Q&R with Brad – “For God shut up all people”? Romans 11:32


I wonder if I could pick your brain on something! I’m battling a severe form of CFS/ME and have been for almost 20 years. I am also going through deconstruction (an almost lethal combination!) and am questioning the goodness and fairness of God. I’ve got really stuck on Romans 11:32. Here’s my dilemma: I didn’t choose/consent to being created and as I read Gen 1-3 it feels like God set us up for failure (putting us near the tree, allowing the serpent in, etc). But then he sends Jesus as the solution to the problem he created. Allowing free will led to absolutely catastrophic consequences. The devastation this illness has brought to my life is terrible and feels so cruel! So when I read that I was bound to disobedience so that he can have mercy, it just compounds everything and feels so unfair!


“For God shut up everyone in obstinacy so that he might show mercy to everyone.” 
(David Bentley Hart)
“For God has shut up all people in disobedience, so that he may have mercy upon all.” 
(N.T. Wright)

Thanks for asking about Romans 11. It’s a difficult enough passage even apart from chronic pain and a crisis of faith. That’s a real dilemma. Our belief in the goodness and fairness of God is often challenged by tragedy, trauma, suffering, and death. Add to these trials the crises at various layers at once: individual, family, community, global, and environment.

We call this the ‘problem of evil’ or ‘problem of pain.’ Why would a good God… And every rationalization (theological or otherwise) ends up either calling good evil or evil good. God’s only response is that he underwent these directly by assuming the human condition and experiencing it all the way to the Cross, where he co-suffered with us with a view to bringing about restoration. That still leaves us crying out, “How long?”

When people with CFS/ME are at a loss for words, I encourage them to pray Psalm 6 and Psalm 13 out loud at the foot of the Cross. I’d love for you to tell me what that experience would be like for you.

For a glimpse at the problem of pain that I hope doesn’t add to the burden, see this blog piece

But now to Romans 11. It’s a great example of the importance of reading the author in context because if we take the passage in isolation, then literalize it, then totalize it, then apply it to our lives, we’ll experience it as a stumbling block. So very briefly,

“For God shut up / bound up”

Literally? Does God imprison people? Does he actually chain anyone to sin? What happened to redemption and deliverance and freedom from bondage? Of course not. So how is Paul using these words? 

We find the answer back in chapter one, where we read three times that “God gave them over,” which is how Paul thinks and talks about ‘wrath.’ Wrath taken literally means ‘violent anger’ but in Paul’s writings (following some of the prophets), he uses it as a metaphor for God’s consent to our defiance and whatever self-harming consequences that brings about. Why does God consent to our disobedience? Because love never coerces. It can’t or its not love. God loved us in this way: he sent Love Incarnate with an appeal to come back to love, then we murdered him, and even then, Love persisted through forgiveness, and even now, continues to draw us by love rather than through a violation of our will. So the ‘shut up’ or ‘bound up’ is an active verb but only used to describe our relationship to sin (bondage) when God consents. 

“For God shut up everyone”

In context, who is ‘everyone’? Yes, all people. But specifically, Romans is contrasting Jews and Gentiles and their response to God. We see this in both Romans 2 and in an overarching argument in chapters 9-11. God created Gentiles with a capacity to know him through a revelation of natural law but they were idolatrous and defiant. And God elected the Jews with a capacity to know him through special revelation in the Mosaic law. But they too hardened their hearts. So neither really has any advantage over the other. Both are bound up in their own form of disobedience.

“…so that he might show mercy to everyone.” 

Now here is the beautiful symmetry (and assymetry) of God’s grace revealed in Romans:

  • All have sinned and fallen short, but all are freely justified by grace (3:23-24)There’s death in Adam and there’s resurrection in Christ (5:15-19)
  • There’s the wages of sin (death) and there’s the free gift (eternal life) (6:23)
  • All are bound us in disobedience and all are shown mercy (11:32).

I call it symmetry because for every downer on the sin, wrath, judgment side, there’s a corresponding response of grace, mercy, and redemption from the divine side. But I also call it an assymetry because Romans 5 insists on “how much more” grace abounds than anything sin could do. How much more is the gift than the curse … how much more is Christ than Adam. So regardless of whether one is a Jew or Gentile, regardless of the nature of our disobedience, regardless of how severe or mild our experience of the human condition, the mercy of God trumps whatever we would have imagined his justice to look like (because our idea of fair is also fallen). But if the justice of God is the restoration of all things (including you) and the means is mercy (rather than wrath), then we can live in hope… even when our only connection to Christ seems to be our shared affliction.

None of this should be taken as a rationalization for suffering. It’s not a theology, it’s not an answer, it’s not a solution. ALL it can be is a gesture toward the Cross where we bring our burdens and our grief and our chronic conditions to him and he co-suffers it with us. 

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