Hope In Suffering
Last Sunday, Kerry Eidse reported on their trip to Louisiana to help MDS begin to respond to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. He reported the terrible and widespread damage of the storm. In a swath some 10 or 20 miles wide and 200 miles long, there is utter destruction and chaos. You may remember the days when the hurricane hit and we saw, in the news, pictures of what had happened. For many people, the question which came as a response was, “How can we explain this in God’s world?” If God is Lord and if He is the one who controls what is happening in the world, how can such things happen? Perhaps this question is more intense this year than most years because the year began with the devastating Tsunami which hit in Asia and then it was a year with an unusually large number of hurricanes and more recently there was a major earthquake in Bangladesh.
Sometimes it seems as if the storms of life hit us personally with the same intensity. We experience the loss of sight, the loss of a spouse, the loss of a driver’s licence, a debilitating fall, loss of hearing and so on. How can we explain these things in God’s world?
Of course, when they are happening to us, we not only ask how can we explain them, but also ask very intensely, “how can we cope with them in our own life?”
In the C&C SS class, we have been studying Romans. A few weeks ago, we were up to Romans 8:18-30. It was a good year to look at this passage because of all the disasters we have heard about. The young people did have questions and it was good to dig into scripture to find answers for them.
When I got hurt, as a child, my mother would say, “When you are a grandfather, it won’t hurt any more.” Well, now I am a grandfather. What will my mother say now? She was trying to encourage me that someday things will be much better. The first statement which Paul makes in this text is similar. He says, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” A passage such as this encourages us and also challenges us as we face a world that is going through a lot of difficulty. As we read on, we find some significant thoughts which speak about the world’s suffering and our own suffering.
II. Our Present Sufferings
A. Why This Suffering?
As we look for an answer to the question of disasters in our world, one way of looking at it is to recognize that this is what the world is like. We are not being treated any different than anyone else. Disasters happen all over the world, to people all over the world. So it is clear that this is the condition of the world. Of course the next question is, “How did it get this way?”
Romans 8:20 answers this question when it says that the world was “subjected to frustration.” What does this mean? It means that the world did not get this way by itself. It was not a natural process of degeneration. It is not that all matter tends to decay by the nature of how it came into being. There is nothing random about decay. “Subjected” means that the decay has been imposed. Someone did it to this world. Of course that someone is God.
The next question is, why did God do this? Why would he introduce destruction into something that He created so well? Verses 20,21 help us answer that question. Creation has been subjected for the present time because of our sin. There is a connection between our choice to sin and the bondage to destruction of our physical world. The world came into distress because we sinned and one day, when we are set free from sin and death, then the world will also be set free from destruction. It’s not us pitted against the world, but the world groaning because of us and we ourselves sharing in the pain of the present situation.
Whenever we see disaster, whether in our own lives or in the world around us, we need to remember that the world is like this because of sin.
B. How Serious Is It?
How serious is this devastating world we live in? Earlier we mentioned from verse 20 that the world has been “subjected to frustration.” This is the NIV translation. Most translations use the word “futility.” Futility refers to that which does not function according to design. This world is not what God created it to be. We and the whole world are trapped in this situation.
One of the ways in which we see the seriousness of this futility is in the effects of aging. No one escapes its effects. Carla has a magazine which describes 80 and 90 year old people running marathons. In spring we were at the birthday party of a rather spry 100 year old lady. However, we all know that that is unusual. Even they continue to deteriorate and eventually they will also die. The world around us will keep on having disasters and the effect of the bondage to decay on the world means that people will continue to get old and die.
C. How Does It Affect Us?
It is clear that such a world has a tremendous impact on us. In verse 23 of this passage it says that “we groan inwardly.” In fact throughout this passage there are numerous words which reflect the difficulty in our world and in our experience. Verse 18 talks about “sufferings,” verse 22 speaks of “groaning” and “the pains of childbirth.” Verse 23 mentions that we “groan inwardly” and verse 26 mentions weakness.
Although we are waiting for something infinitely better, the completion of this something better cannot come under the present order. We are waiting for Christ to return and we are waiting for a resurrection body, a time of renewal and restoration. Until that comes, the whole world and we ourselves are groaning, we are waiting and wishing.
The problem in the world is caused by our sin. It affects everything in the world - the natural creation and ourselves as well. It is serious and causes us to groan under the pain of what we experience.
But groaning is not the whole story. There are amazing words of encouragement in this passage as well.
A. We Groan, But With Hope
We are told that our daughter-in-law is expecting her second child on January 1. We are anticipating a second grandchild. There is an expectation of this exciting event.
There is an expectation in our groaning as well. We mentioned the words “pains of childbirth” which appeared in verse 22, a few moments ago. In the coming of a child, there is the pain of waiting and the pain of childbirth. The trials of our world bring us both the trial of pain lasting a long time and the pain itself. Yet there is also a hope, an expectation in our groaning. “Pains of childbirth” not only describes the pain, but also the expectation of something to come. So we do not despair and become discouraged and depressed in our present suffering. We are looking forward to something better.
What is that “better?” As we read the whole passage we should notice that both verse 18 and 30 mention the word “glory.” In other words, the passage is bracketed in glory. This is not coincidental. It is a way for the writer to point to what is to come. It is an encouragement that glory is our hope.
In this passage, we also discover what glory is like. Verse 19 tells us that we will be revealed as the children of God. That is glory! Verse 21 tells us that we will be liberated from bondage and that we will experience the glorious freedom of children of God. That is glory! Glory means that we will no longer be subject to death and decay. We will no longer be trapped in our sin. Rather, we will experience freedom as children of God. Verse 23 indicates that we will experience adoption as sons and the redemption of our bodies. That also is glory. What we have longed for and wished for all this time as we have suffered and struggled will be fulfilled.
That is why we can live in hope. Hope, of course, does not mean that we can clearly see all that will be. We can’t. The very nature of hope is that we don’t know all things and we have to wait for it patiently. So as we face a world of destruction and difficulty whether across the globe or in our own lives, we do so in hope knowing that there is something better still to come.
B. We Groan, But With The First Fruits Of The Spirit
But hope is not only future. God also gives us a present possession. God’s Spirit is living in us and is God present with us. The Bible tells us that the presence of the Holy Spirit is a first-fruits event for us. It is the beginning of the fulfillment of the promise of eternity. God present with us is a foretaste of what heaven will be like.
But even in our relationship with God, there is an element of groaning. One writer says, “Believers have the status of being children in a new intimate family relationship with God, but they are not able to communicate properly with God.” That is part of the groaning. We know God, we know what he can do, but we can’t communicate properly with him and we don’t always know or understand what He is saying to us when we are in a time of difficulty. Another writer says, “Christians pray “Abba Father” “Their ability to pray is seriously limited by inadequate knowledge about God’s design for what is intended.”
What is so wonderful is that God’s Spirit shoulders that weakness. In Romans 8:26-27, we have this wonderful promise that God is in our communication with Him. We cannot speak appropriately to God, but God’s Spirit speaks out of the depth of our heart and our unspoken prayers go up to God. The Holy Spirit helps us pray well beyond our conscious understanding. One writer says, “The image pictures depth communication which is below ordinary human consciousness.” The groaning and the need for help in prayer demonstrates our total dependence on the Spirit.
Although the present time is a time of groaning, it is not a time of despair. Already we have the beginning of what is promised. Eternity is already in our hearts and present with us by the Spirit. The relationship to God is real because of the presence of God’s Spirit. One of the ways that relationship is made real is Spirit empowered prayer.
So even though we groan, we are not left alone. God’s Spirit prays within us and we are encouraged with the presence of God.
C. We Groan, But With The Knowledge Of God’s Love
So as we acknowledge that we groan, we are encouraged that we do so in hope and we do so knowing that God’s Spirit speaks prayers from our hearts to the ears of God who hears, not only our spoken groans, but the depth of our hearts desires. But there is even more encouragement.
In verse 28-30, we discover that, as one writer says, “The agony of groaning…is answered with the assurance of glorification.”
If a child is waiting for the fulfillment of a promise, we know that there will be some impatience. But if the child knows the parent and knows that they keep promises and knows that they are loved by the parent, the impatience is all there is. There is not the fear that the promise will not be kept. On the other hand, a child who has been abused, let down, frustrated by his parents, will not have that same hope. What kind of a Father has made the promise? Can we count on Him?
When we read that “all things work together for the good of those who love Him,” then we can live in hope knowing that no matter what comes into our lives, God keeps His promises and is working towards what is best for us.
There is another point. Not only do we have assurance about the Father who is leading us to our eternal home. We also recognize that He is processing something within us. He is working on us and in us. One writer says, “Suffering does not lead to despair for Christians because God is working out a plan that moves through adoption as children and through suffering to glorification.” He is leading us from foreknowledge, to being conformed to the image of his son, to ultimate glorification. God’s work in us always has purpose and He is at work to bring us to justification and then to glorification.
So we have the assurance that God can be trusted and that God wills and works the good for the members of His family. God reverses human sin and restores humanity to its intended status.
As we come to the end of a year that has seen many disasters, these thoughts can give us assurance. We can be encouraged that although we groan and although that groaning is real, it is not the whole story. God gives us encouragement. He encourages us with hope, he encourages us in a relationship with Himself lived in us by the Holy Spirit and He encourages us with the promise that all our suffering will produce glorification in us.
May this help us understand the world’s suffering and our own suffering. May this help us be patient and even rejoice in the midst of the world’s suffering and our own suffering because we know God, we know it will get better and we know that God is with us now.