God says that life is the combined good end of many inputs. It is a result. It is the good that we have because of what has come before. It is the good total of the additions and subtractions of our experiences. It is the good consequence of decisions made and acted upon. It is the good that we feel because of what we have done. Life, in a word, is a good reaction.
Since this is so, that life is a reaction, it is necessary for us to consider the preceding actions that yield it. And, since life is a reaction to many inputs, it is far too complicated to be exhaustively treated in a brief study like this one is intended to be. So, we are going to limit the boundaries of our thinking about life in this paper to one issue: life as the good result of decisions acted upon.
There are three realities upon which we want to focus our attention. The first is the reality of God's guarantee of life to those who put Him first in their system of priorities. The second is the reality of life's identity as a reaction to decisions that we make and act upon. And, the third is the reality of life's identity as a reaction to decisions that others make and act upon.
First, let us consider the fact that God has given a guarantee to those who have made Him the chief focus of their hearts. It is a fact. Romans 8:28 says. "Now we fully grasp the fact that for those who are putting God at the top of their value-system, all things combine their energies to result in good for those who are called according to the standard of divine intent" (an expanded translation of the Greek text). This text of God's Word to man plainly gives a blank-check guarantee of divine manipulation of the events of man's experience. This manipulation will see to it that everything that happens will result in good for a certain class of people.
Now. it is that last sentence that holds a secret that we must explore briefly. God's promised guarantee is not for everyone. Not even God can produce good for a person who remains antagonistic to Him. It is for that reason that the promise is for those who have chosen to put God at the top of their value-system. But, this restriction could, if misunderstood, actually make the promise a vacuous, empty illusion. Who has put God at the top of their value-system? Is there anyone for whom God is really the primary reason for being? How could we tell?
If we evaluated any man by his doings, we would conclude that there is no man for whom God is all in all. No man always puts God first. Such a man would be a perfect man. Thus, by this standard of measure, the promise of Romans 8:28 is a vacuous promise; it is made to a class of man of which there are none.
But, to conclude that God makes vacuous promises is to drink at the poisoned well of Satan's delusion. So, how should we understand the promise?
How about taking it for what it says?
The promise is that all things combine their energies to yield good for those who are putting God at the top of their value system. The issue is not whether a person always does this. The issue is whether a person is presently doing this. The difference is significant. At any given time a person is either choosing God over all, or choosing some lesser love over God. This means that, at any given time, all things are working together for good, or they are combining to generate disaster. The text does not say that all things work together for those who are not choosing God, but neither does it say that prior refusal (or future refusal) to so choose God is beyond the pale of the "all things". The point is that the verse teaches that all things work together for good for the one who is presently loving God. If it taught that all things work together for good for those that always do what is right, it would be vacuous. If it taught that all things work together for good for those who always choose the right thing, it would be vacuous. Instead, it teaches that all things work for good for those who are presently letting God be first in their lives.
Now, this has the potential of opening a can of worms. If all things work together for good for those presently letting God be first in their lives, what about yesterday and tomorrow? How does the promise work amidst the fluctuations of the human heart that today seeks itself above all, tomorrow seeks God above all, and then the next day reverts to its former selfishness?
The answer to this question revolves around two facts: 1) that good has a specific identity in the text; and, 2) that all things also has a specific identity in the text. The question does need an answer. The problem of man is the problem of a fluctuating heart. One moment he wants one thing and the next something else. Even the doctrine of saved man in Scripture teaches that he has, in effect, two hearts; one is hopelessly self-centered and the other is exclusively God-centered. But, the two dwell in one person and create a kind of regulated havoc within him. On the one hand, he wants his own will according to his own wisdom. On the other hand, he wants the will of God according to His wisdom. So, in the light of this reality, what good is a promise of all working to good to those who love God?
To answer, let us first consider the identity of the good in the context of Romans 8:28. If good is defined outside of the text, the promise will be missed. for instance, if good is defined as 'present physical pleasure' (as all consistent hedonists define it), the promise would mean that all things are supposed to yield physical pleasure now. And, though the Gospel does promise an ultimate experience of total physical pleasure by way of the doctrine of resurrection to life for those who believe, it is yet a fact that not all things work together for that present experience. Also, if good is defined as 'present joy in the soul' (as all materialists define it), the promise would mean that all things are designed to yield the present experience of joy. And, though the Gospel does promise an ultimate experience of undiluted joy by way of divine elimination of all tears and sorrow in the City to come, it is yet a fact that not all things work together to yield joy in the soul in the present. Likewise. if good is defined as 'present status for the spirit' (as all egotists/humanists define it), it would mean that the promise was that all things would yield a consistent sense of significance in the spirit of man. And, though the Gospel says that God died for men He values highly so that the acceptance of that will generate a sense of status, it does not promise that all things will generate that sense -- nor that all things will tend in that direction at least in the present.
So, we must define the good.
Contextually the good is defined in verse 29. Here we are told that God has predestined those for whom all things work together for good to be conformed to the image of His Son. In a nutshell, then, we have the identity of the good. The good is character-conformation to the likeness of the character of Jesus Christ. How that will be good is clearly beyond both the text and this paper, but, suffice it to say that God considers it good to be conformed to the character of Jesus.
Now that helps us to understand the meaning of all things. If conformity to the character of Jesus is good, there is nothing that cannot be bent to that end. If a person does something stupid and sinful while not loving God, the repercussions of that action can be put to use to generate humility and obedience afterwards when the person comes to love God. Thus, God can use non-loving actions to produce good afterwards if the attitude of the person comes around from self-love to loving God. And this remains a constant all of the time. Man's heart may fluctuate. When he loves God, he has the calm assurance that everything in his past and his future will be used to conform him to the image of Christ; when he loves himself, he is not being conformed to the image of Christ, so the promise is not for him at that time, but if he later returns to love for God he will discover that all the self-love actually will generate (by way of revulsion of it, and sorrow for it) more character-likeness to Jesus Christ who despised self-love and grieved over it in those whom he loved. Thus, all things is really all things, for nothing, good or bad, can fail to be a tool of character development if the person is loving God in the present.
Man's only danger is that he may linger in self-love so that the things that are happening in his life are not producing the character of Jesus Christ in him. If that happens, the promise is not effectual because it does not apply to him. It is only for those who are presently loving God above themselves.
Thus, we have a divine guarantee that God will manipulate our experiences to our good if we are loving Him.
That brings us to the next reality: life is a result of decisions that we make and act upon. Paul taught that we reap what we sow. If we sow to the flesh we reap corruption. If we sow to the Spirit, we reap life (Galatians 6:7-8). This is a very difficult reality to accept without distortion. On the one hand. if we like what is happening to us (what we call our life), and take it as the result of our performance -- we sowed correctly so that we are now reaping well -- we are in significant danger of lapsing into pride. On the other hand, if we do not like what is happening to us, and we take it as the consequence of our performance -- we sowed poorly so that we are reaping a negative harvest -- we are in danger of lapsing into despair. But, though there is a danger of not walking carefully between pride and despair, it is yet a fact that our lives are the result of the choices we make and act upon. If we act badly, we will suffer significantly. If we act spiritually, we will enjoy significant peace and joy (the fruit of the Spirit).
At this point we need to grasp clearly what it means that life is the consequence of our choices. What if you are presently pleased with what is happening in your life? Does that mean that you are free to sit back and be proud of yourself? Obviously not. God hates a proud look. Taking pride in the harvest of your life will simply begin a negative harvest to come, for pride is the seed of disaster to come. And, responding in pride will simply destroy God's ability to use you as a picture of Christ to others (which is what you are here for).
On the other hand, what if you are presently displeased with what is happening in your life? Does that mean that you are free to sit down and wallow in despair? Obviously not. God has little sympathy for those who have the Spirit of God in them, the love of Jesus working on their behalf, and the angelic hosts at their disposal for protection and accomplishment, who refuse to believe Him. Without faith it is impossible to please God. Settling for despair because of past failure simply means more failure with its attendant future negative harvest and more despair. When does the cycle break? Only when you stop feeling sorry for yourself because of your past failures and begin to trust your Father so that He can enable you to stop the negative seed-sowing.
Life is a result of choices that have been made and acted upon. Pride is a choice to take credit for what God has done. Despair is a choice to refuse to believe what God can do. Life is the result of walking carefully between those two dangerous paths. If you hate life, then walk in pride, or despair, and you will love the result. However, if you love life, walk in humility and confidence in your Father and you will love what happens down the road.
That brings us to the third reality: life is the result of the reaction we have to the choices that others make and act upon. For instance, suppose someone chooses to use his/her gifts to serve us in Christ, and we accept that service with joyful gratitude. Life results. We have responded to the good choice of another with a legitimate response. On the other hand, suppose we respond negatively because we do not like the direction that service is taking (perhaps it was a well-intentioned rebuke). Death results. We have responded badly to a good choice by another.
The flip-side to this is the bad choices that others make. Suppose someone decides to do something that hurts us and we accept their action as a part of God's way of molding us, without bitterness or retaliation. We have responded to the bad choice of another with a legitimate response and the result is life for us. But, suppose we respond poorly. Death results. We have added our bad choice to their bad choice, and two evils make death significant.
The thing that needs to be clear here is this: we cannot do much about the choices that others make. But we can do this: depend upon God to direct our reaction. This is a significant truth. We desperately need to get this firmly fixed in our minds and hearts. We cannot finally determine the choices of others. Husbands cannot ultimately compel wives, and wives cannot ultimately compel husbands. Parents cannot ultimately compel children, nor can children ultimately compel parents. Pastors cannot ultimately compel the individuals in their flocks, nor can the flock ultimately compel the pastor. People cannot compel people to do what is right. Fix that in your mind. Let God be the God of others. And, by the way, let Him be God of you too. God has retained the right to Himself to direct men's paths. Most attempts by us to usurp that right are attempts to walk in pride.
The proper response to the choices of others is to recognize that our task is to attempt to persuade (to faith) but not to compel (against the will). When others do what we do not like, we are free to attempt to persuade them to change, but we are not free to attempt to compel them to change. Spouses who nag, parents who nag, children who beg, employers who nag, employees who complain bitterly, and all like situations, are simply people who do not accept God's best for them. Life is the result of responding well to the choices of others. It is not the result of compelling others to make right choices.
Thus, we have seen a brief picture of life as the reaction that we have to choices made. First, God has made a choice to guarantee life to those who will love Him above all. Second, God has made a choice to reward us for our own choices. And, third, God has made a choice to reward us for properly responding to the choices of others. If we are not presently contented, we need to check out which of these three realities we are opposing and correct our course.