In 2016, the world’s favorite Bible verse was Romans 8:28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” The Bible reading app YouVersion reports that this verse was highlighted, shared, and bookmarked more than any other verse, according to data gathered by the organization from 88 nations. The U.S. was among the countries that favored Romans 8:28.
This isn’t really surprising. We like happy endings, and more than that we like being happy. Believing in a God who exists to make us happy is an attractive option, especially in a consumer-driven, materialistic culture like we have in the U.S. Problem is, I don’t really think that’s what Romans 8:28 is promising.
In the past year, I discovered something kind of sickening about myself and what I think about God. Deep down, when I’m most honest about my emotions, I believe that God is obligated to give me what I want.
After all, I’ve lived a pretty good life. I go to church, I pray fairly often, and I read my Bible and try to do what it says. I went to a Christian school and did Bible studies with my family and friends. I worked in the inner-city, and now I volunteer with an after-school program. If checking items off the Christian to-do list counted as points, I should be racking them up.
God, don’t you see? Don’t you see all the good things I’m doing for you? I’m doing things the right way, so shouldn’t I get the rewards that come with obedience? I should be married to the love of my life. I should have three kids, a dog, and a house with a white picket fence. I should be working in a stable and steady job that fulfills me and gives me purpose. Why aren’t you giving me all the things I want, all the things I’m asking for?
It’s not so much that I’d forgotten that hard things were part of our sinful world and part of what God uses to refine our faith and character. I knew that. It was more that, somewhere along the way, I had gotten the mixed-up idea that my obedience obligates God to bless me. After all, Abraham was obedient and God blessed him; Joseph was obedient and God blessed him; Job was obedient and God blessed him.
I think I forgot about all the trials those men faced along the way. I also forgot that blessings don’t always look like me getting what I want.
But the biggest thing I forgot was this: God is my Creator. I am His Creation, formed from the dust of the ground. Nothing I do could ever obligate Him to do anything.
Those things I mentioned earlier that I want—that most of us want in some form or fashion if we’re honest? Those aren’t necessarily the good works God is going to do in our lives if we love Him.
Those things are acts of grace. Every single one of them.
They aren’t things we can somehow manipulate Him into giving us if we pray hard enough, sing praise loud enough, or tell Him we love Him enough times. They are things He gives freely out of an abundance of love and grace. He sees everything, knows everything, can do anything—who are we to say when or where He is to give His gifts?
Now, that’s not to say God doesn’t enjoy blessing us with families or missions in life, or even the more material things in life that we take joy from. I do believe He enjoys our joy and is sorrowful in our sadness. After all, He told us to rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn; I rather imagine He does likewise.
But personally, where I got into trouble was when I started thinking I could get God to give me what I wanted if I followed Him closely enough. For a recovering perfectionist, a belief like that is a disaster waiting to happen.
It’s a tricky line to walk, that path between obedience and grace. Truly, the two should blend together, but it’s easy to separate them and start seeing them as two separate entities, or to get their order switched up and think that obedience leads to grace when really grace should lead to obedience.
For now, I’m trying to work on recognizing grace for what it is. Not a coincidence, not something I should feel guilty for, not something I can earn. Just . . . grace, pure and simple.
It’s not an entire solution, but it’s a start.
“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Ephesians 2:4-9