Last year, a writer named Mark Sandlin published an article with the title “Ten clichés Christians should stop saying.” Among the ten are these:
Everything happens for a reason.
God needed another angel in heaven.
Love the sinner, hate the sin.
God never gives us more than we can handle.
All trite, simplistic statements that at best are flippant and at worst can inflict deep pain. If everything happens for a reason, why isn’t that reason more evident to me? Why would God need my loved one in heaven more then I needed them here? How do I hate sin without hating the person whose innate essence is labeled as sin? And if God never gives me more than I can handle, why am I sometimes immobilized by circumstances beyond my control?
I remember a woman who was comforted by the belief that God had deliberately “taken” her husband through the act of a massive heart attack. I guess it helped her feel as though God was in control even when she wasn’t. And I’ve known others who believed the same but saw it as an act of supreme cruelty by a God they could no long believe was good or loving.
Was the Apostle Paul spouting clichés when he wrote these words in his letter to the Romans: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose”? Those who read Paul’s words didn’t know it yet, but in just a few years the Christian church there would face some of the most violent persecution imaginable. I hope the words of the letter were comforting to them then, just as they have been to believers for centuries to follow. But are they true?
I don’t think that anyone would question that great good comes out of great tragedy. People work together, communities are strengthened, individuals discover untapped inner resources. Friendships are formed in adversity. But on a balance sheet, would those benefits outweigh the loss or grief resulting from an earthquake or the death of a child or a spouse?
Pastors are supposed to be a fountain of wisdom appropriate for difficult moments. I had lots of great catch phrases and inspiring stories when I started this work thirty-five years ago. I have fewer now, or at least I pull them out with greater caution. The clichés might make the one confronted with another’s suffering more comfortable, but they rarely deliver the intended boost of morale. Some who use Paul’s words about all things working together for good can inflict an even deeper wound when they point to the qualifiers in the text: All things work for good “for those who love God” and for those “who are called according to God’s purpose.” If it’s not clear that great good has resulted from tragedy, defenders of the faith tell hurting people that they must not love God enough or their lives must not be adequately in sync with God’s will for them. Ouch. The Bible is not meant to be a weapon, yet it is too often used that way, even unintentionally. We need to use its words carefully, and always in the context in which they were intended.
I’m not suggesting that this favorite passage of many be discarded. I continue to believe that the Creator can bring good out of the darkest moments of life, and at the same time I don’t believe that happens as compensation to somehow make up for what is lost. Those gifts of friendship and support and personal growth as we grapple with life changes are priceless. They don’t invalidate suffering, but they do remind us that life continues. And we learn how much we need each other since few people are untouched by personal tragedy.
Do you crafters remember when decoupage was all the rage? The church I grew up once gave every member one dollar and asked us to use our talents to multiply our gift and return the proceeds to the church. The whole idea was based on Jesus’ parable of the talents. My dad and I spend hours making little wooden plaques with a decoupaged picture of Jesus on them. We sold them at a church bazaar and probably made about twenty dollars for the church. A few years later, I made a plaque on my own that hung in my parents’ home until my dad cleared everything out to move into assisted living. He returned the plaque to me, and yesterday I looked through many boxes in our basement until I found it. Decoupaged on a wooden board are the words of the last part of our text: Romans 8:38:
“For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
I memorized those words when I was a teenager, probably around the time I used my very poor calligraphy skills on decoupaged parchment. They meant a lot to me then, and continue to describe something that is at the core of my faith. Nothing can keep us from God. It’s sort of the religious version of Marvin Gaye singing “Ain’t no mountain high enough, ain’t no valley low enough, ain’t no river wide enough to keep me from you.” Death, life, powers, heights, depths; nothing has the ability to create a barrier between us and God. God’s love for all creatures is so great that love will seep under and pour over and crash through whatever tries to stand in its way.
Gretta Vosper is a pastor in the United Church of Canada, which is more or less the Canadian equivalent of our UCC. She has been pastor of a Toronto congregation since 1997. She is also an atheist. As progressive as the United of Church of Canada might be, that is still considered a bit over the edge. While Gretta’s congregation strongly supports her, she is awaiting word on whether a lengthy ecclesiastic process will leave her defrocked. I mention Gretta because she does not simply discard the idea of a deity as meaningless. While she does not hold to belief in a supernatural being who intervenes in human affairs, she finds value in the idea of God as a metaphor for goodness and love, lived out in compassion and justice. It’s not too hard to insert that idea into Paul’s words here in Romans 8: “If goodness and love are for us, who can be against us?” “No powers or heights or depths, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the power of love, lived out in compassion and justice.” There are those in our congregation and our community who do not embrace belief a supernatural deity. That does not mean that love is any less powerful or real in their lives.
I was fascinated recently to learn about a Norwegian-born American Buddhist teacher named Gil Fronsdal. He writes about love, saying this: “One of the most rewarding spiritual practices is to cultivate the ability to bring love into all aspects of our life and to all people we encounter. This entails learning how to include love’s presence while we speak to others, are in conflict with others, and are living with others. While this can be a daunting task, it begins with having the intention to do so.” In other words, to not allow other forces to triumph over love.
The reading from Psalms says, “O God, you have searched me and known me.” Another verse in the same Psalm asks, “Where can I go from your spirit?” The answer is clear: nowhere. Maybe it was the idea that God pursues us in love in places that are distant and dark and dangerous inspired the Apostle to encourage his readers with Romans 8. What can separate us from the love of God? Nothing.
Paul knew what it meant to suffer. He had some kind of physical disability that might have been progressive blindness, but we don’t know for sure. What we do know is that he was a prime target for those who opposed the message of Jesus and the ever-spreading movement that had an increasing appeal to both Jews and gentiles. When he asked whether hardship or peril or persecution or sword could separate from the love of God seen in Jesus, it wasn’t a rhetorical question. It was his experience of daily life, but he didn’t fold under the challenges. Instead, he wrote, “We are more than conquerors.”
What does it mean to say that? “More that conquerors.” Does it mean that we are then super-conquerors? The ultimate victors? Really, really big winners? Or could “more than conquerors” mean that there is more than winning? That despite the pressures and even failures that we face, God holds us tightly when life gets too rough for us to bear? God’s relentless love that can’t be stopped isn’t about making us more powerful. It is about God’s grace being enough.
We are more than conquerors! We are the beloved children of God, and that is more than enough. Amen.