There’s a verse in Romans that says something like this: “All things work together for good”.
I had a teacher who didn’t like that verse. He thought it was saying that all things are already good—we just can’t see it yet. And, rightly I think, he was offended by that idea.
He was offended because it is obvious that the world around us is not one where all things are good. There is suffering, there is pain, there are horrors too unspeakable to want to mention here.
To say that all these horrors have a purpose, have some kind of benevolent reason behind them, seems wrong. In fact, it seems like a way of deadening yourself to the world, convincing yourself to turn away from the reality in front of you, and live in a sort of denial.
This is something that Christian thinkers have criticized in many forms of Eastern spirituality. Many times it seems like those forms of spirituality are simply trying to convince us that suffering doesn’t matter—that we should learn not to care about it, or that it’s an illusion, or that it would go away if we stopped desiring not to suffer.
There are branches of Christianity which do the same thing. Every time a tornado strikes a town, or an earthquake demolishes a village, there are people who will come out of the woodwork and declare this an act of God. In claiming that this event was all part of God’s plan, they convince themselves that there is nothing unjust happening, that they can safely turn their eyes away, and pretend that suffering never happens.
Even very sophisticated thinkers, who don’t resort to blaming the victims for their presumed sins, still often attribute some purpose or reason to the event. During a recent disaster, a well-known theologian tweeted something about God’s plan at work. On seeing the backlash from that statement, he replied that he had just intended to offer comfort.
This is telling. For him, this belief allows him to disengage from the suffering around him, convinced that it is already good.
Interestingly, this is not what the verse says. “All things work together for good” is not a declaration that things are okay. It is a declaration that the arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice. It is a declaration that all the chaos and disaster and destruction of life become the raw material for new good things which will emerge. It is a declaration that life itself is always in the process of overcoming evil with good, of picking up the pieces and building something even better, of adapting to new situations and circumstances to keep things moving forward.
In some ways, it is a statement of infinite play. The world is not pre-planned, but something we will engage with and adapt to. Every setback will be met with greater creativity, every destruction will be met with greater creation, every suffering will be met with greater compassion.
This is what we see in nature: every living thing, always growing and changing and adapting, not stopping for a second when things go wrong. Instead, life rushes in to fill the space, to use the raw materials of that destruction as seeds for the next generation, the next growth, the next forest.
Of course, it’s possible that the Calvinists and the Buddhists are right in their approach to suffering. It’s possible that all of this is pre-planned. There’s no way to disprove something like that.
But to me, the distinctively Christian notion seems to be that God is working in and through life, constantly meeting evil with compassion, constantly meeting destruction with growth and creation, constantly meeting death with resurrection—working all things together for good.