Recently I was visiting with a friend who was once a pastor. His marriage is broken—already into years of separation with no restoration in sight—yet he longs to be together with his wife again. In our conversation he touched on the promise of Romans 8:28—”for those who love God all thing work together for good”—as a confusing text. His frank prayer is familiar to many of us, even if our circumstances may differ: “My God, how can anything good come out of this?!”
I won’t try to offer an answer here but I do want to probe the question he raised. To begin let me confess that I never feel so limited as in moments when a tender word or some wise counsel might soothe, heal, and restore. I tend, instead, to share the lessons of a professor and lecturer. By now I know that is not what is needed! So I sit silently, pondering the problem, aching with and for my friends. And I pray.
So allow me to think aloud, still pondering our conversation. Maybe there’s a counselor who will read this and be stirred to help this dear couple, or others like them. This post will be very brief and simply suggestive. Other thoughts are invited by readers.
I started my reflections by considering the broadest biblical frame possible—looking to the accounts in Genesis and in Revelation as the beginning and the end of the present age. In both books sin and pain are paired realities. Before the fall there was no pain or death. There was no distrust. There was no rejection or fear. Pain began with sin. Even ordinary illnesses—or any form of physical suffering—are linked in the Bible to Adam’s fall. Earthly catastrophes including cyclones, fires, earthquakes, and tsunamis, are all linked in the Bible to the fall: as the groaning of a cursed cosmos, cursed to a slow death because of Adam’s sin. Yet in the end, at the conclusion of the book of Revelation, we find that every tear will be dried. The curse will be lifted. Suffering and sorrow will flee away. A new heaven and earth will replace the old.
Huge amounts are written in the balance of the Bible on the collective issues of pain, suffering, and God’s providence. Providence is the common label for the theme of Romans 8:28—addressing God’s successful oversight and interventions in a world filled with sin and pain.
In the broadest consideration we turn to the hope of eternity: the answer offered by God’s final judgments and the restoration that Revelation promises us. A clear application of this answer is offered in the faith chapter of Hebrews, in 11:39-40.
And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.
The point here, in a context of those whose lives ended badly yet without their faith being lost—some killed, sawn in two, some destitute, some afflicted—seems to be that the fabric of God’s overall tapestry has yet to be completed, so the happy final viewing must wait until others, ourselves included, are woven into the whole and thus bring it to completion. What is assumed throughout is that for all who live by faith there is a happy ending that will make sense at last: the “promise” will be finally received.
Another insight, using a narrower frame of reference, is that God is not as interested in our stability, security, and comfort as we are. As we live in the capsized, upside-down world of Adam’s fall, we are not meant to feel at home. But we are assured that God never fails to use sin as an unintended (by Satan, that is) source of benefit for his followers. The story of Joseph in Genesis is remarkable in that respect. Two lines of narrative run in tandem: God’s blessings and Joseph’s miseries! Read it and see. God gives Joseph dreams of a wonderful future and, as a result, his brothers hate him and consider how best to be rid of him. He becomes a slave to Potiphar. He is falsely charged of attempted rape and sent to prison. Years go by. And, with these misadventures the alternate narrative continues to report that “God blessed him in all he did”. Our impulse is to shout at the text, “Well, then, God, get him out of there!” In the end God does intervene, but only after more than a decade has gone by. Joseph, in the end, was satisfied with God’s care and able to separate the two narratives when he spoke to his brothers afterwards: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Genesis 50:20).
The same sort of double dimensions are found in the stories of Job and the man born blind in John’s gospel (chapter 9). Both Job and the blind man are forced to endure some very, very difficult experiences in life. Yet in both cases we discover the forces of good and evil are being distinguished in the process: Satan and the “friends” in Job are linked; and the skeptical leaders who harangued the newly-healed blind man in John 9, are exposed and diminished in the stories. Job and the blind man are seen as faithful.
At other times we see God allowing the people he loves to experience harsh judgments in order for them to feel the weight of their sin—the book of Habakkuk is a gritty summary of God’s willingness to allow the sinful attitudes and activities of one group (the Chaldeans) to crush another group of sinful people (the people of Judah). The ultimate outcome is that, after the Babylonian exile, the persistent habit of whoring after foreign idols ended for God’s people after they were restored. This theme of moral repair is also captured in the New Testament: “whom the Lord loves, he disciplines.”
I will end here. The triad of our title for this post—”pain, patience, and providence”—is as much as I can bring into some sort of focus for now. We suffer, but we need to be patient. Why? Because God is providentially ruling over all our circumstances so that, for those of us who are with him—”who love him”—everything is sure to be explained in ways that make sense. Even those things that are clearly wrong, broken, painful, and difficult to live with. That’s what it is to live by faith and not by sight. But, you can be sure, I’ll be more than curious when we get to heaven to see that final tapestry!