When you’re taught to read literature, you’re usually told to pay attention to the recurring themes of the novel. The same principle holds for life: when you keep encountering the same message, over and over, it’s best to listen.
Late this week, my church’s young professionals group continued its series on quarter-life crises (and I’m a little bummed that I’m old enough to the point where I no longer qualify as “quarter-life”). The focus was on how to know God’s will for a particular situation in your life. While this talk was going on, I was texting a friend–yes, I texted in church and no, I’m not going to hell for it–who had just accepted a new job in another state and was now worried that he might have a made a mistake.
When a common theme emerges, pay attention. And since God’s will has been a topic of discussion lately, I decided to write about it.
I got to share this at our table discussion that night, and I’ll say it again here:
You can’t screw up your life.
People would often quote Romans 8:28 as one of those verses that they want to make themselves feel better about their present or future situations. The verse says, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
Here’s how I hear people interpret this: “My life sucks, but God will make it better.” Or, “I’m scared of screwing up, but it’ll turn out okay.” Or, “I’m still single, and everything will work out as God wants it to, but it’d be nice if He’d stop taking His sweet time with it.“
This interpretation fits nicely with how a lot of people understand God’s will. For many Christians, the divine will is like a cosmic game of Connect the Dots, and your job as a Christian is to find out the particular order God wants you to follow so you can paint the picture He intended for your life. For instance, the right college is Dot #1. Choosing your career is Dot #2. Finding the right guy/girl to marry is Dot #3. This will continue until you die–and hopefully, you won’t screw up your picture too badly in the process.
The common interpretation of Romans 8:28 fits this view nicely: everything will turn out as it’s supposed to. You won’t miss your God-intended dots as you try to complete the picture.
The problem is, that’s not what this verse is saying.
I’m going to write the verse out again, with the two verses that follow, to show you what I mean:
“We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.”
Yes, all things work together for our good–that is, to become like Jesus Christ.
This is what we miss when we misread Romans 8:28. Our ultimate “good” isn’t going to be found in our circumstances, in whether we’re single or married, in whatever job we have. (You’ll notice that these are almost always the concerns people have when they’re trying to decipher God’s will.)
It has always been God’s plan, since before you and I even existed, to become like Christ–to enjoy the love of God and show that love to others, to be perfected and holy and walk in a new world with Him. This is a slow process that starts in the here and now. Sometimes, people take a long time to figure out what loving God and others mean. But no matter how long it takes each of us, we’re all going to eventually be made like Jesus.
I don’t just mean that we’re going to stop making stupid mistakes and no longer sin (although this is certainly part of it). I mean that we’re going to know what it means to be loved by God, to step into the loving dance that the Trinity has enjoyed for as long as the Trinity has been the Trinity.
To become like Jesus is about much more than doing good things. Jesus knew what it meant to be loved by the Father and to find his identity in that love. This isn’t just one part of following Jesus; it is the whole goal of discipleship. It is everything that Jesus is trying to teach us. Because when your identity is rooted in the love of God, then everything changes and you’re free to be what you were always meant to be.
Jesus knew what it meant to be perfectly in the love of God. It’s what he prayed would happen for each and every one of his followers:
“… so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”
That is the good being promised.
I mentioned before that you can’t screw up your life. Based on Scripture’s promises to people who love God, I hope it’s becoming clearer why that is.
If all things work together to make you like Jesus, even the worst decisions you’ve ever made, then there’s nothing in the world that can stop you from becoming what you were always meant to become. Even your mistakes will be used to draw you deeper into the love of God.
You can’t screw up your life when God will use even your poorest decisions to make you happier than you ever dreamed you could be.
The questions you should focus on aren’t, “What should I do? Who should I marry? Where should I work?”
We’re made to be loved by God and love Him in return. So the better question is, “Am I learning to love God right now? Am I pursuing love for my neighbors and my enemies, as Jesus taught?”
If you’re learning what it means to answer Yes to those questions, then you’re already in His will. You’re already living the story you were meant to have. And no matter what happens tomorrow or the next day or the day after that, your story is going to end just as it was always meant to.
Because of Jesus, your story is destined to end in one way and one way only: with Him, perfected in love.