We know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose. Rom. 8:28
Do I love God? Check. Am I called according to his purpose? Check. Who’s up for a trip to Vegas?
If I’m going to take this verse seriously, I have to believe that genuinely-saved believers should expect to see things come together in a positive way before the end of their lives. If something bad happens along the way, God has promised to manipulate the cosmos to fix it, spinning every tragedy into a victory, flipping every curse into a blessing, redeeming every accident or mistake.
But when I see Christians getting their heads cut off, I have to wonder if I can trust this verse. How could literally losing your head ever be considered a good thing? And if so, what comfort can I take in this verse, if any?
Looking at the Context:
Romans 8 may be the most important chapter in the Bible. Romans is the only book where Paul carefully outlines the gospel message, and chapter 8 is the climax of his presentation.
In verses 1 – 17 he explains how the indwelling Spirit of the risen Christ makes us children of God, allowing us to share in His life, setting us free from legal condemnation, giving us the power to overcome sin, and giving us hope for the redemption of the Creation as a whole, including our own bodies.
In verses 18 – 27, he addresses the reality of his time—all the suffering, corruption and ignorance. Then, in 28 – 39 he tries to encourage the believers by reminding them of who they are and who is their defender. This is the section where we get a handful of other popular coffee mug verses:
If God is for us, who can be against us? :31b
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? :35a
We are more than conquerors through him who loved us. :37b
Did Paul give the Romans these verses to give them a false sense of security? What about all the Christians who were being hunted and killed for their faith, suffering in ways that would make many of us doubt the goodness of God or dismiss the validity of our faith altogether?
No, Paul was not avoiding anything. He openly acknowledged their suffering.
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”
Somehow, according to Paul’s worldview, God can love his children, and those children can suffer and die without a single act of intervention. The challenge of justifying a good, omnipotent God with a world of pain did not seem to be a problem for Paul.
Not only did those early Christians accept suffering and death, they actually expected it. They embraced it. Maybe it had something to do with their Savior.
“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” John 15:18 – 20
But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man [Paul] is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” Acts 9:15 – 16
You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions, sufferings—what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them. In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. II Timothy 3:10 – 12
Some might say that the suffering of the early Church was necessary to pave the way for a more secure and blessed future Church. They might compare the men and women that were crucified, stabbed, burned or torn apart in the first few centuries to all the American soldiers that were wounded or died to establish peace and prosperity for this nation.
But Scripture does not leave room for that. We don’t serve a Savior that bled and died so that we wouldn’t have to. We serve a Savior that continues to work in a world that is broken and corrupt, a world that will always resist him.
Paul’s goals in Philippians 3 give us some critical insight into his perspective on suffering. Not just when it comes to persecution, but all human suffering.
I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.
Paul knew that he was not just suffering for Christ, hoping to earn some giant crown and an extra-large mansion with expansive, throne-view windows. Heavenly rewards had nothing to do with his motivation. Paul’s goal was resurrection.
Think about how this works:
Jesus became a genuine part of this creation, which, according to the context of our passage, is bound to decay (Rom. 8:21). The world is described in the New Testament as a place of darkness, ruled by the Lord of Darkness, the Father of lies.
Jesus compares himself to the bronze serpent that was raised up in the wilderness. It wasn’t a golden dove that saved the snake-bit Israelites. It was a serpent on a pole. This creates a beautiful symbol for what God actually put in the grave—pride, selfishness, rebellion, spiritual independence—everything that Lucifer stood for, everything that has always been wrong with the world.
In a sense, God placed all of those things in the grave with Christ’s crucified body. Then, in a demonstration of miraculous power, the same man that had lived 33 years as a part of his fallen creation emerged from the tomb as a new creation, a resurrected man, a person that was now dead to the prospect of sin, and even dead to death itself [Rom. 6:9 – 10].
By taking this path, Jesus shows us that this world and everything associated with it has to die. It cannot be fixed. It has to be reborn. We must all go into that tomb. But only those who have been joined with Christ during their earthly lives can emerge with the same renewal and rejuvenation that he experienced at the Resurrection.
Yes, at the moment of conversion we begin to share spiritual life with the risen Christ, giving us all the advantages that Paul describes in Romans 8. But ultimately, the work of salvation will not be finished until we share in his bodily resurrection as well. This is what Paul was talking about. And he talks about it in his other letters as well.
So why don’t we talk about it?
Why Christians suffer:
First of all, this world is still in darkness. To join with Christ is to embrace a worldview that puts us naturally at odds with the mainstream. At least it should. As the Spirit begins to work in our lives, we should come into conflict with our own desires, our own cultures, and maybe even our own friends and family.
Secondly, God loves us too much to let us hold too tightly to this fallen, corruptible world. Sure, Jesus healed people and even brought a few back from the dead, but that was not because he wanted people to always stay healthy and never die. Those miracles were done to substantiate his claims (John 3:1-2, Acts 2:22-23), not necessarily to reverse the natural way of things.
This is a fallen world. We should expect to see things like crime and abuse and murder and prejudice. We should also expect disease, accidents and death. Our great hope is not to avoid these things, but to overcome them by joining to Christ, who has already overcome them, and to ultimately be born into another life, one that is free of corruption.
In Christian circles (and in an Amy Grant song) this is called the Now and the Not Yet.
I am not saying that Christians should just sit back and wait for death. If we take our cues from Jesus, we see that he brought the kingdom of God into his personal space, speaking truth despite the darkness, bringing healing despite the corruption, casting out demons and calling out hypocrites. But he didn’t try to change the government. And he didn’t promise to eradicate poverty, slavery, starvation or disease.
These are all good and noble endeavors, though they are all temporary and transitory. Christ’s solution reaches to the core of the issue, bringing new life to something that is spoiled beyond a cure.
There is nothing easy about living in a fallen world. We get sick. We get abused. We get robbed. We are lied to. And we even find this corruption within our own minds, hearts and bodies. Suffering will always be a part of this world.
But Jesus is the resurrection and the life. And he loves us.
That’s the ‘good’ that Paul is talking about in Romans 8:28. It’s not good like a chocolate-dipped cone or an online deal on designer jeans. It is not even good like a healthy body and a long life. It is good like being gripped in the love of a God that can sustain us through any circumstances and will endure beyond this temporal existence into a time when good can truly be good in every sense of the word.