“If God is for us, who can be against us?”
A lot of possibilities may spring to mind in answer to that question: the list of people and things that cause us pain – from endless wars to deadly diseases, from an economic disaster that has taken a terrible toll on our country to a series of natural disasters – may seem endless. Some days, it even seems as though the only possible response is, “What isn’t against us?”
In one of the most meaningful sections in the Letter to the Romans, the greatest of the epistles, Paul addresses that question.
Although the worst was yet to come, the Christians of Rome already faced oppression on every side. Persecution came both from Jews who saw Christianity as a dangerous heresy, and from Roman authorities and others who saw it as a serious threat to a society which placed a premium on everyone worshiping in the same ways, as a unifying patriotic force.
Paul himself had already suffered for his witness for Christ. He would meet his death as a martyr in Rome, something he certainly knew to be a possibility when he wrote this epistle. But he went forward with confidence, and with logic that is, for a committed Christian, unassailable.
God, after all, did not withhold Jesus, but gave him up for our sakes. Then, asks Paul, won’t God give us everything else that we need? It is God who justifies us; it is Christ who intercedes for us.
This phrase is sometimes misconstrued: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” It may not always seem that way to us. It’s hard to reconcile Paul’s statements with the evil we find all around us in the world.
Paul was speaking specifically of the persecution of Christians, and there’s certainly still plenty of that going on in the world. Proportionately, there’s as much of it as there was in Roman times. In terms of sheer numbers, it’s far worse today.
Islamists burn churches and riot against Christians in the faith’s first homes, the Middle East and Egypt. Christians are marked for violence and prosecution in Pakistan and India, while the governments of China and Vietnam seek to control or suppress expressions of Christianity. Christians have been targeted in many parts of Africa; in Sudan alone, it is estimated that 1.5 million Christians have been killed since 1984.
There’s not much overt persecution of Christians in this country, but there are plenty of other things to try our faith. The loss of a job or of a loved one can leave us asking how God could let this happen. We wonder where God is in a natural disaster like the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, or in the tornado that struck Joplin.
How do you reconcile “All things work together for good” with an act of human evil like Friday’s horrific murders in Norway? How do you reconcile it with monstrous acts of child abuse? We question God’s love for us when we or someone we love are struck down by an implacable illness, or injured by someone else’s carelessness.
But the Spirit is there to comfort us when we call. Jesus walks with us through the Valley of the Shadow of Death.
As many of you know, in November I was diagnosed with an aggressive Stage 3 cancer, and received an equally aggressive treatment for it.
There was a period of several weeks last winter when I became horribly sick, when my doctors didn’t know what to do, when I realized that I might well die. In my darkest moments, I felt God’s presence; I felt God’s light and love. I knew then that all would be well, whatever happened to my body.
The Love of God is always there for the asking, even when we don’t have the words. The Love of God is always with us to sustain us and comfort us, even when we don’t get the answers we desire.
And it is God’s love of which Paul is writing here. “Who will separate us from the love of Christ?” The short version of the answer to that is that no one can separate us, no circumstances can come between us, unless we ourselves allow it to happen.
The power of the love of God gives us strength to keep going through the most difficult times. The brilliance of the love of God gives us light to find our way through the darkest passages. The creator of all that is, from the tiniest particles to the grandest galaxies, God still cares for each of us, giving us Jesus as intercessor and the Holy Spirit as comforter, with a love that is larger than this universe. And there is nothing at all that can separate us from that love.
Lord, help us to know your everlasting love in our most joyous moments and in our times of grieving, to remember that you support us in sickness and in health, and that we are called to love and praise you in return. This we ask in our Lord Jesus Christ’s name. Amen.
- Sarah Bryan Miller