Suffering and Hope

About a year ago I wrote a blog post called ‘suffering yields hope’, and today I get to take the text from that post (Romans 5:1-5) and preach a sermon based on that text.  I’ll be using some of the thoughts I had a year ago when I posted those thoughts, but below are my expanded notes on the matter.  In this particular text Paul is examining how hope is sparked (to use Tom Schreiner’s vocab) through adversity.  This is an odd thing for the saint to proclaim upon first blush, but as you look deeper into the text it makes a great deal of sense – at least “for those who have eyes to see.”

I pray you profit by the notes, and by this look at how suffering produces in us character and endurance – not in a vacuum, but by the powerful work of God’s Spirit within us.

PJW

Suffering Yields Hope: A look at Romans 5:3-5

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 this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. More than that, 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. (Romans 5:1-5 ESV)

My thesis is that we Christians can have joy because of both the finished work of Christ, AND because of the unfinished working of God in our lives through trials. The first was accomplished through suffering, and so is the second, and tonight I want to explore how trials work to bring us joy.

From a personal perspective, this passage means a great deal to me. About a year ago my wife Kate and I began memorizing the first five verses in chapter five as a sort of faith response to some adversity we were working through.

I had lost my job and was in the nascent stages of a trying to figure what the future held for my family and my career. As Katie and I memorized and talked about the passage together, we began to see how God could use our trial to refine and even bless us more than we could have imagined at the time.

My sermon notes were born from a blog post I hammered out on my iPhone in a café in Old Town Alexandria. It was one of the most discouraging trips to the Washington DC area in recent memory, and in the midst of trying to refresh some old connections, I stopped between meetings and contemplated what this passage really meant.

Like Jacob, I was wrestling with God. I needed to know that my pain was more than simply an accident, more than just a cosmic mix up.   What I learned to do was trust in the word of God. To believe God and to bank on His promises and believe there is really hope for tomorrow. That’s what this passage is all about – promises and a hope born out of adversity, refined by pain, and sealed by the Spirit of God who is our down payment on that hope until the day Christ returns. Before we look at the passage let’s ask God for His blessing upon our evening.

Background of Justification

I’m going to focus tonight on Verses 3-5, but first we need to understand the foundation upon which Paul builds his case for 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 this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. (Romans 5:1-2)

Paul has spent the last chapter (four) arguing that Abraham was justified by faith and that this same faith that justified Abraham is what makes us right with God as well.

The result of this justification – this right relationship with God – is peace with God. John Stott says, “The pursuit of peace is a universal human obsession, whether it is international, industrial, domestic, or personal peace. Yet more fundamental than all these is peace with God, the reconciled relationship with him which is the first blessing of justification.

Abraham had faith in the future work of Christ, whereas we have faith in the finished work of Christ. It is this faith in Christ’s bloody cross-work that brings us peace with God. As Paul says elsewhere:

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. [14] For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility [15] by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, [16] and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. (Ephesians 2:13-16 ESV)

So Paul is describing the result of this reconciled relationship with God – and the result is peace and hope. That hope is “in the glory of God.” That is to say, that we rejoice in the fact that one day we will inherit the great result of a relationship with God – eternal life in His presence, amidst His glory.

This is point one – we have joy in the hope of future glory because of what Jesus has done for us on the cross.

Yet there is something missing isn’t there? All of the language employed by Paul indicates that there is peace with God now, and yet we still do not have realized peace in every area of our lives. There is a tension that every Christian faces between what is realized here in this life, and what will be enjoyed in the life to come – this is known as the “already/not yet.

It is the reality of this tension that leads Paul to explain to us that the hope we have through trials is grounded in the reality, both seen and unseen, of what Christ has accomplished through His reconciling work on the cross. But hope is also found in His subsequent work within us through the Holy Spirit which leads to His glory and our assurance.

Paul, who is a master at anticipating our doubt and cutting it off at the knees, goes on to explain these great truths and how they work themselves out. Having laid a foundation for how the gospel of Christ’s work brings us peace, he expands upon the thought…

Rejoicing in Sufferings and the Sequence of Joy

More than that, 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. (Romans 5:3-5 ESV)

As I was examining this verse – verse 3 – a year ago during my own trials, I’ll admit that Paul’s words “we rejoice in our sufferings” seemed far from my own present reality. His writing didn’t match my attitude. But as is so often the case, God’s word corrected my attitude, and as I read through Paul’s reasoning I began to realize that there is a process in all of this – a sequence of events. God wasn’t going to grant me a sudden intellectual understanding that would zap my emotions and heart and that would be it. I had to live it, and work through it over time.[i]

I had to trust that this was the way He worked and that He was meticulously sovereign over the circumstances in my life. Most of us believe God is sovereign over all things, do we not? But do you believe that He is meticulously sovereign? Do you believe that His hand is in everything – allowing the evil and the good in your life as a means of refining you?

Well this is what Paul believed – Romans 8:28 ought to be a dead give away there. Here in chapter five Paul gives a detailed explanation as to why it is that as Christians we can expect an even greater hope from sufferings and it involves a sequence of refinement.

1. Suffering Produces Endurance

Tom Schreiner says, “Those who undergo troubles are toughened up, so that they are able to withstand the storms of life.”

And Paul was no stranger to these storms; he was writing from experience. In 2 Corinthians 11 we read this:

Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. [24] Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. [25] Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; [26] on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; [27] in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. [28] And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. (2 Corinthians 11:23-28 ESV)

Yet through this Paul saw what trials yielded: Joy and Hope. Hope begets joy and the Spirit affirms (Rom. 8:16) that we are right to hope – he whispers to us that we won’t be disappointed in what our Father has planned for us!

Think about that closely and it makes sense. If you’ve been going through the exercise of running, you will gradually gain more and more endurance. The more you run, the longer you can run, the farther you can run, and what seemed like a difficult objective two months ago, is really a piece of cake today – you’ve built up endurance.

2. Suffering Produces Character

The same is true of character. As you run this race of life, and your endurance is built up, you will develop maturity. This is true of any human being, but it is also true of our spiritual lives as Christians. We develop a depth of maturity when we have endured many seasons of difficulty. We’ve been there. We know what to expect, and our minds are prepared. We have character – worn from years of first hand experience.

As John Stott says, “…if suffering leads to glory in the end, it leads to maturity meanwhile.”

God uses trials to produce character. The word here in the Greek is Dokime (dock-ee-may) and it’s the quality of a person who has been tested and has passed the test.[ii]

It is perhaps the most painfully ironic thing about life that human beings learn more from pain and testing than we do from blessing and easy times. We shouldn’t be surprised when our heavenly Father uses trials to create within us a character that leans on Him, and is more like His Son Jesus.

It is the testimony of history that those saints who have gone through the toughest trials have long endured as men and women of great character. Of course I have already mentioned Paul as our example, and we know Christ is our ultimate example, but there are scores of others throughout church history who have found themselves refined and built up in their faith by the trials God allowed to come their way. The testimony of history is so pervasive with this theme that many years ago John Foxe was compelled to document how Christian martyrs had died in the faith with great joy and zeal for their Lord.

When we have trial-refined character we see things like these men and women who died for their faith saw them. They learned to prize what is truly valuable above all the things of this life – their perspective was eternal and it was based in reality and work that Christ had accomplished on the cross and in their lives.

3. Suffering Produces Hope

As we build character hope is sparked. Character begets hope because the man or woman with character is wise; they have knowledge combined with wisdom and therefore know where to place their confidence. They’ve seen life’s transient and fleeting nature, and they know what the real stuff of life consists of (so to speak).

This long view is more than earthly wisdom earned by grey hairs, it’s spiritual wisdom banked by miles of suffering and character forming. It’s the experience of the Potter’s clay who (personified) looks down on the shop floor with knowing glances at the discarded mud that used to hang upon its/his ever winnowed cylindrical frame.

Schreiner rightly says, “Why does tested character spark hope? Because moral transformation constitutes evidence that one has really been changed by God. Thus it assures believers that the hope of future glory is not an illusion. There is a pattern of growth in the here and now, however imperfect, that indicates that we are changing. Believers, then, become assured that the process that God has begun he will complete (1 Cor. 1:8; Phil. 1:6).”

Not Put to Shame

As we go through this sequence of refinement, it is God’s love poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that witnesses to us, so to speak, that these trials are for a reason – a purpose.

This is point 2 of my thesis – that this internal witness of God’s love in our hearts is what causes us not be put to shame and to have hope through suffering. Therefore (as Stott says) “suffering is the best context in which to become assured of God’s love.”

“…the Spirit has the unique ministry of filling believers with the love of God. What Paul refers to here is the dynamic experience of the Spirit in one’s life.”[iii]

This is such an intangible thing isn’t it? I mean, how do you explain to an unbeliever that you know God’s working these things to your good? Obviously you point them to Scripture, but it’s hard to explain to them that when you read these Scriptures there’s an internal assurance going on. The Spirit is reassuring your heart and God’s love is made manifest to you in such a clear way that its simply undeniable that what is going on in your life is happening for a good reason.

As Stott rightly says, “what the Holy Spirit does is to make us deeply and refreshingly aware that God loves us. It is very similar to Paul’s later statement that ‘the Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children’ (8:16). There is little if any appreciable difference between being assured of God’s fatherhood and of his love.”[iv]

So while Christ’s finished work on the cross is our bedrock reality, and the great truth upon which our lives and future lives are built, God still has a plan for our refinement here in this life. That is what this sequence is all about. Paul is showing that we can have joy both because of what God has done in Christ, and also what God is doing through the Spirit in us now. For this reason we are not put to shame.

Now some might interject that hope can only be gained amidst trials if we respond correctly to trials. That is probably correct. However, God is working in us to help us do just that. He is working out His will within us and that’s why the link here with Romans 8 is so important and why we need to lean heavily on God during trials – indeed that is a great deal of what trials are meant to make us do. Therefore, we need to remember three key truths about this refinement process:

  1. That God is working for His good pleasure and is invested in this process of our life’s pains and trials

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, [13] for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12-13 ESV)

  1. That God is powerful enough to finish what He started

And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. (Philippians 1:6 ESV)

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. [29] For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. [30] And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. [31] What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? (Romans 8:28-31 ESV)

  1. That Jesus Himself suffered and saw joy through the agony and shame

We can look at Jesus, our supreme example, to see how He endured trials because of the hope He had – a well founded hope – that God would justify Him in His work. Listen to what Hebrews says:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, [2] looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-2 ESV)

And Jesus was justified in His hope was He not? Paul certainly believes He was because of the resurrection. The resurrection confirmed that Jesus’ hopes were not in vain. And because we are united with Christ spiritually, we have reason for the same hope He had. Consider Romans 6:

We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Romans 6:4-5 ESV)

Jesus set for us not only the example of suffering, but of how to suffer: in joyful hope for a future not be worthy to be compared to this present age.

Conclusion

Therefore, the internal testimony of the Spirit, and the love God has shed abroad in our hearts, combined with the truth of Christ’s finished work on the cross, ought to give us ample reason for joy and for hope in this life.

As Christians, we look back (to the cross) we have hope. We look around us now (at our trials) we have hope. We look ahead (to Christ’s return) to the future, we have hope.

How many of us here will be spending some time – maybe a lot of time – in the hospital in coming days? How many of us will deal with sickness? How many of us will deal with job loss or financial difficulty? How many of us will have strife in relationships?

My guess is that the answer to all of these questions is that all of us will be dealing with these things because that is the life we’re promised. We’re not promised to have it easy when we become a Christian. The Christian life is a life of joy through adversity, not life without trouble.

God is calling us to believe in His promises, and to ground our hopes and our attitudes in the reality of His finished work on the cross, and the work He’s doing in our lives as evidenced by His love poured out through the Holy Spirit dwelling inside of us.

The consequences of this are vast. It means that sickness and death and financial ruin are cause for great joy. That’s right – great joy! These are signs of adoption, “God is treating you as sons” (Hebrews 12).   The real question we need to ask ourselves tonight is whether our attitudes reflect the reality of these truths. If you are a Christian and you are bitter about your circumstances then I urge you to repent of that bitterness and see that God is working in you to refine you and build your character in order to make you more like His Son.

If you are not a Christian, then this must seem completely foreign to you and probably a little strange. To think that the worst things in life can actually be turned on their heads in order to signify great blessing just isn’t a normal way of thinking about life – but that’s what Christ has done. He has turned the world upside down (Acts) and confounded the wisdom of the wise of this age. If you are not a believer in Christ, if you have not put your full faith and trust in His work on the cross, then you are still estranged from God and His wrath abides on you. You do not have peace with God, and the promises of peace and real joy in this lifetime and in the life to come are not yours…but they can be.

“Since Jesus is the Son of God…God’s saving promises are fulfilled only in Jesus and in knowing Jesus as the Son of God.”[v] Lay aside your pride and trust in Christ. Submit to His Lordship and repent of your sin – He is calling you to follow Him and to a life of abundant joy. Call upon His name and be saved.

 

 

 

[i] I like what Wiersbe says, “Justification is no escape from the trials of life…No amount of suffering can separate us from the Lord; instead trials bring us closer to the Lord and make us more like the Lord.”

[ii] John Stott, commentary on romans, page 142.

[iii] Schreiner, Commentary on Romans, page 257. He also quotes from Edwards here on how when the Spirit communicates God’s love, he’s basically communicating himself (I assume he means his character because of the doctrine of simplicity of God — God is love).

[iv] John Stott, Commentary on Romans, page 143.

[v] Tom Schreiner’s NT Biblical theology, chapter 7, pg. 233. This statement actually comes from the context of describing who Jesus is in relation to Johannine titles (the I Am and “logos” etc.) and how it is in knowing Jesus himself that is the key – the saving key, as it were – to being a part of/recipient of God’s promises (to Abraham and those who trust in what Jesus said). I enjoyed adding this quote because how often do we think of quoting a scholarly work when giving an invitation! Ha! The idea just made me chuckle – yet isn’t it true that it is the theology – when correctly understood – leads us to a right understanding of who God is? And that is the call here – for a right understanding of who Jesus is and for us to be reconciled to Him.

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