Sunday, July 27, 2014

Scripture for Castaways (17.A)

Desert Island Discs is one of the longest-running programs on the BBC. Each week different celebrities are asked to choose eight recordings they would take with them as castaways marooned on an island.

The guests have ranged from Margaret Thatcher to Archbishop Desmond Tutu to Elton John.

I’m not likely to be invited, and I’m not at all sure what music I'd choose. But if they ever ask me to pick eight verses of Scripture for a desert island, I know what would top my list: Romans 8:28.

Romans 8:28 is the first line of the second reading at today’s Mass: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

Stranded with only these words for comfort, I could happily endure a diet of coconuts and raw fish. In fact, St. Paul’s words would start proving true as soon as I started at long last to lose some weight.

But my belief that God turns all things to the good of those who love him is not hypothetical. For many years I have seen this promise fulfilled in my own life and the lives of others. Over and over again I have seen events—good and bad, even tragedies—become the foundation of spiritual growth and blessings.

It’s easy enough to see how good things can work for our good—for example, prosperity can make us grateful—although we also know that success provides its own temptations. The astonishing thing, though, is that God promises to bring good out of bad things. That’s what we’re going to talk about this morning: how God can use our sufferings and setbacks to bring us blessings.

To understand this, we need to look at almost every word in Romans 8:28.

Paul starts off by saying “we know.” This isn’t wishful thinking on his part. The apostle assumes that his reader has already some experience of God working for good in their trials and tribulations. This puts the question to us: don’t we know this, too?

Haven’t you a story about someone losing his job and finding his faith? About a plan that was frustrated, only to lead you down a better path? About a selfish person transformed by a grief? If we think hard enough, most of us can come up with examples of how good can emerge from evil.

Then Paul continues by saying “all things.” All things work together for good. Not some things. Not most things. All things.

This is one of the reasons I love this text so much. “All things” includes minor annoyances, which can teach me patience, everyday disappointments, which can build fortitude, and personal failures, which can strengthen humility.

But all things also includes the worst sort of tragedy, the true disasters that very few of us will ever experience. This text knows no boundaries, because God has no limits. Whatever life throws at us is subject to his divine plan. So even my darkest fears are controlled by my faith that God will make things turn out for good in the end.

The priests and bishops who lived and even died in the prisons of Nazi Germany and Communist Russia experienced God working for good as they grew in holiness. They saw God at work in their lives and in the lives of the fellow prisoners they served. God not only turns bad things to my good, but to the good of others.

One scholar puts it this way: Many of these things are evil in themselves; it is the marvel of God’s grace and wisdom that in his sovereign plan they converge upon and contribute to human good. “Not one detail works ultimately for evil to the people of God; in the end only good will be their lot.” (John Murray, “The Epistle to the Romans,” The New International Commentary on the New Testament, 314.)

Paul says “all things work together.” The word “together” suggests that God makes use of all our experiences in his all-embracing plan, pulling them together in harmony like the composer of a symphony. To stay with that image, we might say that everything that happens to us works in concert for our welfare, not just individual incidents or adversities. Our whole lives, in other words, are in God’s hands.

Then we come to some very important words: “for those who love God.” Romans 8:28 is not natural philosophy. It’s not the biblical equivalent of “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” or “adversity build character.” These proverbs are true enough, but they are not divine promises.

Paul is speaking to Christians—to those who love God. We must cooperate with him in love if the promise of good is to be fulfilled.

On the other hand, he adds “who are called according to his purpose.” Somehow or other, the divine plan embraces each of us, weak and strong, faithful and doubtful. It’s not simply a reward for loving God: it’s a birthright of the baptized.

Part of our duty as Christians is to examine our lives in the light of faith. Have you ever noticed God bringing some good out of a misfortune that you or someone you loved has suffered? Can you look back now and see a pattern you never saw before?

Sometimes we miss God’s footprints. I’ll close with the story of a young priest I met once. In his first parish there was a woman who hated him—she didn’t dislike him, she hated him. There was no reason, no history at all. But her hatred was so strong that she spied on him every day, and sent reports to the bishop of his every move.

To me, it sounded like the worst suffering imaginable. But when the time came for the priest’s next assignment, he missed the angry woman very much.

“It was so easy to be good,” he laughed, “with someone watching your every move. I hardly needed a conscience at all!”

God works for good in all things, for those who love him.

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