Our sacred authors often warn us that not everything done in the name of God is something God wants. The prophets whom God places in our midst are supposed to point out that distinction. No passage of Scripture teaches this better than today's well-known, disturbing narrative from Genesis.
How can God command people to kill their children? It goes against everything Scripture tells us about a loving God. Why would Abraham willingly carry out such an absurd command? And even if Yahweh knows Isaac's "execution" will be stopped at the last second, the passage still paints a picture of an unacceptable, sadistic God.
The first step in understanding this pericope is to know when, where, by and for whom it was written. This story was composed in the 8th century, BCE, in the northern part of the Holy Land, a place where, due to pagan fertility influence, even some Jews sacrificed their children. The prophetic author is directing this narrative to those Jews who believe Yahweh demands such sacrifices.
Though prophets had constantly condemned these barbaric practices, those who disagreed with these specially inspired people argued that Jews who refused to kill their children were less dedicated to Yahweh than those who did. It's an argument similar to that which proponents of the death penalty employ against someone who doesn't want the murderer of a loved one or family member executed: "You must not have loved that person very much if you don't want his or her killer killed."
The sacred author constructs the Isaac story in such a way that no one can question Abraham's commitment to Yahweh. If God had demanded such an action, Abraham would have carried it out. Yet, the prophetic writer believes that those whose faith is actually rooted in their relationship with God will eventually rid their formal religion of the pagan elements which infiltrate all religions. If something in our religion hurts people, it can't be from God.
That's why our Romans 8 pericope fits so well into this context. Paul is here encouraging his readers to give themselves over to God as God really is, not as they, at times, falsely conceive of God. If God is at the center of our lives, of what are we afraid? "If God is for us," Paul asks, "who can be against us?" The answer is, "No one!" As long as we're both trying to do what God wants us to do, and we recognize how the risen Jesus is continually interceding for us, we have nothing to worry about, no matter our opposition. The extraneous elements which have crept into the practice of our faith should cause us no problems.
Mark tells us that even before Jesus' death and resurrection, his immediate disciples were able to glimpse the force he was becoming in their lives. On certain occasions they experienced him "transfigured," recognizing how different he was from other people around them. He was actually the fulfillment of all the dreams which the authors of Scripture had planted in their hearts. No one ever surfaced and focused those aspirations better than this carpenter from Nazareth. Yet, it was only when they made Jesus the center of their lives that they were able to achieve this insight into his personality and his uniqueness.
Our sacred authors give us no other choice. According to them, the only way to discover what God really wants us to do in life is to surface those God-sent individuals in our midst who consistently cut through the demands and practices of our culture and tell us what God actually expects of us. These are people whose lives are completely centered in God. If we don't listen to them, 2,700 years from now someone will compose a narrative describing how we "sacrificed" our children.