by Eric Elnes
I have always been intrigued by how frequently misunderstood Paul’s statement is that “all things work together for good for those who love God who are called according to God’s purpose.”
Of course, it seems naive to suggest that all things work for good. What about the death of a loved one? What about being the victim of crime? Does Paul want us to believe that these are really good things?
We’re leaving a word out when we criticize Paul for claiming “all things work for good.” Paul says, “All things work together for good …” The word together here synerge in Greek is the root of our word, synergy. Synergy works through the power of simultaneous combination. For instance, if you release the energy of 100 atoms individually, you get 100 units of energy. But if you release their energy together – all at once you may get 1000 units. That’s how an atom bomb works. When Paul speaks of all things working together for good, he’s saying that when you allow all of life’s goodness and badness to get tied together in a way where each event is related to another, they have a way of working explosively for good!
Of course, without the caveat Paul adds to his assertion, even this statement may sound naive. Do all things work together for good for everyone? No, they don’t which is why Paul says all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose.
“Exclusivist!” we exclaim. “Paul is out of line! God loves everyone. How can God be loving if all things work together for only for those who God loves and calls?”
Really? If you feel Paul is being exclusivist here, bear in mind that, according to Paul, God does love everyone, but not everyone loves God back. And everyone is called by God to serve God’s purposes, not just a few. Yet again, few respond to God’s call. What Paul is saying is that God has a way of making all things work together for good when one responds to God’s love by loving God back and turning one’s life over to serve God’s purposes. It’s only then that God can do something with them, making them work together for good.
If that seems unfai like it should all work this way for everyone no matter whether they love God or not, or serve God’s purposes or not ask yourself, “Would I want it to work this way for Hitler? Would I want all things to work for good for him?”
No, apart from loving God and surrendering to God’s purposes, Paul’s statement simply doesn’t work, and shouldn’t work. But with love and surrender, it’s one of the most profound and accurate statements in scripture.
It works kind of like … well … breathing! If you only breathe in, and never breathe out, you will be allowed to have just one breath in a day. That’s it! And then you will die. It doesn’t mean God loves you any less. It’s just the way life works. But if you are willing to let out what you took in, you can take 18-28,000 breaths each day (the average for an adult) or more if you like!
So it works with the rest of life. If you want God to make “the good, the bad, and the ugly” work together in such a way that it ultimately works for good if you want to “breathe in” this incredible, loving gift you’ve also got to “breathe out” by loving God in return and surrendering the fruits of your labors to God’s purposes.
You can try this out on a very concrete, practical level. Try “showing up” each morning, spending 20-30 minutes simply breathing. Breathe in God’s Spirit, welcoming that Spirit into both your body and your soul. Then as you exhale, surrender yourself into God’s Spirit, letting go of the junk you’ve been holding onto and placing your hopes and dreams in God’s hands. Pay careful attention to how you feel in your gut in those moments of deepest surrender. Then, as you go about your day, pay attention to when that feeling in your gut returns. What were you listening to when you felt it? What were you seeing? What was someone telling you? What thought was in your head?
If you will pay attention to these moments when a quiet, peaceful, surrendered feeling in your gut returns – and what was happening when it did – you can start piecing together what the Holy Spirit is trying to say to you. If you will make this a regular practice, then over time you will be able to “connect the dots” between these experiences and discern the basic direction the Spirit is gently nudging (i.e., “calling”) you in.
Incidentally, studies show that people who pray less than 15 minutes per day report a low level of satisfaction with prayer. Between 15 and 30 minutes, reported satisfaction rises dramatically. Satisfaction goes through the roof above 30 minutes. The beautiful thing is that you don’t have to be an expert in prayer to achieve this. You can reach 80% of the level that even the great spiritual giants like Thomas Merton achieved if you just show up and breathe – breathing with awareness of God.
You see, following the Holy Spirit is not some woo-woo, mountain-top-only kind of thing. While there is certainly a place in life for the woo-woo mountain-top kind of spiritual experience (I’ve had a few myself), the most common experience of the Spirit looks much more like what I’ve been describing. It’s like breathing in. And breathing out. Welcoming God into your very body. And letting go of that which you’ve been clinging too. Welcoming God into your body again. And offering God your hopes, dreams, and service to God’s world.
This latter bit about service to God’s world is important. If we want to breathe in God’s very Spirit, we have to be willing to breathe God’s very Spirit out into the world as well. Otherwise, we’re just full of hot air and we will die inside. Can you think of people you know who only ever seek to receive God’s blessings? They’re like people who keep trying to breathe in without exhaling! Just as breathing gets very shallow if you only ever try to take in more than you’re letting out, so your life becomes shallow. Even that which you’ve been given turns toxic if it’s not let go.
If your desire is for deep blessing, you must seek to bless God and the world as you are blessed. That’s a key part of what aligns you with God’s purpose and call. It’s what turns the statement “all things work together for good” from mere wishful thinking to concrete reality.