I recently audited a class at a seminary, but most of my theological training has been in more informal settings. One of those lessons took me from the kitchen counter to the workbench. These will seem unlikely learning locations to those who know my cooking and handyman knowledge could fit tidily on a pinhead and still leave room for a couple of legions of angels.
The course was one of the toughest that everyone has to take sometime in their Christian walk—making some sort of sense of things when life just goes pear-shaped. The answer, of course, is Romans 8:28—“all things work together for good…”—but it’s a very different one depending on whether you are wearing an apron or a tool-belt.
In my early Christian life, I heard and embraced the cake analogy. No one in their right mind would eat raw eggs, or flour, or a pinch of salt, right? But mix all those things together in a bowl with a few other ingredients, and you can end up with a tasty cake. All it needs is the right amount of heat and time.
I was served some of this by well-meaning friends and advisors during different hard times, and I have even passed out some slices to others, myself. The message is that we may have hardships, but God will make everything palatable in time. But, to be honest, this always tasted a bit dry.
For me, the baking analogy breaks down because the original, unsavory ingredients literally disappear in the mix, becoming something else. But the bad things in real life don’t go away like that. Disease, divorce, depression, deep disappointments don’t magically turn into something else. They are still there in the past, even if they don’t have an active part in the present.
And then I read Susan Howatch’s wonderful “Starbridge” novels, about the Church of England, in which spiritually dynamic characters wrestle with their fallenness. One of them, a priest, talks about how a better understanding of Romans 8:28 is that, rather than mixing, God interweaves things together for the good.
It’s like going out into the garage with six strands of white string and one strand that is black. You weave them all together, and you end up with a much stronger rope. The one cord is still black—you can see it threaded through the others. It’s part of something stronger now, something good even, but it will be always black in and of itself.
For me, that’s a better frame of reference for reconciling life’s dark strands. It frees us from having to overspiritualize our deep pain, trying to find something good in what are fundamentally bad things. We can look for something good to to come out of them, but that’s different.
When God finished His original, flawless creation, at each stage He said it was good. I don’t think He sees it marred by sickness and sufferings and says that’s good, too. He snorted at His friend, Lazarus’ death, even though he knew what was coming—a celebration that, who knows, maybe even included cake.