The book of Romans is one of the last letters the Apostle Paul wrote, and is argued to be the greatest of his fourteen epistles and that may be because the book of Romans is different than his previous epistles.
To the Romans Paul’s focus is not on Paul’s person but on Paul’s core theology.
When Paul writes this letter to the church in Rome, he was an older and wiser human being and Christian, likely in his late fifties or early sixties. That is to say this letter was not written immediately after his conversion on the road to Damascus when he was struck blind and encountered the spirit of Jesus. This letter was decades after that conversion experience.
Therefore, in Romans, we find a mature Paul, a seasoned Paul, a veteran of the early Christian movement. And so, the book of Romans becomes his “summa theologia”, the summation of his theology.
What this creates then is a letter where there is no history about Jesus. There are no parables of Jesus, no narratives about Jesus, no passion stories about Good Friday, no resurrection stories about Easter Sunday.
Similarly, there is no history about Paul’s own life. There are no stories about his beatings, his stonings, his conversion, his missionary trips, his time in prison. There is none of this.
Rather, this letter to the Romans is about ideas.
But not just ideas on how to be church. Rather it is filled with ideas about Christ. Ideas about God. Ideas about how the faithful can persist and persevere when there seems to be no reason and no hope to do such.
In 1981, Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote the book “When Bad Things Happen to Good People”. It’s a book many get confused about, thinking the title is actually, “Why Bad Things Happen to Good People”.
Kushner emphasizes in the book that bad things do happen to good people, and they happen all the time. It’s not a matter of if, or why, it’s a matter of when.
Terrible things like little children being killed in car accidents, young mothers struck down by cancer, innocent victims cruelly destroyed at the hands of terrorists—these things happen, and they happen to good people who do not deserve them.
I don’t like it. I know none of you like it either. It’s not fair, it’s not right. Good people should not have to suffer and endure tragic heart ache.
I have an old camp friend who she and her husband had their daughter hurt and shortly after die, suspiciously, while being cared for by a baby sitter. Even after numerous coroners’ investigations, the cause of death was ruled “unknown” leaving them not only with countless unanswered questions, but a stack of medical bills.
Add to that, the husband recently lost his job, their home flooded three times in a week due to heavy rains, and when they thought things couldn’t possibly get any worse, they get into a car accident where the other driver, who was at fault, fled the scene and was never found, leaving them to incur the pain, suffering, and expense.
Where is God in all this? After all, “if God is for us who is against us?”
As Christians our immediate reaction might be to leap to God’s defense (as if God needs our help) and say something pithy like “God never gives more than you can handle.”
But some things are hard to explain away.
So what are we to make of all this … of car crashes, of terrorist attacks, of disasters and tragedy? What are we to make of people, good people, getting more than they can handle?
As Christians we believe God is sovereign, that God is in control of this world.
So what is going on?
Admittedly, it seems like we are just whistling through a graveyard, trying to stay cheerful, ignoring the tragic-ness of tragedy, hoping for an outcome where we don’t have to deal with anyone whose crying, saying things like “All things happen for a reason.”
But awful things constantly happen.
And because awful things constantly happen how can we continue to preach and teach that a sovereign, loving God is in control with any intellectual, philosophical or even theological integrity, and not come out looking like we are full of self-deception? How can we!?
We live in a dangerous world where accidents happen even to the most careful persons. If absolute safety is our goal, then being born was a fundamental mistake.
We have difficulties of our own making, but our lives are affected by the sins, mistakes, and poor judgments of other people. There is evil in the world which brushes up against our lives at unexpected times. There are natural disasters that inexplicably and capriciously destroy.
Which means no matter how hard we try; or how careful we may be; we cannot avoid suffering, pain and sorrow. The greatest battle in our lives, however, is not with these forces that lie beyond our control—as frightening as they may be—our greatest battle is actually with ourselves.
Most of our defeats come because we have not learned to fight effectively against the enemy within. We can seldom control what happens to us, but we have a tremendous margin of control over how we respond to what happens to us.
And that margin of control is more often than not the difference between victory and defeat, the difference between persevering and giving up.
And that is what Paul is talking about in Romans eight. Presenting to us the idea that yes we have to do wisely and intentionally all that we can, but we do not have to do it alone.
Pastor and professor Dr. Albert Winn provides a perspective that emphasizes the theology Paul writes of in his letter to the Romans.
He notes, “At the heart of biblical faith we do not find airtight arguments sealed with nice, comforting, easily digestible ‘Therefore…’ statements. Statements like, ‘Bad things happen, but God is in control, therefore’ all is right with the world.’ Or, ‘All things happen for a reason, therefore, let us not worry.’ I can’t stand that saying. All things happen for a reason? What’s the reason for the tragic death of a child? What’s the reason for starvation? What’s the reason for racial hatred?
There is no “therefore” that can ever give comfort for the meaninglessness of tragedy and hate.”
And Dr. Winn doesn’t try to convince there could be.
Instead, he explains, “At the heart of biblical faith, at the heart of the faith the Apostle Paul writes about, we find things that do not logically follow how we think the world ought to be, all sealed, all brought together, not with a quaint easy “Therefore” but instead sealed with a profound, deep, “Nevertheless.”
Winn goes on, saying, “Much is wrong with the world, the mystery of evil is great, nevertheless let us have faith in the one who died, yes who was raised, who is at the right hand of God.
Bad things happen to good people, nevertheless let us praise the one who indeed intercedes for us.
We as individuals make mistakes, we beat ourselves up, we fault ourselves with no hope of forgiving ourselves, nevertheless, who will separate us from the love of Christ?
Sure, hardships will come, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, sword…
Sure we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered…
Nevertheless, neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Dr. Winn believes, and I believe too, that we can move ourselves to the place where we can better understand the miseries of life if we remember the profound and deep “nevertheless.”
Bad things do happen to good people—nevertheless, God is still good, and still at work to make all things good.
God is sovereign. God is in control. And we should continue to preach it and teach it.
But the question remains: Are we just whistling through the graveyard?
Or are we able to say that yes bad things happen to good people, even to God’s good and faithful servants, but nevertheless, we still believe God is for us, and because God is, whoever or whatever comes against us will never, ever have the last word.
Is this a great, collective self-deception? Some would say yes. Even we ourselves, in the midst of tragedy and bad things might say such a faith is deceptive.
So what I do, when I need a reminder that I’m not deceiving myself or others, is I look at the calendar.
I look and see the first day of the week and I remember what happened one Sunday so many years ago, that became the first Easter. I look and I am reminded of that day of resurrection.
It was that day that guaranteed for all time and all eternity that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
So may we remember that day of resurrection, no matter what is happening in our world, or in the worlds around us.
May we remember that day of resurrection, and then say, not through self-deception, but through faith…
“Nevertheless, today I give praise for the love of God in Christ Jesus my Lord. Nevertheless.” Amen.