SCRIPTURE – Romans 1:1-5
Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.
Joy in the Junk
May 30, 2010
It wasn’t easy being a Christian in Rome. Christians were the minority, the on-the-fringe religious group that was constantly under suspicion. Christians had to meet in catacombs and under overturned boats so they wouldn’t be found out. They were under constant pressure to either renounce their faith. And then there was the whole “getting eaten by lions” business, which was not much of an evangelistic tool.
So Paul, the early church’s most effective evangelist, writes this letter to the Romans to help them see why all the trouble is worth it and to grease the wheels for his upcoming visit to them. Romans is the most comprehensive letter we have from Paul and one of the most important books in the New Testament. Martin Luther was simply in love with Romans. He said, “Romans is worthy not only that ever Christian should know it word for word, by heart, but occupy himself with it every day, as the daily bread of the soul. It can never be read or pondered too much, and the more it is dealt with, the more precious it becomes, and the better it tastes.” I don’t recommend eating your Bible, but you get the idea of the importance of Romans.
In this letter, Paul was writing to a church in the midst of major conflict. Yes, I know it’s hard to believe that churches have conflict, but actually it’s been going on for centuries. This particular conflict was started by the Roman emperor Claudius, who in 50 A.D. expelled all Jews from Rome. That means that the Roman church, formerly made up of both converted Jews and Gentiles, quickly became 100% Gentile. After Claudius is murdered, the Jews are allowed back into Rome, and suddenly the church was integrated again. That’s akin to Crestwood being overtaken by Louisville fans, only there would be less bloodshed in Rome.
Paul is trying to help the Gentiles and the Jews figure out how to be the church together. He spends the first four chapters of Romans laying out his theory that believers in Christ are justified – which means to be made right with God – by our faith, not by what we do. It’s the faith side of the “faith vs. works” argument. He uses the example that Abraham was justified by his faith in God before he was called to be obedient to God through circumcision. Paul is making the point that we are not justified by following the law and doing all the right things, but by the faith that underlies our actions.
Chapter 5 marks a shift in Paul’s direction to addressing the “so what” question. So what if we are justified through faith instead of works? What does that mean in our daily lives? Paul spells out a couple important concepts in concrete terms that have a crucial impact for the Romans and for us.
First, Paul says that because we are made right with God through our faith, we should have peace with God. Peace is ironically an explosive term in our world today. It’s something many people want, few have, and hardly anyone can define. We encourage people to “give peace a chance,” we wish them to “rest in peace,” we look forward to the peace of a relaxing evening. We spend millions of dollars each year to produce chemically-induced peace. My daughter Sydney wears a peace sign bracelet on the same hand she uses to hit her little sister.
The peace Paul is talking about here goes beyond most modern understandings of the word. This peace isn’t just an absence of hostility; it’s peace in the midst of hostility. It’s being a non-anxious presence in the midst of anxious times. It’s what the Jews call shalom, a sense of harmony with God that is immune from disturbance by outside forces. It is a peace forged through prayer, obedience and utter dependence on God in our lives.
But Paul doesn’t stop there because he can’t stop there. He knows such peace seems almost antithetical to real life; true peace has been pushed to the corners of our existence. Paul knows if he only stresses the importance of peace with God, he’ll get some serious backlash. Some people will think that if they have faith and work for peace with God, they should get to live a trouble-free existence. After all, shouldn’t belief in Christ make life easier? And some people will dismiss Paul as an unrealistic dreamer because they know through experience that peace with God doesn’t mean a peaceful life. If we strive for shalom with God, if we do our best to be good and faithful believers and live good lives and we still get cancer or are the victim of violence or lose loved ones too soon, what’s the point? Are we just wasting our time?
I think what Paul is doing here is setting up a context for understanding suffering. He knew people in the Roman church had suffered and because of their faith would continue to suffer. In fact, Paul knows the universal truth that everyone experiences some level of suffering. No matter how much we want to avoid it, it’s simply a part of living. In one of his letters, Peter writes, “Do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you.” I read about a school district in Massachusetts that was considering canceling their spelling bee because children who misspelled a word would cry. What if, once they get out of school, they misspell life? One of the greatest gifts we can give our children is the gift of failure, because they will certainly need to know how to deal with it as adults. We cannot avoid suffering in this life, and the fact that we believe in God doesn’t exempt us from it. But, Paul says, the fact that we have peace with God can transform our experience of it.
What Paul says is suffering is not an end to itself. The Greek word he uses for “suffer” can also be used for “pressure,” like the pressure used to squeeze grapes to make wine. It’s pressure with purpose, suffering with a greater goal. Paul says through suffering, we develop endurance. The word “endurance” is from the French word which means “to harden.” To endure is to carry on through hardships, to persevere despite obstacles. Other translations say that suffering produces “fortitude,” which means to have an attitude like a fort. As we call on God’s peace to help us endure our suffering, we are made strong, we are hardened against despair and surrender. But endurance is not the end.
This experience produces in us character, or what The Message calls “the tempered steel of virtue.” Our perseverance builds in us brick-by-brick a maturity that cannot be swayed. Character is about consistency and respect and authenticity. The Greek word here is the same word used to describe metal that has been refined through fire. Character is what we remember about so many people on this Memorial Day weekend who gave their lives. We are not born with this type of character. It is forged through suffering and endurance. But character is not the end.
No, Paul says the point of suffering is that it produces in us hope, which I would say is the precious metal of faith. This is not pie-in-the-sky hope. This is not genie-in-the-lamp hope. This is not merely “wishful thinking.” This is hope that emerges through hardships because we know if we can make it through that then we can make it through anything. This is the hope that looks life in the eye and says, “I’m still standing because God is standing with me.” This is hope born from the shalom we have with God, because we know that if God is for us, it doesn’t matter who’s against us.
This hope that we find through suffering is often ragged and threadbare, like the Elmo stuff doll my daughter Molly sleeps with. She’s had Elmo since she was an infant, and Elmo has seen her through countless stormy nights and bad dreams and ear infections. He’s been washed, dried, trampled, lost, cried on, stuck under a bed, and moved to Kentucky. He’s in pretty bad shape. But every night, before Molly can go to sleep, she’s got to have Elmo. So it is with hope. We put it through the ringer, wear it out from use, and it is still there because God is still there. It is a source of joy for us in the midst of the junk of life. Hope does not disappoint.
There is a purpose for our difficulties in life, even if it doesn’t always seem that way. Paul goes so far as to encourage us to boast in our sufferings. That may sound flippant at first, but I think Paul sees times of suffering as opportunities for endurance, for character-building and for hope. What if the purpose of our suffering is to give our peace and our hope an opportunity to shine brighter than normal and to bear greater witness than on easy days when everything is right?
This process of developing hope is purposely linear. We don’t start out life with hope. We don’t start out life with character. Those things are created as we go through difficulties, as we persevere through failure and disappointments and suffering. Hope is made real in lives each time we realize that wherever we are, whatever we’re dealing with, God IS there. In our toughest times, no matter how dark, no matter how desperate, no matter how despairing, God is there, suffering with us, helping us persevere, forging in us a strong character and giving us a source of hope that can lead us to new life. As Leonard Sweet writes, “A boat-full of suffering can either be a casket or a cradle.”
It hurts to misspell a word or to strike out. It’s painful to hear we are no longer in perfect health or can no longer live the life we want. It’s devastating to lose someone so close to us. As much as we’d like to avoid these kinds of experiences, we know in our hearts they are a part of being alive. I don’t believe God causes us to suffer, but I do believe God is working through our suffering to make us more Christ-like. Ask yourself: What is God doing with me through this difficult time? May God use every part of our lives, even our suffering, to make us into the people God has called us to be.