Hard Places Make Holy People
James C. Denison
Would you go on the Internet to watch cheese ripen? I did last Tuesday, and became the 1,205,022th visitor to do so. A large English cheddar cheese was placed in front of an Internet camera last December, its ripening process broadcasted to the world. It will take a year for the cheese to fully ripen. Meanwhile, viewers from 119 countries are watching. Now that’s entertainment.
A ripening cheese beats much of what’s in the news these days.
An al-Qaeda bombing in Bangladesh proves the terrorist organization isn’t going away. Controversy in Washington over war funding; global warming and the melting Zugspitze glacier in Germany; a week of thunderstorms and floods locally; continued coverage of the Virginia Tech tragedy and fears about security at upcoming college graduations.
Where is the world not what you wish it were? What about the past or the future worries you in the present? God’s word today calls us to be grateful for all of that. To learn an attitude of gratitude even in the hardest places of life. Why? Because hard places make holy people. How can that promise be true in your hard place today?
Don’t be surprised by suffering
Let’s begin with what Scripture does and does not say. Our text does not say that all things are good, but that “in all things God works for the good….” The distinction is important.
When God made the world he called it good. In fact, when he was finished with creation, “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).
But then humanity fell into sin and the suffering which results. Man would live by the sweat of his brow and woman would bear children in pain until death comes.
This fallen world is a reality for us all. Every one of us has sinned and come short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23); the wages or result of that sin is death (Romans 6:23).
And creation is affected by such sin: “The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Romans 8:19-22).
We suffer cancer and heart disease and disaster and death because this world is not the way God intended it.
Some say that Romans 8:28 means all things are good all the time, that we are to be happy always and “praise the Lord anyway.”
Such theology would find no home in Gethsemane, where Jesus prayed under such stress that the capillaries of his skin broke and he sweated drops of blood (Luke 22:44). Not on Calvary, where our Savior cried in anguish, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). Not with Paul’s “thorn in the flesh,” a problem so great he prayed three times for God to remove it (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). Not for John, who was exiled on the prison island of Patmos where he was a “companion in tribulation” with suffering Christians around the world (Revelation 1:9).
Jesus warned us that “in this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33). Paul likewise warned us that “we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). Don’t be surprised by suffering.
Our text does not promise that all things are good, but that God “works through all things for good.”
The Greek is that he “works together all things for good.” “Works together” is the picture of God taking existing materials and using them, working with them, molding them into something new.
He is in fact making something “good.” This is the Greek word for “good in nature,” not necessarily in appearance. At the time it may not seem at all that God is working bad for good, but he is.
The reason is simple. As I’ve said often in the last year, God’s holiness requires him to redeem all that he permits or causes. God is by definition the greatest, most perfect being that can be conceived.
And a perfect being must redeem everything he permits or causes. He can allow or do nothing which he cannot use for a greater good. If 9/11 or Virginia Tech defeated the ultimate purpose of God, he is not God.
We likely will not know all the ways our Father is using bad for good, but we can know that he is. We don’t have to understand computers to use them. I don’t have to know how this wireless microphone works to trust it. So with the redeeming power of the God who works through all things for good.
If you’re not sure God can use bad for good, ask Joseph in his Egyptian prison; or Moses at the Red Sea; or Joshua at the flooded Jordan River; or David facing Goliath; or Jeremiah in the mud cistern; or Daniel in the lion’s den; or Shadrach, Meshach and Abednigo in the fiery furnace; or Peter in Herod’s prison awaiting execution; or Paul and Silas singing hymns at midnight in a Philippian jail; or John exiled on Patmos.
Ask the millions of Christians who have come to faith in Communist China after their churches were made illegal; or the millions of South Koreans who came to Jesus after the devastation of the Korean War; or the thousands who were moved to faith upon hearing the stories of the martyred Christians at Columbine. God is working through all things for good. Either his word is true or it is not. Either he is God or he is not. We must make our choice.
Submit to the purpose of God
But there’s more to the text. Many of us stop at verse 28. But verses 29-30 explain why God fulfills verse 28, and how he does so in our lives today. He works “according to his purpose” (v.28b). What is this purpose? (v. 29)
“Those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (v. 29). God wants us to be like Jesus. He wants us to be “conformed” (to be formed with or molded) into his “likeness,” his appearance and character.
We cannot actually “be” Christ in this fallen world. We are not sinless and perfect, divine in every way. But we can act like Jesus. We can think like him. We can represent him. We can be “Christians,” “little Christs.”
This is God’s purpose for us all: “we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
Our heavenly Father wants us to look like Jesus in the way we live, the words we speak, the decisions we make, the witness we give to the unbelieving world which surrounds us. This is our Father’s highest purpose and hope for the human race. This is his purpose for every one of us today (v. 30).
He “predestined” this for us, planning this purpose for us before time began. Thus he “called” us to himself as his Spirit convicted us of our sins and led us to faith in Christ. He “justified” us by cleansing us from our sins. One day he will “glorify” us in heaven. So that we will be like Jesus forever.
Why should we want this purpose for ourselves? Being like Jesus is not an ambition the world rewards or even recognizes. This is no path to career advancement or social status.
Why cooperate with God in this way?
Because this is the best purpose your life could know. If someone sacrificed his son for you, you’d believe that he loved you and had your best interest at heart, wouldn’t you? Your Father did just that. Now, “how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (v. 32).
Nothing can separate you from God’s love for you (vs. 35-39). If he says this is your life’s best purpose, it’s because it’s true.
Imagine being like Jesus in every dimension of your life:
Imagine living above bitterness and anger when you are hurt: “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
Imagine living in victory over sin and temptation: “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet was without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).
Imagine walking in your Father’s perfect will for every day: “Not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).
Imagine being used by God to heal the sick, comfort the hurting, and bless the world: “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people” (Matthew 4:23).
Imagine being Christ to your world–that’s your Father’s purpose for your life.
And know that he is working through all things in your life right now to accomplish precisely this purpose.
He is redeeming suffering to help you learn to trust him more. He is redeeming slander and gossip to help you learn to forgive and bless. He is redeeming loneliness to help you depend on his presence. He is redeeming despair and hopelessness to help you find your hope in him. He is redeeming guilt to help you find his forgiveness. He is redeeming fear to help you find his peace. He is redeeming grief to help you find his comfort.
He is using hard places to make holy people.
What do you need to do to cooperate with God’s purpose for your soul and your relationships?
Surrender your soul to him. Give him your heart and soul. Let him own you. Ask Jesus to move into your life.
Surrender your life to him. Every day, first thing every morning, surrender your day to his Spirit’s control and will for your life. Meet him in Scripture and prayer and worship. Put yourself in his molding hands, and ask him to use this day to make you more like Jesus.
Surrender your relationships to him, asking him to redeem them to make you more like Jesus. Surrender your resources to him–your time, talent, treasure, and touch–asking him to use them to make you more like Jesus.
Now, see all that comes as his gift. Whether good or bad, easy or hard, see it as coming from your Father who redeems all he permits or causes. See everything as a means to his end of making you like Jesus. Live in expectant joy as you look forward to all the ways he will work through all things for his glory and your good. Life is his gift, until eternal life is yours forever.
Last year I was privileged to stand before Michelangelo’s massive statue of David. Where others saw flawed marble, the great artist saw Israel’s shepherd king waiting to be revealed.
How did he carve such a masterpiece? His answer was simple: “In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.”
“Hewing away the rough walls that imprison the Christ within you”–that’s what your Creator is doing with your life this morning. This is the word of the Lord.