disbelief of it all was too stressful on the woman and she had a seizure and died a few years later.
As before the question that comes to mind is this. This woman loved the Lord and served him well, so how did this work out good for her and her family?
Let us look at the other side of the coin and see a case where we can come to some firm conclusions and this quintessential example relates to the brutal stoning of Saint Stephen; the account is told in Acts chapter 7. In summary Stephen was stoned because he told the disbelieving Jews some uncomfortable truths about themselves and some compelling truths about Jesus Christ. And they were enraged beyond reason. They fell on him with fists and gnashing teeth, dragged him out of the city and pounded him with stones until he died. A special Jew witnessed all this and was the one accenting to this death; he was none other than Saul of Tarsus.
Now let us ask the identical question as before and we will surely get a very different answer. How did Stephen's brutal stoning worked for his good, and how did it work for the good of others especially those who loved God?
We do not know how it worked to Stephen's good, although we can speculate, but it had a mighty effect on others, i.e. Saul and the early believers.
Here is what we do know.
The redoubtable Saul saw Stephen's death as just another act in his war on those who he judged were contrary to God but the manner of the death, and especially Stephen's fierce promotion of the Lord Jesus Christ impacted Saul enormously. Even more so Saul witnessed Stephen's absolute refusal to condemn and despise his murderers and instead asked God to forgive them. This response was so extraordinary baffling that Saul was convinced that Stephen, and by definition all the followers of Jesus Christ, was in possession of something he did not have and being supremely religious it caused him inner disquiet. Some would say that Saul was under conviction. With this in mind Jesus appeared to Saul when he was on the road to Damascus and asked him, "Why are you fighting against the pricks?" These were the pricks put there by Stephen. We know what happened next for Saul was converted, his name was changed to Paul and he went on to become the greatest evangelist of all the apostles and the greatest defender of the faith among the early saints.
We should also take note of the immediate effect of Stephen's martyrdom and recognized that the believing Jews idea of Christianity being for a minority group of converts from Judaism was immediately abandoned and instead they moved away from Jerusalem and evangelized as they went.
The Bible puts it like this, "Now they which were scattered abroad upon the persecution that arose about Stephen travelled as far as Phenice, and Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word to none but unto the Jews only. And some of them were men of Cyprus and Cyrene, which, when they were come to Antioch, spake unto the Grecians, preaching the LORD Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them: and a great number believed, and turned unto the Lord." (Acts 11:19-21)
So in the case of Stephen's untimely, brutal death we can clearly see that they were benefits all round to all the believers of the early Church even if we cannot be sure of the benefits for Stephen the martyr. Of course it is of no small thing to become the first Christian martyr and to be accorded that accolade when so many great and wonderful saints were soon to follow.
Yet there must be more to it than this. We tend to perceive things always in the narrow sense and on the human level as if that is all that matters. The question we ask almost unconsciously is what do I and my family get out of it? If I meet with some fatal disaster how can I be sure it is for my good and my family that I leave behind? Can my sacrifice be unquestionably to the good of those I leave behind or is there lots of caveats? In the end is it worth it and can I know only when I get to heaven and see?
These are significant questions and there are no clear answers to many of them because how we define "good" is very subjective and ultimately we have to trust God for good outcomes. Nobody can know the final outcome of any event or action taken on earth, much less the consequences accruing to eternity. Because God is omniscient it therefore follows that he knows and if he says it is so then surely, unquestionably it is exactly so.
So how are we to regard mundane events around us? When disaster strikes are we to be glad that someone we love dies as a consequence because we believe it will be for his good and the good of all believers? Should we laugh in the face of grief and be untouched by human suffering because God is working things out for our good? A thousand times no.
When you are hit by tragedy you have every right to mourn. When you are decimated by pain you are fully entitled to scream for relief and seek escape from it. When others are suffering the arrows and slings of haplessness and misery you are entitled to sympathise with them and not just rejoice with them that rejoice but certainly weep with them that weep. Even Jesus Christ himself when he saw the agony of Martha and Mary at the death of Lazarus dared not tell them to cheer up and rejoice because it's all for our good. No, the Bible tells us when Jesus saw their pain that he wept.
So how are we to take Romans 8:28, and how are we to see good in these matters?
Here is how Burton Coffman saw it in his commentary. "For good ..." cannot mean earthly prosperity, success, bodily health, or any other purely mortal benefit, but is rather a reference to the eternal felicity of the soul. Whatever might happen to the Christian in this life, absolutely nothing can happen to HIM, that is, his saved inner self. This is true because God is able to overrule every earthly circumstance in such a manner as to compel its contribution to the eternal redemption that awaits the children of God.
John Gill puts it rather differently in his commentary, "Work together for good ...speaks of a situation in which God is surely at work on the Christian's behalf, but it also speaks' of a situation in which the saved person's reaction to life's woes is a controlled response...The reaction of the child of God, or his response, to the ills of mortal life must be one of patience, submission, humility, prayer, love, hope, and faith. Even adversity of the severest kind must be made to yield its precious fruit in the heart of the Christian. It has been proved again and again by Christians that "Prosperity is the blessing of the Old Testament; adversity is the blessing of the New."
Finally let Christians everywhere absolutely be assured that any and every wicked scheme of the enemy, every painful misfortune, every malicious deed suffered and every attempt by the enemy to discomfort and debilitate will work to his betterment here below and far more importantly to his enjoyment throughout eternity. God has a way of turning pain into power, mourning into momentous melody, the darkness of privation into heaven's soulful abundance and the jittering walk of the believer into the saint's majestic striding in the corridors of heaven.
Books by this author (non-fiction except indicated otherwise)
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BASTARD: A STORY OF REDEMPTION (fiction)
STAND UP TO THE DEVIL (5 Volumes)
Volume 1 You must first identify him
Volume 2 The Devil is not the boss