The Master Manipulator

Romans 8:28

28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who[a] have been called according to his purpose.

Dear Friends in Christ,

If you were to go into my office and sneak a peak under the pad that sits on my desk, you would find this important sheet of paper.  This is my prayer list.  It contains the names of all the people that I pray for on a regular basis.  It’s a long list that I’ve subdivided into certain categories over the years.  For example, on the front of it you will find the names of people who are battling health problems in their lives.  Currently there are nearly 200 of them on the list.  On the other side you’ll find sections dealing with couples who are having marital problems; teenagers and young adults who have displayed a spirit of rebellion or godlessness in their lives; adults who have been resistant to the Gospel or who have fallen away from the church and become inactive; a large section devoted to those who need God’s support, strength, and special help because of problems or situations they’re facing; and then lastly a miscellaneous section that includes my family, our church, our country, our President and other national leaders, our Synod and its leaders, and Christ Our Rock Lutheran High School.

Whenever I look at this prayer list, I’m always amazed at the wide scope of problems that are represented here.  There’s cancer, depression, chronic pain, crippling arthritis, dementia, fibromyalgia, and host of other physical and emotional problems.  There are hurting marriages, hurting homes that have been disrupted and sometimes devastated by a child’s rebellious ways, alcoholism, financial problems, family divisions, job losses, as well as losses of loved ones.  And of course, behind each one of these problems is a person or persons who are being affected by it.  Now if, by chance, you are fortunate to not have any problems in your life right now, all I can say is count your blessings, for you are definitely in the minority.  But if you do have problems, then you’ve come to the right place today because this morning I want to talk to you about those problems.  We’re going to look at what God has to say about them as we continue our study of how we can live a good news life in a bad news world and we’re going to see how he can take even the worst of situations and use them to bring something good into our lives.  For he truly is what I’ve called him in my sermon title for today “The Master Manipulator.”

The first point I want to make then is this: Don’t be surprised by troubles.  If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times.  And that is that nowhere in the Bible does God ever promise us an easy road through life.  Instead he tells us just the opposite.  In Ps. 34:19 we read: “Many are the afflictions of the righteous.”  Acts 14:22 says: “we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God.”  And in John 16:33 Jesus states it as plainly as he possibly can when he says: “In this world you will have trouble.”

So it’s pretty evident from Scripture that no one is immune to pain; no one is exempt from suffering;  no one gets to skate through life problem-free.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that life is a series of problems.  It seems like every time you get past one, another is waiting to take its place.  But again, that shouldn’t surprise us.  For Peter tells us in chapter 4, verse 12 of his 1st epistle: “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you.”

The important thing to remember in the midst of our trials is point #2, namely, that God has a purpose behind them.  He uses them to develop our character, to help us grow, to refine us, to mold us and shape us into the kind of people he desires us to be.  Now I know what some of you are thinking: Why does God have to use troubles to do all that?  Why can’t he use blessings instead to help us grow?

And the first thing I would say in response to that is that he does use blessings to help us grow.  And what greater blessing does he offer us than the Gospel, the good news of our salvation, the comforting message that in spite of our sins he still loved us and through his Son Jesus Christ he did everything possible and everything necessary to save us from the damning and eternal consequences of our sins.  If that doesn’t change you, my friends, if that doesn’t excite you, if that doesn’t ignite you to want to do your best and give your best to him, then you’d better check your pulse to make sure that you’re still in the land of the living.  For what greater blessing could God possibly give us than the gift of eternal life with him where all the trials and troubles, all the problems and pitfalls, all the heartaches and hurts that are so much a part of living in this broken and imperfect world will be finally and forever removed from us, never to bother us or touch us or affect us again.

So God does use blessings to help us grow.  But he also knows that just showering us with one blessing after another isn’t the best way to keep us growing.  In fact, that often times has the opposite effect.  It hinders or stunts the kind of growth God wants to bring about in us because it is during times of great blessing and prosperity that we sinful human beings have the greatest tendency to forget him.  If you don’t believe that, just spend some time this week reviewing the history of God’s chosen people in the Old Testament, the Israelites.  In fact, for just a moment, let’s go back to the time when they found themselves as slaves in the land of Egypt.  For 430 years they had labored under the harsh tyranny of the Egyptian taskmasters.  But finally God sent them a deliverer in the person of Moses.  And after God brought 10 catastrophic plagues upon the Egyptians, the final one of which included the killing of the firstborn male in every Egyptian household, the Israelites were finally allowed to go free.  What a blessing!  But there was more to come.  For when they soon found themselves between the proverbial rock and hard place with the Red Sea in front of them and the pursuing Egyptian armies behind them, God allowed Moses to part the waters of the sea so that they could pass through on dry ground.  And then he caused those waters to collapse upon the Egyptians so that they all drowned that day.

Now you would think that after experiencing miracles and blessings like that from God, those people would never forget him, that they would be ever grateful and ever faithful to him.  But that’s not what happened.  In fact, just about a month later when their stomachs started to growl a bit, we’re told in Exodus 16:2-3: “…the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the LORD’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.’”  Wow, it didn’t take long at all for them to forget God, did it?  And sadly, this became a pattern that was played out over and over again throughout their history.  When God would bless them, they’d be thankful for a while.  But then they’d become so proud and self-sufficient that they’d forget about him again.

I’m not sure why it works that way, but I have seen that same scenario played out in so many peoples’ lives during my 35+ years in the ministry.  And because of that, I want to challenge you today to think back over your own life.  When are the times that you have grown the most spiritually?  When are the times you have felt closest to God?  I believe if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll have to admit that it’s been the times when you were struggling, the times when you found yourself faced with seemingly insurmountable and unsolvable problems.  For those problems have a way of driving us closer to God.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is during those times of trouble that most of us have prayed our most intense, authentic, and heartfelt prayers.

Now, could God have prevented those problems from happening to you?  Of course he could have.  But he knows that during our times of suffering we learn things about him and about ourselves that we can’t learn any other way.  And the Bible is full of examples that illustrate this for us.  God could have kept Joseph out of prison, Daniel out of the lion’s den, the 3 men out of the fiery furnace, Jeremiah out of a slimy cistern, and Paul out of three shipwrecks – but he didn’t.  Instead, he allowed those problems to come to his very faithful children.  And every one of them was drawn closer to him as a result.  As difficult as it is to understand and accept, it’s true: Problems force us to look to God and depend on him instead of ourselves.  Or to put it another way, you’ll never know that God is all you need until God is all you have.

Which brings us to the last point that I want to make and that has to do with a proper understanding of our text for today, Rom. 8:28: “We know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.” (NLT)  This is perhaps one of the most frequently quoted but also most misunderstood verses in all of Holy Scripture.  Notice, it does not say that God causes everything to work out the way I want it to.  Or that God causes everything to work out to have a happy ending on earth.  But to really understand this verse, we need to break it down into several component parts.  So let’s do that right now.

First of all, Paul says, “We know.”  This reminds us that our hope in difficult times is not based on such things as wishful thinking, a positive attitude, or hopeful optimism.  Rather it is grounded in a certainty that God has revealed to us in his Word that he is in control of our universe as well as our lives and that that control is exercised out of a love for us that goes far beyond our ability to comprehend.

Secondly, Paul says, “We know that God causes.”  Those 3 words tell us that there is a Grand Designer, a Great Orchestrator behind everything.  Therefore your life is not a result of random chance, fate, or luck.  And though we may make mistakes, God never does.

Thirdly, “We know that God causes everything.”  That word includes all that happens to you – the good, the bad, the ugly; your faults, your failures, your sins, your hurts; your debt, your disasters, your depression.  God, the Master Manipulator, is constantly working behind the scenes to bring good out of the bad.  Listen, my friends.  If he did it at the cross, which he did, then he can do it for you as well.

Fourthly, “We know that God causes everything to work together.”  The events in your life are not random, isolated occurrences, but interdependent parts of a process that God is using to make you more like Jesus.  Think of your life as a cake.  To bake a cake you must have certain ingredients: flour, sugar, oil, salt, and raw eggs.  Eaten individually, those items would be pretty distasteful.  But bake them together and they become quite delightful.  Likewise, if you give God all your distasteful, unpleasant experiences, he will in ways that only he can do blend them together for your good and his glory.

And that leads to the next part of our text: “We know that God causes everything to work together for the good.”  It’s no secret that much of what happens in our world is evil and bad, but God specializes in bringing good out of it.  For example, in the official family tree of Jesus that is recorded for us in Matt. 1, you’ll find murderers, prostitutes, foreigners, and other shady characters mentioned.  Yet God brought the Savior of the world from that rather unsavory mix of sinners.

Then finally, “We know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose.”  The promise of Rom. 8:28 is only for God’s children, for those who love him.  It is not for everyone.  In fact, I think I would be correct in saying that all things work for the bad of those who prefer to live their lives in opposition to God and who insist on their ways over his.

So when life gets tough for you, my friends, and it seems as though God is distant  or hidden from you, understand that he isn’t.  Instead he’s just working behind the scenes to bring good out of the bad, order out of chaos, and meaning out of that which seems so senseless.  He is the Master Manipulator whose love for you knows no limits or bounds and who has proven himself worthy of all the trust you can place in him.  So don’t despair, but instead flee to his strong and loving arms.  Then wait for him as he brings his perfect plans to fulfillment in your less than perfect life.