For the past four months, we’ve been working our way, chunk by chunk, through Paul’s Letter to the Romans.
Two weeks ago, on the way out of worship and having just heard a reading from Romans 8, a parishioner asked me:
That verse in Romans about all things working out for good for those who love God- I’ve never understood what that’s supposed to mean. Does it really mean everything works out in life for Christians? Because that’s not exactly my experience.
I disarmed the question with a dash of humor and a few sprinkles of theology and sent the questioner on their way. Out of narthex sight, out of pastor’s mind.
I didn’t think about their question again; that is, not until today.
Like many of you, I purchase most of my books through Amazon. Frequently Amazon will provide me with a list of suggested books that I ‘might like,’ titles presumed by the Amazon Borg to live in the same habitat as my previous purchases.
Because many of the books I purchase are theological, the Amazon algorithms apparently have tagged me as a reader of ‘Christian Literature’ and ‘Christian Inspiration.’
Yes, you were right to anticipate a dry-heave gag reflex. It’s hard for me to say, for example, in the case of For Every Season whether my credulity is strained more by the descriptor ‘Christian’ or ‘Literature.’
In fact a quick perusal through the virtual shelves of ‘Christian Fiction’ suggest there is a surprising audience out there for Anabaptist (Amish? Mennonite?) Romance novels.
Book covers abound that feature chaste yet well-endowed disciples who manage to wear their biblically-mandated head covering in a come hither way.
It makes one wonder if there’s likewise a Christian subcategory to torture porn novels?
Fifty Shades of Amish Wool perhaps?
I mean, the Amish are good at tying knots.
(It’s my idea- don’t steal it)
You won’t be surprised to learn that what truly kills me is Amazon suggesting that I ‘might like these books in Christian Inspiration.’
Glancing at these suggested texts, whose titles even my cynical mind couldn’t satirize better, I thought of that parishioner again and her question about that verse.
Does everything in life work out for good for Christians? For those who love God? For those who just pray hard enough?
Because that’s certainly the explicit promise in nearly all these ‘inspirational’ books, and while it may be inspirational to hear that the Bible/Faith/Prayer contains the secret to grant our every market-generated wish, it’s not at all clear that it counts as ‘Christian.’
So many of these ‘inspirational’ books peddle exactly what atheists accuse religion for being underneath the hood. ‘God’ isn’t really a name bound to a very specific historical narrative; ‘God’ is really just the word we use to designate what we want to change in our lives.
It’s the baldest kind of hope fulfillment.
Does everything work out for good if you love God enough and pray?
Joel Osteen answers in the affirmative and has taken that ‘yes’ all the way to the bank.
Truth be told, I’ve actually read JO’s bestseller, Your Best Life Now. And in all however many pages, Rev Osteen never gets around to mentioning these essential bits of Christian logic:
If we’re made in the image of God
And Jesus is the image of the invisible God
Then we’re made to bear the image of Jesus, the incarnate God.
Your ‘best’ life (and mine and anyone else’s) is a life that resembles Jesus.
So when Paul writes to the Romans that “all things work together for good,” Paul’s definition of ‘good’ doesn’t mean a large (or even modest) home, a happy, healthy family, a fulfilling, well-paying job, a rock-solid marriage, or a long life.
‘Good’ in Paul’s equation
That’s what Paul means when he goes on to write in Romans that those God foreknew God also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.
The trajectory of scripture, then, is about God fashioning us into Jesus’ image.
That’s what it means for ‘everything’ to ‘work out’ for ‘good.’
Eventually, Paul is saying, those who love God get to resemble Jesus.
We don’t (necessarily) get a nice home, a happy, healthy family, a fulfilling, well-paying job, a rock-solid marriage, or a long life.
Not only did Jesus lack all those things, Jesus was homeless, rejected, betrayed, suffered, and killed. And so was, we should point out, the man who wrote that verse about things working out for God’s people.
So whatever Paul means by things working out for good in our lives, it certainly doesn’t mean a life of empty parking spots, problem-less marriages and in-ground pools.
Therein lies the question in Paul’s memory verse about all things working together for good for those who love God.
If looking and living like Jesus is what Paul means by ‘good’ then just how good is your life?