The only way to live a stable, healthy, and fruitful life, is to live in reality. There are many ways by which we could live in fantasies and illusions that will set us up for certain disappointment and maybe worse. The fantasy that we are able to have or control whatever we wish is one. The illusion that we are entirely helpless is another. The Scriptures give us a true and reliable picture of what is true about life. The Bible offers reality—not spiritual platitudes that are merely wishful thinking.
Romans 8 is a passage that anchors us in reality. It speaks of true pain and stresses and losses in life, on the one hand. And it offers genuine hope on the other hand. The passage speaks honestly about suffering, calling it “frustration,” and “bondage to decay” that leads to “groaning.” This is true of all creation, and so it is true of us.
“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.” (Romans 8:18-25)
All that leads to one of the most-often quoted verses in the Bible, Romans 8:28: “in all things God works for the good of those who love him.” This phrase has often been twisted into the following shape: God is good, God works all things together for the good, therefore everything that happens must be good in some sense, and you should try to see the good things that are going to come out of your difficulties.
But that is not what the verse says, which is, that God (because he is good) works toward the good, and that he is doing so at all times, under all circumstances (“in all things”). It is not that all things are good (they are not). Not that all things add up to a positive sum (life is not arithmetic). Not that all things become good things.
Rather, God is at work amidst “all things,” which means every day and every chapter of life, even the dark ones. He is at work. He doesn’t sleep. He doesn’t leave. Any work that God does is good because he is God. Even the bad chapters of life end up being passageways to something better. There is light at the end of the tunnel—there really is.
Murder is not a good thing, neither is cancer, adultery, starvation and impoverishment, enmity, and unemployment. The grieving person does not have to translate a woeful loss into something good. Yet or she can be assured that a sovereign God takes all circumstances under the sun, losses as well as gains, and is able to continue to work goodness into the lives of those he loves. Most people who have lost something or someone valuable will agree that it is better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all—and that’s no platitude.
Some Christians seek a quick fix to some trouble in life because they think the gospel of Christ will somehow seem insufficient if it cannot deliver a speedy recovery (although certainly the real issue is often the common human desire to avoid pain). But what makes us think God prefers immediacy to process? The entire Christian life is one of growth and development—so also the hard, educative process of rearranging one’s life to adapt to significant losses. Our reactions to life’s difficulties are some of the most profoundly maturing processes that anyone can experience. No wonder it takes time.
If we live in reality—seeing suffering for what it really is, but knowing that there is true hope for the good—we are less likely to be devastated if we encounter some tragedy. And we will be able to live in the goodness of God. That is reality.