Do All Things Work Together For Good?

The older I get, I have noticed my priorities shifting, so are my questions. In my early stages I focused more on narrowing down a career; finding a life-mate, settling into a lifestyle, raising a family; becoming established. I collected many things over the years I believed had value. Things from all over the world, many of which now sit in boxes because nobody wants them and I have no place to put them. I could buy a bigger house so that I could display all those things, but how many rooms can I honestly live in? I have what I thought were valuable collections that my kids don’t want and they’re too complex to sell, so they sit in boxes and I never look at them. What were those years all about? How can I redeem them now that it seems I wasted a significant amount of time, energy, and cash pursuing things that no longer matter?  What prevented me from discovering that sooner?

For most of us, maneuvering life isn’t easy. It’s hard to recognize blessings because many of our blessings are so common to us we categorize them as normal. If I lived in the 1400’s, a flush toilet would have been an extravagance that hadn’t even been conceived. As a young boy I delighted sitting by small holes in the ground in the mountains of Vietnam, where once/year flying ants would emerge. We would grab them as they came out, pull off their wings and eat them. We might even let them crawl around inside because their feet tickled the roof of our mouths. Living in Canada with Mars Bars changed everything. ~ So maybe right now we struggle more when life goes sideways because we don’t fully recognize blessing. It’s hard to live a contented life, even if we come to a place where we say, “I have enough,” because in a few months or years technology will bring something new that will make life easier ~ and we want it, or possibly, even come to need it if we are to live in a modern culture. 40 years ago, no one needed a cell phone ~ because there weren’t cell phones. There weren’t computers. There wasn’t online banking. If the internet goes down today, we start asking God the question, “How is this gonna work out for good?” 

The point is, God’s told us there’s more. But because we can’t see it with our eyes, we often substitute our pursuit of it, to chase after things we can see. We often end up chasing after things that distract because we think they can offer us a sense of stability. That if we can just get this or that, it provides us with a layer of protection from the times when life seems to be falling apart.

Risk is always about releasing control. Risk says something else is of greater importance than the sacrifice you’re about to make. Why else would you willingly risk? So pause for a moment. What are you willing to risk for?  ~  Jesus understood the pressure. He understood there are things we don’t yet understand. And he didn’t want us to be unaware about the fact that there are things we don’t yet know, that if we did know, we would gladly risk to possess or to ensure those things succeeded.

He gave us many hints. ~ Here’s one: 

35 For whoever wants to save their life (or soul) will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?     Mark 8:35-37 (NIV)

There is something very profound behind that verse. It tells me that if I knew what it was, I would be more motivated to pursue it, than I am motivate right now to gain as much of this world as I can…But let’s be honest, we can’t actually understand how losing our lives is a good thing. 

Driving home from Chilliwack a couple of weeks ago, we ran into weekend traffic. #1 Hwy was like driving in a parking lot. On the East side of the Vedder canal, there are feeder roads and roads that run parallel to Hwy #1. But once you get to the Vedder, there’s only one bridge. We watched people racing down these feeder roads hoping to get ahead of the traffic, only to discover they couldn’t get across the Vedder. They were driving fast before they knew that. They were driving faster on the way back. 

Life’s like that. We look for the shortcuts. We want to beat snarling gridlock. Just get ahead. So we veer off onto parallel roads only to discover we ended up at a place we didn’t want to be. It’s a dead-end. And we want to blame somebody. There’s a lot of life that is squandered. Some people scrimp and save, planning for retirement, and they get to retirement, and die. They never lived. 

Others grasp at everything they can and spend their lives so focused on their own happiness, that they find it impossible to be satisfied. They spend $ thousands and they still need more. ~ Life is more than this. What is the point of gaining the whole world and missing out on something more important?

We should never wait until we have enough, before we begin to consider how we can use the things we have to make the lives of others better.  How do I learn to lose my life?

“All things work together for good…”

Have any of you ever been in a situation where you doubted that verse was true? Have any of you ever been told that verse by a caring friend and you really didn’t find it helpful? Or how about those times when you were so overloaded you couldn’t take on one more thing ~ and then one more thing happens?

I was with a couple of friends a few weeks ago. I picked up my phone and noticed it was dead. Turns out…it was dead. So I headed to Best Buy the next day. It was one of those days; an incredibly busy day for me and the last thing I really needed was try to replace my phone. So I got there early; 9:10 to find out the store opens at 10:00.  At 10:00.

I was far enough away from home that if I went home I would pretty well have to turn around and come back. What was I going to do for 50 minutes? I didn’t need any more interruptions that day. How do you kill time in a mall where the stores don't even open until 9:30. 

I found a couch. Sat down. Closed my eyes and thought “How do all things work together for good?” Then I remembered that I had been asking Holy Spirit for some good examples

I said, “You know Holy Spirit, I have enough examples of this in my past. I really wasn’t asking for a new one. I just wanted you to remind me of some old ones.” The interesting thing about this is that I had my example before I figured out what the good was. I’m sitting there with a broken phone, in a mall with nothing open, on a day that I could not afford the time; not an overly “good” thing ~ and I had no idea what “good” was going to come of it. 50 minutes to kill and living in an illustration in the making. So I headed to Starbucks. Bought a nice green tea frap, borrowed a pen and grabbed some napkins. And I asked Holy Spirit to show me more about this verse. Here’s a few good things that emerged from having to kill 50 minutes in 7 Oaks Mall.

1.  I discovered that this verse is talking about a partnership. God is working together with those who love him.  

I actually went home and checked it out in the Greek and found that was true. When bad things happen, it’s hard to think about good. Bad doesn’t go through some kind of mystical metamorphosis and turn into good. Bad is always bad. It’s never good that you break your leg, have your car stolen, have a loved one die; sit in prison for 20 years. I think I struggled with this verse because it seemed that I was being told bad things were somehow good for me. It felt like if I didn’t embrace them as good, I wasn’t believing God. That’s not true. Bad things are bad.  

The partnership comes in my response to bad things. I am either reacting to what’s happening or am I trusting in a relationship I have with my Creator. He and I have a deal. He loves me. He will take care of me. His gifts are perfect and good. He promises to protect me; never allow a temptation to be so strong that I can’t escape from it. If I have needs, he has promised to provide. 

So when bad things happen, which has greater impact on my life? The situation unfolding or Jesus ~ who promised to be my Advocate

In the hardship; in the suffering; in the struggle ~ where will my focus be? What am I going to expect? Will I be able to rest because I trust that Jesus is still working on my behalf? Or will this difficulty consume my thinking?

I am always responsible for my attitude. We will always miss finding the good in difficult times when we stay focused on our loss. Every struggle has a loss. Yet all wisdom is gained through an element of surrender. To learn a new truth, you must either change or expand on an old one. It’s a wisdom update. When new updates come to your computer, they’re always there to fix and improve the program we were using before. If you’re going to gain wisdom, you are going to have to move on in your thinking and beliefs.

If we lose the capacity to surrender, we lose the capacity to learn, to grow and to discern. All growth involves an element of loss ~ of moving on. 

When we don’t believe “all things work together towards our good,” we will not look for good. Even if it stares at us, we often miss it because we’re looking at something else. 

I was talking to a friend of mine who was supposed to send me a check at the beginning of April. It never came. ~ It went well with my broken phone, my dysfunctional water heater that both flooded my basement, ruined my flooring and spewed carbon monoxide through my office for 8 months, and now, that morning my leaking heat pump. God blessed me that month with so many incredible examples of things that can work out for good. 

I’ve lived long enough to realize that pain and suffering have been my greatest teachers and in some ways, my closest friends. Without them my life would not have the richness and purpose that it does today. I don’t ever want to relive some of the horrible experiences in my life, but neither do I wish I had never experienced them. When “shift” happens, I’ve come to realize there’s a benefit coming that I will be able to identify later. 

“In all things God works together with those who love him to bring about what is good—with those who have been called according to his purpose.”

Here’s another good thing that emerged from having to kill 50 minutes in 7 Oaks Mall.

     2. What about my impulsive decisions that turned out to be disasters

God often allows us to live with the consequences of our own decisions. Not everything that goes wrong is somebody else’s fault. Life is about struggle.  Some of you are going to be like me, sitting in the mall waiting for the good to show up. We fail to realize that the bad will often take us there. 

Those of you who are old enough know, life’s struggles have left an investment in your life that has made you wiser and more complete. Yet we turn around and try to protect our children from all pain. The very thing that gave you character and strength is the thing we try to protect our children from. 

The reality is, we can be a rebellious people. And God allows us to live in that mess for awhile until we are desperate enough to surrender to him. 

I’ve made financial decisions that were crippling.

I’ve said some absolutely stupid things in my life. I remember in the early ’80’s when Canada was going through an election year, there was a lot of emotional sentiment; not quite as bad as what we are seeing to the south, but it had it’s parallels. I was a young pastor in a small prairie town. My brother was visiting me and we were in the middle of a Monopoly game when the phone rang. It was a reporter from the provincial newspaper doing a random survey of what people thought about the upcoming election. I hate telemarketing; phone surveys ~ I was a little annoyed and I was in the middle of a Monopoly game. Everyone knows you shouldn’t interrupt people who playing Monopoly. ~ so my off the cuff remark was, “Anyone who voted for that particular political party would be a hypocritical jerk.” Well when that showed up on the front page of the Provincial paper; “Baptist pastor says…” Well - that’s when the hate mail started; and the phone calls. I remember one letter on a piece of paper that was about 12” square. It began with the words, “You are a…” and in fine print, it filled that entire page with words I’ve never repeated. I even learned some news ones. It was a shame-filled season in my life because of a lack of common sense. 

Did it work out for good? A lot of that depended upon me. God partners with us to maneuvercircumstances and our perspective of them into a healthy place that benefits us. I was humbled; crushed actually. I emerged wiser. Did God do it? ~ I cried out to him. I began to listen to his counsel. There was no condemnation coming from our conversations. My spirit became lot more teachable. My heart was comforted by the love I received from him. I watched my congregation absorb my shame and love me all the same. I experienced grace when I knew I had be careless. 

“In all things God works together with those who love him to bring about what is good—with those who have been called according to his purpose.”

I’m a better person today because of God’s partnership with me in a time of personal stupidity. In every circumstance we have options. It can feel overwhelming. 

At times I have said to God, “Are you serious!” One thing after another. During the preparation of this talk I have had so many things go sideways it was almost comical considering our topic today. But because of this talk, I found myself beginning to actually look for the good. 

I am so thankful I stayed in that little church. I learned so much and we were loved-on constantly. It built character, and showed me many of my limitations. I was discipled there by the people and we were also used by God to see many blessed and mature. It was a wonderful season. 

Nancy and I are both missionary kids and have also been missionaries. We’ve grew up often separated from our parents, and we’ve made decisions that separated us from our own kids. We’ve watched our kids walk through the same questions we did and they didn’t always come up with the same conclusions. One is bitter and angry with us and God because they feel they were second in our lives. I’ve thought about that a lot. What if it was true? What if they were second a lot of the time? Is it healthy to walk through life with a bitter edge, believing you have been unfairly treated? Does that mean that God didn’t step to the plate and make that time good?

It’s not uncommon for each of us to want to justify a bad attitude. If I can blame my attitude on you, then it gives me permission to continue to live in an ugly mood. “It’s not my fault. It’s your fault.” And before long, it also becomes God’s fault. “He was supposed to make this good in my life and he hasn’t. It still sucks.” 

I am always responsible for my own attitude. No one forces me to resent you. No one forces me to demand vindication? Many times you and I contribute to the messes we find ourselves in.

“In all things God works together with those who love him to bring about what is good—with those who have been called according to his purpose.”

Here’s a few more good things that emerged from having to kill 50 minutes.

     3.  When I believe God is on my side; when I expect him to influence the outcome of every circumstance in my life; when I believe that what others intended for evil, he will take it, re-shape it and make it help me in the long or short run ~ When I allow my thoughts to go there, I can begin to choose better options in my responses. 

I sat over several weeks, looking at everything that was going wrong. When one more thing happened, I found myself thinking, “Here’s another sermon illustration.” I wondered what I could do to find the good. I began to automatically ask God, “What do you have in mind for this one?” I realized, I don’t have to get frustrated. This is going to work out.

The reality is, God miraculously intervenes in history at times, and in your life so that evil does not triumph over you.  I worked with a Vietnamese friend in the refugee camps in the Philippians. He had suffered in re-education camps. They would torture him and on one occasion were horribly beating him. I remember him telling me how bad it was. He reached a point where he couldn’t take it any more. He said, “I cried out to God to help me. They kept beating me, but I felt no more pain.” Part of the good that came out of that was far more than simply having the pain stop. It established his faith. It increased his trust in God. When God’s at work, things that happened years ago, continue to bring blessing to others and to you. Often times the good that comes in life is miraculous. 

But there is a thinking that says, “If all things work together for good, then we shouldn’t experience bad.” That is not what the Bible says and it is not what this verse is about. We really do have an enemy and we really are in a war. Jesus invited us to take up our cross and follow him.  He said, “If they persecute me, they will persecute you.” 

I realize that some of the illustrations I give seem other worldly to some of you. My reality is different than many people. Yet it is still my reality. Being surrounded by so much persecution in my childhood, in the Vietnam war, and knowing so many stories of courageous Christians that willingly gave up their lives for Jesus. I grew up wondering, “If a gun was put to my head, would I deny Jesus?” 

That is my heritage. Persecuted Christians didn’t seem to ask why there was persecution. They knew why, so they chose to focus on, “God, give me the strength to not deny you.” There are some things worth sacrificing for. When evil transpires ~ strength and courage can also mature. When horrible things happen to me, I don’t first ask whether or not I deserve it. I tend to think I’m being attacked. I might first ask why, but then I often ask for help to process that experience in a way that honours God.  

The “good” you’ve been expecting, may not be the good that is best for you. 

Many things in life are superficial. They simply don’t matter. What are the things that matter most? The reality is, we don’t always want or enjoy giving up some things, even when we know they’re actually not good for us. 

There are times God invites us to sacrifice. How many of you like the word “sacrifice”?

“I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him.”           Romans 12:1

There have been so many times God has told me to give money away that I felt I could not afford to give. There have been times God has told me to forgive people who had wronged me. I didn’t want to forgive. I wanted vindication. There have been so many times God has told me to allow others to receive recognition and told me to remain in the background. Do I like those times? Do I invite them into my life? This I will tell you. When you are just starting out with God, some decisions seem to be overwhelming. The longer you walk with God, you begin to share experiences together. He proves himself to you. You look back and see how you benefitted by being obedient and how many of those experiences are now blessing others. It wasn’t easy, but it was a source of peace. You knew you had done the right thing and the burden you had been carrying seemed to get lighter. 

God is good all the time. Not just when good is happening. If bad is happening we feel God isn't good, and that is foolish. I drove into a church compound in Northern Uganda late at night. It was during a time when 10,000 children would leave their homes in the fields (night commuters) and come into towns to sleep on the ground in order to be safe. Koni was abducting children for the Lord’s Resistance Army and turning them into child soldiers. As the headlights moved across the parking lot, the ground began to move. Hundreds of children began to stand up. When they saw us they began to sing and dance. One child yelled out, “God is good.” Across the parking lot another answered, “All the time.” Then another, “All the time,” and still another, “God is good.” I remembered wiping the tears and thinking, “How can they be so thankful and live in such a dangerous place?”

We need to move to that point where we fully trust again.

“In all things God works together with those who love him to bring about what is good—with those who have been called according to his purpose.”