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In Suffering

We are letting Romans 8 tell us about living in the victory of Christ. This morning we see how that happens in suffering.

Maybe nothing defeats us like suffering. It wears us down. It blocks our ability to see anything good or redeeming. It drains our hope.

We can suffer physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Whether its personal suffering, the suffering of family or friends we know and love, or suffering we hear of in our world that absolutely breaks our heart, it sure looks like the score is against us.

But Paul makes this stunning affirmation in Romans 8:18:

“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.

He doesn’t say, “I think.” He doesn’t say, “I’m of the persuasion.” Paul is convicted that whatever we may have to go through now is less than nothing compared with the magnificent future God has for us.

Paul affirms that if you had a balance of two scales and could place the weight of suffering in this world in one scale and the splendor of what is in store for us in heaven in the other, the scales would overwhelmingly tip in favor of what God has in store for us.

This isn’t pie-in-the-sky, look on the bright side of life. Christian faith does not deny suffering. It does not say our hurt is an illusion. Some faiths preach that evil and suffering are just an illusion and that we can get away from it with the right mental outlook. If we pray the right chant or control our mind in the right way we can escape or minimize suffering. That’s not the Bible. See Jesus in Gethsemane. See our God on the cross. Our present sufferings are not just bad dreams.

Two weeks ago I was invited to sit in with our book group, The Sassy Epiphanies. Have you ever been to that group? Pamela Spitzer does a fantastic job. We got into a conversation about how people respond to tragedy. Some people move closer to God in a tragedy, and some move farther from God, even rejecting God.

Christianity does not give us a God who saves us from all adversity or who provides the right answers to all our questions. Some people have a childish view of God who tells us everything will turn our right and who is there to make our lives comfortable and to grant us what we want. Then a crisis hits, things get hard, and this magic god doesn’t seem to work. And then they turn on God. Some even claim to be atheists. In their disappointment they never realized their image of God was just an idol.[1] They didn’t trust in the God of the Bible.

The Bible gives us a God who is with us in the suffering. Who gives us strength to bear what we must bear. And who is working out his purposes in this world inspite of evil and chaos.

Paul acknowledges how bad things are. He writes that the creation is living in frustration. It is in bondage to decay. It is groaning. Every time we hear of an earthquake, a hurricane, a tsunami, isn’t that our world groaning?

That’s an interesting word Paul used: “groan.” It’s really a word that expresses what words can’t express. A groan is a sound, a response, but not with words. We groan when we hear about yet another senseless shooting at a school or in a public place. We groan when we hear of a tragedy or intense suffering. We are groaning under this pandemic. We groan when we see people hungry, or their country falling apart. Part of that groaning is the hope and longing for all of it to end and for a better time to come. Groaning expresses pain we feel right now but also expresses what we long and wait for in the future.

What is true now was true back then. Paul says the whole creation has been groaning as if in labor pains. A woman about to give birth groans in labor pains. And that is how Paul describes our present suffering.

It is labor pains because something is about to be born. What is coming is what Paul calls “the glory to be revealed to us” and “the freedom and glory of the children of God.”

That glory to be revealed will become clear when all things are ready and God brings the curtain down on this world and fully establishes his kingdom. The glory to be revealed to us is so magnificent that it really can’t be described in this time. You will find practically no description of what awaits us in the Bible. In another place Paul says, “…this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.”[2] We don’t get a description of the glory to come because there is nothing to which to compare it.

Glory is the word Paul uses to speak of what awaits those who are in Christ Jesus. Our lives are so clouded by hurt, frustration and death that we can’t even see the glory to come. It’s like this inversion that we have been in the past couple of weeks that hits Utah periodically. The bad air was so thick that I couldn’t even see the glory of the mountains. We live in the soup and muck of this world with its bad news and brokenness and it clouds our awareness of what God is preparing.

That’s why Jesus only says the kingdom of heaven is like this or that. There is nothing in this world that we can point to as an example of the kingdom.

We do have this vision of the new heaven and the new earth at the end of Revelation when the dwelling place of God will be with people. “God will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”[3]

No more crying. No more death. No more grief. No more pain. Can you imagine it? Glory.

Something is coming. God is bringing something. Maybe the increase of evil in our world is the quickening of the birth pangs and the sign that we are moving closer to this glory being revealed.

It says all the creation waits with eager expectation for this to be revealed. The picture is of someone waiting up on tip-toe, neck stretched, head raised, looking over whatever is in the way, and eyes fixed on the horizon, looking for what is out there and is coming. We want it to come and we are eagerly looking for it.

In seminary I had a professor who was from Denmark and was imprisoned in a German labor camp as a youth. It was in the suffering of that horrible experience that he found God, speaking of hard things moving people toward God. My professor said from his experience that the point about suffering is not that we suffer, because everyone suffers. He said the point is how we suffer and whether in the midst of the suffering we see a horizon of hope beyond it. He said whether or not we can see a horizon of hope will determine how we will suffer, with hope or with despair.

Suffering comes. But will we do it with hope or despair?

In order to see the horizon you have to look above and beyond, out into the distance. To see the horizon we have to have a longer perspective instead of a shorter one. We look beyond these present sufferings to the glory to be revealed.

Christians can sometimes be criticized for thinking only about heaven and not enough about this present time. We need to show God’s love to the hungry, the poor, the abused, and the hurting in this day and age. Just because we have a glory to come doesn’t mean we escape what needs to be done now. That’s not what this passage in Romans 8 is about.

But it is what is to come that motivates our work for more of God’s light in this world now.

Negro spirituals were criticized for having too many references to heaven and being too otherworldly. Some said if the slaves kept singing these it would make them too submissive. They need to pay attention to the burdens they are under now, not always be thinking about the glory to come. But Howard Thurman, an African-American professor at Boston University in the twentieth century, said those songs of faith allowed them to have greater endurance. Those spirituals sang of a final judgment, a day when all wrongs would be made right. Those songs were about reunion with loved ones. Those songs were about immortality and that depended on God. And, therefore, they had hope.

Nothing could destroy their hope because it wasn’t based on the circumstances in this world. It was based on the future of God.[4] They saw the horizon of hope and the glory of God.

And that is where our hope lies. Our hope is in the victory that the Lord Jesus Christ won in his death and resurrection and the future he is bringing.

The secular world is desperate for hope but is having trouble locating it. Our books and literature are about despair, alienation, and brokenness. Rarely is there joy. Films and television shows are about end-of-the-world disasters, aliens invading our world, and main characters who exemplify terrible attributes.

Secular thinking placed optimism in social progress, economic improvement, and technological know-how. Well, how is that working? Pandemics, global economic problems, climate-change, cyberattacks, terrorism is making many people feel they are worse off than previous generations. The limits of progress are being astoundingly shown.

But Christians don’t bank on optimism. We have hope. Hope is not just looking on the bright side of life. You might not feel very good at all but have great hope. And the hope of the Christian lies in what God is doing and the future he has. The God of light and life and love doesn’t deal in despair and darkness.

Paul writes,

“For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.”

The thing about hope is that we don’t see what we hope for. Hope is when we long for something good. We hope for things we want. We hope for healing. We hope for a better job. We hope for peace. We hope for a day when we won’t have to wear masks. The nature of hope is that it is still to come.

Hope is not about everything being measured and seen. Hope is spiritual. And when we say that we hope in Christ and what God has prepared for us that does not mean that we deny our present sufferings. No, it means “we have confidence that God’s purpose is at work in all things and that he is making us ready to know and share his glory.” [5]

Just a couple of weeks ago Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South African died. Archbishop Tutu lived through Apartheid that denied human rights to blacks and saw it change. He led the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which was a radical way to bring healing to the massive hurts that nation suffered, by asking perpetrators of violence to face those that suffered and speak their wrong, while asking those who suffered to extend forgiveness.

Desmond Tutu had to live his life with a lot of hope. He said this,

“Hope lives not on the evidence available. The current evidence would make you pessimistic but hope relies on something outside of the current situation and for me that is God’s will.”

Of course, it takes patience to wait for the revealing of God’s glory. Part of the life of faith is patiently waiting for God to move. And that can be a struggle. But it only strengthens our faith.

In the story of Zorba the Greek, Zorba discovers a cocoon one morning just as the butterfly was making a hole and preparing to come out. He sat there waiting for the butterfly to come out. But as it went on and on Zorba grew impatient. It was taking too long in his mind. And the butterfly seemed to be struggling. He started breathing on the cocoon to warm it. He warmed it as fast as he could to speed up the butterfly’s hatching.

The butterfly slowly began to crawl out. But he noticed that the wings were folded back and crumpled. The butterfly tried to unfold them with all its might but couldn’t. Finally, the butterfly died in Zorba’s hand. He was devastated. Why did this happen?

What he didn’t understand is that part of the strengthening and birth process of the butterfly is the struggle out of the cocoon. The struggle forms the wings and gives those wings strength. Zorba’s impatience and desire to move the butterfly beyond the necessary struggle robbed that butterfly of the very thing God had designed to give it life and strength.[6]

Waiting, even as we struggle in this present time, can be a way God develops the wings of our faith. We can’t shortcut it. We can’t make it come on our time. We are waiting for a future joy, but right now we are waiting and hoping with patience.

Patience is persevering and enduring in the face of suffering. One of the best words I’ve heard on hope is when someone said “hope belongs to the One who holds the future, not in the things which occupy the present.”[7]

Hope is rooted in God. It is a strong, persevering, nurturing relationship with him that keeps one afloat. We look around and we see a lot of pain. We look into the distant horizon and we have hope that God is bringing something of his glory.

This glory is our inheritance. It is for those who are sons and daughters of God through faith in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.

We, as Christians, live in a world of death and decay. But Christians don’t just live in the world, we also live in Christ. We don’t just see what is here but we are looking with eager expectation beyond what is here to God. We don’t just see the consequences of humanity’s sin against one another but we see the power of God’s mercy and love. And because of this, the Christian life is always one of hope. We don’t wait for death but for life.[8]

For we dare to believe – by the Spirit that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.

Prayer: Heavenly Father, we need vision this morning. We need vision to see beyond the suffering of our lives in this world to the horizon of hope that you have for us. For those who are especially suffering with life’s circumstances, or from depression, or the burdens of grief, or some other hurt, we ask you to give them hope. Give us faith to believe that what we suffer now will be absolutely outdone by what you have for those who love you.

Father, keep us close to the heart of Jesus. Amen.

[1] See Tomas Halik, Patience With God, p.96 [2] 2 Corinthians 4:17 [3] Revelation 21:3-4 [4] See Making Sense of God, Timothy Keller, pp.157-58 [5] James Edward, Romans [6] Finding Hope Again, Roy Fairchild, p.54 [7] Edwards [8] See William Barclay, Romans, p.111

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