A friend told me this story:
A teenager in his small hometown had announced from an early age that she was called to missions work. So apparent was Cori’s calling, no one in that small town questioned it. Most everyone saw it operating in her life. So when Cori was old enough to go on a mission trip that would encompass nearly her entire summer, the whole town chipped in to assist her. And when the day came for Cori to leave for sub-Saharan Africa, many in that town came out to see her off. Bright and beautiful, she represented not only the ideal young woman, but the hope and dreams of that small Midwestern town.
But something went wrong.
Within a day or two of landing in Africa, Cori took ill at the mission station. A few days later, she died.
Karl and Jen had spent years trying to conceive a child. Now into their early 40s, hope dwindling, they heard about a new fertility treatment. Folks in that church loved Karl and Jen. Jen worked in the nursery and had a real gift with babies. Karl managed the church’s financial assets. So their plight had the entire church praying for a miracle.
Thanks to that new treatment, Karl and Jen got their miracle. Baby Amanda was born.
Everyone thought Jen would be thrilled with the birth. And she was. For awhile. But postpartum depression is a tricky illness, and few people understand its effects, especially on a miracle mom. Everyone thought Jen would get over it. Then one day, she told Karl she was going to the grocers. They found her car wrapped around a tree.
Karl mourned. Taking care of Amanda became his primary duty. He stepped down from managing the church funds, and Mavis, who had ably assisted him, took over. Life, though sadder, seemed to settle down.
At Amanda’s two-year checkup, the doctor found a worrying lump on her arm. The diagnosis came back as bone cancer. Karl had never had great insurance through his workplace, and the costs to treat Amanda drained all his savings. The church put together a great fundraiser in response. Everyone was stunned when Amanda, the miracle child, failed to see her fourth birthday.
They were even more stunned to find later that Mavis, the new church financial manager, had run off with $300,000 in church funds.
One of the most well-known verses in the Bible:
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
—Romans 8:28 ESV
I’ve heard a lot of sad stories in my life. Some don’t seem to have good endings.
I know that I struggle with Romans 8:28. A lot. So do many other people. We know the verse. We know that God is true. But we can’t always make life fit into that verse in a way that makes sense.
We Christians in America tend to read the Bible with one eye on the Scriptures and the other on the Bill of Rights. Nothing gets our goat more than thinking about our individual rights being infringed. Our sense of entitlement to personal happiness is enormous because it’s reinforced day in and day out by our collective American unconscious.
I’m not saying the following is the perfect exposition of Romans 8:28, but it’s something I’ve been pondering.
What if the Creator’s intention for “those who love God” isn’t primarily for the individual crushed by circumstance? What if the “those” consists of the greater mass of Christendom?
Perhaps we search in vain for Karl’s redemptive answer to his wife’s and child’s deaths. Maybe the happy ending isn’t Karl’s but another Christian’s, a doctor who hears about Karl’s story and leverages her talents from God to found a clinic for helping others diagnose and manage postpartum depression.
Perhaps answering the elusive Why? in the case of missionary Cori resolves not in her survivors’ joy, but in a next generation, when a young, local man completes that teenage missionary’s calling by establishing a missions center in that town that ends up blessing the world.
Perhaps Mavis’s granddaughter gets a tap on the shoulder from God and starts an organization that helps churches better handle their money.
Perhaps it’s not about the happiness of the primary people hurt by life’s seeming injustices but about those who come afterward. Or even those sitting on the other side of the planet in a sub-Saharan missions HQ who decide to work toward improved health care for missionaries in their country.
Something about the Hollywood ending drives us Americans. And we always want to see it unfold in the lives of those immediately affected by life’s vicissitudes.
But what if this redemptive story that God placed us in is far greater than your happiness or mine? Do we ever look at it that way?
I’ve written many times about Hudson Taylor, the great missionary to China. His work back in the 19th century is instrumental in the faith of millions of Chinese today. The work he started continues to flare brightly, lighting the world.
Yet those who knew Taylor best claimed that the man who left for China with his family was not the same man after their burial under the earth of his adopted country. A sadness permeated his life.
Did Romans 8:28 not “work” for this renowned missionary?
Perhaps we think too much of ourselves and not enough of the collective work of God in the lives of those other “those who are called according to his purpose.” We like to believe that the verse reads solely for our own private circumstances.
But what if it doesn’t? Are we solid enough in our faith to go to our own graves happy that God’s story is greater than our own lives? And that our tears may not be dried in this life?
8 thoughts on “For the Good of the Overall Redemptive Story Only?”
I agree that we often take an overly individualistic and material view of God’s plans. God’s purpose isn’t to secure our own personal peace and prosperity. But that’s because he cares for us more than that, though, not less – we need to be careful not to slip from recognising our limited perspective on God’s plans into a view of God that makes him seem uncaring or harsh.
I’ve struggled with the idea that suffering and evil happens because of the “overall plan” but sometimes we just get caught in the crossfire. But reflecting on God’s character and promises reminds me that it isn’t anthropomorphizing God or reducing him to say that he knows and cares for us as individuals, as well as collectively. God is not a semi-competent manager, who keeps on top of the big picture but lets some of the small details fall by the wayside. It’s reducing God much more if we think that he can’t keep track of every detail, every person and story, and that one day he will work all things to good both individually and collectively for those who love him.
How then do you reconcile the stories I shared if the perspective is individual only? How also does this square with knowing that every tear will be wiped away forever in heaven only?
For some reason, I can’t see my earlier comment or your reply (though I got the email notification about it). I’m assuming this is a temporary glitch in my Internet browser.
“How then do you reconcile the stories I shared if the perspective is individual only? How also does this square with knowing that every tear will be wiped away forever in heaven only?”
I didn’t say that the perspective is individual only, but that with a focus on the bigger picture, we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that God still cares for us as individuals, whatever we’re going through.
And I agree that every tear will only be wiped away forever in heaven. But I think that in the light of eternity, none of the suffering we as Christians have experienced will turn out to be purposeless. God’s orchestration of everything to good for the overall redemptive story also includes the good of every individual in that story. In eternity, we will have a better understanding of what our good means, of course, untainted by selfishness: it is good for us to care more for others than ourselves.
I know how difficult it can be to believe in the face of suffering that everything will one day prove purposeful. I struggle to believe it at times. But the alternative, that God lets us suffer as collateral damage in the grand scheme of things, seems to me far worse. Better that there is a purpose that I cannot yet see but believe in by faith, than an unreliable, utilitarian God who lets those who love him suffer in the name of some higher cause.
James 1:12 ¶ aBlessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has 1been approved, he will receive bthe crown of life, which the Lord chas promised to those who dlove Him.
James 1:13 Let no one say when he is tempted, “aI am being tempted 1by God”; for God cannot be tempted 2by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone.
James 1:14 But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust.
James 1:15 Then awhen lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when bsin is accomplished, it brings forth death.
James 1:16 aDo not be deceived, bmy beloved brethren.
James 1:17 Every good thing bestowed and every perfect gift is afrom above, coming down from bthe Father of lights, cwith whom there is no variation, or 1shifting shadow.
James 1:18 In the exercise of aHis will He bbrought us forth by cthe word of truth, so that we might be, 1as it were, the dfirst fruits 2among His creatures.
John Calvin puts this in one of the best lights that I’ve seen by saying that the trials are an extension of God’s arm of Grace.
God doesn’t need us to do His will for Him but He uses us to accomplish it but man has to be prepared by God in order to do that which God would require of us. So God allows man to go through trials so that we may be molded by the potter into a vessel that can be used.
This verse also shows the individual being the one that is being taught by God. But as we all know that when one person gleans knowledge or experience of who God is or what God has done for them through the trial that persons experience gets shared with the individuals around them and then spread more so the individual work God does with man is then spread to the larger picture.
Your story about Cori reminds me of Aimee Semple McPherson. As a young bride, she ran off with her new husband Robert Semple to China to do missionary work (Hong Kong and Macao, if I recall). But the combination of severe culture shock and her husband shortly dying of dysentery and malaria pretty much did her in. She limped back to America with her young baby. No other biographer I know of has said this, but my theory is that the experience was so horrible that Aimee suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome for a long times afterwards, which might explain some aspects of her life (e.g., a lifetime problem with insomnia, failed marriages, etc).
Sometimes, people want to run out to the mission field before they are properly prepared for it.
I think that there is a lot of truth to the idea that our lives are about much more than just us. We are like grass or wildflowers in the field and I think it’s healthy to understand our part isn’t just for ourselves, but for generations.
I also know that sometimes our wounding is required for a greater purpose. A person who is wounded and carries sadness with them can also be a giant when it comes to compassion and empathy towards those who suffer.
In addition to the possibilities of for whom the good accrues, I would add: God and the Kingdom of god (and yes the Kingdom would include the body of other believers, but I’d say the Kingdom and the body are not identical).
In the stories you cite, someone got cancer, someone had post-partum depression, someone absconded with money. As I understand things, God did not cause bad things to happen; God allowed a fallen world to malfunction and thus they happened.
Quoting Dan: “I’ve heard a lot of sad stories in my life. Some don’t seem to have good endings.”
Ahh, but you haven’t heard the end yet — as you suggest when you go on to say good might accrue to others as a consequence of the initially unhappy (un-good) pre-ending. That could be, but I am inclined to see the bad things as becoming inconsequential as the whole story — the story of the Kingdom — gets told to conclusion.
When I think of this verse from Romans, I remember how McArthur said he could tell how successfully a battle was going based on the number of dead lieutenants — more meant better, as the number of dead LTs was an indicator of aggressiveness. Now, as a former LT myself, that did not sound good to me. But (assuming you can see battle victories as good), it was a greater good. To me, that’s what the Romans verse is about. We may get killed in the process, but the eventual and inevitable Kingdom victory is good.
A few hours after reading your post, I learned about Courtney: “In Courtney’s 27 years, she hasn’t met a stranger. She has the kindest, most welcoming eyes and always puts her hand out to meet a new friend or help anyone who needs it. She’s the first to volunteer, the first to show up and the last to leave. She is a pivotal part of her church and absolutely ‘walks the walk’. Courtney is incredibly outgoing and you’ll never see her without a smile. With such a glowing personality, you’d never know she has had a rough several years. On July 9th 2012, the love of her life was killed in a tragic drowning accident at the church camp he volunteered for. Because of the hardships that this has put on her, she is having to put her home into foreclosure. What an incredibly tough thing for a young woman to go through alone. After her mom passed away a few years ago, she started messing with photography. She is now an award winning photographer and has traveled all over the country shooting some incredible events. Even through all of that, this woman is one of the strongest and sweetest people I know. Courtney so desperately DESERVES to be nominated for a “Love Bomb” [which is a call to shower a person on her blog with notes of affection and support].