Scripture Reading: Romans 9:1-19, Exodus 32:30-32, Ephesians 1:3-6
You’ve probably been there—that terrible moment when you feel like you’re watching a train about to wreck. Your roommate chooses to stay in a toxic relationship. Your child makes a series of self-destructive decisions. Your brother or sister persists in a state of total denial. Your friend walks away from God.
Helplessness is a special kind of agony, especially when it comes to our loved ones. This is the agony Paul expresses in Romans 9 about the choices of Israel. Having had his eyes opened to the light of the gospel, Paul realizes with great anguish that many of his people—God’s people—have not awakened to the good news of Jesus Christ. Theologian N. T. Wright describes Paul’s reaction this way: “[Paul] was like someone driving in convoy who takes a particular turn in the road and then watches in horror as most of the other cars take the other fork.”
Paul’s sorrow is so great that he would rather take their place: “I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the benefit of my brothers and sisters” (v.3). This chapter, then, is not a cold, calculating explanation of Israel’s history and fate. Instead, Paul is wrestling with the mysterious ways of God, and he doesn’t arrive at many neat and tidy conclusions.
In Romans 9, Paul engages some complex theological questions, but if we zoom in a bit and look at his heart, we might recognize our own. Most of us have walked in Paul’s shoes—grieving the rebellion, blindness, or self-destruction of someone we love. From Paul’s own wrestling with heartache, we can discern two spiritual principles:
1. None of us can boast. None of us stands on moral high ground. God’s grace was not extended to us on the basis of human merit, but divine mercy. That is the principle Paul points to throughout the history of Israel: Isaac, not Ishmael; Jacob, not Esau. These men, these chosen ones who constituted the line of Abraham, were not selected because of their outstanding moral character, but because of the free compassion of God. As Paul explains, “It does not, therefore, depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy” (v.16). In other words, none of us can pat ourselves on the back for our good choices or our strong faith, while silently judging others. It is all a gift, so that none of us should boast.
2. God is sovereign. The relationship between God’s power and our free will is a mysterious one, indeed. But when it comes to the decisions of a loved one, God’s sovereignty removes a great deal of weight from our shoulders. Namely, we cannot force someone to make the right choice. We cannot yell someone into wisdom. We cannot wrestle someone into agreeing with us. And we cannot compel transformation. There is only One who directs the streams of human hearts, and that is God alone.
The sovereignty of God does not permit us to become callous, nor does it permit complacency. Like Paul, we should mourn destruction whenever we encounter it. But it can relieve us of a burden we were never meant to bear.
Only God knows the whole picture and the entire story. Our task is to share the good news to the best of our ability, in humility, and then prayerfully leave the rest to Him.
Sharon Hodde Miller is a writer, speaker, pastor’s wife, mom, and she holds a PhD on women and calling. She is a regular contributor to Propel, blogs at SheWorships.com, and her first book releases in October 2017.