Sometimes we add “ghost words” to passages of Scripture; words that make sense to us, change the meaning of passage, but are not really there. See if you can spot the ghost word that I’ve added to Romans 8:28.
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for more good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
You probably could catch the word “more” because it reads a little awkward. While the word doesn’t fit, I’m convinced it captures part of what we try to do with this passage that often makes it painful-offensive, instead of comforting.
After our pain, we try to identify the “good” that comes from it that would make it “worth it” for God to allow our suffering. We weigh our pain and we weigh our blessing. If there is not “more” blessing than pain, we begin to doubt God’s Word.
Let me begin by saying, I believe it is okay for us to wonder about God’s goodness in the midst of suffering. If it were not, then God would not have given us so many Psalms of remorse, lament, and grief. To whatever degree we can read God’s intent into statistics, God thought we needed more Psalms of confused sorrow than clear praise.
But let’s not use God’s patience with our bewilderment as a reason to exacerbate the disillusionment we feel when life is hard. Instead, let’s re-examine what inserting the concept of “more” into this passage does.
First, it causes us to do what I would call “guilt-math.” We try to force ourselves to say that whatever good comes from our pain makes it “worth it” in order to protect our view of God. We begin to live as if any sense of tension was non-faith; we live as if we were not caught between the “already” (effects of sin) and the “not yet” (full effect of redemption).
If we learn anything from the candor of Scripture, it’s that God doesn’t need us to protect him. We live like children who are afraid to admit they are scared in the night because they fear offending their parents. God inspired a gritty-honest Scripture so we would live in authentic relationship with him. Part of authenticity means that we quit doing guilt-math.
Second, the rushed-ness of guilt-math causes us to declare the winner before all the votes have been cast. We don’t know what good is coming. Why would we feel coerced to already say the balance has tipped? Some people may experience so much redemptive-good early on that this is natural and that is wonderful. But why do we feel like its non-faith to say, “At this point in my life I still feel that the sorrow of traumatic event ‘x’ is greater than the good that has come from it?”
Who watches a redemptive-tragedy movie and thinks it was “good” 90 minutes in? Who watches a great comeback and thinks it was epic before overtime? What abandoned spouse can say it was “worth it” in 18 months? What grieved child can say it was better to have a deceased parent? The obvious answer is… no one. My point is simply that God is not the one rushing us to the right answer.
So what do we do with this reflection? Answer – throw away the scale. Quit trying to measure the cumulative benefit (in your life or vicariously for others) against the cumulative sorrow. The math does not honor your pain and is not needed to justify God. All it does is rush you through guilt-math in a way that leaves you feeling defeated, rejected, or cynical.
So what do we do instead? We begin to view “good” as a destination instead of a counter-balance and trust that God can get us there. In our pain we often wonder if life can ever be good again, can we ever know peace, or whether hope can ever seem real. The answer is yes. That is what God is promising.
God can bring us to a place that is good, ultimately heaven, but not only heaven in spite of all that Satan intends for our harm. In this sense we live like Joseph (Genesis 37-50). We do not know the length of the journey and the math may seldom seem to “add up,” but we trust that the hardships of life are no hindrance to God’s ability or faithfulness to bring us to a place that is “good.”
On this journey we may cry out to God many times. That is part of the “good.” Not because God delights in our sorrow, but because it is an indicator that we are not trying to be more spiritual than God requires or more biblical than the Bible prescribes. It means that our hearts are remaining un-calloused towards God to be open to his love along the journey and for eternity.