I just got back from leading a retreat for Christian Educators at Camp Allen, a beautiful Episcopalian Retreat Center in Navasota, Texas. As 30 of us sat studying the parables, we came to the parable of the seeds growing secretly (Mark 4:26-29). As the winter sunshine streamed through the windows and lit up our faces, one person spoke up. “Maybe it’s hard for us to accept that there are good things that God does that we can’t prevent from happening. Maybe we like to think that we’re in charge of and can take credit for all the good things that happen in our lives.”
Do you ever meditate on the good things God does that we never even thought of, never begged for, to this day think are impossible?
That got me thinking about the 8th chapter of Romans as Paul’s witness to the good things we can’t stop God from doing in the bad times. Since I like to make lists, I started a list of good things we can’t stop God from doing in our lives and world. It’s a work in progress, but here is what I have so far.
For one thing, we can’t stop God from holding out the gift of eternal life to us, that makes the sufferings of the present time pale in comparison. We tend to rewrite scripture when we come to Romans 8:18, so absorbed are we in our own pain, and put different words in Paul’s mouth “I consider that the glory that is to come is as nothing compared to the suffering of this present time.” And for some people, given the poverty and abuse of their lives, that is the obvious choice. It’s up to the church, by the Grace of God, to seek to alleviate the sufferings of this present time, bringing some of the future glory to bear in current conditions in our communities by being salt and light to the world.
The African American Spirituals had it right “I’ve got a home in Glory land that’ll outshine the sun.” If slaves with straps on their backs and Paul in prison can get this verse right, then let’s pray to God together that we can look up in our sufferings and take comfort in the shine, the music, the glory to come. But let’s also be attentive to others in their sufferings and bring them comfort. Let’s keep reminding one another that we can’t stop God. We can’t stop God from holding out the glory of an eternal life of joy beyond all joys that begins now.
For another thing, we can’t stop God from praying for us, through us. A man once asked his wife to come with him to talk with the pastor about the downward spiral their marriage was taking. “Just come one time, please. Let’s take it to God in prayer. Let’s get some direction,” he requested. She replied, “What good would that do? Our problems are too deep for prayer!”
Paul would disagree. Paul would say, “God’s own Spirit helps us in our weakness when we don’t know how to pray as we ought.” But maybe Paul never had the kinds of troubled relationships that we have.
For another thing, we can’t stop God from working good in situations where we see only pain and loss. “This is a bad situation. ” We pronounce a verdict and will not allow the case to be appealed. We can spot a downward trend, We know a hopeless case. We know how to read an xray. There can be no good here.
Paul would say that “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God” (Romans 8:28). But then maybe Paul just hadn’t been in as many dangerous and negative situations as we have.
Nor can we keep God from being present just because we’ve marked God absent. Job berated God for not showing up in his time of need, and then God showed up in a way that was not to be ignored. Jesus on the cross in Matthew in his human pain and despair cried out “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 24:46), but God had by no means forsaken him.
Suffering and anxiety preoccupy us so that we can’t feel the presence of God and so we mark God absent. As if just because we don’t feel God present, that means God isn’t present? But thank God we can’t keep God out that way. Our despair is no barricade to God’s entry into the situation. “God’s not here,” we say as soon as suffering hits.
But Paul would say something different. “What and who will separate us from the love of Christ?”
And there is only one person in this world that can separate us from God. That is us.