Sometimes when faced with tragedy or trouble we comfort ourselves by saying, “Oh well, it could have been worse;” or, “At least it is not as bad as what happened to that family down the street;” or, we may say, “Being in the hospital was tough, but I saw there a lot of people with far more troubles than I.” It is good to remember that others also suffer, and, these kinds of comparisons can give some comfort. But in Romans 8:35 Paul goes beyond that kind of comparative comfort. He first describes some of the very worst things that can happen, and then he says, ‘Not even these things can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.’ Look at the troubles Paul lists– persecution, famine, nakedness, the sword, and more. It doesn’t get much worse than that; no food, no clothes, danger on every side– and Paul endured those hardships much of the time. But even so, Paul was filled with confident hope and could proclaim, “Not even all this can separate us from God, but in all those things we are more than conquerors through him who loves us.” Then in verse 38 he says not even death will separate us from God. In fact, it is death that brings us into God’s home. As an old hymn attributed to St. Francis expresses it, “And you, most kind and gentle death, waiting to hush our final breath; you lead to heaven the child of God, where Christ our Lord the way has trod.”
We are all on a journey to God, and on the earthly part of that journey God is with us providing comfort and strength and assurance in the midst of all our troubles. But when the very worst does come, death ends only the earthly part of our journey, and we then continue on in God’s heavenly home. So, Paul says, we will never be separated from God’s love.
Sometimes we limit our trust in God to this time and place. We hear things like, “Just trust God, he’ll make sure you get better;” or, “just trust God, he will make sure you get what you are praying for.” But I don’t think Paul would say that. Yes, we must certainly trust God in and for all things. But it is an immature faith that thinks trusting God means that God will always give you everything on your list, as if your will was always perfectly in line with his. God’s will for us may be very different from our own wishes, and a more mature faith will trust in God even when it seems he is not there at all; even when it seems God contradicts our personal preferences. God will, as it says in Romans 8:28, work out all things for the good of those that love him– but we must remember that God has all eternity to work things out, and not just the 70 or 80 years of your life here.
Antonio Parr, the narrator in Frederick Buechner’s novel Lion Country, must watch his sister die of a rare disease that leaves her bones brittle and breaking with even the slightest pressure. As she is dying, and as more bones break, her pain becomes unbearable. Antonio must watch her suffer, and also see his two little nephews lose their mother at such a young age. His faith is shaken as he begins to question the truth of all those Bible verses about God’s love and care. But Antonio does continue to trust in this God that he cannot understand. He says, “I didn’t like the thought of God being the one who had broken Miriam’s bones, but… I decided that he had always been one to play rough, and if the last word was really going to be one of rejoicing, I could forgive him anything.”
Why God plays so rough, and whether God causes the troubles or simply allows them to happen, are other topics for other times. The Bible does have some things to say about that, too. As we read the stories of the great men and women of the Bible we see that yes indeed, God does allow much trouble to come into their lives. But we also see that God does get the last word, and he has promised that it will be a word of rejoicing for all who have believed in Him. As the German preacher Helmut Thielicke said in several of his sermons during World War II, sermons often interrupted by air raids and bombs: “He who possesses the last hour, need not fear the next minute.”
Before going into combat a soldier asked the chaplain if his prayers for safety would guarantee that he would not be harmed by bombs or bullets. The chaplain replied that faith in God made a man sure and certain of the most important thing, which is that even if his body was shattered, his soul would be untouched and safe. We know that many soldiers in every war have prayed for protection, but many of them did not make it home. We know that every day many prayers in many hospitals are not answered with health and recovery. But our trust is in a God who is bigger than life itself. Death for God is nothing more than one of the many problems that God will one day put an end to forever. On that day, death itself will die.
There is the old saying, ‘Where there is life, there is hope;’ but with faith in Jesus we can say, ‘Where there is death, there is hope there, also.’
Romans 8:35, 37 — Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?… No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
Romans 14:7-8 — For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone. If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.
Hebrews 13:6 — So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?”
Let no riches or poverty make me ever forget you, Lord: let no hope or fear, no pleasure or pain, no accident without, no weakness within; hinder my duty, or turn me from the ways of your commandments. O let your Spirit dwell with me forever, and make my soul just and charitable, full of honesty, full of religion, resolute and constant in holy purposes, but inflexible to evil. Make me humble and obedient, peaceable and pious: let me never envy any man’s good, nor deserve to be despised myself: and if I am despised, teach me to bear it with meekness and charity. Amen.
–Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667)