Romans 8:26-30 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. 27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God. 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. 29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.
I don’t think anybody comes to the end of their life and says, “Well, that happened just like I thought it would.” I, for one, won’t. Two years ago, I had never heard of Aiken. I could go on and on with other life events too. I could talk about the five kids I thought I’d have or the marathons I thought I’d still be running. I really could on and on, but I think you catch my drift. Neither I, nor anybody else will come to the end of their life and say, “Well, that happened exactly the way I thought it would.”
Because life doesn’t lay out just so. Because it doesn’t play ball the way we think it might. Because it unfolds in the most unexpected ways it can feel chaotic and confusing. No matter how hard we wish for it life isn’t always like that song from Oklahoma! The Musical. You know the one, right? The one where they sing, “Oh what a beautiful morning! oh what a beautiful day! I’ve got a wonderful feeling. Everything’s going my way.” Sometimes the song of our heart is more like, “Oh, what a confusing morning! Oh, what a funny ending day! I’ve got an anxious feeling. Nothing’s going my way.” Or, if you want to use the metaphor we’ve been using in this sermon series, sometimes the idea that’s packed in our invisible suitcase is the idea that my world is out of control.
That’s the world into which Paul steps. It’s a world where sometimes emotionally down feels up and up feels down. It’s a world where events can seem so cruelly random that emotions can crest powerfully that even Paul admits that sometimes, “We do not know what we ought to pray for.” (v. 26) And it’s into those times and into those moments that Paul speaks a truth that he says, “We know.” (v. 28)
Which is just an odd, odd thing to say. What knowledge could run more deeply in us than our heart’s cry to God? What is it that we apparently know so well that we know it better than we do words for a prayer to God? Those questions deepen when we listen to what Paul says next. Here’s what he says we already know. “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God.” (v. 28) That’s the truth that we supposedly already know. That’s what he says we know even at those times in life when our emotions are so powerful that it makes our prayer life a logistical mess. That’s what we supposedly know.
Supposedly. Do you think he’s right? There’s a friend I used to visit who sure didn’t seem to know that. A health crisis or two and a nasty divorce took that truth from him. They left him bitter toward the arc of his life and devoid of faith in God. He had had such different plans – plans that in his view plans were so much better. So he checked out of God and checked into restoration of International tractors. I used to visit him in his barn. I’d find him there tinkering away on his lovingly restored International tractors refusing to talk about his bitterness. He didn’t know that at the time. Honestly, I’m not sure I always have either. At least, not like I should. Not when I sat with my wife grappling with infertility for almost a decade. Not when they wheeled my year-old daughter off for major surgery.
But then again, this knowing that Paul says is going on is hard and unnatural and counterintuitive for us to do. At least, it has been since humans got out of a proper relational position to God. Since Adam and Eve. The fundamental problem that our first parents passed on to us is that we don’t actually want to be humans anymore. We want to be gods. We want to comprehend everything. We want to know the whole picture – especially when it comes to the flow of our lives. This truth is one we naturally struggle with because it is one we can only trust once we’ve in faith become humans again – once we’ve gotten off our drive to be on the divine pedestal of having a grand understanding and gotten back into a proper relational position to God. That place where God is God and where we’re trusting him as his children.
Do you see how this truth does that? Paul said, “All things work together for our good.” Do you see that implication of that? That truth implies that threads and events and occurrences have got to be pulled together so they can be woven into a big, divine, salvation scheme. It’s this invisible and universal tapestry of which we’re a part, far bigger and more comprehensive than we could ever even fathom. And it is only God who can weave all the disparate seemingly unrelated events together toward the single goal of your ultimate good. That is the embedded truth here that makes God God and us his children when we trust it.
It’s also faith’s approach to all of life’s problems that come up along the way too. That’s how it deals with what happened down in Charleston. That’s how it sees troubling trends in our culture and government. That’s how it handles those times when our health turns for the worst and life crumbles around it. It looks at all those things and says, “I certainly don’t have all the data points here. Because I’m human I can’t see the bigger tapestry. And, furthermore, because I’m human (and not God!) even if I could see it I wouldn’t be any good at interpreting it. I do know this much: all things are working together for my good.”
And what God is saying here is that that’s all the knowing we really need. We don’t need to know that all things work together for our good the same way we know gravity. I jump off a diving board and down I come plunging into the deep end of the pool. I drop my iPhone and a millisecond later I know it’s going to crack on the concrete. I do a push-up and expect it’s going to tire me out after I do a few of them. Because I know gravity. I know it by experience. I know it by seeing it. I know it by feeling it. But I don’t know this truth the same way. There is no data set that for the grand tapestry of our salvation history. Even if there was one I’d probably sit and state at it like a cow might look at a new gate – blankly. And that’s ok. Because we’re not God. We’re safe being his children.
Now someone may come along and say, “Isn’t that an uncritical, non-thinking person’s approach to life? Doesn’t it ignore Charleston? Doesn’t it just skip past all the suffering we each see in our own lives? What reason do we actually have to trust that there’s something divine behind it all?” Which, let’s be honest, can sound so right sometimes. Who hasn’t experienced something in this world that seems totally devoid of God? Who hasn’t felt an intuition that this whole Christian worldview is bunk and that there’s just too much evidence to the contrary?
We’d grant that. We’d agree that it was foolish and unreasonable and uncritical to believe as we do except for one irrefutable historical fact. Jesus. Only Jesus. Only Jesus shows us that history’s entire tapestry is all about us. Only Jesus shows us that God’s specialty is bringing together contrary and disparate and random looking historical threads for humanity’s ultimate good. Think of all God wove together in the gospel history of Jesus. He tied together the murderous intent of Satan; the political interest of not only Caiaphas, but also Pilate and Herod; the traitorous desire of Judas; a brutal cross; and sins which he knew we’d pile miles high to heaven. He took all of those empty looking and meaningless seeming threads and brought them together in Jesus. For the forgiveness of sins. For the guarantee of eternal life.
If there’s anything that we know as God’s children, we know that. We know that all of history came together and was redeemed in the cosmic moment of Christ’s cross. We know that there in that moment God turned the entire tapestry and arc of history toward not just humanity in general, but in particular toward you. And what that means is that we don’t need any other data point. That’s why we can know. We can know, Paul says, that God’s heart and God’s plan is on one big, massive and comprehensive gospel arc in our lives. We can know, according to Paul, that, “All things work together for good.”
And that’s macro and that’s micro. It’s the watershed world events and the mundane, personal daily ones. It’s the universe’s meta-narrative and it’s your life’s little story. It’s the events that caused our Facebook feeds to look like a war broke out between confederates and a Skittles factory as well as the five red lights that made you late for work. It’s what’s happening over in the Middle Easter with ISIS as well as that mosquito that bit you on vacation. God’s not only intimately interested in the big, universal salvation scheme, he’s also into microscopic and personal one.
You know my friend I told you about? God tilted his personal history to know his love too. I’ll never forget how dramatic it was. One morning I got a call one morning from a family member of his. The person on the other end of the line said, “We’re not sure he’s going to make it. He’s had a major heart attack. He’s in surgery right now.” I drove to the hospital and sat with the family while he was in recovery. Then I walked into this room. He lay there in intensive care. You can probably picture it. His face was all puffed up from inflammation. Tubes were everywhere. It was just like that. I gently called his name and held his hand and I said to him, “The Lord loves you.” He opened his eyes and I saw a tear trickle out of the corner of his eyes and he said, “I know.”
Because God would have him know his love in Christ. And he’d have you know it too. Think of all the trouble he’s gone to to make that happen. Think of the taxation that the Colonists got so upset about. Think of the representation that they were so upset was missing in Parliament. Think of the American Revolution that followed and the Constitution that was signed. That’s big picture God acting for us. And why? Because God would weave all of the kinds a disparate threads together: our American freedoms, your 4th of July travel plans, the start of this church a few months ago (Think of it all!) so that right here at Peace and right here in this meet Jesus, hear his promises, and glory of them. Tell me that’s not mind-bending and beautiful and comforting to see that here in this moment God is keeping his promise that all things are working together for you.
We will trust that promise until we don’t have to anymore. There’s a story about an old Christian pastor who was talking to members who had questions about their tough times and this is what he said, “When we get to heaven, I don’t think that we’ll have any more questions. I don’t think we’ll get there and say, ‘Lord, why?’” He said, “I think we’ll get there and say, ‘Oh!’” Or to say it as a Christian hymn writer once said it, “Then I shall see clearly that God has loved me dearly.” I will see why I not only didn’t need to, but also couldn’t wrap my mind around why God played things out the way he did. I will see how every massive, cosmic war and every tiny mosquito bite was tilted in a gorgeous, gospel arc toward my ultimate good. I will see how my world was always in his control.
In the meantime, I will live on faith. Not an uncritical and unthinking one mind you, but one that rests in God’s work in Christ – the one proof that God is weaving a salvation tapestry in my as hidden as it may currently be. I don’t need to understand my wife and I’s infertility. I don’t need an explanation for my daughter’s surgery. I don’t need to get completely why God had me land in Aiken. I don’t need to know all the ins and outs of why my life’s playing out the way it is. It’s good enough to be God’s child. It’s good enough to be trusting. It’s good enough to carry with me into life packed in my invisible suitcase the truth that my world is carried quite literally in the palm of my Father’s hand. Amen.