Redeeming Romans 8:28

I remember being a very inexperienced campus minister when one of my students had a fear.jpg
dear friend killed in a freak hunting accident. I recall sitting on the lawn outside her dorm trying to comfort her. Her tears accompanied her sobs; the grief coming from deep within. In an attempt to provide her comfort and hope, I quoted Romans 8:28—”And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” I would not be surprised if you are cringing at this moment. The verse did not have its intended effect. She kept on sobbing and just clammed up.

It was a “rookie” mistake that often is made by people who are uncomfortable with other peoples’ pain and are looking for something helpful to say. That was my purpose. I just wanted to help her feel better and give her hope. But I was too hasty in sharing this verse. She was overwhelmed with grief and there is no other way to help a bereaved person than being present and saying little.

Unfortunately, the quoting of this verse to someone who is in deep grief has become a stereotype for insensitivity, to the point that many Christians avoid using it and scoff at its use by others. While I erred in referencing that verse so soon after the news of a friend’s death, I knew then, and I know now, it is a verse that should not be pushed aside just because occasionally it is misused.

I know because Romans 8:28 is a life verse for me and has comforted me in times of deep grief and distress. It first came to my attention after my father died when I was 21 and struggling with the grief of not only his death, but for the lost opportunity to continue repairing a relationship that had been strained and distant for most of my life.  What good could come out of his death?

Only a year later, my mother was diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer and given two years to live. Again, I referenced Paul’s words for comfort and a sense of purpose. How was the Lord going to use my mother’s illness? And then, after she died, how would he use her death for good?

Time, and terrible time again, Romans 8:28 has been an anchor and a hope for me. It was my reference point when a woman I loved deeply ended our relationship in graduate school; when a staff person resigned and caused divisions in the ministry I directed; when my first wife asked to be divorced; when that broken relationship became the reason I was asked to end my 20+ year tenure leading a campus ministry; and now it is once again in the midst of a year of trials—the death of my mother-in-law, the sudden and unexpected death of a friend who was in my wedding, the sudden and unexpected death of the mother of a young colleague and former student, and strains in several relationships. What will be the good, Lord?

From my experience, it is too early to tell on the most recent ones, but there is much more clarity on those which occurred many years ago. As a result of their illnesses, both of my parents became believers and I had the privilege of baptizing my mother just months before her death. My father’s death led me to understand how NOT to grieve and I applied those lessons in dealing with the passing of my mother.

hope_1535476427.jpgThe woman with whom I was deeply in love had become my idol and the Lord showed me that in very dramatic fashion a number of months after she ended the relationship. This humbled me, but it also set me free from what was destined to be a very unfulfilling relationship. The events surrounding the divorce from my first wife led to a spiritual re-awakening and a fresh start in a different ministry which needed my skill set and giftedness, while I needed a sense of redemption from my marriage’s failure.  In my move to the Appalachian Mountains, I received both, and the bonus of living in a most beautiful place. But most strikingly, I met and married my second wife, whom I don’t deserve but with whom the Lord has so richly blessed me. God had worked all these things together for good.

This past weekend, I participated in a joint campus ministry retreat which was deeply impacted by Hurricane Florence which struck our state the week before. The speaker was unable to come, as was the worship leader. Both were dealing with the overwhelming flooding in their home areas. So the campus ministry staff present took on the speaking and worship responsibilities. The irony of this is just hours before we learned of the change of plans, I had prayed that this retreat would not be an ordinary college student retreat. I asked the Lord to shake things up, and he did. Initially, there was some uncertainty and fear among those with the planning responsibilities, but soon everything began to take shape and it worked out well as we saw the Lord bring out some deep things that students had buried in their lives. It was powerful, and God brought good out of the chaos.

The last speaker for the weekend spoke powerfully about how the Lord doesn’t always appear fair and just to us, that a lot of bad things happen to those who follow him. And he mentioned traumatic things that had taken place in his life and how he detested the cavalier use of Romans 8:28 by some Christians. I agreed with him, but it put in my mind the need to come to the defense of this verse. Because of how it is sometimes used, its hopeful promise is often lost. That needs to change.

My life would not have turned out the way it did without the promise of Romans 8:28. It has been a lifeline for me spiritually and emotionally over many decades. People are indeed guilty of misusing this verse, but it should not be disparaged as a result. It contains the words of hope that are critical for people who are overwhelmed by the effects of living in a fallen world. Because I have known God indeed does bring good out of terrible, sometimes horrific, circumstances, I stand in defense of the verse that makes that promise. Use it carefully and with sensitivity, but use it. It has the words of hope we all need in desperate times.

© Jim Musser 2018

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