I fell silent as she spoke. The atmosphere shifted from joy to overwhelming sorrow. It was in her voice as it shook and in the firm grip of her hands. My heart understood the weight that her words described, but I would have never guessed that this young woman whose countenance was typically marked by beauty, joy, and fulfillment had lived a life that was quite literally a living hell. A life in the sex trade—passed from man to man, brothel to brothel, bed to bed. She had endured things most people experience only in nightmares. And on the final eve of her enslavement, she had been brought to the outskirts of Bangalore, India, gang-raped, and left for dead.
Two years had passed since then, and by God’s grace alone, she survived. I met her on a short-term mission trip I took to Bangalore after she had been rescued and brought into the safety of an aftercare home. As she finished recounting her story to me, she again became the beautiful woman I knew. I was overtaken by the moment, by her countenance, her strength, her peace. I broke the silence with a question: “How is it that you can have so much joy in spite of everything?” Her response was simple. “It is because I have love.”
He gives us the promise of conformity to the image of His son.
This woman’s story taught me the place of struggle in the life of a believer. It reminds me that God is constantly at work using our circumstances to make us more like Him and that that is the place where true contentment is born. It brings the whole of our experiences, pain, and struggles in this life into perspective. Romans 8:28-29 reveals this in a powerful way—“And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren.”
For much of my life I viewed this passage as a promise of better circumstances. Instead, God promises something much deeper and richer. He gives us the promise of conformity to the image of His son. The “conformity” spoken of in verse 29 when translated from the Greek doesn’t mean outward transformation as it does in English (“to look like”). It comes from the Greek word morpha from which we get the word metamorphosis (“changed from the inside out”).
Everything that happens inevitably molds, sculpts, and contours us. The “good” that God is working in our lives goes far beyond mere material and circumstantial blessing. This good is fully defined in verse 30: “and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified.” We were made in the image of His Son, and everything that comes into our lives will work toward this end.
True freedom and contentment flow from living in the reality of this truth. It gives us perspective in the midst of struggle. I am reminded here of something C.S. Lewis said in The Problem of Pain. In it, he compares our lives to a piece of art. He speaks of how God does not want us merely to be a thumbnail sketch whose making is over in a minute, but instead, He is crafting us into a masterpiece. And the trials, struggles, and battles can become the brushstrokes of that beautiful process. To will the removal of pain from our lives would be to ask God to love us less, which for Him is impossible.
It is the struggle that defines His love for us and gives it meaning. And that is my prayer for us all. That we would see His great love hidden within, behind, and intricately woven into our pain. That, regardless of what we’ve endured in our lives, we would feel as my friend did—in a place deeper than flesh and bone—that through Christ we have love.