What good can come of suffering?

Posted: 15/06/2011 in God
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Growth in the Storm

Scripture encourages us to rejoice when we are suffering (Rom 5:3-5) and this is a passage I have often struggled with, especially when it is offered as a platitude from well-meaning people. Why on earth would I rejoice in my suffering? According to the apostle Paul rejoicing should arise because of what yields from the suffering – and what is that – perseverance, character and hope. Seriously, perseverance, character and hope, is that all? Why is perseverance important? Exactly what is character and how much do we need? Is it not just part of our personality? Why should it matter whether we have a little or a lot? And what do we hope in, that God will bring an end to our suffering? If we’re honest most of us in reading this verse or having had it quoted to us have read it as if we’re to suck it up and don’t dare go admitting we find it tough when we go through challenges in life. I am discovering how incorrect this is and that this is such a misquoted or misinterpreted piece of scripture. Regardless of the translation, nowhere does Paul say rejoice for your suffering. Nor does he say, in so many words, suck it up and stop being a princess! He says rejoice in, shout praise in, triumph in, boast of our troubles or sufferings. Even so it can seem a challenging demand and so how can we come to a place where we understand what Paul means by it and actually practice it in our own lives? I was reflecting on this the other day and when I considered what he was saying in context to the verses before and after this verse, and then read the verse as written in other translations I gained a greater understanding of what he was talking about when he wrote it. Suffering will mean something different to every person and the degree to which we think we are suffering will differ as well. By no means do I want to play down anyone’s pain nor am I saying any of this is easy but it is scripture and so I believe it is relevant to all of us and is rich with promise. Perhaps we have not seen what is actually on offer here! Let me see if I can unpack it.

I have often heard it said that the letter to the Romans, and indeed other epistles, should be read in one sitting because when Paul wrote it he did not include chapters. When we read in chapters and verses alone it becomes easy to distort the original meaning. So to understand the context of Romans 5:3-5 I read back through chapters 1-4. Paul spends the first 4 chapters discussing God’s wrath against sin, of His righteous judgement against it and how He made His original plan for relationship with people right once again through Jesus. He points out that no matter how religious you are, how hard you strive to be good or what race you are from, you stand condemned because of sin and the only thing that will change that condition is faith in Jesus. He starts chapter 5 by saying that in that moment of calling on the name of Jesus we find ourselves standing in the very presence of God, exactly where He wants us to be, shouting praise in, triumphing in, boasting in and rejoicing in His glory. This is where the next verse starts and the NIV version reads as follows:

Not only so, but we rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out His love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom He has given us”.

The King James Version uses the word tribulation instead of suffering which in the Greek text is thlípsis referring to the challenge of coping with the internal pressure of a tribulation, especially when feeling that there is no way of escape (taken from Biblos). In the context of this verse, I understand this to mean that as Christians we rejoice not in the circumstance itself but in the challenge it presents to us mentally, emotionally and most of all spiritually. After all it is not loosing someone we love or marriage breakdown or poor health that can make someone stronger but the journey it takes you on internally. What then is the journey of suffering here? What are the three things that Paul says result from suffering?

Perseverance/patience (From the Greek hypomon meaning remaining under; endurance steadfastness, especially as God enables).

Christian perseverance is persistence in a course of action despite the circumstances all the while remaining in God’s will. Simply put, I would say it is to continue walking with the Lord, recognising His sovereignty in all things regardless of the trials we face and relying on His strength to do it. We are so good at trying to sort our own stuff out, especially in Australia. Our slogan is “she’ll be right” and we apply this to our struggles too, whether from shame, fear of rejection or worrying about bothering people. How sad that we so often reject, albeit unbeknown, the Father’s offer of help. It is interesting to note that Paul says we will develop perseverance implying that we become better at it over time and not learn it once off. In essence we are able to come to a point where we don’t turn our back on God when the going gets tough.

Character (From the Greek dokim meaning proof of genuineness, a brand of what is tested and true)

Character refers to the combination of traits and qualities that distinguish one person from another and in this passage of scripture we see that our character is developed when we are patient. The message describes character in this verse as “…tempered steel of virtue…”. Tempering steel is to make it tougher or stronger and God wants to toughen us so we become of good quality. I am not saying God always intentionally gives us trials but as I mentioned in another post, He works for good in all things and that good can be character. Who is the finest example of good quality? Jesus! And God is making us more like Jesus (Rom 8:29-30, 2 Cor 3:18). How amazing that our trials could develop within us compassion, love, humility, zeal for the Kingdom of God, a greater intolerance for injustice and so much more. This is good news because the more we reflect God’s glory and the character of His son, the more people are drawn to God in us. Our trials, our suffering – it is Kingdom work!

Hope (From the Greek elpís meaning an expectation of what is sure).

Hope can be defined as desiring something with a confidence that it will be fulfilled. Christian hope is looking to the promises of God with the expectation that they will be fulfilled, both the promises in His word and those He has given us personally. The message version says that patience and character “… keep[s] us alert for whatever God will do next. In alert expectancy such as this, we’re never left feeling short-changed. Quite the contrary—we can’t round up enough containers to hold everything God generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit!” Alert expectancy for what God will do next, I love that! It’s developing a hope (an expectation of what is sure) that God has our lives in His hands and will continually watch over and protect us (Ps 121) because He loves us.

So if we knew our suffering would make us people who learn to rely on God’s strength in all things and have an ability to walk with Him despite our trials; people who become more like Jesus with an absolute confidence in the promises of God why wouldn’t we rejoice. And rejoice not just a little but with the same exuberance as we do when we are aware of what God has bought us from and where we now stand with Him?

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