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Thursday, January 12, 2012

From Suffering to Hope

Romans 5:1-5 - Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through Him we have also obtained access by faith into His grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

This passage ruins me every time I read it.

Paul had been doing a blitz like ministry for over five years when the book of Romans was written. All that he understood as a Jewish religious leader and all that he had witnessed as a follower of Christ came together in the book of Romans. There was a mastery over the context as he addressed some of the foundational theological issues that both unify us in mission and divide us through a sharpening as Christians today while never losing sight of the Gospel - the essential and central purpose of everything he did. What makes Paul incredible to me is that he allowed Christ to dictate all that he believed, but spoke in a manner that was directed to the hearts and minds of those he addressed. He knew the message of the Gospel and his audience in such a way that precisely targeted the issues they dealt with most in honest grace and love. It wasn't to prove his point, but to morally persuade them that there is something so much better than what they are living for.

I think when we read the first section of Romans 5, we end up splitting it up into two separate passages. Most people I find, go directly to Romans 5:3-4, "Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope." Its easier to digest and simple to visualize. We immediately resonate with the process Paul takes us through, but I wonder if we get what he is really trying to say. When I read Romans 5:3-4, I quickly find an emotional road map of how life looks for everyone regardless of what they place their hope in. Whatever the reason it is that Paul rejoices in his sufferings, he is saying that suffering produces endurance, which produces character, which produces hope.

To start with, I think we can all see that suffering produces a type of endurance in all of us. That endurance however, if processed in a manner that makes people more self centered and a victim of the universe, ends up turning into jadedness or a need to prove to the rest of the world that they don't need anyone. We endure in all the wrong ways trying to survive, living a life that intends to hoard as much for ourselves in experiences and resources and crutches of the emotional sort. It either manifests in isolation from the world or a type of manipulation to get what you want. Think of all the people who have gone through difficult trials in their lives - some people implode, others explode, and some (thanks to a helpful analogy from JM) absorb, digest, and then release; taking what is good from every experience, even though there is, but a tiny droplet to extract.

Imploding occurs when we just take it in because we don't want to engage in conflict and difficult conversations. Exploding occurs when we lack patience or self-control. All we want to do is get our point across and we don't listen. We have little regard for how our message gets across and how the other person feels if of no importance to us. Imploding and exploding are both self centered/absorbed models of dealing with circumstances that hurt us. Both types think they are right, both types lack humility, both types are simply trying to pursue a result that serves them. They are self centered because what goes on in the heart is either bitterness, judgement, or rage - love is not a byproduct of imploding or exploding. We all have our desires to be right, but if they become needs that become more important that the people we are hurting, ignoring, dismissing, or judging, we end up missing the point.

The other thing to consider is that suffering ultimately leads to hope. If there is something Paul understood clearly, it is that suffering produces a myriad of emotions. He also understood that hope is the marriage of emotions, a future expectation, and dependence. We see in 1 Corinthians that faith, hope, and love remain, but of these the greatest is love. That is because faith and hope will no longer be necessary once we enter into eternity. Eternity will be perfect. But while on this earth, hope is something that we are both plagued with and blessed with simultaneously. Our hope is an emotional dependence on something to occur in the future. There is always an object that the hope is placed in and through our sufferings, we either shift from shallow hope to shallow hope or to an eternal hope that can sustain us. Think of the girl that jumps from relationship to relationship in order to find prince charming - her thoughts are that if she finds the right man to marry, her life will be complete. The opposite can be true too of independence. I know many men who simply desire to be so self-sufficient that as long as they make a certain amount of money and have a certain amount of status, that they will remain in control of their destinies and from that place, they can make calculated decisions whether or not they want to take true risks in the realm of marriage or even in pursuing their dreams. In other words, the circumstances need to be right before they risk moving forward. Both parties don't trust God, even though they may pay lip service to Him.

Somehow, as we follow the path from suffering to endurance to character to hope, we see that Paul is trying to help us align ourselves with a Gospel life. Emotions are both drivers and indicators. How we process through our emotions is just as important as experiencing them. Emotions are excellent servants, but horrible masters. They are great indicators, but terrible engines unless if we harness their power. They are like wild stallions or horses that if placed in a chariot can drive us to victory, but if left unbridled, can drive us off a cliff. We must understand the place that emotions are to have in our lives, to enrich us, not to enslave us.

Both suffering and hope are states of being and emotions. Like feeling joy and being joyful or feeling depressed and being depressed have a nuance that only those who have experienced (which almost everyone to some degree has) it can describe, I think both suffering and joy are states of being and emotions. Suffering as an emotion is often times described as feeling tormented - there is always a sense of uncertainty, a hopelessness without a vision, and most importantly, something that drives people towards a victim mentality. The suffering state of being is the person that was struggling with the victim mentality to the person that lives with a victim mentality. It is the person who has given up to what the believe their lives have been relegated to and see no point in trying. They accept that circumstances won't change and can't change. They also experience suffering as a type of humming we hear coming from the refrigerator - something that exists whether we acknowledge it or not. Hope is the same way. Often times, emotional states are the waves we see crashing onto shore. We don't really know what is going on beneath the waves, but our emotions are often times tied to circumstances and our dispositions as people. What often times determines the waves however is our state of being, and what often times determines our state of being is where we place our identity.

So what ties suffering to hope?

My belief is that he bookends the process with the source of our hope. Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through Him we have also obtained access by faith into His grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God (5:1-2). Justification is a legal term that simple means to look at in a different way. If we are justified through Christ, God sees us as innocent, not guilty. He sees us as whole, and not as a part; complete, and not incomplete; perfect, as Christ's righteousness covers all of our blemishes. He doesn't tell us what to do in order to restore our rights, but tells us what has been done on our behalf so that we can walk around with freedom. Paul takes the time to insert the Gospel - using legal terminology since he was addressing the Romans who were familiar with legal ramifications of justice - by going about it in a way where people of the time and culture would be able to grasp the significance of being able to put your final and ultimate hope in Christ.

Paul knew very well of the depressing outlook people had in life at the time. The poor, like the poor today, struggled with a daily anxiety of where their next meal would come from. Betrayal for personal advancement was common in that era and con artists were abundant as Rome kept growing as the world's center. People were struck with the same pressures of life we have today to survive, provide for family, and to get ahead in life. Like us, their hope was often times in their industriousness and luck. If they could provide a product or a service to the right people, it would make the world of a difference. The future was filled with anxiety and uncertainty. Life was quickly becoming uncontrollable as factors outside of their own abilities affected their livelihoods. It was in this context that Paul writes to the Romans, "Through Him we have also obtained access by faith into His grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God (5:2)" Paul makes mention that we can stand, and not cower down at the difficulties of life. The hope we have is not of this world, but in Him who saved us.

Hope allows us to endure through trials of all sorts. The right hope, allows us to persevere through anything that life throws our way. This hope allows us to hold our heads high when we have nothing to offer and allows us to maintain gracefulness because we have been given ultimate grace. It does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us (5:5). This hope directly correlates with a love that will carry us through life regardless of how difficult things get. If our hope is not rooted in things of this world and of eternity, then we must begin wondering if what we are living for is actually worth living for.

When we suffer, we get glimpses into the reality that this life is not perfect and that there is a lot more pain than there really should be. We realize that what is, can be better, and some of us, lose hope and just accept what is as what will always be where others of us come to the conclusion this life cannot be the end. In other words, there is a greater reality that we can look forward to - one where there is no weeping or sorrow, no pain or hurt, no betrayal or anxiety. This is the reality that knowing Christ can offer.

The thing with love - God's perfect love - is that it overwhelms and consumes. It puts everything into perspective and rids us of our defenses. We don't need to protect ourselves because God is our protector. We don't need to be right because our egos don't matter. We don't need to be scared because God's sovereignty rules in our lives as the author and perfecter of our faiths, as Someone who will work all things for us whom He loves. We don't worry about being rejected, feeling failure, or getting hurt because those are things God has already conquered. As my friend put it so well, no matter how much someone tries to hurt me, I can just take it all in because I know the ground I stand on - my foundation is Christ in whom I have a love that defends me as I drop all my defenses.

So what happens with suffering when we understand the Gospel? We still endure and we still think through things and we still pursue wisdom in everyday, but we don't let our trials define us because God defines us. We see things in a perspective that allows us to overcome it all, to see the small things as small and not to sweat it at all. We learn to see ourselves as God sees us and live our lives as if what the world throws at us is but vapor against our skin.

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