"And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:28-31, ESV).
In my Expository Writing class in college, the professor, Elsie Elmendorf (now with the Lord), would admonish us regularly to avoid the use of the word "things" in our writing. Her reason was that it was too general, and when writing persuasively, we should be specific.
Generally, I would agree with that assessment, but specifically in this passage by Paul, I think even Professor Elmendorf would agree that Paul's use of "things" is entirely appropriate. Why? Because it's so inclusive, especially attached to "all."
"All things" means exactly that. Everything that comes into our lives as Christians, no matter why or how, can be turned from bad to good through the grace of God.
This isn't always easy to accept when the "thing" touching us is hurtful, disappointing, and damaging. In the midst of a bad thing, disillusion, despair, anger, and more cloud our sense of hope and worth. Especially if the bad thing, the hard circumstance, is a consequence of our own sinfulness, the intentional act of another in whom we trusted, or the seeming senselessness of a random accident.
But whatever the source of the bad thing, the truth of Paul's statement stands. Paul knew pain, disappointment, frustration, and more. He experienced a lot of bad things. How did he deal with these?
In 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 he wrote: "So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong."
We don't know what Paul's thorn was, but it's clear that it was a bad thing. Many commentators believe that what it wasn't was some sort of struggle with sin, and so try to narrow the possibilities. However, my personal sense is that Paul was vague on purpose, leaving open the possibilities to allow us to identify with his experience of grace. It does not diminish Paul's stature or impact to think that he could have been challenged by sin. In fact, in Romans 7:16-20, he offers a wrenching revelation of just such a struggle.
Whatever "things" come into our lives, both good and bad, we can "be more than conquerors" through the strength of Christ, the grace of God, and hope fed by the empowering of the Holy Spirit.
When faced with death, disease, unrest, disappointment, failure, divorce, loss, joblessness, debt, injury, and "all things," we can be confident even in the midst of grief or shame or confusion, "that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ" (Philippians 1:6).
And that, I think you'll agree, is a very good thing!
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