Scripture: Romans 8:26-39
If you were compiling a playlist of the “Greatest Hits” of the Bible—you know, Bible verses most likely to make it onto coffee mugs, T-shirts, and bumper stickers—then surely this morning’s scripture includes a few of them: “Nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” “If God is for us, who can be against us?” “In all these things we are more than conquerors.”
And of course, Romans 8:28: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
Lots of good stuff here, and I’m afraid this sermon will barely skim the surface. But before we dive in, let’s figure out why Paul is writing today’s scripture in the first place.
It’s because he wants to answer a question that’s implicit in something Paul writes earlier in the chapter. If you have your Bibles… and you should… look at verses 16 to 18. Paul writes that through faith in Christ we become “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”
So… From these verses we learn that suffering is not only to be an expected part of living a Christian life, but that it is also—ugh—a necessary part.
And if that’s true, how can we endure suffering with hope and confidence—rejoicing always as we do so? That’s what today’s scripture will help us to answer.
Speaking of suffering, my father died of cancer back in 1995. In the months leading up to his death, Dad had a conversion—or, if he was already saved, at least a powerful reawakening of his Christian faith. And he looked up to me as a Christian role model, and I was able to minister to him during the last year of his life. I have no doubt that God used the experience of my own suffering related to Dad’s death as part of my call into ministry.
Anyway, Dad told me he wanted to read the Bible—he’d never done that before outside of church. And he wanted a Bible that was easier to read than a King James Version, which is the only Bible he had read. So I bought him an easy-to-read modern translation at a Christian bookstore. And he started reading it every day.
Later on, he told me that he was having trouble praying. Dad was on a combination of chemotherapy, anti-nausea meds, and pain meds, and they made him feel whoozy, and he found it hard to concentrate. He told me that often when he tried to pray, his mind would easily wander. I reassured him that we didn’t need to be suffering the side-effects of powerful drugs to have difficulty praying—that all Christians at one time or another find it difficult to pray. But… I reassured him with the promise from verses 26 and 27, including these words:
For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.
The Spirit himself intercedes for us… What does that mean? The New Living Translation gets it right when it translates the word “intercedes” as prays: The Holy Spirit prays for us… through our own feeble, fallible, faltering attempt at prayers… the Holy Spirit prays through our prayers.
Think about it: the Holy Spirit is God, the Third Person of the Trinity; he dwells within our innermost being; he knows what we need infinitely more than we do; and he tells God the Father what we need. So even though my dad was distracted and unable to concentrate, the Holy Spirit was praying through Dad’s prayers. And that’s what the Spirit does for all believers!
That’s quite a promise!
What that often means is, God not only hears our prayer, he hears the prayer underneath our prayer. In other words, it’s often the case when we pray that we’re asking for the wrong thing. We don’t mean to ask for the wrong thing, but we do. Because we’re sinful, we’re far from perfect, and our knowledge is limited. In physics, there’s something called “chaos theory,” which includes the “Butterfly effect.” The butterfly effect says that a butterfly flapping its wings on the West Coast can be magnified so as to direct the course of a hurricane or typhoon in Japan… something crazy like that. The point is, something infinitesimally small like a butterfly’s flapping its wings can have profoundly large consequences, which no one can predict. And the same goes for our prayer requests. Only God can know and foresee what the eternal consequences are for giving us what we pray for. Which goes to show that we should be humble enough to trust God to run the universe!
But even when we ask for the wrong thing, there is some deeper need within us that we’re asking God to satisfy. And God wants to satisfy that deeper need.
For example, you might have had this experience: Maybe you’re dating someone, and you think this person is “the one.” So you pray that you could marry this particular person. But despite your prayers the relationship falls apart. You break up. It’s devastating. And it hurts. Clearly, despite your prayers, God told you “no.” But maybe God told you no—not because he doesn’t want you to be happy; he does—but because he knows that you’re looking for happiness in the wrong place; perhaps you’ve made an idol of this person; you’ve looked to this person to fill up some lonely void in your life that only God can fill.
But God knows what you really need… God hears the prayer underneath the prayer. And that prayer was, “God, I’m so lonely. Can you heal me of this loneliness? Can you help me find satisfaction in you alone?” God answers that prayer. He enables you to grow more in love with Jesus and experience so much more of his Spirit that you no longer needed someone to fill that void. And as a result you become much happier than you would otherwise be if God had given you what you prayed for, rather than answering the prayer underneath the prayer.
Or maybe you pray that you’ll get into some prestigious college—because you think it will enable you to pursue some dream job. But God knows you better than you know yourself; he knows that if you got into that college you would go down a path in life that would be less than the best that God has for you. Besides, what you really wanted when you prayed to get into that college—the “prayer underneath the prayer”—was to find a vocation in which you can use all the good gifts that God has given you. And that college you were praying to get into, and that career you had set your mind on, wouldn’t enable you to do that. God knows what’s best for you; you don’t.
So in both these examples, God is saying “no” to the thing that you were explicitly asking for… but it was only in order that God could say “yes” to something better. If the Spirit is interceding for us, this sort of thing happens all the time!
Now, how about this… Are you ever praying for something really important, and you enlist other people you know to pray for you? I hope so! This is intercessory prayer. The Bible commands it. Do you know someone whom you consider to be a prayer warrior—a Spirit-filled person whose prayers seem especially powerful and effective? So much so that when you have an important need you want them praying for you? Because their prayers seem to get results! There are people in this church like that!
Well, even when you enlist the greatest prayer warrior to pray for you, it’s still possible that God will tell you no. Don’t we all know the pain of unanswered prayer?
I know from painful experience that God may not say “yes” to my prayers… and he may not say “yes” to the prayers of other people for me… But there is Someone whose prayers for me our Father will always answer with a resounding “yes”… each and every time he prays…
And that Someone is… the Holy Spirit!
Literally every time that God the Holy Spirit prays for us, God the Father says yes. As strange as it is to say, in the mystery of the Trinity, God always answers “yes” to God.
With all this in mind, maybe we can reinterpret the meaning of unanswered prayer. I like the way pastor Tim Keller puts it:
When we Christians pray, God will do one of two things: he will either give us what we ask for, or he’ll give us what we would have asked for if we knew everything that God knows.
Let me repeat: When we Christians pray, God will either give us what we ask for, or he’ll give us what we would have asked for if we knew everything that God knows.
I love that!
Here’s another helpful way of thinking about unanswered prayer, which emerges from today’s scripture: You’ve probably heard it said that God answers prayer in one of three ways. He either says “yes,” “no,” or “wait.” But if verses 26 and 27 are true—about the Holy Spirit praying for us—that’s not exactly right: When we pray, it’s not so much that God say “yes,” or “wait,” or “no”; it’s more like he says “yes,” or “wait,” or “I’ve got something better for you.” Yes, or wait, or I’ve got something better for you.
With all this in mind, I hope we can better understand verse 28: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” If the Holy Spirit is praying for us, then of course all things are working for our good—because, as I say, our heavenly Father always says “yes” to the prayers of the the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit is always praying for what’s best for us under any given set of circumstances.
Have you noticed recently, perhaps on Facebook or other social media, that many Christians are complaining about the saying, “Everything happens for a reason”—by which we mean, “Everything happens for a God-ordained reason”? In other words, God has good reasons for causing or allowing everything that happens. At least one best-selling megachurch pastor I can name says that it’s not true.
But given today’s scripture, I don’t understand how it’s not true, at least for us Christians. We believe in the power of prayer. We believe that God has the power to give us what we pray for—to do things in response to our prayers that he wouldn’t otherwise do.
Suppose I pray, for example, that I will be safe driving home today. And instead I die in a fiery car wreck—which could happen—what am I to conclude? Did God not hear my prayer for safety? Did God hear it, but he doesn’t really have the power to intervene in our world? Did God hear my prayer, but whether he intervenes or not, it’s arbitrary—it’s a flip of the coin? None of these things, I hope you’ll agree, can possibly be true—not if Jesus and the Bible are telling the truth about God and the power of prayer!
No… If worst comes to worst, in spite of my prayers to the contrary, then I should conclude that my heavenly Father heard my prayer request, he considered it along with everyone else’s prayer requests and everything else happening in the world—and he said no. Not because he doesn’t love me. Because when I die, I’m going to be okay. Right? I’ll be more than okay. “To live is Christ and to die is gain.” When I make the transition from life to death, as a Christian, it’s actually a transition from life to greater life, to better life. So God does me no wrong if he decides to bring me home to be with him—for example, by not intervening to stop a car accident.
Therefore, contrary to some preachers, I find it immensely comforting to know that God has a reason for allowing everything to happen the way that it does! That no matter where I am and what I’m going through, God has reasons for causing or allowing me to be in this situation.
All things work together for good… All things! All the time!
But let’s be crystal clear about what this verse doesn’t promise: It doesn’t promise a life free from suffering; it doesn’t even promise a life of less suffering than the lives of non-Christians. On the contrary, Paul speaks from personal experience in verse 35:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?
Paul experienced all those things and more—because of his faith. Jesus himself warns about this repeatedly. So when Paul says, “all things work for good,” he doesn’t mean “all things really are good, if only you could learn to see them that way.” No… really bad and evil things happen in the world, which cause genuine suffering. Christians are not exempt—and they will often suffer more because they’re Christians.
So… “All things work together for good” doesn’t mean “all things are good.”
Also, it’s not up to us to define the good for which “all things work together.” The Bible tells us what that “good” looks like. See verse 29. Ultimately, the good for which all things work together is this: “to be conformed to the image of his Son.” Ultimately, to say that all things work together for our good is the same as saying that all things are working together to conform us to the image of God’s Son Jesus.
I hope that doesn’t disappoint you—if you have a different understanding of what good looks like! But I think that God’s definition of what’s good for us is better than anything. Because let’s think for a moment about what it would mean for us to be more like Jesus!
Consider Jesus in Mark 4:35-41: Jesus is with his disciples on a boat on the Sea of Galilee in the midst of a terrible storm. The disciples are so scared and so stressed out and so worried that they just know they’re going to drown. Jesus, by contrast, is not afraid, he’s not stressed out, he’s not worried. So much so, in fact, that he’s sleeping in the stern of the boat. It’s impossible to sleep when you’re scared, stressed out, and worried. But Jesus is so confident that his Father is taking care of him that he can relax, he can be calm, he can be at peace, even in the midst of a life-threatening storm.
I want to be more like that! Don’t you? Wouldn’t I be happier if I were more like Jesus?
Or how about Jesus in John 6:15. After Jesus miraculously feeds the 5,000, people in the crowd want to seize him and make him be their king. But Jesus refuses the glory they offer him… He doesn’t want their crown; he doesn’t need their glory; his only interest is in advancing the cause of God’s kingdom and his Father’s glory.
But then I think of myself… Would I be able to resist that kind of earthly glory? Probably not, because I love getting glory so much! And yet I can never get enough of it to be satisfied, and it makes me miserable. Most of my unhappiness in life, after all, has to do with my failed attempts to achieve glory on my own… or my fear of losing glory… or my fear that other people getting the glory that I think I deserve. If only I could live for God’s glory—the way Jesus lived for God’s glory!
I want to be like that! How about you? I’m sure I could be much happier if I could live that way!
Finally, how about Jesus in John 4:34. The disciples have gone into a Samaritan village to get lunch for themselves and to bring something back for Jesus—because Jesus, we’re told, is tired and hungry. While they’re gone, Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at the well. And she receives the gospel and is saved—and she runs into town to tell others about Jesus. When the disciples return and offer Jesus food to eat, to their surprise Jesus is no longer hungry. He says, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.”
In other words, Jesus is so satisfied in reaching the lost with his gospel that he doesn’t need anything else! Nothing makes him happier, nothing brings him more joy, nothing brings him more satisfaction, than bringing the lost into a saving relationship with God! I want to know that kind of joy and happiness and satisfaction in life!
I want to be like that! How about you? If I were, I’m sure I would be happier!
Because make no mistake: Even though Paul doesn’t directly mention it here, there is an urgent message in today’s scripture about our mission to make disciples.
You see, none of these amazing promises that we find here—that all things work together for good, that we are more than conquerors, that if God is for us, who can be against us, that nothing can separate us from God’s love—none of these promises apply to people who haven’t yet come into a saving relationship with God through Christ.
And I understand that it isn’t a popular thing to say; it isn’t politically correct. And I’m well aware that many preachers today are preaching a false gospel message that non-Christians enjoy all of the blessings and favor of God—including even eternal life—regardless of their response to Jesus and his gospel. But we know that’s not what God’s Word teaches!
But if it bothers us that these amazing promises don’t apply to non-Christians, we have the power to do something about it… other than ignore the Bible or radically reinterpret its plain meaning… We can tell lost people what they need to do in order to be saved! Because if we’re being conformed to the image of Christ, there’s no way that making disciples won’t become our number one priority!
Finally, one of my heroes in the faith, as you probably know from the many times I quote him in sermons—including this sermon—is Tim Keller. He has pancreatic cancer. He announced it a couple of months ago on social media. Last week he gave an update on his health. He said he’s responding well to the treatment so far—but obviously pancreatic cancer is about as serious and deadly as cancer gets. He and his wife, Kathy, gave an update on Tim’s health last week. They wrote the following on Instagram:
Our situation has driven us to seek God’s face as we never have before. He is giving us more of his sensed presence, more freedom from our besetting sins, more dependence on his Word—things that we had sought for years, but only under these circumstances are we finding them.
Only under these circumstances…
From a worldly point of view, Tim and Kathy Keller are doing worse than they’ve ever done. Because from a worldly point of view the very worst thing imaginable is happening to them. And yet… as they can see… God is using their circumstances to conform them to the image of Christ.
They know, therefore, that they’re doing better than ever!
They know that all things work together for good. Amen.