What Then Shall We Say To These Things?
September 16, 2001 | First Presbyterian Church Orlando | Romans 8:31-39
Whenever I get into trouble or whenever the world gets into trouble, I always turn to Romans 8. We are in trouble. On September the 11th, evil pierced not only our national borders, but our national spirit. All of us, directly or indirectly, have been, and will continue to be, profoundly impacted by the terrible events of that day. And as is always the case, whenever I need to face up to life’s hard places and face down life’s hard times, I turn once more to Romans 8.
The question Paul poses there seems so appropriate in the face of this unspeakable catastrophe. Paul writes: “What then shall we say to these things?” Good question. I stand here today with the shadow of tragedy and evil falling over all of us, and I ask: “What shall I say to these things?” I decided that the only way to find an answer was to go deeper into this great passage in Romans 8. And so as I immerse myself in these lines all over again, I suddenly realize that Paul answers the question with more questions. And yet, when I looked at those questions which make his answer, I found some answers that I hope and pray are worth sharing.
“What then shall we say to these things?”
Paul asks the question and then answers it with another question: “If God is for us, who can be against us?”
The Bible clearly teaches that God created all things. However, in the process of creation, in order to sustain life on this earth, God established a system of irreversible natural laws. The intense heat at the core of the earth which makes the planet inhabitable, also causes the skin of the earth to expand and contract, resulting occasionally in earthquakes. The law of gravity holds all things and people in place on the earth, but that same law of gravity causes a person who falls out of a window at great height to plunge to the earth with disastrous results. The natural laws which God created, are created for a good purpose, but occasionally can have a difficult or dangerous by-product. Furthermore, the Bible declares that God created people free. He did not make us to be marionettes constantly responding to the pull of His strings. He cut the strings. He gave us the power to choose good or evil, to choose to love Him and live for Him, or to love and live for only ourselves. That means that we are able to sin. And it is from these two factors, the process of natural law and the possibility of human sin- or a combination of the two—it is from these two factors that life’s tragedies ultimately derive.
So what the Bible is saying to us is that God does not strike us down with tragedy. The bad things that happen in life sometimes happen because of unfortunate circumstances, sometimes happen because of our sin, sometimes happen because of the sins of other people, and sometimes happen as a consequence of living in a world of inflexible natural laws.
That’s what the Bible teaches, and I am convinced that anything but that progression of thought ignores the truth of the Scriptures. No one, I think, has ever expressed this deep truth better than one of the survivors of Auschwitz. Listen. “It never occurred to me to question God’s doings or lack of doings while I was an inmate of Auschwitz. Although, of course, I understand others did, I was no less or no more religious because of what the Nazis did to us, and I believe my faith in God was not undermined in the least. It never occurred to me to associate the calamity we were experiencing with God—to blame Him or to believe in Him less, or to cease believing in Him at all because He did not come to our aid. God does not owe us that or anything. We owe our lives to Him. If someone believes that God is responsible for the death of six million because He didn’t somehow do something to save them, that person’s got his thinking reversed. We owe God our lives for the few or many years we live. And we have the duty to worship Him and do as He commands. That’s what we are here on earth for—to be in God’s service and to do God’s bidding.”
What a powerful statement. Now, let me pause a moment to respond to something I have heard some people say. They ask: “Since the individuals who triggered this tragedy are people of religious faith and did what they did because of their religious belief, how can we respond?” Let me just say that the Bible makes it quite clear that there is false religion in this world. The Bible makes it quite clear that true faith is revealed by its fruits in the lives of people. Therefore, individuals who would deliberately set out to destroy as many people as they possibly could, including themselves, are not motivated by a true faith. God will never bless any individual’s faith which is bent on destruction.
And what the Bible is saying to us is also this: That God entered this twisted, tarnished, broken world in Jesus Christ to live amongst us, to share our burdens, to show us the power of His love, and to redeem us to a life that is eternal. He came in Jesus Christ so that we might know that the One who could take a crown of thorns and twist it to His glory, the One who could take a hideous blood-stained cross and make of it a symbol of victory, the One who could crack open a sealed tomb and raise the body of His dead Son out of it, this One can deal with our problems and our tragedies, and ultimately lead us to victory. “If God is for us, who can be against us?”
“What then shall we say to these things?”
And Paul answers the question with yet another question. He writes: “He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?”
I had to read that verse over and over again before I realized that Paul was actually referring back to an incident which had occurred 2,000 years earlier—an incident involving God and Abraham and Isaac. You remember that story?
God came to Abraham and said: “Take your son Isaac to Mt. Moriah and offer him there as a burnt offering.” Think about that for a moment. Isaac was the light and the joy of Abraham’s life. He was a special gift of God to Abraham, and now God, it seemed, was saying: “I want the gift back again.” Think about that. Think of the agony that must have been wrenched out of the soul of Abraham. Yet, Abraham, in obedience to God, took his son to Mt. Moriah. There he loaded wood on Isaac’s back—the wood that would be used for the sacrifice. When they reached the top of Mt. Moriah, Abraham built an altar of stone. I think it’s worth remembering that that altar of stone was built in the same place where later on David would meet an angel; in the same place where later on Solomon would build a glorious temple; in the same place where later on the city of Jerusalem would rise; in the same place where later on God would offer His Son. Abraham then bound his son’s hands and prepared to take his son’s life. Think about that. I know what it is to lose a son to death, but think what it would have been like for Abraham to take this, the joy of his life, the treasure of his soul, and to take a dagger and to raise it high in the air so that its razor-sharp blade glinted in the arid Middle Eastern sun—ready to plunge the dagger home. It was only then that suddenly the voice came—not a still, small voice I am convinced, no, but rather, I believe, a voice that must have sounded like rolling thunder. “Stop, Abraham, stop. Now I know that you love me; that you would not withhold your only son from me.”
All of that is the picture in these words that Paul wrote: “He who did not spare His own Son…” Paul is saying that while what Abraham did is a splendid example of love, loyalty and devotion, what we need to remember is that there came a day when God Himself climbed that same slope of Mt. Moriah with His own Son. His Son too, carried wood upon His back, only this time it was in the shape of a cross. His Son too had hands bound, only this time not by rope but by nails. His Son too was spread upon the altar—not one made of stone, but one made of rough-hewn boards. This time too, there was an instrument of death provided, glistening in the sun. Only this time, as the spear was drawn back, there was no thundering voice calling, “Stop!” There was no stay of execution. The spear plunged home and the Son died. We may marvel at the love and loyalty of Abraham, but we can only fall on our knees in the face of the love and loyalty of our God. For God had a Son, an only Son, but His Son died. And Paul says: “He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?”
What I am saying to you is that these words aren’t the beginning of some easy, comfortable philosophy of life. No. They are the foundation stone of a faith which has been forged out of blood, God’s blood. Out of sweat, God’s sweat. Out of tears, God’s tears. Paul is saying to us: “We can stand in life because God stands with us. He who offered His Son for us now offers His life to us.” And that means that “neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord.” That means that there is never a broken heart, never a darkened home, never a painful decision, never a sore temptation, never a diabolical catastrophe, never an open grave, but that Jesus Christ is there.
Let me finish with this…
A little boy looked at a painting of the crucifixion. It was graphic in its detail—the excruciating pain of Jesus was quite obvious. Tears welled up in this little boy’s eyes and he began to sob. At last, with all of the emotion he could muster, he cried out: “ O God, if you had been there, it never would have happened.” But you see, God was there. In the greatest tragedy the world has ever seen, God was there. And when tragedy comes to us, when tragedy comes to us nationally or when tragedy comes to us personally—no matter what—no matter how—no matter where—no matter when—when tragedy comes, God will be there with us.
That is what we can say to these things.