Turning Lemons into Lemonade
As we have stated, our faith facilitates God’s power changing a situation. No matter how bleak a situation may appear, we must remember that with God nothing is impossible. As has often been said, God is very good at “making lemonade out of lemons.” He says just about exactly that in Romans 8:28, a tremendous verse of Scripture. Unfortunately, this verse is so poorly translated in The King James Version (and in some others) that those aforementioned “countless Christians” have used it to say that all tragedy, sickness, and death is “good” for God’s people and is a part of His plan for them.
Romans 8:28 (KJV)
And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.
This inaccurate translation has contributed to the erroneous belief held by countless Christians that the pain and suffering in their lives is God’s will and is somehow for their own good. But as Richard Rice states in his book, When Bad Things Happen To God’s People, pp. 40, 41, 45, and 46:
According to the Bible, suffering is a consequence of sin. It was not a part of God’s original design for this world at all. So the view that suffering is anything other than evil is incorrect. It is inherently opposed to the will of God. And since our lives contain evil as well as good, it is evident that the view that God plans everything that happens to us is false…The tragedies of life are real. The grace of God can mitigate the consequences of evil and bring out spiritual good, but it does not necessarily restore things to exactly their former condition. No matter how much good results, evil is never “more than made up for,” in a temporal sense. It often involves, to a greater or lesser degree, permanent loss. So whatever the spiritual or material good that follows the negative experiences of life, it is due entirely to the providential activity of God, not to something positive or beneficial in the experiences themselves.
No doubt some people, even though they believed that God was responsible for their affliction, have, because of their mental resolve, come through much suffering better off for it. This is so often the case that we, the authors, feel that it is a major reason why the teaching that God either causes or allows suffering continues in Christian circles. The fact is, however, that there are many people who have not endured suffering with their faith intact. How many people, thinking that a supreme, omnipotent God was causing them or someone they love indescribable anguish, have turned away from Him? How much easier it is to endure trials when you have the absolute confidence that they are not caused by God and that He is working as hard as He can in your behalf, as Romans 8:28 says. The New International Version translates this verse much better than does the King James Version.
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.
It is important to see the difference between these translations of Romans 8:28. People that hold to the King James Version say that “…all things work together for good….” In other words, losing your job, getting cancer, or the death of someone close to you is somehow good. The NIV translation (which we feel much more accurately reflects the Greek text) says that God is working for your good in every situation. Maybe you have lost your job, have cancer, or have had someone close to you die. These things are not good, but God is working for your good in these situations. Knowing this helps you cleave to Him and allows Him to help you. On the other hand, blaming Him automatically negates your trust in Him for help. Richard Rice very articulately elaborates on God’s prowess in working with the “lemons” of life [same book, pp. 40 and 41]:
God works through secondary causes to achieve His objectives. And it reaches its highest expression in God’s use of developments that are inherently opposed to His will to accomplish His purposes. To respond creatively to suffering, we need to appreciate God’s ability to incorporate the negative experiences of life into the fulfillment of His plans for us.
We often speak of “God’s plan for our lives.” But just what this expression means is not at all clear in the thinking of many people. What picture do you get when you think of God’s plan for your life? Is God’s plan for you like a writer’s script for a play—all written out, with every scene carefully plotted in advance? Has God arranged everything that will ever happen to you, down to the last detail? Does every experience have an assigned place in your life?
Many people are convinced that this is the case. In their view, confidence in divine sovereignty requires us to believe that God is somehow responsible for all that happens to us and that everything we experience is for the best. Indeed, nothing just “happens.” God plans it all…
Another way of thinking about God’s relation to our lives makes more theological sense, and it is more helpful on a personal level too. According to this view, God is intimately involved in our lives, not by working out a plan that is fixed in every detail, but by responding creatively to everything that happens. God has certain basic objectives for us, but in order to reach them, He interacts with events and decisions [in our lives], for which He is not responsible.
Pain and suffering do not come to us because God planned it that way. There is nothing inherently good about these experiences. But once they are here, God can bring good out of them and use them to accomplish something positive.
How about a classic biblical example? Okay—Joseph (Gen. 37–50). Was it God’s will that he was hated by his brothers, sold into slavery, framed by Potiphar’s wife, and thrown into jail? No. Was God responsible for these evils? No. But because Joseph stayed faithful to look to Him and to trust Him, God was able to work mightily in the whole situation, not only to enable Joseph to endure, but to the glorious end of his personal deliverance and exaltation and Israel’s salvation also. When Joseph had become the Pharaoh’s right-hand man and his brothers stood before him, he said to them, “As far as I am concerned, God turned into good what you meant for evil. He brought me to the high position I have today so I could save the lives of many people.” (Gen. 50:20 – NLT). Now that’s lemonade!
In the early days of television in the USA, a children’s show featured an artist whose creativity was astounding and illustrative of God’s resourcefulness. This artist would sit beside an easel with a large pad of white paper. Randomly he would hand a piece of charcoal to one of the children and have him make any sort of scribble he wanted. He would then ask the children what they would like him to make out of the scribble. It might be an animal, a clown, or anything that appealed to the children’s imagination or seemed to pose a big challenge to the artist’s skill. The artist then went to work transforming the scribble into the requested image with amazing ease and skill. It didn’t seem to matter what the scribble looked like or what he was asked to make out of it—he could do it.
We must see God in a similar light, and appreciate His creative genius. He can take any set of circumstances and, with a few master strokes of grace and mercy, bring a new picture into view, one that shows His love and will. There is nothing that Satan and sin can introduce into our lives that God cannot transform into something that will glorify Him. There is one important difference between the artist and God, however. The artist took the charcoal from the child and drew the picture himself. God works with us to guide us as we and He draw the picture together. He asks us to work together with Him to achieve His will—by praying, trusting Him, obeying Him, and speaking His Word. As the English proverb well expresses it: “God supplies the milk, we bring the pail.”
Richard Rice points out [same book, p. 41] that such thinking may seem to some as though it compromises God’s “sovereignty” and leaves Him at the mercy of what people do. He then gives two ways to answer this objection.
In the first place, God has voluntarily limited His sovereignty over the world in order to leave us free to choose. When He created morally free beings, He, in effect, shared with them the power to determine what course history would take. So whatever limits there are to God’s power, they are limits which He voluntarily set when He decided to create the kind of world He made.
In the second place, the ability to respond creatively to events as they happen, so that they contribute to His purposes, takes, if anything, a higher kind of power than the ability to plan to the last detail everything that happens.
Turning Tragedy Into Triumph
God’s limitless resourcefulness allows Him to attach His own meaning to many negative events. No doubt the best example of this is the most negative event of all time—the death of His Son Jesus Christ. Acts 2:23 (KJV) says that the Jews, chiefly their rulers, “by wicked hands” crucified and slew Jesus. This is also the testimony of the Gospel records (Matt. 27:1 and 2; Mark 15:1; etc.). Though the Jewish religious leaders were the instigators, the Roman government carried out the crucifixion, and would have broken his legs to kill him, but Scripture says he was dead already (Matt. 27:50 – KJV), having “yielded up the ghost.”
In 1 Corinthians 2:8 (KJV), however, “…the princes of this world…” (i.e., Satan and his hosts) are blamed for crucifying Jesus. Had they known about the power of Jesus’ resurrection and the subsequent outpouring of the gift of holy spirit on Pentecost, they would have let him live. So we see that it was actually Satan behind the scenes “pulling the strings” who was responsible for Jesus’ death.
Philippians 2:8 reveals that Jesus obeyed God unto death and crucifixion, indicating that this was God’s will for him so that he might redeem man. Acts 2:23 (KJV) says that he was delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, who knew that His Son would have to be sacrificed and killed. God knew that by having His Son die for sin and sinners, He would be able to rectify the sin problem for all time. God did not, however, work in evil men to have them do what He wanted them to do for then He would be un-righteous and manipulative. But, as with Joseph, what the Devil and wicked men freely chose to do and meant for evil, God turned into something that ultimately contributed to His purposes for mankind.
Our wonderful God’s superior wisdom and power enable Him to bring about a redemptive meaning out of even the darkest of circumstances, as in the death of His only begotten Son. How He is able to allow created beings total freedom to oppose Him, yet still bring to pass His overall will is marvelous beyond our comprehension and is why we love and worship Him as we do.
The following story further illustrates how God can resourcefully incorporate unplanned, negative developments in our lives into the fulfillment of His purposes for us. It also points to Jesus Christ as the supreme example of redemptive suffering:
John Ruskin was once in the company of a lady who dropped a blot of ink on her beautiful silk handkerchief. “Oh,” she cried in great dismay, “my lovely handkerchief is ruined.” “Perhaps not,” said Ruskin, “please leave it with me.”
A little later he returned her handkerchief, but it was no longer disfigured. Unable to remove the blot, Ruskin had used it as a basis for a most attractive design. The handkerchief, far from being ruined, was now even lovelier than it had been.
It is the making possible of a transformation of this nature that is the Gospel’s answer to the problem of suffering, a transformation of even the most unsightly blots that may happen along to disfigure our lives. This is what Jesus did with the suffering that came his own way. He accepted it without bitterness or rancor and transformed it.
This is supremely illustrated in the Cross. No greater tragedy could be imagined than this, no fate more undeserved, no suffering more agonizing. Yet out of it Jesus brought good. He took all the suffering and evil that was Calvary and out of it he fashioned the greatest victory that history has ever seen—and the most important [from James Martin’s book: Suffering Man/Loving God, pp. 68 and 69].
From his book, When Bad Things Happen to God’s People, p. 23, Rice states:
God’s capacity to work for good in the world extends to everything that happens. Nothing lies beyond His ability to respond to things creatively and work toward the fulfillment of His purposes. In many ways, the Bible is one long record of God’s response to the mistakes and failures of human beings, and of His ability to bring something good from even the most negative experiences.
It is ironic that God is so adept at turning tragedy into triumph that often people mistakenly attribute to Him not only the solution, but also the problem. Rice says basically the same thing: “We must be careful not to view the benefits that follow something negative as evidence that God intended it to happen to begin with” [same book, p. 45]. Understanding how God’s awesome love, wisdom, and power can turn even the most negative situation into a positive one greatly encourages us to steadfastly look to Him in faith and hope.
Once more Richard Rice waxes eloquent:
This means that for someone who is open to God’s creative, redemptive power, nothing is totally negative. It means that in a life committed to God there are no wasted years. A Christian can look back, over the entire course of his life, and thank God for His guidance in everything that happened—the bad as well as the good. And this transforms life’s negative experiences and apparent defeats. It means that nothing is a total loss…God’s ability to work for good applies not only to things that happen to us, but also to things we bring on ourselves. Even when our problems result from a lack of judgment or from outright rebellion, God can bring about something good, if we repent and patiently trust Him to work things out. Nothing lies totally beyond the reach of His transforming and creative power. In all things, He works for good [same book, p. 45].
Having this confidence in God’s goodness and creative ability, we are now in a position to understand how suffering can have value in one’s life without having to attribute it to God.