Thursday, March 19, 2020

Understanding God in Times of Suffering and Uncertainty

How do we pray during something like this? In the news we hear about this crazy bug that is going around. We know it is causing suffering and with so much news about it it almost feels like it is hanging in the mist around us, even though the numbers indicate that’s not the case. Even if we don’t catch the bug, we’ve been affected. Some are off of work. Others wish they were off work because they worry every time they hear a co-worker cough. Normal is disrupted. How do we pray in times like this.

My thoughts turn to Romans 8. Paul was discussing some things here that often get overlooked because of some controversial doctrinal issues that laid on this passage, but it’s worth our time to focus on what he was saying and not just the doctrinal implications of the example he gave. In Romans 8:16-18 he states, “The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: and if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together. For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” Paul was dealing with a different type of suffering, but he saw the suffering that he was going through as evidence of his future glorification.

It is within Paul’s discussion of suffering that he says, “Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. And he that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit, because he maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God.” (Romans 8:26-27)

This is a difficult thing. We don’t like going through suffering. We don’t like seeing other people suffering. But that suffering may result in something far greater that we can’t see, yet. It’s hard for us to pray for things we can’t see, but the Spirit intercedes for us. That’s not to say that he is asking that we be protected from suffering. Whatever the Spirit asks for will be given, but that may still cause us to suffer. That’s very difficult.

But notice what the next verse 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) We like to quote this and think about all the blessings that are going to come our way, but he just been talking about suffering. What are those “all things”? Suffering. Maybe some other things too, but definitely suffering.

There’s something that I really like about this verse. He doesn’t just say, “all things work together for good” as if he is giving his readers knew information. Instead, he begins with “and we know.” For a long time I looked at that and questioned, “how do we know that?” Paul says we know it (or at least he and his original readers knew it). Am I supposed to look at my own life and somehow it seem obvious? No, I don’t think so. This passage wouldn’t be needed if we could get there by self-reflection.

Recently, I’ve become convinced that the controversial verses (Romans 8:29-30) are there to provide evidence for his claim that we know these things. “For whom…” it begins. That “For” is pointing back at the verse saying, “we know.” So, he’s about to tell us why we know it. “For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified.”

One way that people read this passage is to say that those he foreknew are all of us who will be saved. Since that would include us today, they explain the tense of the passage by saying that this means it was started in the past but is an ongoing thing, so even though we haven’t been glorified yet, it is just saying it has started and it is certain. My objection to that view is that it takes something that isn’t obvious (verse 28) and gives evidence for it with something that is even less obvious. Paul was too well educated to make that kind of mistake in his writing.

There is another way to look at this passage. What if “foreknow” actually means, “people known in the past?” What if it means people who came before Paul, but not Paul himself? Do we know of people that God knew before Paul, that he predestinated to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he called, that he justified, and that he glorified? What about Moses and Elijah? When they appeared on the mount of transfiguration, Peter wanted to build tabernacles for them. Elijah was taken up into heaven at the end of his ministry. He is an obvious example of a saint of old who was treated as if his sins were forgiven prior to the sacrifice that Jesus offered on the cross, a person called by God, and a person who was glorified. How do we know that Romans 8:28 is true? Because it was true for people like Elijah and other examples we have in the scriptures.

We have evidence that God works all things for good. Even the suffering that we face will be turned to good. And I think we can already see hints of that happening with our current situation. We don’t want to pray for suffering, even though it may lead to better things. We may even question why God would allow suffering. We might even be tempted to say that God could have prevented it and should have prevented it but didn’t. It’s true that God could have prevented it, but before we start telling God what he should do, we should look at the examples we have in the Bible of how he used suffering to accomplish better things. We don’t know what the end result of this suffering will be, but we can have faith in God and his ability to turn it into something good.

1 comment :

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