The story is told of a woman who won the latest performance model Tesla in a contest. Her family and friends were so excited for her and exclaimed, “You’re so lucky!”
She smiled and replied, “Maybe.”
A few days later she was out driving her hot new car, coming through an intersection, when a new driver was distracted, didn’t see the red light, and T-boned her, causing her all kinds of injuries.
Family and friends called the hospital and lamented, “You’re so unlucky.”
To which she replied, “Maybe.”
Then a good old Heartland tornado whipped up and destroyed her home, but she was safe because she was still in the hospital. Again, her family and friends called and said, “You are so lucky.”
And again she replied, “Maybe.”
When I first heard that story I found it kind of maddening, you know? But its point is to suspend judgment about whether something will ultimately prove to be good or bad, in the end. And this season that we’re in, is the right time to dig into the good that God is always up to, including now.
Finding Hope From What God Always Does
A lot of what’s happening around the world and closer to home is not good. Let’s call it what it is. But I also want to take you to one of the most misunderstood and misapplied verses in the entire Bible, to unpack the hope we can find from what God always does.
It is the much-loved Romans chapter 8 and verse 28. It comes from highly-educated 1st-century rabbi Paul who had at first violently opposed Christians, but then after he was directly confronted by the risen Jesus, he went on to become one of the strongest advocates for the claim that Jesus Christ is alive and is Lord over all, even today.
It is with that understanding that Paul makes an equally striking claim in Romans 8:28. Here’s what it says…
I want to invite you to do something right now so that you’re neither a passive consumer, nor an armchair critic, but a participant in this message. Grab a pen and a piece of paper. Or use the notes feature on your phone. To help you feel the personal importance of what God is saying in this verse, here’s what I want you to do: write down something bad that happened to you.
Could be from your childhood, or as a teen, could be something from this past week. For me something that comes to mind is how my wife and I had an awful experience as foster parents. We had several children we were able to love and help, but we also had a very long, drawn-out, frightening and heartbreaking experience where the decks were stacked against that child getting what he needed. All those emotions are still right here for me.
How about you? You don’t have to show this to anyone. Write down something bad that readily comes to mind, something bad that happened to you. If you need to hit the pause button in order to grab something to write with, go for it.
Okay, now here’s what I want to do with what you’ve written: for the remainder of this talk, I want to try to convince you what Romans 8:28 really means, and how what it really means is far better than the ‘bumper sticker theology’ way that many misunderstand and misapply it. Thinking of that bad thing that happened to you, listen to Romans 8:28 again, then let’s see what it does and does not mean in light of what happened to you.
It’s a wild claim—that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love him.
Do we know this? When you place the bad and evil and tragic that happens in this world up against Romans 8:28, does it stack up or not? Does it reflect reality or fantasy? Let’s get into it.
A physician my sister works with came into work recently royally ticked off at Paul for things he wrote in another New Testament letter that hit her as sexist. My sister asked for advice. I looked up the passage, and it ended up bringing me back to something that the grad school I attended was huge on teaching, which is that context is king. Context is king.
Say it out loud with me, crazy as that sounds, it will help you remember and keep you engaged. Context is king. Let’s say it one more time: context is king.
Context Determines Meaning
Here’s what it means: whatever you hear or read, whether it’s a news story or an email, a text message or a phone call, a novel or the Bible, context determines meaning.
- When someone says, “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse,” the context of them feeling hungry helps you to understand that’s hyperbole, exaggeration for effect.
- When your boss says, “Buddy, you’d better light a fire beneath you,” the context of workplace and your boss informs you that this is a human resources moment: time not to get matches and kindling, but to work smarter.
- And when a scientist says, “We need further time for peer review on this study that was just published,” the context of a medical study and the peer review process and who is speaking on it tells you to take literally and at face value what he or she is saying. There’s no nuance, no massaging, no exaggeration or understatement.
So what’s the context of Romans 8:28? Ready: verse 29.
You cannot understand Romans 8:28 without reading it alongside and with verse 29. Here they are together, giving us the immediate context for understanding what the Scripture is and is not saying:
The good that God can work in all things that come into the lives of those who love him…is making us more like Jesus. That’s the point. That’s the promise. Nothing is beyond God’s ability to bring good out of it, including that bad thing you wrote down.
No matter how evil that thing is that you did or that happened to you, God can take even that and somehow cause it to work for your ultimate good. Paul is not minimizing either trauma or horrible choices. He’s describing what God always does: if you love Jesus, the promise is that God is actively involved in who you are becoming. Even now, God is working to choreograph everything you face, toward the good purpose of making you more like Jesus.
If you ask me for a good example of what that looks like, one of the best examples is the Old Testament character Joseph. You’ve heard of his amazing technicolor dream coat. Here’s the rest of his story.
Little Joey is Dad’s favorite: that’s good.
His brothers grow to resent him: that’s bad.
Joe has a wild dream in which his older brothers all bow down to him: sounds good.
He tells them: that’s bad.
He has another similar dream: sounds good.
He tells them again: that’s bad.
Joe’s Dad sends him to check on his brothers who are sweltering out in the desert grazing their flocks: good for Joe.
They get fed up with him tattling about their shenanigans: that’s bad.
They grab him, throw him into a dry well, plot to murder him, but ultimately sell him into human trafficking: bad.
On and on it goes…for the next 23 years, on an unrelenting seesaw back and forth between good and bad, evil and honor, relief and injustice.
Finally, more than 20 years after his brothers plotted to take his life but settled for ruining his life, Joseph has been elevated to second-in-command over Egypt. He actually helps his brothers and father survive a severe famine by allowing them to move to the best region of the fertile crescent—Egypt with its Nile River providing water to grow crops and water animals.
But once their father dies, Joseph’s brothers understandably fear that he will now avenge himself for all those lost years. What they did to him was evil, no other way to say it. And they knew that. They cook up a lie and lay it out before Joseph, but his reply floors them with this statement, this is found in Genesis chapter 50 and verses 19-20 Joseph says to his rotten brothers…
Ken Shigematsu points out that the word “intended” as in “God intended it for good” literally means “to weave.” Joseph understood that all through his life, even those 23 “lost” years, God had been weaving it all into something good—good for him, good for his family, and good for many others. Joseph found hope in what God always does—he always works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to His purpose. And again, what purpose? Becoming more like the Lord whom we love. That’s the good that God wove together with all the pieces of Joseph’s life, good and bad, changing him from a spoiled favorite tattle tale, to a forgiving, generous, wise, Christlike man of God who decided and acted for the benefit of others.
Joseph never heard Romans 8:28, but he believed it. God caused all things to work together for good for Joseph who loved him, for Joseph who had been called according to God’s purpose.
And God wants to do the same for you. Do you love God? Then find hope from what God always does.
Let’s shift to a recent story of God working for good. Pennie Morgan grew up in this church. When she was in high school, she went on a missions trip to Elmhurst, Queens, which is the epicenter of the virus outbreak in our county. More than 70% of Elmhurst’s residents were born outside the U.S. It’s a unique neighborhood, and we partnered with a unique church—New Life Fellowship—which counts members from more than 70 nations.
That exposure to the world in the microcosm of one neighborhood drew Pennie back to NYC for college, where she met her husband. Today, they and their three young children live in an apartment in the South Bronx. We’ve asked Pennie and Andy to share their very recent Romans 8:28 story. I’m really glad they’ve agreed. So here they are, Pennie and Andy Morgan:
What grabs me about Pennie and Andy’s story is that even in the midst of this pandemic, we can find hope from what God always does. For those who love Him, God is always weaving together everything we experience into the beautiful good of making us more like Jesus whom we love. And that’s what matters most—who we are becoming.
- The difficulties that Joseph went through became the weaving material God used to make him more like Jesus.
- The difficulties that Pennie and Andy are going through are, right now, the weaving material God is using to nudge them toward a little more Christlike mindset and actions.
- The difficulties you and I are going through are the material God is even now weaving together for our good.
You have God’s Word on that, his promise.
So where to for now? How about this? Many of us are spending more time at home than ever before. How could this unique window of time be an opportunity to make your home or apartment into more of a sanctuary where you meet God? Maybe you’ll want to repurpose a place in your home as a meeting-God-place.
Many Christian leaders are waking up to the fact that this is a space, a time when we can lean into the Holy Spirit, asking for new and creative ways to stay connected and on mission with the Lord.
This pause on the norm gives us a chance to dream, to brainstorm, to seek God, to experiment with what God might bless, not just rush to get back to the same as before.
A pastor in our nation’s capital a hundred years ago preached a sermon that is just as powerful today because of the questions he asks during the last global pandemic, the Spanish flu epidemic which infected a quarter of the world’s population and took the lives of anywhere from 50 to 100 million people. In his sermon, Pastor Francis Grimke challenges the congregation, asking, and I quote…
To rephrase his question, did Joseph go through all that he went through and come out no wiser or better for it? He did indeed! He trusted God, he believed God through a 23-year wait. And God transformed him through it.
Let this be a transformative time for you, just like Joseph’s long season became a time of transformation for him. Don’t waste this. Don’t give in to impatience.
Embrace the good that God wants to do in you, the ways in which you are, quite frankly, unlike Jesus, but God wants to work all things together for the good of making you and me a bit more like Jesus.
Circle back to what you wrote down, that bad or evil thing that you did or that was done to you. If you still have any questions about God being good toward you, look into the face of Jesus Christ: in Jesus we see everything good, even while a whole lot around him and a whole lot that was done to him was bad.
Everything that it means to be human, Jesus experienced. And yet at the same time, Jesus functioned like heaven’s mirror, reflecting what God is like, and what God always does. It is good. Always.
And then, for this broken world, Jesus willingly went to the cross. Where Joseph absorbed the evil that his brothers had done to him, forgiving them…on the cross, Jesus absorbed every evil ever done by all who would ever trust in him.
On that cross, out of that evil, God wove the greatest good ever: He opened the way back to him, making peace between himself and everyone who trusts in the peacemaker, his Son.
Connecting that to Romans 8:28, the way you get in on God weaving everything together for good in your life…is by trusting your life to Jesus. Invite him into your life—all of it—and God will begin weaving good from all the pieces, from everything you go through. Find hope from what God always does:
Let me take a moment to pray for you right now. Let’s talk to God:
God, what an amazing promise. You take it all—everything those who love you go through—and weave it for good, the good of making us more like Jesus.
More than anything, that’s what we want.
Thank you for who you are.
Thank you that this is what you always do. In this, we find hope.
Strengthen each one listening today, I ask.
Put backbone in our hope.
Give us what we need to be faithful to you, one day at a time.