Grace Changes The Way We Suffer

More than that, we boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. —Romans 5:3-5

In The Shawshank Redemption, Andy leaves a note for Red buried under a tree. It says this: “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things. And no good thing ever dies.” Really? Why is Andy’s note not a sentimental dream? Sure, we’re drawn to it. But how is that more than our own wishful thinking? You can’t live without hope. You’re putting your hope in something. But can your hope die? If the good thing you hope for can die, it’s no hope at all. It’s only a temporary fix. In this world, in this life, if we dare to believe that no truly good thing ever dies, will we end up looking stupid? Is there a hope more solid, more enduring, more real than all this world of suffering? And if there is, how can we be sure of it right now?

God wants to talk to us today about suffering and hope. We do suffer. Everyone does. Nobody gets a free ride. And what is suffering? Suffering is either having something in your life you don’t want but can’t change, or not having something in your life you need desperately but can’t have. We all have things in our lives we don’t want, and we all don’t have things in our lives we need. Sooner or later every one of us finds out about this in a very intense way. I am meeting more and more guys in their 50s like me, who’ve simply lived long enough to get body-slammed in some unforeseeable way. Major illness, divorce, their business stolen out from underneath them, unjustly sued, a wayward child breaking their heart, and so forth. You don’t have to go looking for it. At some point, the unimaginable will come and find you. And what I’m learning is that such a moment of loss and sorrow is not when I should say, “Okay, now I begin again.” Instead, that moment is when I can say, “Okay, now I begin.” When we suffer, God giving us a gift, the gift of newness. God is opening a door to a new experience of his love. That’s what this passage in Romans is about. God is able to use our experiences of suffering to make the only true hope in all the world more real to us than we ever dreamed it could be. And that’s how we become unstoppable. God wants to talk to us about that today.

God is not going to shield us from suffering; he does want to change how we suffer. He is able to pour his love into our hearts right in the middle of our sufferings. Let’s go there together. More than that, we boast in our sufferings . . . That’s a weird thing to say. But remember what Paul is doing here in Romans 5. He’s answering a question. Now that Romans 1-4 has made the gospel clear, now that we know we’re more evil than we ever feared and more loved than we ever dreamed, now that we know the gospel isn’t about what we do for God but what God does for us, now that we know God brings us back into his good graces through the finished work of Christ on the cross and all we do is receive it with the empty hands of faith – okay, we get that now.

But here’s the question in chapter 5. So what? Why does it matter? If we’re justified by faith, why does it matter that we’re justified at all? What is the practical cash value of justification by faith? How is it more than an academic discussion? Paul is answering that question in Romans 5:1-11. Last week we saw that justification opens up to us the hope of glory. We’re not going to hell any more. We’re going to heaven because of Jesus, to be with Jesus, to become like Jesus. And we boast about that. What we will be forever enriches our sense of personal worth right now. God has big plans for us. We are significant to him. We have a reason not to stoop down and drink from the gutter of this world. We have a reason to stand up straight and tall as people of eternal destiny. It’s a new self-image, defined by our glorious future, given to us by grace. That’s one thing justification by faith does for us.

Now, in verses 3-5, Paul pushes it further. Not only do we boast in a perfect future, but even now we boast in the crummy present: “We boast in our sufferings.” What on earth can that mean? In what conceivable way can we boast in our sufferings and find personal significance and satisfaction in our sufferings? If you’re like me, you’re thinking, “I don’t boast in my sufferings. I put up with them.” But justification by faith changes how we suffer. Justification by faith teaches us to boast in our sufferings – not in spite of our sufferings but because of our sufferings. After all, in verse 2, we’re not boasting in spite of the hope of glory but because of the hope of glory. Justification by faith makes a huge difference when life stinks. How on earth does that happen? It’s simple. It happens like this. Every interior lineman on a football team suffers. Every offensive center suffers, and he boasts in his sufferings. I don’t mean any disrespect to certain former quarterbacks and split ends and defensive backs here today, but come on! The guys playing those positions don’t know a thing about suffering. When the QB gets knocked around a little bit, the TV announcer goes wild, “Oh man, what a hit he took!” An offensive center hits like that every play. An offensive center suffers. But he boasts in his sufferings. How? At the end of the fourth quarter when he walks off the field, or crawls off the field, and his uniform is all muddy and sweaty and bloody and his whole body is one massive wound, he knows he’s a football player. The very fact that his position isn’t easy makes it more satisfying. He knows in his heart that the tough game he just played hasn’t denied him the joy of being a football player, it has given him that joy. That offensive center sees in his banged-up condition living proof that he’s as much a football player as any guy can be, and he likes that.

And here’s the point for us all. Do you want to follow Christ? Do you want your life to count for him? If you do, you’re going to suffer. He will put you in the game for the big play. And your sufferings will persuade you and satisfy you that you’re a real Christian and not a phony, not a fair-weather friend but loyal follower of Jesus. We boast in our sufferings, because reality with Jesus is worth everything. You absolutely do not want to be on the opposing team. knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope . . . What we all hate about suffering is that it feels like we’re losing our chance at life. It feels like suffering is denying us everything that makes life worth living, everything that makes us happy. That’s why otherwise normal people go off the deep end. They lose hope. They suffer, and it feels like life is slipping through their fingers forever. That’s terrifying. That’s when we’ll do anything. But justification by faith changes that. Justification by faith redirects where suffering takes us – not off the deep end but into a deeper hope. That’s what the Bible is saying here. The gospel puts a new thought in our minds: “What if right now isn’t my only chance for happiness? What if God is saving something for me better than all this world? If the grace of God has redefined my future so wonderfully that I’m on my way to heaven now, all my bills paid in advance by Someone Else, and no one and nothing can rob me of my glory in heaven, with Christ, like Christ, that future hope changes the present. If I can boast in that hope of glory, I can also boast in the face of anything now – hardship, stress, fear, exclusion, slander, injustice, pain, assault, rejection, criticism, racism, powerlessness, grief, shock, depression, shame, illness – dead-ends become doorways.”

Do you see the sequence of doorways here in verses 3-4? If you are in Christ, your sufferings are leading you toward hope: “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character and character produces hope.” That’s why God is saying to you today, whatever you’re facing, “Don’t quit.” When we don’t bail but trust God in all our weakness and walk with God by his strength through our horrible experiences, we grow up. We find out for ourselves that our faith is real. That’s what Paul means here by “character.” This word “character” means proven genuineness, the real deal, the spirit of a battle-hardened veteran who once started out as a raw recruit. Have you ever wondered, “Do I really believe in Christ, or am I fooling myself? Would I stick with him if everything was on the line? Would I die for Christ?” God sees your uncertainty. So he answers your question for you. He takes you to that place where everything is on the line, where all you have left is God, and he shows you there that he really is all you need and you really are a believer. That’s what he means by “character.” That is character – really believing the gospel. It’s when you realize, “Christ has come into my life. I do stand to inherit an eternal weight of glory.”

That experience of deepening is what the Bible is describing here. Suffering produces in us rugged endurance, which takes us into proven authenticity, which inspires our own confident hope that with Christ we can face anything. Therefore, when we suffer, God isn’t failing us; God is accomplishing something in us more valuable than that perfect little designer life we had in mind. But this hope is hard-won, isn’t it? Paul knows that. He’s saying that. It’s when we face the choice that Red talked about in The Shawshank Redemption – when we decide whether we’re going to get busy livin’ or get busy dyin’. Have you come to that place yet where you say, “Okay, Lord, I surrender. Your will be done, however you want to do it in me. Just take me where you want me to go, away from all my false hopes and dreams, into that place of your eternal, indestructible hope”? Are you willing to tell him that today? Will you tell him that now? Here is what’s waiting for you, to help you and empower you:

…and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

This is where God answers our question, “In this brutal world, is hope stupid? Will hope leave us shame-faced? Will we wish someday we hadn’t hoped in anything? Will we wish we had lived only for the moment? And how can we know for sure?” That’s the question God is addressing here. At one point in The Shawshank Redemption Andy gets thrown into solitary for two weeks for playing Mozart on the warden’s record player. He gets out and joins his friends in the dining hall:

Heywood: Couldn’t play something good, huh? Hank Williams?

Andy: They broke the door down before I could take requests.

Floyd: Was it worth two weeks in the hole?

Andy: Easiest time I ever did.

Heywood: No such thing as easy time in the hole. A week in the hole is like a year.

Andy: I had Mr. Mozart to keep me company.

Red: So they let you tote that record player down there, huh?

Andy: (taps his head, his heart) The music was in here, and here. That’s the beauty of music. They can’t get that from you. Haven’t you ever felt that way about music?

Red: I played a mean harmonica as a younger man. Lost interest in it though. Didn’t make much sense in here.

Andy: Here’s where it makes the most sense. We need it, so we don’t forget.

Red: Forget?

Andy: Forget that there are places in the world that aren’t made of stone, that there’s something inside they can’t get to, they can’t touch, it’s yours.

Red: What are you talking about?

Andy: Hope.

Red: Hope! Let me tell you something, my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Drive a man insane. It’s got no use in here. Better get used to the idea.

Red was saying, “Hope does put us to shame.” And that is the dialogue going on in our hearts every day. Is there Someone out there beyond this world of terrorism and economic betrayal and personal anguish, Someone totally committed to us, Someone we can trust completely? Or should we just accept that here in this massive prison called Planet Earth, there’s no use for hope, and we’d better get used to it and fill our lives and passing amusements and entertainments to medicate the pain until we die? Which is it – hope or despair? There is no middle ground, and there is only one hope. The gospel announces that there is more for us than all this world. God himself is there. He has had mercy on us. He sent his only Son into this world to suffer not only with us but for us, in our place on the cross, to open up eternal glory to people who deserve eternal misery. He is the only hope that won’t leave us disillusioned.

In fact, our longings aren’t even big enough. The Bible tells us to set our hope fully on the grace coming to us at the return of Christ (1 Peter 1:13). We don’t do that. We set our hope moderately on that glory. We hedge our bets. We kinda sorta live for Christ, and we kinda sorta live for this world. What does God do then? He loves us so much and is preparing a place for us so wonderful and wants us so to get ready for it that he takes away our earthly hopes and dreams and plans. We suffer. And that’s when we learn to put our hope fully on his promises, that’s when we endure and go deep and find that Christ doesn’t abandon us when our fraudulent earthly hopes do let us down, and our hearts learn to prize him as our only true hope, and he becomes wonderfully real to us. That is what the Bible is talking about here. We finally have a Friend who won’t leave us broken-hearted. God has promised himself to us, and that hope will outlast the universe.

Here’s how we know he is real. He pours his love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. God makes himself more wonderful to our hearts than all the comforts and pleasures this world can be to our bodies. The Holy Spirit enters in and floods our awareness with the forgiving, supporting, comforting, accepting, future-promising love of God. It’s a personal and wonderful experience that God gives freely to suffering people who are wondering if they can even go on but who look to him. John Nisbet was martyred in Scotland in 1685. God’s love was poured into his heart as he suffered. In prison he wrote his final testimony:

Be not afraid of his sweet, lovely and desirable cross, for although I have not been able because of my wounds to lift up or lay down my head, but as I was helped, yet I was never in better condition all my life…. He has so wonderfully shined on me with the sense of his redeeming, strengthening, assisting, supporting, through-bearing, pardoning and reconciling love, grace and mercy, that my soul longs to be freed of bodily infirmities and earthly organs, so that I may flee to his royal palace, even the heavenly habitation of my God, where I am sure of a crown put on my head and a palm put in my hand and a new song in my mouth…, so that I may bless, praise, magnify and extol him for what he has done for me.

That is Christian suffering with the felt love of God filling our hearts. No one else on the face of the earth suffers like this. It has nothing to do with Stoic resignation. It has everything to do with the miracle of God’s love pouring into your heart when you need him most. John Owen, the great theologian, comments on verse 5:

The Comforter gives a sweet and plentiful evidence and persuasion of the love of God to us, such as the soul is taken, delighted and satisfied…. To give a poor sinful soul a comforting persuasion… that God in Jesus Christ loves him, delights in him, is well pleased with him, has thoughts of tenderness and kindness towards him — to give, I say, a soul an overflowing sense of this is an inexpressible mercy. We don’t “apply” this to our lives.

That’s management. The love of God poured out is something God gives. It is miracle. Only God can do it. So we pray for it. We open ourselves. We receive. We thank God for what he gives, and we ask him for more, because the personal experience of his love is his good and generous gift to his suffering people. It’s how we know the hope of the gospel is real and our own, and nobody can take that away. Will you open your heart to the love of God today? Will you say to him, “Your love is greater to me than all the passing hopes of this world. What you must take away from me, make yourself real, and I will be happy”?