Suffering in hope

How much suffering can a little girl fighting cancer survive?  How much can her parents endure as they make incredibly difficult decisions, asking themselves, “Do we go for one more toxic chemo cocktail after all the other chemo treatments, after the many surgeries?”  Paul is realistic about suffering.  In our text, Romans 8:18-25, he reminds you of coming glory.  But instead of focusing on glory only and pretending that suffering doesn’t exist (as some “health and wealth gospel” proponents seem to do), he shows you how your union with Christ upholds you right now, in “the sufferings of this present time.”

“The present time” means more than “now.”  You live in this age, this evil age, this world that is affected by sin and is under its curse.  You have the firstfruits of the Spirit, as Paul reminds you in v. 23.  That does not, as some imagine, do away with suffering.  Rather, Paul is concerned that you not be taken by surprise when suffering enters your life.  As he reminded you in v. 17, your union with Christ involves suffering as well as glory.  Your suffering includes the physical ailments and limitations to which you are prone, but it is more than that.  It also includes the weakness of your relationship with God and the difficulties with which you find yourself struggling as you seek to walk with him.

Not only do you suffer, but the creation also suffers with you.  The creation was affected by the fall of Adam and God placed creation under a curse.  Look back at Genesis 3.  Your work has become toil.  It is burdensome, painful, and difficult.  You deal with thorns, futility, frustration, and decay as you labor.  Be careful about speculating as to just how the creation is different since the fall, but do recognize that something is drastically wrong with our world.  Would Mount Merapi not erupt in an unfallen world?  I don’t know just how the fall affected geology, but if the mountain did erupt, it would not cause the suffering and loss of life that these current eruptions have.  Recall the words of the Preacher, Ecclesiastes 1:1, “Vanity of vanities!  All is vanity.”  You live in a world that is wacky, Paul reminds you, as he uses the term “futility” in Romans 8:19, echoing the sentiment of the Preacher.

The curse in Genesis 3 was pronounced by God, not in frustration, but to give you hope.  As part of the curse is the promise of the coming Redeemer, the seed of the woman, who will crush the head of the serpent.  Isaiah 25, our Old Testament reading, picks up on the theme of the impact of the messianic kingdom on creation.  The shroud of death will be swallowed up as God prepares a rich banquet for his redeemed people in the new heavens and earth.

Instead of being an unending cycle of suffering, the groaning of the creation points you forward to the hope of your adoption.  Paul is not denying what he said a few verses earlier, that you have already been adopted as God’s sons and daughters.  Rather, he reminds you that your present privileges are just a foretaste of the glory that will be revealed in you.  Exercise your imagination.  Picture a life, not only without the suffering, futility, sickness, and death of our present world, but also without the sin and temptation we have.  Glory is something to anticipate!

You live in hope.  That hope includes the resurrection of your body and the restoration of all things.  Don’t fall into a false dualism that thinks that only the immaterial part of life is important.  Hope, by its nature, is future.  But the certainty of what God is doing in Jesus Christ gives you confidence, comfort, and even peace, not just in spite of suffering, but in your suffering.  Patience, steadfast endurance, flows out of your hope.

(In preparation for the message on Nov. 7, 2010)

About jwm

I serve as pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church, Newberg, Oregon.
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