Formations 01.22.2017: Asking Paul’s Questions

Romans 8:26-39

John Carradine playing Jim Casy in The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

In John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath, the first person Tom Joad meets after leaving prison and hitching a ride with a truck driver is Jim Casy. Joad finds him lying against a willow tree, whistling, and recognizes him as the preacher. He tells us that Casy was full of the spirit, “walkin’ around on [his] hands, yellin’ [his] head off.” But on that day, Casy confesses he’s lost the spirit. He says, “The sperit ain’t in the people much no more; and worse’n that, the sperit ain’t in me no more.”

It’s not hard to imagine why these people in Oklahoma, losing their farms to the Dust Bowl, the Depression, and the banks to the east, had lost their spirit. And it appears, too, that Paul’s audience in Romans had lost it. Or at least, they experienced chaos and suffering in such a way that Paul was compelled to remind them of God’s power and love.

But Paul begins with questions: “What are we going to say about these things?” “If God is for us, who is against us?” “Who will bring a charge against God’s elect people?” and “Who will separate us from Christ’s love?” (vv. 31-33, 35). It’s easy to read these questions as rhetorical, and indeed, it appears that Paul intended them as such. Then again, as Paul leads his audience through these questions to his own answer, he passes through questions that are still worth asking. So Paul’s question—“Will we be separated by trouble, or distress, or harassment, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?”—suggests perfectly logical reasons why we might question God’s loving presence among us (v. 35).

As we answer those questions, we might find ourselves make a similar list or reasons. It may be racism or sexism, war or environmental degradation, mental illness or familial dysfunction, or even poverty or death that provoke the same questions as Paul. And many days, this list may provide the answers too.

Paul says to look to God and remember Christ. And in the last moment, he says, “in all these things [trouble, distress, harassment, famine, nakedness, danger, sword] we win a sweeping victory” (vv. 35, 37). It is the strangeness of faith that suggests God’s presence comes through God’s absence (Mark 15:34; Matt 27:46).

Paul’s answer may comfort us and it may assure us. On other days, the sources of our doubt may be so pervasive that Paul’s answer barely seems to hold up. Nevertheless, this affirmation suggests that the very realities that challenge our faith in God’s love and power are the places where these mysteries most fully manifest. To hear Paul’s answer may in fact free us to see the doubts and questions that arise from this suffering, not as threats to our faith but as invitations to more fully confront the mystery of God.

After all, Jim Casy did lose the spirit, but he wasn’t destroyed. Rather, he summoned it to “give ’em a grace” when people ate. Despite losing the spirit, later in the book he gives up his freedom to protect Tom Joad, a choice that looks remarkably similar to the life of the one who embodied the Spirit. When the presence and love of Christ are furthest away, we too may embody them by challenging those forces that assure us of God’s absence. For it is our sustaining hope that God and God’s victory show up in the unlikeliest of places.

John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (New York: Penguin, 1939), 20, 265–67.

Discussion

• What aspects of your life and experience cause you to question God’s presence, love, and power?
• In what places and experiences, both expected and unexpected, have you experienced God?
• How can you incorporate, as a central part of your faith, those elements that seem to threaten it the most?
• How can your faith lead you to overcome those realities where God is absent?

Reference Shelf

Unexpressed Groans

So Paul here saw the Spirit’s activity not in the heights of spiritual rapture but in the depths of human inability to discern and cope.

In the third century the church father Origen, in his De oration 2, suggested that the language “with groans that are wordless” refers to a kind of private praying in tongues (1 Cor 14:2, 18-19). Since it is difficult to find other known phenomenon in the early church apart from this practice that even remotely resembles what is described in Romans 8:26-27 as an everyday event among believers, some modern scholars follow Origen’s lead. Paul’s language, however, is “wordless groans.” This does not sound like glossolalia, even the private type, which involves words that someone could hear and interpret. The only plausible alternative is the Christian experience of deep, wordless yearning directed towards God when one senses the presence of the Spirit in one’s heart. The sighs, then, would be the groaning associated with the birthpangs of the Coming Age. Regardless of how the form of the prayer is understood, its essence is “the divine in us appealing to the God above us.” (Cf. Castor’s statement, cited by Plutarch [Moralia 266C-E]: “The Spirit within entreats and supplicates the gods without.”)

The Spirit, then, assists Christians between their conversion and their taking possession of their future hope.

Charles Talbert, Romans, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon Ga: Smyth & Helwys, 2002), 220.

All Things for Good

Paul has been preparing for the final and most difficult set of questions that face his thesis, those dealing with the destiny of Israel. In 8:18-27, he asserted that God is at work through the Spirit even when appearances seem to deny God’s presence and power. Now, in 8:28-30, he makes a series of assertions concerning God’s overarching plan for humanity. The best way to categorize these comments in the context of the ancient world is as statements in defense of providence (pronoia). In the ancient world as in our own, skeptics challenged God’s control of events, and in particular God’s ability to bring good results out of patently bad circumstances. Pious pagan philosophers wrote in defense of God’s providence (Plutarch, On the Delays in the Divine Vengeance [Mor. 548B-568A]; Seneca, On Providence; Epictetus, Discourse 1.16). In Judaism, the stakes were even higher. It was not just the “divine system” of many gods that could be brought into question by events, for the system of polytheism had as one of its advantages a certain built-in self-correction, since blame could be spread around as liberally as could blessing. In Judaism, there was one single source of all reality, a personal God whose will disposed of events. A defense of this God in the face of evil or tragic occurrences is a more daunting task. Before Paul engages the hard question of God’s fidelity in chapters 9–11, therefore, he begins with his own and his readers’ sense of certainty given by their experience of God in Christ.

Paul begins with a transitional statement, which once more appeals to a shared understanding: “we know that for those who love God he works all things together for good” (8:28). It is a statement whose precise meaning is obscure in any case but has also become dangerously distorted by being used out of context. For some Christians the verse has become a kind of pious slogan used to mollify grief or assuage anger in the face of hard experience, having the bromidal effect of, “Don’t worry, God will make everything turn out all right.”

In fact, Paul does not claim that absolutely everything works out fine for every person, whether they “love God” (one of the few times he uses this traditional designation for the pious; see 1 Cor 2:9; Jas 1:12; 2:5) or not. His statement is both more embracing and tentative. First, he does not say that God “makes everything” turn out right. Rather, it is that “God works with all things”—it is the big picture that Paul has in mind, not the incidental details of lost coins or school exams. Second, God works with them “toward good” (eis agathon). “Good” here stands as the goal toward which all things move rather than a quality that inheres in everything that happens. The precise import of Paul’s declaration is given by his next statement, which begins, because: it is in the light of what we have learned about God thus far that gives us the conviction to make such a sweeping and affirmative statement. Here it has to do with “being called according to his purpose.” The good that God is working toward, then, is that of salvation or, in other words, of belonging to God’s people and eventually sharing in God’s life. The topic, therefore, is that of God’s “purpose” (prosthesis, 8:28).

Luke Timothy Johnson, Reading Romans: A Literary and Theological Commentary, Reading the New Testament (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2001), 141–42.

William Scruggs is a graduate of Mercer University. His favorite pastimes are adding music to his listening list, TV shows to his viewing list, and books to his reading list. When he isn’t pretending to check items off these lists, he spends time with friends and plays music. He is excited for the opportunity to continue exploring the rivers of Middle Georgia and to stay in Macon as an associate editor at Smyth & Helwys.

*****

For further resources, subscribe to the Formations Teaching Guide and Commentary.

Additionally, the Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary series is a scholarly but accessible means for enhancing your study of each lesson. To purchase the volume quoted in today’s Reference Shelf, please click Here.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email