Thursday, June 13, 2019

Irrational Boasting

If you exercise on a regular basis, you are likely to be healthier. If you spend 20 minutes each day in silent contemplation, you are likely to be more peaceful. If you consistently drive 20 miles per hour over the speed limit, you are likely to get a ticket. Cause and effect. We all know it well.

In Sunday's short reading from Romans, however, Paul seems to suggest that we know the relationship between cause and effect too well, and he seeks to rewrite what we know about it: "...we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us." On the surface, this is a lovely, counter-intuitive progression that appears to seek a silver lining to the cloud of hardship. People suffer. We all suffer. Some of us who were born into a life of deep privilege suffer very little compared with others, but we all experience suffering. A shallow reading of Paul's words offers some encouragement in the face of that kind of suffering. "Keep your chin up," Paul seems to say. "Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character...You do want to be a person of character, don't you?" But I think the theology Paul is espousing here, which is built upon the dramatic conclusion of Romans 4, is far more substantial than a sympathy card from Hallmark.

As it often does, in order to make the lectionary reading, which picks up in the middle of a thought, seem to stand on its own, the reading usually omits a giant "Therefore" that begins Romans 5:1. If you read your lesson on or other lectionary-based sites, you're likely to miss it. But, if you open your Bible or a Bible app, you'll see that the first verse of Sunday's lesson is "Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God..." You can't start a story with "therefore." You can't start an argument with "therefore." Try it. Try walking up to someone in your house or place of work or a random person on the street whom you haven't spoken to and say, "Therefore, that is why we should do it." It's silly. But that's what we're doing to the lesson.

So let's go back and see what's in Romans 4: "What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? 'Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness...' For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith...Therefore his faith 'was reckoned to him as righteousness.' Now the words, 'it was reckoned to him,' were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification."

In the chapter that precedes Sunday's lesson, Paul uses Abraham and Genesis 12 to argue that justification--being made right with God--comes through faith and not works. We are made right with God because of our faith in God and what God has done and is doing and will do for us in Jesus Christ, not because of our works. Therefore, picking up with this Sunday's reading, we have peace with God--the kind of peace that comes from being justified by faith. Access to that peace is what leads Paul to boast and even boast in suffering.

Christian theology is a total reversal of cause and effect. We are justified not by our input into the relationship but by faith in what God has put into that relationship. That's Romans 4. When we get to Romans 5, Paul writes about the consequences of that justification, and that's why he believes that we have reason to boast in suffering. Our instincts tell us that bad things happen to bad people--that those who suffer in this life must have done something to anger the gods. But Paul tells us our instincts are wrong. Suffering is not only not a sign that we have done something wrong. It is a reminder that God doesn't work that way. It is, therefore, a sign that we are doing something right. In that way, suffering builds endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.

For those who have peace with God--who know that they have been given a right standing with God through faith in Jesus Christ--suffering in this life is a reminder to us that our God is not a God of cause and effect. That realization--peace in the face of suffering--gives us the strength to endure because we know that God is with us in our suffering. As we endure suffering, we are shaped into people who depend even more fully on God, who journeys with us. That character reflects a life that is lived not in this world but fully in God's reign, which is to say that that character produces hope.

This Sunday, remember that Paul's words are not a self-help routine. Suffering to endurance to character to hope is not a training regimen. It is a statement of Christian theology--of justification by faith. Only because we are made right with God through faith and not works are we able to boast in our suffering. In other words, the hope and character and endurance that come from suffering are not our work. They are God's work and come from our participation in that work through faith. 

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