Our church is studying about “all things” this Christmas season, which comes from chapter 8 of Romans where Paul reminds us in verse 28 that God works all things together for good. Isn’t it great when some setback in your life teaches you a lesson that ultimately enriches your whole existence? A cursory reading might seem like Paul is focusing on some present suffering that is going to afflict us for a time and go away, leaving us to come out of it with a stronger faith. Sometimes it does work that way, but this world is full of all sorts of tragedies that don’t seem to have any clear way of “working together for good.” It can seem that there is nothing but heartbreak, grief and pain from the suffering we see and experience. Sometimes, when it seems that Paul is skimming over the tension between my human experience and all those Divine promises of blessing and everything working out, I just read the whole chapter.

It seems that’s why he expands “all things” to the entire creation. He says that all of creation is groaning just like we are, waiting to be restored when Jesus returns to liberate the world from death and decay. I know how creation feels because in May of this year my wife Lisa died after an eighteen-month strategic retreat against an incurable cancer. It was never a fight; it was just an acceptance of living and dying in a world that is broken. There were a lot of times that it was hard to think about “all things working together for good” when she was deep into the suffering and our marriage was ending forever.

Paul wasn’t just talking about all things working together for us now, like the way things worked out at the end of that famous story of Joseph in the last chapter of Genesis. Once Joseph had finished rescuing Egypt and Israel from starvation, the story ends with him telling his brothers that human trafficking him for twenty shekels was no big deal, saying, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” That’s a seriously happy ending, but when my daughters’ mom died, it didn’t exactly feel like God was meaning it for good.

I think that’s why Paul didn’t choose to use Joseph for a case study as he wrapped up this section of his letter to the churches in Rome. Paul knew that some of his readers were just hurting and needed to be comforted. Maybe that’s why he reached back to the ultimate crowd-sourced communal lament from Psalm 44 to close out the chapter. The line he quotes says, “Our soul is bowed down to the dust; our belly clings to the ground.” It is the saddest lament in the Psalter, and Paul uses it to tell his readers that he knows how they feel. He tells them life can get so hard that you want to say, “On account of you (God) we are being killed all the day long; we are considered as sheep for slaughter,” right out of Psalm 44:22.

Paul was sharp on the Psalms, and I think he knew this one would show people that “all things” is not just a few people getting beat up, some surviving cancer spouses, and a parent who lost a child. It’s much worse than that; it is all of creation. I’ve met so many groaning people since Lisa died. I love talking to them, I think of what Paul wrote in the intro to 2 Corinthians, “God comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in all affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” The great thing about this chapter in Romans, and the whole of Christian faith, is that we are all waiting with eager anticipation and hope for what God is going to do, and that comforts us. By the time Paul gets to this sad Psalm he is going to sandwich it between two of the most beautiful sentences describing God’s love in the whole Bible. I’m sure you have heard of them. My wife loved these two verses, and they have helped our family to comprehend how it is that the whole Creation will someday be restored, and all things will be worked together for good. I’m just going to paste them in here:

“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will affliction or distress or persecution or hunger or lack of sufficient clothing or danger or the sword?” (v.35)

“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (v.38-39)

Nothing can separate us from God’s love, not even cancer. Although we may question his methodology of allowing cancer, we trust that He is on a mission to work all things together to restore this world through His son Jesus. Even our afflictions are sandwiched in his love.