Scripture: Romans 5:1-5
Growing up my family would always get a daily newspaper, and from a fairly young age I would daily read the comic strips. One of my personal favorites was Calvin and Hobbes, the strip by Bill Waterson, which featured a rambunctious child and his stuffed tiger. One of the occasional set up for the comic strip is that Calvin would be complaining about some mundane aspect of life that he believed to be terribly unfair, and his nonplussed father would reply with “It builds character.” When I was a child reading the comic strip, I probably identified more with Calvin’s point of view, but as I have aged I have learned that often the things we least want to do or go through do in fact build character. This is a life lesson I really learned over the summer of 1998. That was between my junior and senior year of high school, and my parents were fairly insistent that I get job that summer. The local newspaper had an ad from Cave Country Canoes looking for summer office help and it specified they hired teenagers. That sounded good to me, so I went into apply and they hired me on the spot but not for office help. Almost as a rule any young guys who applied to the canoe livery were only hired to be a canoe thrower, so that turned out to be my first job. A canoe thrower was responsible for getting canoes in the water, which involved catching them as they slid down the hill and then pulling them out of the water and throwing them on the racks in the afternoon. In between those two responsibilities were odd jobs like cutting grass. This was a job that I was not very well equipped for. I lacked a lot of the basic skills like knowing how to back up a trailer. It was also a job with long hours. Going from not really working before to working 12-16 hour days was a bit of a system shock. It was a job that I honestly was not very good at, and really did not like. My parents convince me to stick with it though. Even though I very much did not have the skill set for the job, I learned that I could make up that gap through hard work. I showed up on time, never called off, and put in the work even if I did not do it as quickly or efficiently as others. It was a seasonal job so it ended more or less when school started, and as I started my last year of high school I was able to look back on the summer. I did hate that job, but through it I learned the value of hard work. I cannot say it was an experience I enjoyed, but it did build character.
This morning’s scripture from Romans makes a similar point. Our struggles in life often do build character. This morning’s scripture puts it in a spiritual dimension. Our suffering and trials in life can strengthen our faith. This morning’s scripture acknowledges the reality that life is hard and that life will have pain. This morning’s scripture also reveals the reality of suffering is not a reason to despair because even in the midst of suffering the Holy Spirit is present and active in our lives and that is a reason for an enduring hope.
This morning’s scripture introduces a thought that is developed throughout Romans, but also in a lot of Paul’s other writings. This idea is introduced in verse: “We rejoice in our suffering.” Even today this is an absolute counter-intuitive statement, but it probably came across as even more bonkers in the time that Paul wrote for a couple of reasons. First, in the first century it was much more common to ascribe bad luck and suffering to divine disfavor. We see this viewpoint in the bible, for instance John chapter 9 records a story where Jesus heals a blind man who others had assumed was blind because of something wrong that either he or his parents had done. It was a common assumption of the first century, and honestly for many it might still be true today, that any kind of suffering was the result of displeasing a higher power. When this was such a common view, it would have been odd to say that suffering is in fact a reason to rejoice. It is not just an imbedded religious view that Paul’s writing ran counter against. It also was the opposite advice given by the philosophers of the time. In Roman culture of this era stoicism was a popular outlook. When it came to suffering, stoics saw suffering as an inevitable fact of life that was to be endured. The stoic mindset is to state down suffering with a stiff upper lip and get through it with dignity intact. When it came to the outlook on suffering in audience that Paul was writing to their view was it is to be avoided at all cost or it is to be endured. Yet, Paul offered a third approach, to rejoice in our suffering.
Paul’s rationale for why she would rejoice in suffering is because it “builds character.” Through suffering we preserve. Through perseverance we build character. The Greek word translated as character is one that often applies to experience. It has a connotation of being “tried and tested”. The idea being that preserving through suffering reveals to us that we have the ability to overcome our present sufferings. More than that though, Paul concludes that we ultimately have a reason for hope because when we look back on our sufferings we can see the evidence of God’s love and the power of the Holy Spirit that carried us through and allowed us to endure all of our hardships.
In this morning’s scripture Paul does say we should rejoice in our suffering. However, it is really important to parse out and name what Paul is not saying. Paul does write about how there can be good that comes from suffering, but it does not mean that God purposely makes us suffer for our benefit. Sometimes we are so focused on trying to find the silver lining that we can be unhelpful. When someone is really going through a painful experience it is not helpful to try and encourage them with trite phrases like “everything happens for a reason” or “this is God’s plan for you” because suffering is still suffering. God does and can brings about good from the evil we endure, but God’s ability to be a present and guiding light in our times of darkness is very different than stating that God intentionally caused suffering, hurt, and heartbreak because it would be of benefit. Likewise this does not mean that we should intentionally seek out suffering from some misguided view that going through the bad is somehow good. Paul did not write that we can rejoice because of our suffering, he wrote that we can rejoice in our suffering. Paul’s point here is that suffering does not prevent us from rejoicing. We should not seek out suffering and hardship because we think it will somehow enhance our faith because as Jesus says in Matthew 6:34 “each day has enough trouble of its own.”.
This morning’s scripture is not saying God intentionally makes us suffer or that we should intentionally seek out suffering. So if that is not what it is saying, then what is the point Paul is getting at in these verses? I think the key to understanding this is part of verse 2 where Paul writes, “And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.” Some translations render this a little different, and it read that “we boast in the hope of the glory of God.” Boast is a word that we often associate with a negative connotation, but in some ways it is the better word to communicate the intent, because the Greek word is one that implies a celebratory pronouncement. We rejoice in the hope of the glory of God by announcing and not being shy about who hears us. The glory of God referenced here is the grace in which we stand because of faith in Jesus Christ which has reconciled us to our Creator. It is in this grace that our reasons for hope our found. Hope is the reason why we can rejoice in our suffering, and there are two reasons that hope does not put us to shame and we can rejoice no matter how we suffer or what hardship we go through.
First, we can rejoice because our reasons for hope in Christ Jesus far outweighs the troubles that we endure in life. I like how song writer Edward Mote put in the third verse of his classic hymn “My Hope Is Built”. Mote wrote, “His oath, his covenant, his blood support me in the whelming flood. When all around my soul gives way, he then is all my hope and stay.” Even when we are going through the worst life has to throw at us, when it feels like we are up to our necks in it and barely treading water even then our hope can remain steadfast because we know that when it comes to what really matters, what eternally matters it is on Christ the solid rock we stand, and all other ground is sinking sand. We can rejoice no matter what we are going through, we can praise God in the midst of the storm, because we know that God is faithful, God’s grace holds us, and God’s love never runs out on us.
Second, we can rejoice even while we are suffering because suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character and character, hope. God does not intentionally make us suffer to grow in faith but God is certainly able to work in the midst of our suffering to remind us and reveal to us the reasons we have for hope. Often we try to get through life by our own power, we work hard to pick ourselves up by own boot straps, and it is only when we are in situations we cannot get ourselves out of do we re-learn just what it means to trust God. Often our trials and tribulations in life can be times where we end up being most aware of God at work in our lives. When we are at our lowest is when God can be most visible, that is a reason for a hope that does not disappoint.
It is likely that every single one of us have a story or two from our own lives that illustrate this truth. While I would love to hear your stories of God at work in your life, I can share with you such story I have experienced. It was late May in 2003 and Abigail and I had been married for less than a week. For a honeymoon we went to the smoky mountains, and all of the uphill driving had done in the poor 1991 Pontiac Sunbird that had limped along with me through college. On the day it was time to go home, something was deeply wrong with the car. It was moving but it did not sound right and it did not accelerate right. We were 22 year olds in an unfamiliar area unsure what to do. In Marysville we happened to spot a mechanic, and we pulled in. They looked at it and told us the transmission had a serious problem. They estimated that if we kept driving it, then in a hundred miles or so it would likely fail completely. They called a local junk yard and found a transmission that would work. This mechanic was willing to replace it that same day for $700. It took about four hours but they got us on our way so we could make it home. Now I was a no-nothing 22 year old kid who just thought that was a lot of money. Looking back I know just how gracious those mechanics were. They likely charged us little more than parts, and probably dropped everything else just to squeeze us in. A few years later when the Internet made was a bit more developed and it a ton easier to find information, I looked the mechanic shop up. On their website they list they are a Christian company, and all of those years ago they demonstrated their Christian faith in how they showed grace to a couple of scared kids far from home. For Abigail and I that was a stressful time at the very beginning of our marriage, but through faithful disciples God’s grace and provision was evident in our lives in how we were delivered out of that situation.
Again, we all likely have similar stories of how God was there for us in some of our darkest times. We likely all have stories how God worked through others, through circumstances, or even miraculously to confirm that we always have a reason for hope. No doubt some of you are going through times of suffering right now. Perhaps it is medical issues and the pain you feel in your body is constant. Perhaps it is a loss and the pain you feel in your heat is constant. Perhaps the suffering is stress and anxiety generated by the complexities of life and the uncertainty of tomorrow. Whatever you are going through today, may you know that even in the midst of your suffering you can rejoice. You can rejoice because the hope we find is Jesus is greater than anything that weighs us down. You can rejoice because you do not face your struggles alone. Through the Holy Spirit God is with you, and God will not abandon you. So whatever your struggle is, what ever suffering you are facing on this day, through the power of the Holy Spirit may you preserve as you rely on God and hold fast to the hope that comes from him. In doing so may you build character, the character of a true disciple.