I got to preach from my favorite Bible passage on August 2017. If you’ve ever struggled with believing God loves you, this message is for you! 🙂 Below is a recording of the sermon as well as the English manuscript.
All Things Work for Good?
My favorite Bible verse is Romans 8:28. It goes like this: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
I can’t remember when it became my favorite, but I do remember why. As an anxious young person, that verse was a great comfort whenever I was afraid of a bad outcome.
Before taking important tests, before violin auditions or sports tryouts, before applying for school or jobs, before nerve-wracking interviews, before asking a girl out, before difficult conversations and major decisions, I could pray and remind myself that for those who love God, all things–including the possible undesirable outcomes–work together for good.
So all I had to do was love God…and go crazy doing everything I possibly could to ensure that I got the outcome I wanted.
Sometimes things would go well. When they didn’t, I could attribute it to God’s will and trust that it would work for my good. This was my way of practicing the saying, “pray as if everything depends on God, work as if everything depends on you.” It was a form of therapy, a way to let go of negative things outside of my control by believing something better was on it’s way.
As Christians we can be conditioned to always look for ways God is turning unwanted circumstances for good. But, as I’m sure many of you can attest, life does not always follow this pattern.
Eventually, you hit a stretch, a prolonged season of trials, disappointments, hurts, failures and defeats. A season of doubting God’s love. A season that feels like it will not end until it contradicts and crushes your formerly childlike faith.
This season began for me about four years ago.
Weathering the seasons of doubt
To keep a long story short, about four years ago, I believe God called me (and confirmed it through trusted friends and family), to leave my job as a software engineer at Amazon in order to start a technology company that would make God its customer. A company that would obsess over God’s desires and work backwards to invent products that would aim to fulfill those desires.
It was like a voice saying, “Chris, I want you to leave your job and devote your attention to the purpose I have called you to and trust in me to provide for you.”
And so I did. I co-organized an event bringing together Christian technologists to use their tech skills to build solutions to Kingdom challenges. We launched Ceaseless, a free smartphone app that helps people pray for others by showing them three contacts to pray for each day. I built spf.io the real time translation solution my grandma is using to get this message in Indonesian right now, believing that it would help churches reflect the multilingual glory of God’s Kingdom.
Yes, by God’s grace we’ve accomplished many things, but what is the #1 thing a business needs?
And this was the great struggle. We certainly had fans who were supportive of our mission, but paying customers were scarce.
I wanted to trust that God would provide, but many times it felt like I was providing for myself. It felt like I was being faithful and giving my best to serve God’s purpose only to find that seeking “the Kingdom” first wasn’t working.
Maybe it isn’t more blessed to give than to receive. Maybe God won’t bless and establish the works of our hands. Maybe God called me to failure to humble me. Or to mimic ancient Israel’s grumbling: Maybe God brought me into the wilderness to kill me.
When everything feels hopeless, Romans 8:28 can become a forgettable platitude instead of a strong comfort.
Today, I’m using my story in conversation with Romans 8 as an example, but the real aim is to help all of us remember and rejoice in the hope of the Gospel, so that in the most difficult circumstances we are facing or will face, we can praise God for His unfailing love and obey Him.
I think sometimes we feel far from God, not because God is far from us or doesn’t “get us,” but because we don’t “get him”. The Bible helps us to “get him”, so that instead of assuming we know God, we get to have the heart to heart conversation with God that we need. And not just a one-way, “I’m pouring out my guts to you God” conversation, but also the “I’m listening…oh, so that’s what’s on your heart…I see”
What are we hoping for anyway?
So let’s read through Romans 8 beginning with verse 14.
14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. 15 For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!”
16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.
A little commentary here: Paul has explained the new identity in Christ we receive as a free gift, and the holy living it creates by the Spirit (as opposed to the law, which could only condemn). The spirit of slavery to sin controls us through the fear of condemnation and death.
The Spirit of God whom we receive by faith casts out fear and testifies that we are God’s children. This includes the intimacy of crying out to our Dad as well as the regal privilege of inheriting everything that belongs to Him, namely all of Creation.
But God’s promise and inheritance come with suffering. God’s children suffer with Christ because suffering is the prerequisite to glory.
Let’s continue with verses 18 to 25.
18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.
19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
24 For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
So first Creation is groaning. Adam’s sin subjected Creation to futility and decay–it can’t fulfill its purpose, its full potential. Creation desperately wants to be set free, so it eagerly awaits the revelation of the glorified children of God, those who are to rule Creation, so that it can be unleashed to its full glory also.
Second, we are groaning. Why do we groan? Well, it’s not because someone told a bad joke. It’s because we’re in pain. Creation is in the pains of childbirth and we are in the pains of waiting for the day of our adoption when we will attain the full rights and privileges of being children of God, a major one being immortality, eternal life, the redemption of our mortal bodies for new glorified ones.
This is the payoff. This is what we’ve been waiting for. This is why we put our faith in Jesus.
Why were we justified by Christ’s blood? Why were we saved from the wrath of God? Why were we reconciled by Christ’s death and saved by his life? It was for this, getting in on this resurrection from the dead is what the Apostle Paul and us have been hoping for all along.
Let me restate it. We are hoping and eagerly waiting for the day when God will restore and glorify all of Creation, beginning with us, his children, who are to inherit the New Creation and rule it with Christ.
Paul is lifting our sights here to show us why our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. He zooms out to a cosmic scale, stretching our imagination and making us think bigger and bigger in order to feel the vast scope of God’s redemption, so that we get why the groaning and waiting is worth it.
When we’re clobbered by our circumstances, we need to Think Big. We need to zoom out and think about the Big Picture of God’s redemption. Don’t shift from the hope of the Gospel. One of the mistakes I often make is to shift from the Big Picture hope to the small. I interpret Romans 8:28 in light of my immediate circumstances and shift my hope from receiving a resurrection body in the new creation to a particular relationship, a financial breakthrough, defeating an adversary, a miraculous healing, etc.
If I shift my hope and get disappointed, I end up doubting God’s love and God’s goodness. I try to clobber the circumstance into a lesson learned. I try to psychologize why the bad circumstances are actually good. I get obsessed expecting that God must do the impossible in my life (for his glory of course!) only to feel utterly let down when he doesn’t.
Even if I get what I want, shifting my hope is dangerous because I get comfortable thinking I must be in God’s will because of my successful circumstances and so in love with the comforts of this world, I stop hoping for the Kingdom of God.
Keep your eyes on the prize. Don’t shift from the hope of the Gospel.
Getting the help we really need
Now on to verses 26-30.
26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. 27 And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
So we read earlier that Creation groans for the glory, that we ourselves groan for the glory, and now we read that God’s Spirit groans with us.
I have a friend who likes to end every phone call with, “Brother, is there anything I can do for you?” and it’s funny because most of the time it catches me off guard and I just think of something he can pray for me.
If God were to ask, “Is there anything I can do for you?” I’m sure we would blurt out quite a few ideas, but pretty soon the breadth of our requests would be so overwhelming, we would be too weak to think, much less say them all.
And here is where the Spirit comes to our aid, groaning with us and turning our groans into intercessory prayers that God fully understands. You have a Comforter who fully empathizes with your inexpressible pain and expresses it to God for you. Think about that.
How we know God absolutely loves us
And now we come to my favorite verse Romans 8:28, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
Why? Why do we know this? In Romans 5, Paul wrote, “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” This is a past reality that assures us of God’s love.
But in Romans 8, we read about the future reality that assures us of God’s love: God predestined us to be conformed to the image of his Son. Keep in mind, this image is not just character, it’s a full likeness that includes an immortal resurrection body. We will be with Jesus and we will be like Jesus biologically as well as spiritually.
This is why we know all things work together for good for those who love God, for those who love God’s Son, for those who love the future God has prepared for them. It is a future so certain, Paul writes about the progression as if it has already happened: “Those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”
Now Paul knows that some people may still have doubts.
“What if this glorious future does not apply to me?”
“What if I sin and fall out of God’s favor?”
“What if someone or something powerful attacks me to prevent God’s good purpose for me?”
“What if my life falls apart and everything goes bad? Does that mean I’m separated from God’s love? Does it mean God’s purpose for me failed or wasn’t good after all?”
He immediately addresses these doubts in verses 31-38
31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?
33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies.
34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?
36 As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
This is Paul’s response to any lingering doubts that God loves you.
First, God has proven that he is for us, not against us. God gave up his Son for us all, how could he ever be against you? On the contrary, he is so for you, that he will give you everything along with his Son.
Second, sin could separate us from God’s love, but God has already declared us just and Christ, the very person who was condemned for our sins, lives and continues to pray for our salvation with complete authority. Any accusations against us would defy God’s righteous judgment that we are justified and any condemnation for sin has already been fully exhausted on Christ–there is no condemnation left for those in Christ Jesus.
And lastly, suffering circumstances cannot separate us from the love of Christ. The Gospel teaches that we are fundamentally inseparable from Christ who loved us. He is in us and we are in Him and we are one. So, it is impossible for suffering–even the worst kind–to cut us off from his love. Whenever it tries, Christ in us makes us more than conquerors and the circumstances are overturned for our good instead.
Nothing in all of creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
So what happens when we are absolutely convinced that God loves us?
Take a moment and think about that. In the hard trials you or someone you love are facing, what happens when you’re absolutely convinced that God loves you?
I’ll close with some of the things I thought of:
When we are absolutely convinced that God loves us, we stop going crazy trying to figure out how all things work together for good when they really feel like they aren’t. We stop interpreting negative circumstances and suffering as evidence that God doesn’t love us. We stop blaming ourselves for our failures and circumstances. We stop blaming God for our circumstances.
And what do we start doing?
We start to love God for giving us everything to ensure we are glorified with Christ. We start to love our neighbors as ourselves hoping that they too will share in our future inheritance in the New Creation. We start to rejoice in our sufferings because we finally believe they just aren’t worth comparing with our future glory. We start to identify with Christ as closely as he identifies with us in everything: the terrific, the terrible and even the mundane. And lastly, we start producing an abundance of good works because we simply can’t contain our eagerness for God’s good Kingdom to come.
And that is why Romans 8 is my favorite text.