The Road to Hope

These posts are summaries of the messages on Sunday and are put here mainly for the benefit of our regulars who either missed the service, or would appreciate the chance to review the big ideas.

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice 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 5.1-5

Paul is speaking about something very odd; joy in suffering. It’s a hallmark of true faith. But it needs to be said at the outset that he is speaking only to Christians. (This is obvious from the context. We have been justified by faith, v.1, and not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, v.3.) 

Positively, this means that being a Christian helps you deal with life. It is not just about the unseen, spiritual realities of communion with God and so on, but also the nitty gritty of daily experiences. More particularly, Paul wants us to see that the future hope of the Christians makes all the difference in the present — we rejoice in the hope of glory, and we rejoice in our sufferings (v.2-3).

Negatively, it throws up the question: If you’re not a Christian, how do you deal with life? How will you deal with life?

Clearly being a Christian can have a huge impact on this question. We rejoice (literally ‘boast’ or ‘glory’) in sufferings. Why? Because we understand the place of suffering in the big picture and the purposes of God, at least in a very general way. And we understand that God uses suffering to produce this extraordinary chain of growth in our lives: suffering, endurance, character, hope. There is a reason. We are going to explore this process by understanding these four words. 

It is my conviction that words like these can literally save your life. I recall when my dad almost died in 1986, and his life was on the line for 6 months, my mum would come to see him in hospital and she was struggling with the burden of caring for three boys whilst praying desperately that she would not lose her husband. Dad would tell her words he had learned from RT Kendall: 'Dignify the trial'. It's a summary of the Bible's teaching on suffering, and these words carried her. So also this verse can carry you if you let it sink deep.

1. Suffering

The word means ‘pressure’, a very good description of life’s challenges and hardships. It’s a pressure you feel upon your soul when circumstances weigh upon you with a heaviness that makes it hard to breath peace and rest.

What kinds of sufferings or pressures do we encounter? 

(1) Physical sickness and pain. It’s quite likely Paul was talking about some ongoing physical condition when he spoke about his ‘thorn in the flesh’ (2 Corinthians 12.7-9), since we know he had bad eyesight, and may well have suffered in other ways. Our bodies are frail, and physical suffering can have deep effects on our entire beings — emotions, outlook on life, and so on.

(2) Persecution. When Paul spoke of rejoicing in suffering, he was not speaking as a theorist. He knew the worst kinds of persecution. He lists his sufferings in 2 Corinthians 11.24-27. It’s unlikely any of us will suffer to the same degree, but even what we do experience can take a toll.

(3) Poverty and lack. Paul talks about knowing contentment when he was ‘brought low… in facing hunger… and need’ (Philippians 4.11-13). It’s not easy for us to fully understand how vulnerable he must have felt, travelling with no guarantee of eating anything. We have food banks and government support. He had no such things. But when we feel the pinch, this weighs heavy upon us.

(4) Loneliness. Paul knew what if felt like for his friends to desert him even as he was facing prosecution by the authorities (2 Timothy 4.16). Loneliness, abandonment, and rejection are a most cruel form of suffering because the very support we need in relationships is no longer there.

(5) Disappointment and delay. Perhaps there is no greater example of this than Abraham who had to keep believing that one day God would give him a son: ‘In hope he believed against hope…’ (Romans 4.18). ‘Hope deferred makes the heart sick’ (Proverbs 13.12). The suffering of disappointment can be an infection that poisons the soul, leaving one jaded and cynical. It is a kind of soul sickness.

(6) Temptation. We don’t typically think of temptation as suffering, but it surely is. It is said of Jesus that he ‘suffered when tempted’ (Hebrews 2.18). The agony of resistance and of self-denial is a form of suffering we will not experience in heaven, but it is very real now.

It is through all of this that Paul says ‘we rejoice’ (Romans 5.3). How is that possible? The answer is that we rejoice because of what we know and understand about suffering: ‘…we rejoice knowing that…’

2. Endurance

We know that suffering produces endurance. Your first question might be, why do we need endurance? If we didn’t suffer, we wouldn’t have any use for endurance! This is the attitude many have to marathon runners. Why are they training for a marathon? So that they can develop endurance. Why are they developing endurance? So that they can run a marathon. The simple thing is not to bother running in the first place.

I think the answer is that this is about God producing Christlikeness in us. Jesus had to learn obedience through suffering (Hebrews 5.8), and he had endurance (Hebrews 12.2). And so, to grow in endurance is to grow in Christlikeness. Or we could think of it this way; there is a dimension of Christlikeness into which you cannot grow unless you suffer. 

Clearly, we do not always endure. I can think of countless times my endurance has failed. Suffering has a way of exposing our lack of endurance. ‘The crucible is for silver, and the furness for gold, but the Lord tests hearts’ (Proverbs 17.3). It is only when you go through fire that your true colours are shown, what’s inside is revealed. Do you have solid faith? Do you have real dependence on God? Do you really know how to pray? You won’t know unless you suffer.

Suffering will also reveal the negative in you. What are your idols? On what do you depend or run to for comfort? It will become clear when you suffer.

But we take heart. If God’s intention is to make us holy and more Christlike, then we know that God is using the suffering to refine us. He forgives our failures, and keeps exposing us to more tests in order that we might grow in endurance. He promises us strong support from his word and his people (Romans 15.4-5). One day you will endure through trials you couldn’t face before.

3. Character

Although our translations say ‘character’, the word means ‘proven worth’ or ‘testedness’. The logic is pretty straightforward.

Those who have never suffered do not posses proven worth. They may have worth, but since it has not been put to the test none of us knows if it’s there or not. Think about it. Would you want to go into battle with someone who is untested? Would you get into a racing boat with someone who hasn’t been put to the test? Would you employ a builder with no prior experience? They may well have what it takes, but the point is, you don’t know it.

However, those who have suffered loss, hardship, disappointment, delay, and endured, are those with proven worth. That is how Paul describes Timothy. ‘But you know Timothy’s proven worth, how as a son with a father he has served with me in the gospel’ (Philippians 2.22). 

Why does it matter that our worth is proven? Since God sees our hearts, isn’t that enough? Consider a few things.

Throughout the Bible God has an interest in testing men’s faith and character. He wants to use men who are proven. Abraham, Joseph, Joshua, David, Timothy, and even Jesus (see Hebrews 5.8-10). 

When you pass through the test the results are promotion, reward, advancement. Why would you want to cruise and stagnate? Rather, have the ambition of Paul to run so as to get the prize (1 Corinthians 9.24-27).

And, I would add, when you are proven you have the sense of being approved; that assurance that God is faithful that can only be known when you have endured through suffering, and that confidence that God has given you the resources to face future suffering.

4. Hope

Finally, the last link in the chain is hope. But what is the connection? How does character produce hope?

Remember that Paul is talking about the hope Christians have (v.2), and then he wants to show what part suffering has in increasing that hope. John Piper explains:

The Christian life begins with hope in the promises of God in the gospel, and it spirals up through affliction to more and more hope. Approvedness brings about more hope because our hope grows when we experience the reality of our own authenticity through testing. The people who know God best are the people who suffer with Christ. The people who are most unwavering in their hope are those who have been tested most deeply. The people who look most earnestly and steadfastly and eagerly to the hope of glory are those who have had the comforts of this life stripped away through tribulations.

In other words, the tested person knows God is reliable, knows their faith is real, knows Jesus better, and so has more hope.

The sum of it all is that ‘hope does not disappoint’ or ‘does not put us to shame’ (v.5). What idea is Paul challenging here? It’s the idea that God cannot be trusted. We would be ashamed if we go around telling people how trustworthy God is only to discover that he lets us down in the end. 

Those who have suffered discover that God does not disappoint. While he was testing them, they were also testing him and discovering that he’s true to his word.

To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul.
    O my God, in you I trust;
        let me not be put to shame;
        let not my enemies exult over me.
    Indeed, none who wait for you shall be put to shame;
        they shall be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.

Psalm 25.1-3

This hope is for the believer, but not for the unbeliever. And it throws up the most important questions you could ever ask. Are you prepared for eternity? Are you equipped for what life will throw at you even now? Who will you turn to when life is falling to pieces?

Purpose through suffering is only available when you know God, but you can know him right now through Jesus, the saviour who suffered on your behalf.