Today we tackle one of the pervasive lies that has been spread about Christianity. It’s a lie that actually has great appeal, and there are many churches who have grown very, very large because of that lie. It’s a lie that captures the imagination because it feeds our need and desire to be safe, secure, and have control over our lives. It is the lie that says: if you become a Christian, then you will never suffer and you will only have blessing upon blessing in this life; things will always turn out great for you; you will find yourself healthy, wealthy, and with fantastic relationships. In a word: no. This message is not the message of Christianity. It incorporates part of the Christian message, but it misses the entire message, and it can have very negative effects.
Why would I say that? More than a few times I have counseled people who have held this particular understanding of Christianity. Their lives were going along swimmingly; fantastic. They were riding huge waves and enjoying life, but then a monkey wrench was thrown into their plans: maybe it was the loss of a job; maybe it was a diagnosis of cancer; maybe their spouse filed for divorce. Suddenly, their entire view of the faith came crashing down. Every time, the same questions are asked: Why is this happening? I thought I was doing everything right? I thought my faith was strong? Why is God allowing this to happen to me? Why do I have to suffer?
At this point, it is hard to undo what has been done to this person theologically. It’s hard to go back to the very beginning and deal with the problem that nearly every person on this planet has to deal with: the problem of suffering. It’s hard to look a person in the eye who expects God to protect them from suffering and tell them: when you become a Christian, you should not expect to avoid suffering. In fact, when you become a Christian, you should expect to suffer.
This is exactly what St. Paul was getting at when he ended his teaching on what it meant to be a child of God with these words, “...if, in fact, we suffer with Jesus so that we may also be glorified with him.” Paul is hearkening back to earlier in the book of Romans when he talks about Jesus as our representative. He is going back to the thought that when we are joined to Jesus in baptism, whatever happens to Jesus happens to us. Jesus died, therefore, we have died and we will die. Jesus was raised from the dead, therefore we have already experienced the resurrection and one day we will be raised from the dead. What Paul didn’t go into earlier in the book of Romans, he begins going into now: Jesus suffered, therefore, we also suffer. If what happened to Jesus happens to us, then we can expect suffering just like Jesus suffered.
This oftentimes raises an important question: why did Jesus have to suffer? There are actually two reasons, one that applies to us and one that doesn’t. We’ll take the one that doesn’t first. One reason Jesus suffered is for the redemption of the world. Jesus became the sacrifice of atonement to make us right with God. When he suffered on the cross, he had heaped upon him the sins of the world–your sin, my sin. He faced God’s punishment for those sins on our behalf, and he suffered for us. This is not the suffering we face. We face the second type of suffering–the suffering that comes by living in a world where the power of sin is still operative. Remember, sin is not just the things that we do. Sin is also a power that is unleashed and is working in the world. It is corrupting the world, and it is corrupting us. Jesus entered into the world, and sin did its best to corrupt him. Sin did its best to turn him away from the Father. Sin tried many and various things to corrupt him: it appealed to pride and power; it made Jesus face death; it brought persecution upon him; it confronted him with disease and demonic power; it unleashed the fury of nature; and Jesus faced it all. Jesus experienced the suffering that the power of sin has in the world. And if Jesus experienced this, we can expect it as well. Sin will unleash its power upon us to try and corrupt us and alienate us from our heavenly Father. We can expect to suffer.
And the question is: is it worth it? Is it worth going through this suffering? Is it worth it to deal with the headaches and heartaches? Is it worth facing disease and the death of our bodies? Is it worth having people make fun of us? Is it worth it to deal with the fallen nature of humanity and turn the other cheek? Is it worth it to stand on principle and face alienation?
Paul answers that question next: 18 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. When my children were younger and had to get their vaccination shots, Dawna and I promised them: if you hang in there and don’t fight, we will get you an ice cream cone at Dairy Queen. My kids dreaded those shots. They didn’t want the needles and the injections of the medicines that burned going in. But they knew there was something at the end that was better. They knew there was something they could look forward to. They knew that there was something great to be had if they made it through the pain. This was a very effective plan on Dawna’s and my part until our youngest came along and decided that he didn’t like ice cream. Thankfully, he liked french fries...
But I digress. Paul is essentially making the same point. He is saying: compare what you are going through now with the reality that will come later. What happens down the road; what happens when the glory of God is revealed will make these sufferings pale in comparison. When we enter into the fullness of the promises of God, everything that we have experienced will become clear. Everything that we have experienced will fade into a distant memory. We will look back and say, “Man, that wasn’t fun, but I get it now, and I wouldn’t trade it in the least because what I know now and experience now puts that into perspective.”
Paul then adds, that the entire creation is watching us and what God is doing in us as He redeems us: 19For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. You see, the creation is also infected by the power of sin. Creation is not what it was meant to be. I know that many people look at nature and see beauty and wonder and that “everything works in harmony.” Well, if harmony means that there is a constant battle for survival–that the rule of thumb is kill or die, then I guess nature is indeed a thing of beauty. Folks who think nature is just wonderful or beautiful are observing it from civilization and for only small glimpses. They are not seeing prey trying to avoid predators. They are not seeing plants raising their defenses against infestations. They are not seeing how everything in nature is simply trying to survive. And despite nature’s best efforts, things still die. Things still decay. This is not the way God intended nature to be. And in this snippet, Paul personifies nature. He indicates that nature has some sort of awareness and consciousness. He indicates like others who wrote Scripture before that nature is longing for redemption. And Paul says that nature is looking for the children of God to emerge. Nature is looking for us because it can then see that the process of redemption is underway. It can see that the battle it is currently engaged in will have an ending. Its suffering will one day end as well. There is something to look forward to.
This is probably why Paul turns to the next analogy: 22We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. I’ve never been through labor. I don’t want to go through labor. I watched Dawna go through it and then end up having an emergency C-section. No thanks. You ladies are wonders of God’s creation when it comes to birth. I didn’t have to go through it to see that labor pains suck. And if there weren’t some sort of pay-off in the end, I’m not sure anyone would ever endure them. If there weren’t a baby wrapped in warm cloths handed to you after all was said and done, no one would purposely endure them. But when your child is placed in your hands and you look at that child’s beauty and marvel at this new life, all that pain becomes worth it. All that agony fades into a distant memory. This is what was waited for. This is what was anticipated. Moaning and groaning is proper when going through the process, but when all is said and done...there is joy–pure, unadulterated joy. Paul says we are still in the labor process. The full redemption of our bodies and this world has not happened yet, but the process has begun. Our suffering is a part of that process, and Paul gives us the antidote to help us through it.
24For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. You see, hope is the antidote. We know there is something at the end. We do not have it yet, but we know it is coming. We know that it is just around the corner. Dawna and I adopted a rather interesting method of giving our children birthday presents. Rather than go out and choose something for them, we take them to the store and allow them to choose their gift. As their birthdays approach, they become more and more excited. They generally know what they are going to pick out ahead of time. They generally know what gift they will choose, but they don’t have it yet. It’s not in their possession yet, and so they live in hope. They live in expectation. They live with growing excitement as each and every day brings them closer to their birthday. If they already had their present in hand; if they had already received it long before their birthday, they wouldn’t have the excitement. They wouldn’t have the hope. They wouldn’t have anything to look forward to. But because it is not in their possession yet, they have hope. They know it’s coming; they know our promise is secure; so they patiently and excitedly wait.
This is exactly what we do as Christians as well. We have a sure and lasting hope. We have a sure and lasting promise. We don’t have it yet. But it is coming. Each day draws us closer. Each day is one more step toward the full redemption of this world and our bodies. Each day brings us closer to the promised resurrection and fullness of joy of being in the presence of our Father, our Daddy as Paul reminded us last week. We long for it, but we are patient as we wait. We endure the sufferings of this world because we know there is more to come. And we look to the author and perfecter of our faith as we do so.
Jesus is extremely crucial to this whole process. In fact, it is Jesus death on the cross and subsequent resurrection that is in Paul’s mind as he writes these words. You cannot have the resurrection without the cross, and you cannot have the cross without the resurrection. They both go hand in hand. They both must be held in tension. Both provide the Christian with the answer as to whether or not suffering is worth it, and the answer is a resounding yes. The cross shows that God is not above our suffering; God is not removed from our suffering. God suffers with us and like us. God knows pain. God knows agony. God knows injustice and hatred. God knows what it is like to die. God has experienced it with us. Yes, God understands our suffering because He’s been through it himself. And if God didn’t prevent Himself from suffering, we should not be surprised when He doesn’t prevent us from suffering. There is more to the equation: there is resurrection. There is re-birth. There is renewal. The resurrection is the promised hope. It is what we can look forward to–a new body free of pain, injury, hunger, want; a new body that will never die; a new body that will experience the love and fulfillment of God.
We must not be fooled by anything that minimizes the cross or the resurrection. We must not be led astray into accepting any form of Christianity that promises that we will never suffer or that our hope is in something less than resurrection. We must not lead people astray and offer them false hope. When we become Christians, we will suffer. That is a given, but we can endure because we also know what is in store. We know that there is resurrection in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.