God can plant seeds where tears are falling

Aug 7, 2015 by

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Our community lost someone a few weeks ago: a young wife, mother of five, a friend and mentor, a follower of Jesus with a passion for the lost. She was living, laughing, serving, loving God with all she had, and then in a moment it all simply ended in a screech of metal and a shattering of glass.

It’s hard to know what to say or think in the face of such devastating loss. As a pastor, I have occasion to journey with many grieving people, and many have reported to me after the fact that of all the stammering words of “comfort” directed toward them in their loss, none caused more anguish (and sometimes rage) than the quoting of Rom. 8:28: “For we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

When Christians quote this verse in times of loss, they usually mean well. They are trying to reassure that the world is not full of chaos and senseless suffering. That God must have had a really good reason to take a person so beloved. They have done what seems to them straightforward calculus: (a) God is good and in control, (b) something terrible has happened, therefore (c) that terrible thing, as bad as it seems, must really be a good thing in disguise. Perhaps the person lost is better off. Perhaps God has some greater plan that makes this loss a necessary sacrifice.

Many mourners are justifiably outraged at these implications. There’s no future version of “for the best” that could justify the present loss of wife and mother. And truthfully, there’s something monstrous about a God who would calculate so coldly, stealing lives in the name of some unknown “master plan.” If this is God working for the good, they’d just as soon God butt out of their lives and leave them all alone.

Paradoxically, I’ve met other mourners who find great comfort in this verse. What they find most unbearable is not the loss but its total senselessness. The only thing that humans find worse than pain is pain that serves no purpose. The idea that this excruciating loss might serve some larger, better end offers the fragile but powerful hope of meaning.

The fact is, both of these reactions are responses to a fundamental misunderstanding of Romans. Paul is not asserting that everything that happens in human history is a reflection of God’s will or a part of some “master plan.” The world as we know it is shaped not just by God, but also by human choices and by forces of evil and chaos that have it in their grip. Plenty happens in this world that is not in the master plan of Love.

Yet Romans does insist that the Creator is also the consummate Recycler. The Great Recycler is content to let nothing go to waste. There is no situation so utterly shattered by evil that God will not gently gather the shards and reclaim them for some new work of mercy.

Where God is in the world, our pain will never be wasted, our suffering will never be allowed to dissolve into total meaninglessness. This is the promise of Romans — not that everything happens “for the best” but that God is an expert at robbing “the worst” of its ultimate victory dance. God can make ashes into diamonds. God can plant seeds where tears are falling and cause tall, strong trees to grow. What God did not will, God still will not waste. Evil may steal lives, but it cannot obliterate meaning. It cannot keep what it claims, because God will constantly steal it back — back for the “recycled” purposes of love and compassion and wisdom and hope.

Rom. 8:28 occurs in a literary context of reflections on suffering. It comes with an assurance that when pain and sorrow have ground our prayers to dust, the Holy Spirit itself will take up our cause with groans more eloquent than words. The Spirit will plead for us that this present suffering not be wasted, that it be gathered and redirected toward the glorious recreation of heaven and earth.

This is the comfort we are given in the name of Jesus Christ: when the final story is told, not a tear or groan or loss (or cross) will be allowed to stand for nothing. What was meant to serve evil and chaos, God will reclaim to shape beauty and good. What God would never will, God can still endow with meaning and with grace beyond our wildest dreams.

Meghan Larissa Good is pastor of Albany (Ore.) Mennonite Church. She writes at MudPieGod.com where this first appeared.

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