June 12, 2022 – The 1st Sunday after Pentecost: Trinity Sunday
© 2022 Evan D. Garner
Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us. But how do we know that? How do we know that Paul’s words are true?
Paul makes a bold claim in his letter to the Romans. He writes these words to Christians who gather not in public places like our church but in underground rooms, where his letter is read aloud, because those who hear it know that arrest and torture and death could come knocking at any minute. They have seen their loved ones hauled off by the authorities. Many have lost their homes and their jobs. Family members have betrayed them. And Paul wants them to remember that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope—a hope that does not disappoint us. How can we know that those words are true—for the Christians in Rome and for us as well?
Paul doesn’t explain how that process works—how hardship and struggle, rather than undermining our faith, actually reinforce it. Instead, he writes as if his readers already know that to be true. This is not a philosophical claim that he makes—one that arises from intellectual inquiry—but an experiential truth lived out by Paul and the Christians in Rome. There is no worldly logic that can explain to us why our suffering is a reason to boast and celebrate, yet Paul encourages his readers with a confidence that transcends the logic of this world.
How can we believe that, too, when every evolutionary principle written into our DNA tells us that suffering is something we are supposed to escape? As the Dread Pirate Roberts said to Princess Buttercup, the Princess Bride, before his true identity was unveiled, “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” Maybe Paul is just selling something. Plenty of preachers, who fly around the world in fancy jets, tell their congregations that God is calling them to give until it hurts.
But Paul does not write these words from a place of comfort and security. As Scott Gunn, a friend a colleague wrote this week, “From anyone who hadn’t suffered like Paul had, this might seem shallow and ignorant of people’s pain. But in context it’s a stunningly beautiful message of hope and consolation.” Paul knew suffering. Struggle and hardship were part of his résumé. As he wrote in one of his letters to the Christians in Corinth, “We commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, [and] hunger” (2 Cor 6:4-5). For Paul, suffering was not a sign that he had failed in his mission to be faithful to God but a reminder that in Jesus Christ he had found a peace that not only surpasses any hardship in this world but one that actually overcomes it.
“Since we are justified by faith,” he writes, “we have peace through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Because of Jesus’ faithfulness—even to death on the cross—and because our faith that that death and his resurrection have secured for us a perfect and complete relationship with God, we have peace—a peace that gives us reason to boast. We boast first in our hope of sharing the glory of God. That’s the easy part. Christians love to boast that one day, because of Jesus, we will wear the starry crown and dwell with him in paradise. And that’s a good thing for us to hope—that, when this life is over, we will live with God in heaven.
But Paul goes further than that because the peace we have in Jesus is more than a promise for the life to come. That peace has power in this life as well. That peace enables us to boast even in our sufferings because we know that, as people of faith—as people into whose hearts God has poured God’s love through the Holy Spirit—those sufferings are not a sign of our failure in God’s eyes but a reminder that what Christ has done for us can never be defeated. Because of Jesus, we know that our suffering teaches us endurance and that endurance builds up character and that character is itself our proof that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
In other words, the right and perfect relationship with God that we have been given through Jesus Christ is more than a ticket to heaven. It is our guarantee that the suffering we endure in this life is not a sign that God has abandoned us but a reminder that God never will. Is that easy to believe? Of course not. It is hard to maintain confidence that, despite all the suffering in the world, God is still God and that God, in ways that surpass our understanding, is already bringing all things to their good and glorious fulfillment. But, if our faith in Jesus will mean anything to us besides an escapist fantasy, we must seek that peace in this life as well.
We must strive for the truth that Paul knew not only in his mind but in the wounds he bore for the sake of Christ. We must pursue that sense of belonging to God that, because of Jesus, can never be broken. We must dwell in that love that God has poured into our hearts not only when we imagine what awaits us in heaven but also while we endure what we face on the earth. Because of Jesus, we are not only loved and redeemed by God when this life is over but even now. We boast, therefore, not because we suffer but because we know that suffering cannot defeat us. And surely that is something to celebrate.