I know a woman who is a working professional, she’s the mother of young children, a wife, and she recently contracted COVID-19 which morphed into pneumonia. Not long ago she was on a ventilator literally fighting for her life. It was terrifying. Thankfully, she’s in a relatively better place now.
There is a man connected to our community, who’s older, he also has COVID-19 and things are not looking good for him. And it looks like he’s not going to make it.
Now obviously these are not good things, they are bad things. We know that people are losing their jobs and more people will lose their work because of COVID-19. And when terrible things are happening to us or to people around us we can wonder, Is God really good? Can God really be trusted?
Scripture tells us to suspend judgment as to whether something will prove to be good or bad in the end.
The story is told of a wise man who won a Ferrari in a lottery. His family and friends came to his house and said, “You are so lucky.”
The man smiled and said, “Maybe.”
Then one day the man was driving his new sports car, coming through an intersection, and a drunken driver crashed into his new car causing him all kinds of injuries.
His family and friends showed up at the hospital and they looked at him and said, “You are so unlucky.”
And he looked up and said, “Maybe.”
And then there was a landslide that caused his house to fall into the sea but he was safe because he was in the hospital. Again, his family and friends came the next day and said, “You are so lucky.”
And again the man said, “Maybe.”
Now the point of this story is to encourage us to suspend judgment about whether something is going to prove in the end to be good or bad.
We know from experience that some things at first appear to be good but they turn out to be bad and other things appear to be bad but they end up being good.
We know that life is filled with all kinds of unexpected twists and turns and if we’re honest, sometimes life can feel really random. But if our lives are in God’s hands, we can know for certain that God will cause all things to work together for our ultimate good.
In a famous verse, in Scripture, in Romans 8:28, the Apostle Paul writes:
“And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, for those who are the called according to his purpose.”
For Our Spiritual Good
As we look at the context, it’s important to note that Paul, here in Romans 8, writes about how creation itself is groaning, that the world is suffering, it’s going through pains like an expecting mother in labor who wants to deliver her child. And Paul is saying creation groans for new life.
As we look further in Romans 8 (verses 35-36), we see that Paul writes about facing all kinds of suffering, danger, and even possible death (and we know that Paul experienced all these things). But it’s interesting that Paul NEVER says these things are good in and of themselves, they are bad things. Dangers, sufferings, possible death. But what Paul is saying in Romans 8:28 is that if we belong to God, God can take all of these things, even things that are bad, or even evil in and of themselves, and cause them to work for our ultimate good.
Now when Paul says that God causes all things to work together for our good, Paul is referring primarily to our spiritual good, not necessarily our material or financial good.
You might ask, how do we know that?
Well, Paul says in Romans 8:28, in this famous verse: “All things work together for good for those who love God.” That’s a very well-known verse.
Verse 29 is much less famous, but it’s equally important.
What does it say?
For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.
This verse is also translated: For those God knew he chose them to become like his Son.
So when the Apostle Paul talks about “all things working together for good for those who love God,” “the good” that he means is our being made like Jesus Christ.
Now Romans 8:28 is such a great verse but unfortunately it is also one of the most misunderstood and most misapplied verses in all of Scripture.
Most Misunderstood and Misapplied Verse
Let’s say someone loses their job because of COVID-19. That’s devastating on lots of different levels. It would be glib and wrong to say to that person, based on Romans 8:28, that all things are working together for good so that means you’re going to get a better and higher paying job. Because that may not be true.
When I was making the transition from California back to Vancouver, I was out of work. I was unemployed for about nine months. I had a lot more free time, but it didn’t feel like a vacation to me because I felt restless and anxious about my job prospects.
And I didn’t end up getting a super high paying job at the end of those nine months either.
But there were some gifts in that painful season as well. I learned how to live more simply. I learned to depend on God more fully. I saw God provide for me: housing, food, my basic necessities (and sometimes even more!) and I remain grateful to God for those things to this very day.
Paul is saying in Romans 8:28 that God can choreograph all things, even bad and painful things, and even evil, for our ultimate good, so that we are made more like his Son, Jesus.
The Story of Joseph
One of my favourite examples of how God can use evil for his good purposes for us comes from the life of Joseph in the Bible. This is Joseph the son of Jacob, featured in the Book of Genesis.
Joseph is the favourite son of his father, Jacob. He’s got a lot of brothers. And as a result his brothers are jealous of him, they hate him. One day they attack him and they literally throw him into a pit, a cistern. Joseph is begging for his life because they’re planning to kill him. But just then a caravan of people travelling to Egypt pass by and his brothers decide to sell him as a slave to these guys. And so think about it … in just a matter of minutes, or a few hours, Joseph loses everything dear to him, his father, his family, his food, his financial security, his freedom, and he’s crying out not only to his brothers for mercy, but to God for mercy. And heaven seemed silent.
Well, Joseph ends up being bought as a slave by a guy named Potiphar, some official in Egypt. Now Joseph is this good looking, attractive guy and after a little while his boss’ wife begins to make sexual advances toward Joseph. And because she’s married Joseph resists and because he resists Potiphar’s wife is offended and she hits back, so to speak, by falsely accusing Joseph of making a sexual pass at her. As a result Joseph is thrown into prison. He’s probably wondering: God, I tried to do the right thing, is this how you reward me? Joseph ends up spending 10 years in prison—a decade in prison. But while he is there he cultivates a spiritual gift for being able to interpret dreams.
One day Pharaoh, the ruler of all of Egypt, has this very vivid and disturbing dream. He hears from one of the members of his court that Joseph, this guy in prison, has some gift from the gods of being able to understand the meaning of dreams. So Pharaoh summons Joseph, and Pharaoh tells Joseph his dream and Joseph, with God’s help, is able to interpret it.
Joseph says, “Pharaoh, this dream means that a great famine is coming to the land. And so while the harvests are plentiful you need to stock away grain so that we can survive the years of drought.” Pharaoh recognizes the wisdom of this young, Hebrew man, Joseph, and on the spot he promotes him from prisoner to prime minister over all Egypt.
And sure enough in about seven years famine hits, many people in the region start to suffer from hunger and starvation, including Joseph’s family back in Canaan. They run out of food, they become very hungry and eventually they make their way to Egypt. They find themselves standing before their brother, Joseph, but they do not recognize him. Joseph looks different because of his dress, he’s also speaking in Egyptian, and communicating to them harshly through an interpreter. His brothers look at each other and they say, “Man, God is punishing us—can’t you see—for how we treated our brother? He pleaded for his life and we wouldn’t listen to him. God is punishing us.”
Joseph couldn’t stand it any longer and he told his staff, “Get out. Leave.” Then he began to weep, he started to bawl his eyes out. He looks at his brothers and says, “Don’t you know who I am? It’s me, it’s your kid brother, Joseph. I’m your brother.” His brothers grow white with fear, they become pale, because they are convinced that now that Joseph has power he’s going to take revenge and he’s going to kill them all. But Joseph doesn’t respond like that. He says, in Genesis 50:20, “What you meant for evil, God meant it for good, to bring about the saving of many lives.”
The word “meant” as in “meant for good” literally means “to weave.” Joseph understands that God could take the evil actions of his brothers and weave them into something good for him, his family, and for the saving of many, many lives.
Now Joseph never says that his being sold into slavery was good, he knew that was bad. Joseph never says that his being abused by his brothers was good, he knew that was bad. Joseph never says that sin is a good thing, he knows that sin is bad. But Joseph understands what the Apostle Paul centuries later would write about in Romans 8 that God can take even evil, and even bad things like disease and work them together for our ultimate good so that we are made more like Jesus Christ.
God’s Good Gifts
COVID-19 is a bad thing but there are good gifts that God can bring even from this.
As I think about my own life, and maybe this is true for you, through COVID-19, I have been reminded that I do not control my life. I tend to be a fairly proactive person with a pretty high sense of agency, I think I can influence the outcome of some things in my life. But COVID-19 has shown me that I am utterly and completely dependent on the living God. If I think I am in control of things that is merely a pleasant illusion.
Jesus Christ, God’s Son knew that he was utterly, completely, and totally dependent on his Father. So to the extent that you and I realize our dependence on God in these days we are being conformed a little bit more into the image of his son Jesus.
I have a friend and she began to display pretty much all the symptoms for COVID-19. So she voluntarily put herself in self isolation for about two weeks. She shared with me how when she was in isolation she realized how much her identity was bound up in her work, in her being productive, in her being needed by her kids and her husband and other people in her life. As she was in isolation, she came to realize more fully that her core identity is not in doing things, or being productive, or being needed, but it’s in simply being a beloved daughter of God.
COVID-19 is bad, it is destructive, but God can bring about some good gifts through this pandemic. During this time of difficulty, during this season, with God’s help, you and I can grow deeper and wiser, and more compassionate and more courageous.
And we can remember that the most important part of our storyline is not what we do, not what we produce, not what we have, but the central drama of our life is who we are becoming. Insofar as our creator is concerned who we are becoming is on center stage.
Last week, I said, “This moment may be the greatest opportunity in our lifetime to demonstrate the love of Christ.”
Well this moment may also be the greatest opportunity in our lifetime to grow more like Jesus Christ.
We can embrace the truth of Romans 8:28 that God is good and if our lives are in his hands he is working all things for our ultimate good even when life circumstances suggest that is not true. Even when we feel like Joseph, perhaps we are in a dark pit, we’re in a prison of despair. Like Joseph we can, by faith, affirm that God is good and we can say, “God, I will trust you even through this.”
Many of us right now are spending more time at home than ever before. Could this unique window of time make our homes, our apartments, into a kind of sanctuary where we meet God? Or maybe a better analogy, a better image, would be a furnace—especially if you need to work from home, you’ve got a bunch of restless kids, things are ramping up for you, maybe a furnace is a better image. But could this time, right now, in our homes be the space where our eyes are open to God in new ways. Where our eyes are opened to what is more important and what is most essential. Where we discover our shadow side, our darkness, but invite the light of God, the love of God, to bring us healing and make us whole.
In this time when we’re home more, sure watch good movies, but don’t spend all of your time glued to Netflix. You’ll feel a little better at first but then you’ll feel worse. In this season many of us feel like we need to be informed about the news, but limit your dosage of the news as many people have suggested. Ask yourself this question as I raised last week, “Am I feeding more on the news or more on God’s love? Am I feeding more on the Times or more on the eternities?”
Let this moment be a transformative one for you. Don’t squander this opportunity but allow God to do what he wants to do in you. If you have any doubt whatsoever about God’s goodness, about God’s worthiness of being trusted, simply look into the face of Jesus Christ and as you look into his face know that out of love for you, God became like you, he became a human being. Then after living a perfect life he voluntarily laid himself down on a cross and absorbed the greatest evil in the world, died the most excruciatingly, painful, degrading death. But out of the darkest, most horrible, most painful moment of human history, God also birthed the greatest gift. He paved the way for you and me to experience the forgiveness and freedom from our sins and life with God now and forever.
God was able to take the most tragic, ugly, and worst moment in human history and transform it into the most beautiful gift the world has ever known. If God is that for you, and if God is that creatively powerful, know that God could take COVID-19 or a disease you’re facing down, or the loss of a job, or the loss of a relationship as awful as those things are, and I’ve experienced those things. That God could take sin, our own sin or a sin against us. God could even take death, someone else’s death or our own death and transform it into something truly beautiful.
Put your life in God’s hands—put your life in God’s hands and all things, all things, all things … will start to work for your ultimate good as God weaves your life into something truly glorious and beautiful. As God makes you like his Son, Jesus Christ.
Ken Shigematsu is pastor of Tenth Church in Vancouver, BC and the author of the award-winning, bestseller God in My Everything