“And He who searches the hearts knows the Spirit’s mind-set, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God: those who are called according to His purpose. For those He foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brothers.” (Romans 8:27-29 HCSB)
As a pastor, I’ve been asked on multiple occasions about the “will of God.” Generally, questions like this tend to come out during times of deep grief, sorrow or personal struggle. We find ourselves in a difficult, painful, or deeply disturbing circumstances and we begin to question God’s love, protection and presence. When we’re experiencing difficult times it often causes us to question our faith and doubt God. Inevitably, some well meaning person will interject some platitude and invoke this misunderstood verse of scripture – “all things work together for good.” So, as we celebrate the Resurrection of Christ I want us to take a few moments to delve a little deeper into this promise and see if we can glean any hope from its true meaning.
As we’ve worked our way through Romans, and especially in chapter 8, we’ve had to wrestle with this idea of God’s will. We’ve talked about how living to please ourselves and our physical desires leads to death but how following God’s Spirit and living to please Him leads to life and joy. We also talked about how pursuing God can, and often does, result in suffering but how our current struggle is really worth the glory that God will reveal in and through us. Then we talked about how all of creation is impacted by our sin and is straining and groaning under it and, like us, is eagerly anticipating that day when God will redeem and restore His creation to its true purpose and sinless condition. Last week we talked about how God’s will is the focus of the Holy Spirit’s prayers on our behalf and we should desire and seek His will above everything else because what God wants for us is the best we could ever dream of and hope for. This week, we need to keep all of these lessons about God’s will in clear focus as we try to unravel the mystery of this week’s focal passage.
Let’s start by considering a short phrase from last week’s verses that I did not touch on – “He who searches the hearts knows the Spirit’s mind-set…” Consider for a moment the implications of God searching the depths of your heart. In biblical terms, the heart is the center of the human will and our deepest desires. I’m not talking about your physical appetites like “I’d really like a good cheeseburger for lunch.” I’m talking about those things that give you purpose, make life meaningful and motivate you to action. Some folks might phrase it this way, “What are you really, deeply passionate about?” Some folks are moved by social injustice and inequities. Others are motivated by education and opportunity. I would hope and expect that most of YOU are driven to see the Kingdom of God come to fruition and that’s really the focus of Paul’s words – “He who searches the hearts [of the saints/believers] know the Spirit’s mind-set”.
But is that the true desire of your heart? Is that what motivates you to action?
Each morning, the alarm goes off at 5:45 AM and I roll over and turn it off. I pause, pray, think about the upcoming day, and then I get out of bed and begin getting ready for work. I really love and enjoy my job, but there are days when I would rather roll over, turn off the alarm and go back to sleep but I can’t. I have responsibilities and obligations. People depend on me to do my job. My family depends on me to fulfill my obligations, pay the bills and supply our needs and wants. But deep down, I have an even greater desire and more meaningful obligation. I don’t just do these things because they need it or want it, I do these things because of what really motivates me. The true desire of my heart is to see our world impacted and changed through the Kingdom rule of God in my life, my children’s lives, and my grandchildren’s lives and that’s reflected in how I live, work, interact with others and take care of and provide for my family. I really want to try and live out Jesus’ admonition: “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you.” (Matthew 6:33 HCSB https://www.bible.com/72/mat.6.33.hcsb)
Somehow, it seems like we’ve taken this idea of seeking God’s kingdom first and foremost in a person’s life and we’ve relegated it to the realm of the Apostles and the professional clergy. That’s something they did and it’s something the pastor or church staff should do but it doesn’t apply to us “common” Christians. Instead of seeking His kingdom we seek our own, then pray that He’ll bless our efforts. Yet, the words of Christ are directed at all of His disciples and Paul’s words in our focal passage are, as well. God searches our hearts and the Spirit intercedes for us in accordance with the God’s will. God’s desire for us and the Spirit’s intercession for us is to bring our lives into alignment with and in full obedience to God’s perfect will.
Some of you may be nodding your head in agreement with me and silently saying, “Amen,” but I want to challenge you, too. What we often perceive as God’s will may, in fact, be in direct opposition to His will, purpose and plan. It is Easter Sunday, so let me take you back to the Easter story for a few brief illustrations. All of the Jewish religious leadership believed they were pursuing God’s will as they condemned and sought to kill the heretic, Jesus of Nazareth. Judas believed he was doing God’s will when he betrayed Jesus and led the guards to Him that Thursday night. The crowd believed it was doing God’s will as it cried out, “Give us Barabbas, crucify Jesus.” Peter thought he was doing God’s will when he pulled his sword and defended Jesus, cutting off the ear of the High Priest’s servant.
“From then on Jesus began to point out to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders, chief priests, and scribes, be killed, and be raised the third day. Then Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, “Oh no, Lord! This will never happen to You! ” But He turned and told Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me because you’re not thinking about God’s concerns, but man’s.” (Matthew 16:21-23 HCSB)
So, let me be blunt and very, very direct. Paul’s point in this passage is that, like those mentioned above, we often get our will confused with God’s will. We tend to believe that God really wants the same thing we want, so we just keep doing what we’ve always done never realizing how much our will is at odds with and in opposition to God’s will. He really meant it when He said, love God above everything and everyone else, but love one another and love your neighbor in the same way you love yourself. He wasn’t kidding when He said, if anyone slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. He was serious when He said, give to the one who asks you and don’t turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. He expected obedience when he told them, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you so that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He knew our selfish tendencies when He commanded, don’t seek earthly treasure but seek heavenly treasure because what you treasure determines where your heart will be.
Faith isn’t just what you claim to believe, real faith is about what you do as you are living out what you believe, each day (see James 2:14-17).
If our will is regularly in conflict with God’s will and the Spirit is praying and interceding on our behalf in accordance with God’s will, what is the expected outcome? Paul says, “we [confidently] know that ALL things work together for the good of those who love God: those who are called according to His purpose.” That doesn’t mean that everything will be enjoyable and without struggle but it does mean that God is at work in all of these things to achieve His purpose and will. I also want to be very clear, this doesn’t mean that God desires our disobedience and leads us into temptation or sin. Scripture is very, very clear that God doesn’t tempt anyone (see James 1:13-14). However, He is capable of redeeming our disobedience and failures by using them to teach us lessons, mold our character, shape our will, refine our desires and change our direction. God is at work in all of these things for our good. Not for our enjoyment. Not for our satisfaction. Not even for our happiness, but for our goodness. Let that sink in, a bit.
God’s ultimate desire is not for you is not your happiness but your holiness.
Have you ever noticed how American Christians get hung up on the idea of predestination? If you talk about it then you must be a Calvinist. What about free will? Some of you might be already balking at the mere mention of the idea, but please stay with me. I want you to notice the focus of the term “predestined” in this passage, God predestined them to be conformed to the image of His Son. So, the object of His work are those who are called and the outcome of His work is their conformity to the character of Christ. As I stated above, God’s purpose is your holiness and that is accomplished as you conform more and more to the image of His Son. Think about that for a moment. We were created in the image of God, but His image was marred and broken by sin. God’s purpose in Jesus is to restore man to His image and that is the very thing we celebrate with Easter. Jesus crucifixion has broken the hold that sin has over us and His resurrection empowers us to be restored to that image of holiness – His image.
So that… Yes? So that, what? So that He would be the firstborn among many brothers. Therein lies our life purpose as Christians and the church’s commission, becoming like our brother – Christlike – and making disciples, more brothers. The message of the Cross is not just about what God accomplished through Jesus but it is also about what He wants to accomplish through us. God determined that we should be conformed to the image of Jesus so that others would see, so that others would believe, so that they would follow Him and become like Him. God is at work in us to take all of life’s circumstances, all of life’s challenges, all of our victories and failures, He’s at work to take all of life and make us more Christlike so that more people come to faith in Christ and become more like Him. Wash, rinse, repeat.
So, God determined that our purpose, our destiny was to be more and more like Jesus. God decided before the foundation of the world that His purpose in creating mankind was so that we would become like His Son, Jesus. If you’re not quite getting it yet, let this thought sink in… the singular purpose in all of creation is to move us more and more towards Christlikeness. The purpose of God through every trial we endure is to move us towards more Christlike behavior. The purpose of God in every challenge we face is to make us more like Christ. The purpose of God in every success we achieve and every joy we treasure is to cause us to reflect the character of our Savior. The purpose of God in the challenges we’ve faced throughout this pandemic have been to make the Church of God look more and more like Jesus, the Son of God.
Yeah, I want you to let that one sit in your thoughts for just a minute or two longer.
How do you think we’ve done? Has our response to these challenges left us looking more Christlike or more childish, more selfish? Has the church’s response to the challenges of this pandemic drawn people to Christ because our actions reflect His compassion, His love and His care and concern for others or has our response left them questioning God’s love and or His very existence? Let me end by simply restating that promise, God is at work in all these things for the goodness, the holiness of those who love God and to bring us into conformity with the image and character of His Son. My prayer this Easter is that we all look more Christlike after a year of struggle and testing than we did a year ago.