As I get older, I realize more and more how countercultural the Christian faith is. In our modern American culture of entitlement and rights, pleasure-seeking, fear of aging and death, instant gratification, and individualism, our Scriptures can indeed seem like foolishness to the secular mindset.
In fact, today’s reading from Romans provides us with a very good example of this. In it, Paul encourages us to boast, rejoice, and glory in our sufferings, a notion that seems quite silly to a culture that is about the pursuit of happiness and the American dream, a pursuit that we all know we deserve.
Why in the world would we rejoice in our sufferings? No, in the wake of a painful or difficult time, it is often our natural instinct to do just the opposite – to rail against such suffering and to do everything in our power to avoid any future suffering.
the difficulties of life, God can bring us good. We can grow in depths of maturity and character and in doing so, we can develop hope in God’s good plans and a future for us.
But friends, is this really what we want to tell folks like the recent victims of the Oklahoma tornado – that they should rejoice in their suffering? I don’t know if you have been paying attention this week to the blogosphere, but there has been some controversy brewing over certain well known Christian leaders’ responses to this most recent tragedy and also questions about how Christians are to best respond to such tragedies. In the wake of such sadness, is it the time to quote such Scriptures like this one in Romans, for example? Is this what people need to hear at this moment in time? Will it bring them comfort? Will it turn their mourning into rejoicing?
Well, I, along with a number of other folks writing this week, would say no. When people are in the throes of pain, quoting Scripture such as this one is not particularly helpful. What is helpful is our quiet presence with these folks, through which Jesus’ quiet presence can be made known.
In such times, what is helpful is lifting people up in prayer, listening to them as they express their sadness, confusion, shock, anger, and other emotions to you and to God without any sense of embarrassment or
shame. And when the time is right, what is helpful is gently reminding folks that God is not distant from their pain –He understands it, has suffered unimaginable pain Himself, and is with them in the very midst of their suffering.
Only after time has passed and some healing has occurred are folks ready to hear Scriptures like Romans 5. Also, only after folks have pursued transformation into Christ’s likeness more and more over the years do these words even make sense. Otherwise, these words of Scripture can seem not only like foolishness, but they can seem like insensitive, unkind words that act as a very poor bandaid indeed. In fact, they may seem more like salt in these people’ wounds than they feel soothing balm.
Yet, at the end of the day, friends, we are left with this Scripture. We know that like all Scripture, it speaks truth to us, we know there is something important it is teaching us, and so we must wrestle with what it means.
To do so, however, I believe we must first challenge our own cultural assumptions. It seems
more and more as I listen to people in North America these days that we have an entitlement mentality. We deserve God’s love. We deserve to be happy. We deserve to have the perfect job, the perfect spouse, the perfect children. Whether we work hard or not for these things, we think that we deserve them. And since suffering threatens to take away all these things that we deserve, it is something to be avoided at all cost and it is certainly not something for us to rejoice in ever.
Now don’t get me wrong when you hear me say the following because I absolutely believe that our governing bodies, both domestic and international , need to promote human rights, but I do believe the particular strain of rights mentality that many in our culture have today stands in contrast with the
message of the Gospel.
After all, at the beginning of Romans 5, we are reminded that we have been justified, made right with God, but this justification has not come through anything we have done or who we are; rather, it is a grace, an unmerited gift that has been given to us by Jesus Christ simply because he loves us. It is a gift that when received in faith is able to transform our life now as we find peace, harmony and wholeness with God, and as is able to open up the possibility of eternal life for us. This restored relationship and eternal hope, as well as everything in our life is a gift from God. We are to rejoice in these gifts and to respond to God with profound thankfulness for them.
The apostle Paul goes on in Romans though to tell us we should not only rejoice in these good things, we are to rejoice in our sufferings. And this is the part that can get really hard for some of us. For even if we have gotten to the point of recognizing that all things are a gifts from God to which we don’t have some kind of right, the idea of rejoicing in suffering seems strange. After all, isn’t suffering the result of a fallen and sinful world? Shouldn’t God protect those who believe in Him, showing them a glimpse of the wonderful glory that lies ahead – a new heavens and new earth where there is no mourning, crying, or pain?
Yet, as we ask these questions, we must remember that the Father did not even spare his only begotten Son from such pain, and likewise we can expect that he won’t always do so for His sons and daughters either. This is hard to understand at times and like Job, we will often find that our questions of “Why God did you let this happen?”go unanswered. However, in all this, we can remember that God is in the business of redemption. He took the most horrible event in history –the crucifixion of the Son of God – and turned into the greatest triumph. In the same way, he can redeem our suffering. It may be a slow process, but good can come from it – and the good that can come from it is endurance, character, and hope.
Let’s spend a few minutes looking at each one of these briefly.
First, endurance - once you have gone through a difficult time and have seen God walk through it with you, you will find that you are able to go through each new trial in life a little more easily, knowing that God will once again walk hand in hand with you. It doesn’t mean you are immune to the pain in these new trials, but you have a greater sense of God’s presence with you in the midst of them. In addition, you are able to sit with others in their pain rather than fleeing for comfort. As you sit with others in their pain, you become a powerful healing presence to those undergoing present trials; you become as Henri Nouwen calls
it, a wounded healer.
And this brings us around to the next good that come from suffering. Suffering leads to endurance and endurance leads to character. If you are able to endure through pain and are able to sense that God is with you even if it doesn’t wholly make sense, the Holy Spirit can work in you to bring out the fruits of the Spirit and to conform you more and more into the likeness of Jesus Christ, the Suffering Servant, the One who gave up His life so that others may have life.
As you endure your own trials, you are able to see into God’s heart a little more clearly and to have a clearer perspective on the things He loves and the things He desires for the world and your own life.
You are able to realize that life is not about getting all those things in life that you think you deserve and will make you happy but that life is about loving and serving God and others. Life is about growing into Jesus’ likeness, becoming more fully human, and becoming more fully your unique self. And life is ultimately about growing in intimacy with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
And when I say all this, I can truly say that this is not some abstract thought that I learned in seminary or in church; I say this as one who has undergone my own sets of trials in life and found that suffering has indeed led to endurance which has then led to character.
Now, in some ways, I have lived a super blessed life – with loving parents and grandparents, lots of opportunity for education, and travel around this country and world. I have not suffered from great sickness or lost many love ones to sickness and death.
Yet, I have undergone the real and deep pain of rejection in a number of forms and the real and deep pain of remaining single. With the regards to the latter, I have experienced loneliness, rejection,
self-rejection, confusion, fear, and anger; I have questioned my worth, wondering if there is much likable or beautiful about me. I have railed against God asserting my rights and telling him I deserved
to be married and to have children. I have wrestled with fear for the future, worrying that I might die
alone. I have gone year after year without two things – husband and children, which I dreamed would be mine since I was a little girl. And I have sobbed more tears over the years over this state of being than I care to admit. In fact, I have sobbed tears in writing this part of the sermon. The pain is real.
And yet, while I wouldn’t have chosen this path that God has led me down, I can say that I have seen how God has changed me for the better. I am still very much a work in progress but I see how my heart aches more for the things that God’s heart aches for. I see how my priorities are changing and how my pursuit of God is changing, as well – that I am not so much in this for what God can do for me or give me, I am in this to seek greater intimacy with Him and to be a better neighbor to others. I can see how I am more interdependent with people which makes me a bit less self-focused and more other focused. And I can see how I am better able to pastor people in pain now because I understand at least in small part what they
are going through.
And all these things, friends, make me want to rejoice. Truly and honestly. I don’t fully understand
God’s ways, but I see Him at work and trust that He has good in store for me - in this life and beyond - even if my life continually looks different than I imagined.
And this brings us to the last good that comes from suffering. Endurance leads to character and character leads to hope, a hope that does not leave us ashamed.
As we witness God drawing close to us in our trials, providing for us in our need, and transforming our character and motivations so they resemble His own more and more, our hope in Him is awakened.
The same Holy Spirit, who transforms us plants the Father and the Son’s love into our hearts, and this love testifies to us that what God has promised, God will bring to pass. Therefore, we are not put to shame because we know deep in our hearts and minds that God does love us and a glorious future does lie ahead for us, made possible by Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.
This all seems very contrary to the way things should be and this may very well appear like foolishness to the outside world, but for those of us who believe and who have put our faith in Jesus, the Crucified Savior, we have experienced this to be true in our lives and if we have not yet, we can expect to sometime in the future.
Life is not easy, friends, but life is beautiful, and in this life, we have a loving God who went to great lengths to restore our broken relationship with Him, to give us harmony and peace with Him and to provide beautiful future for us. And for these good things, we can truly rejoice.
Praise be to the God who is in the business of redeeming everything, things on heaven and on earth and who turns our mourning into dancing, our tears into joy. Amen.