We know that all things work for good for those who love God, for those called according to his purpose. (Rom 8:28)
For the folks at St. Thomas More Parish in Omaha …
When I was in college, there was a courtship story that made the rounds among the students. It started out the typical way. Guy meets girl. Guy starts asking girl out on dates. Around the second or third date, however, the guy does something unusual. He gives the girl a small locket and tells her not to open it. Amazingly, she agrees. And, at the end of about a year of dating, the guy takes her out to dinner and says, “Why don’t you open your locket now?” Inside the locket she finds a scrap of paper with the words, “Will you marry me?” In case you’re wondering, she said yes and, from everything I can gather, they are happily married to this day. Pretty smooth.
But more than the smoothness, what interests me is the light that this courtship sheds on today’s passage from the letter to the Romans. There St. Paul encourages his fellow Christians with the following words: We know that all things work for good for those who love God, for those called according to his purpose (Rom 8:28). The young lady definitely had an experience of being called according to a purpose; hindsight revealed that the young man’s intention had always been to marry her and to enter into a permanent communion with her. And I imagine that the message in the locket must have shed a totally new light on her memories of that year. “It’s funny how I was so anxious to impress him when there was really no need …” Or, “That weekend when he went away without inviting me and I was upset—that must have been the weekend when he asked my Father’s permission to propose …” In general, she might be able see how a hundred little actions—even those that at first seemed painful—were all designed to bring their relationship forward. She had the experience of being called according to a purpose initially hidden from her.
Paul teaches that a similar illumination goes on in every heart filled with the outpouring of the Spirit. When he says, We know that all things work for good for those who love God, for those called according to his purpose (Rom 8:28), he is not only making a theological point about divine providence and predestination. No, he is referring to a mystery that he himself experienced to an extraordinary degree.
After Paul had his conversion on the way to Damascus, i.e., after the “locket” of God’s love was opened to him, he became deeply convinced that God had foreknown him and predestined him from the very beginning. He saw that, though he possessed God’s love all along, he had been trying vainly to “impress” God by his zeal for the law. He saw that God had taken even the most shameful episodes of his life, his persecution of the Church, and had turned it to his own good purposes. Paul writes elsewhere that he, though formerly a persecutor and a blasphemer, the “foremost of sinners” (1Tim 1:15), received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience for an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life (1Tim 1:16). Even when he was opposing God, God had been secretly preparing his heart to receive his love and carry out his mission.
Most importantly, Paul doesn’t see this as a grace unique to him. He teaches that every Christian wears the “locket” of God’s loving design. Bl. John Henry Newman beautifully drew out the implications of St. Paul’s teaching on providence for his own–much less dramatic life–life. He wrote in his journal,
God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission—I never may know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. Somehow I am necessary for His purposes, as necessary in my place as an Archangel in his … He has not created me for naught. I shall do good, I shall do His work; I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it, if I do but keep His commandments and serve Him in my calling.
The dramatic experience of St. Paul and the sober reflections of Bl. J.H. Newman leave us with an obvious question. Has our locket been opened? Have we begun to see God’s providence in our lives and to trust in it? If not, then we might approach him in prayer and ask him to show us how the circumstances of our life–even the difficult ones–are “working together for our good.” After all, a God who makes himself present in the Eucharist Sunday after Sunday, a God who tells us that “even the hairs of our heads are numbered,” is surely not a God to abandon “those who love Him.”