Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!
In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.”
This just may be the classic Scriptural passage addressing the whole issue of Christians and suffering – besides the Patriarchs Joseph and Job whose stories are more than pertinent here. For all who labor under the great weight of “I believe in God. Why am I suffering?,” and who struggle to reconcile these two seemingly irreconcilable, if not diametrically opposed things, the Apostle provides the answer based not in ivory tower academia, but in the school of hard knocks. He himself, let us recall, is no stranger to suffering for the Faith of Jesus Christ. Indeed, along with Peter, Paul pays the ultimate sacrifice in Rome, being martyred for his faith in the Son of God, “Who,” as he testifies elsewhere, “loved me and gave Himself for me [even though I tried diligently to destroy His Church]” (Ga. 1:13; 2:20). As the saints commemorated here today bear witness, suffering is always in play for those who love God and are called according to His divine purpose. So, instead of trying hard to avoid it or to run from it, their counsel to us is to rather face it head on and confront it. For they teach us, as we all have heard, such is for our salvation (as hard as that might be to believe or to accept). When Jesus called us to Himself, it was to deny ourselves, take up His Cross, and follow Him (Mt. 16:24; Mk. 8:34; Lk. 9:23). For Sts. Paul, Joseph, and Job, suffering and faith are entirely a mystery known and understood solely by God in Whose providence we trust and by Whose providence we live. For God alone has the ability to see the overarching big picture whereas we get focused on the individual pixels of that picture. Saints nor sinners are exempt from suffering. If we do think we should be because we believe and try to live according to the commandments of God, why do we think we should fare better than the saints whose well-attested lives of holiness far outshine our own?
It is never easy to deal with this theme, especially in times of tragedy. Thus, we should be striving in faith to be grounded most thoroughly in God before that sorrowful time befalls us. I have seen too many souls over the years approach God lackadaisically until it was too late and then they murmured against God like ancient Israel as though He were negligent and owed them, so that many fell away from the Faith. This is not to say that the saints have not questioned the wisdom of God and His saving and sanctifying purposes – think here of our Lord in the Garden of Gethsemane – but it is to say that, in the end, with tears and heavy hearts they surrendered all of their questions to the providence of the Almighty Who is our good God and the profound Lover of mankind. “’[N]evertheless not My will, but Thine be done,’” even as we pray constantly in the Our Father (Mt. 26:39; Mk. 14:36; Lk. 22:42). The saints know well the truth of our Lord’s words that the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak (Mt. 26:41). However, the faith and obedience of the saints have been forged in the fires of affliction and formed by the tools of suffering so that they came through the furnace, not unscathed necessarily, but very much transformed in Jesus Christ and transfigured by His grace! The Apostle can only say what he says here with absolute faith because he knows God. “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” It is the faith of the righteous Job, sitting on a dung heap full of inexplicable sores having suffered beyond any of our puny imaginations, that says with apostolic faith and hope and love, “’Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him’” (Jb. 13:15).
St. Paul also speaks here in this lengthy passage of predestination and of divine foreknowledge leading some, like John Calvin, the Protestant reformer, to conclude that God has predestined some for Heaven and some for Hell because of His foreknowledge. This passage, beloved, is about providence, God’s providence, “’”for in Him we live and move and have our being”’” (Ac. 17:28). God is omniscient – He sees all things, He knows all things; past, present, and future are simultaneously present to Him so that He dwells in what has been called by some “the eternal now.” God’s foreknowledge, however, is not the cause of our predestination. If it were, then we would be little more than programed robots obliged to say and do certain things instead of the free will creatures created in the image and likeness of God that we are. It would also make God to be the origin of evil, sin, and death.
The apostolic answer to all of this talk about predestination must be seen in the context of this passage. The key is Jesus Christ in Whom we have our destiny. To use St. Paul’s famous prepositional phrase, “in Christ,” is the key and the lens through which we must understand God’s foreknowledge and predestination. Paul says, “For whom He foreknew, He also predestined.” But, that’s where many stop their reading. Paul goes on linking us to Jesus Christ! “For whom [God] foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the First-born among many brethren.” Predestination – our destiny – is linked inextricably with our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ. “In Him” “all the promises of God . . . are Yes, and in Him Amen, to the glory of God through us” (2 Cr. 1:20). We were called by God – as is every man, woman, and child (Jn. 1:9). God knows us before we are born (Jr. 1:5) and calls us to Himself. In the Mystery of Holy Baptism we are united with our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ. When we were baptized, Paul says, we were baptized into Jesus Christ, into His Death and Resurrection (Rm. 6:1-11). And, we remain united with Him in the eating and drinking of His most holy and precious Body and Blood. In Christ God we are justified. In Christ God we are glorified. In Christ God is our destiny to be conformed to His crucified and risen image. In Christ God we partake of and have a share in His Incarnation, great and Holy Passion, Crucifixion, Burial, Resurrection, and Ascension. It is all ours. It is all our destiny in Christ. Apart from Him, no. It is somewhat akin, using analogy, to getting on a plane, train, or bus, or riding in a car, knowing that this train is headed for a final destination with certain stops all along the way. We know that beforehand. And so long as we stay on the train and not get off we will go to those various stops and, ultimately, reach our destination.
So it is with all who are in Christ. If we separate ourselves from Christ by separating ourselves from His Church, which is His Body, the very “fullness of Him Who fills all in all” (Ep. 1:22-23), we willingly choose to go a different way with a different ending. This is why Confession and Absolution are critical for us because God heals us and restores us to communion with Him in the fellowship of His Church from which we separated ourselves by our sins and disobedience.
Beloved, all of what we experience in Christ is for us and for our salvation (Ep. 1:3-14). It is to conform us to the image of the Son of God, “to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ep. 4:13). It is to make us like Him Who is our hope and our salvation. Indeed, Sacred Scripture tells us that “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” by foes visible and invisible (2 Tm. 3:12). In fact, the Old Testament Book of the Wisdom of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) tells us:
My son, if you draw near to serve the Lord, prepare your soul for temptation. Set your heart right and be steadfast [constantly endure], and do not strive anxiously in distress. Cleave to Him and do not fall away, that you may be honored at the end of your life. Accept whatever is brought upon you, and in exchange for your humiliation, be patient; because gold is tested in fire and acceptable men in the furnace of abasement. Believe in Him, and He will help you; make your ways straight and hope in Him.
You who fear the Lord, wait for His mercy, and do not turn aside, lest you fall. You who fear the Lord, believe in Him, and your reward will not fail. You who fear the Lord, hope for good things and for everlasting gladness and mercy. Consider the ancient generations and see: who believed in the Lord and was put to shame? Or who stood fast in His fear and was forsaken? Or who called upon Him and was overlooked? Because the Lord is compassionate and merciful, He forgives sins and saves in time of affliction (Sr. 2:1-11).
“In Christ” St. Paul wonders aloud,
What then shall we say of these things? If God be for us, who [or what] can be against us? . . . Who [or what] shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? . . . Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him that loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, 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.
None of what St. Paul tells us here – none of what all the ancients of every generation have to offer us – is pie in the sky. This truth is time tested in the crucible of human affairs (Ep. 6:10-18). The one and only thing that can separate us from God is our free choice to give up to the powers that assail us. Hence, we are counseled wisely to prevail, trusting in God Who did not spare even His own Son, and “to be even more diligent to make your call and election sure” (2 Pe. 1:10-11). “’In your patience [endurance],’” says the Master Who Himself learned obedience by His sufferings so that He might be “the Author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him” (Hb. 5:7-10) – even He says to us, “’In your patience possess ye your souls’” (Lk. 21:8-19). “Here is the patience and the faith of the saints” (Rv. 13:10; 14:12).
Through the prayers of our holy Fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us. Amen.
Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!