Thanksgiving - Rejoicing in our Suffering
Rejoicing in Our Suffering
October 9, 2005 (Thanksgiving)
We can rejoice in suffering because it is productive. It yields character, hope, and an opportunity to minister to others in their brokenness.
I do have a Thanksgiving message this morning, but it’s not your traditional “feel good” Thanksgiving message. We have so much to be thankful for, and yes we will count our blessings this day, but will you count suffering as one of your blessings today? For that is what I want you to do with me this morning.
If you make the ultimate goal in your life to become successful in business, what do you do when you reach a certain level of success? If you make a goal in your life to get your children through college, what do you do when they receive those diplomas and are now living in distant cities? If you make a goal of your life to get back into shape and run a 10K road race, what do you do when you break that finish line and you finish those 6.2 miles? If you make a goal of your life to become financially secure and independently wealthy, what do you do when you reach that goal?
John Paul Getty, the richest man in the world while he was alive, was asked if having three billion dollars was enough. His answer was no. When asked how much more he would need to make him happy, he replied, “Another billion, then I’ll be happy.” Can you imagine?
I remember Tom Landry, coach of the Dallas Cowboys, saying, just after they had won the Super Bowl (the Dallas Cowboys, year after year after year, had been coming so close, and finally that victory had come), “The overwhelming emotion—in a few days, among the players on the Dallas Cowboys football team—was how empty that goal was. There must be something more.”
So some of those football players just discover a little younger than do some of us in our forties or fifties or at retirement age how hollow those goals have been and how, ultimately, the only great goal worth giving a lifetime to is that goal of becoming more and more conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. That’s a goal we can keep growing into all the days of our lives.
When our children were young, we read to them The Chronicles of Narnia, these wonderful children’s stories about the magical land of Narnia. In the second book, Prince Caspian, Lucy enters Narnia again, and she sees Aslan, this lion figure who represents Christ. She has not seen him in a long, long time, and so they have a wonderful reunion. Lucy says to Aslan, who represents Christ, “Aslan, you’re bigger now.”
Aslan says, “Lucy, that’s because you are older. You see, Lucy, every year that you grow, you will find me bigger.”
Hasn’t that been the case for many of you? For many of us, every year we grow, we find him bigger in his grace and in his goodness and in his faithfulness and in those promises that he has given us upon which we can depend all the days of our lives.
Paul, in Romans, is addressing a group of Christians who are living during the time when the reign of Nero is at its most irrational. The Christians are literally being fed to the lions. They are saying, “Iesus Christos Kurios,” Jesus Christ, Lord. We can sort of mumble that—“Yes, we believe Jesus Christ is Lord”—but in the first century, if you said, “Jesus Christ, Lord,” you were crucified, because you were supposed to say, “Caesar is lord.” But those early Christians said, “Jesus Christ is Lord,” and so they were nailed to the cross, or they were fed to the lions. It is in this kind of environment that Paul is writing. How in the world in that kind of environment does faith work itself out? That’s the question Paul addresses in the fifth chapter of Romans.
So, lets read Romans 5:1-5 now.
“Therefore, since we have been made right in God's sight by faith, we have peace with God because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us. Because of our faith, Christ has brought us into this place of highest privilege where we now stand, and we confidently and joyfully look forward to sharing God's glory. We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they are good for us—they help us learn to endure. And endurance develops strength of character in us, and character strengthens our confident expectation of salvation. And this expectation will not disappoint us. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love.”
Let’s Look at Three Biblical Principles of Suffering Taken From This Passage
Now, before we dig directly into Romans, let me give you three biblical presuppositions that we have drawn from these opening chapters of Romans as they relate to the suffering that Paul describes in the fifth chapter.
First of all, the vast majority of human suffering can be at least partially explained through the doctrine of free will. And Paul, in Romans chapters 1, 2, and 3, has been very clear in sketching for us the doctrine of free will—that we have been given by the grace of God free will; and in that free will, we will to rebel; and when we will to rebel, we bring havoc and suffering to ourselves and to others. When a man makes a decision that he wants to fulfill himself and do his own thing and irresponsibly leaves his wife and his children, a suffering comes into that household, we ought not blame that suffering on Jesus. God has not to caused that suffering. That suffering has come as a result of that man’s free will. He’s in rebellion.
That leads us to the second principle. Because of man’s rebellion, we live in a fallen world. We understand as biblical Christians that Satan is still the prince of the systems of this world (Ephesians 2:2 says that Satan is the spirit who works in those who are disobedient), and he will seek to bring havoc and heartache and disarray in any way that he can.
When Francis Schaeffer was suffering with cancer in Rochester, Minnesota, at Mayo Clinic. He used to comment on how struck he was with the courage and the character of the Christians who were suffering there with terminal illnesses, but yet at the same time how he was struck with the naivete of Christians, in terms of, What in the world do we expect? What in the world do we expect when we live in a fallen world, realizing that Satan is still the prince of the systems of this world? Yes, Satan is still the prince, but Jesus Christ is a King.
Third, we will not fully understand in this life the reason for many of life’s greatest tragedies. And so with the apostle Paul we will say in this lifetime, “We see through a mirror dimly.”
The Pilgrims would not fully understand in their lifetime the reason for the suffering that beset them. The first official Thanksgiving Day occurred as a unique holy day in 1621—in the fall of that year with lingering memories of the difficult, terrible winter they had just been through a few months before, in which scores and scores of babies and children and young people and adults had starved to death, and many of the Pilgrims had gotten to a point where they were even ready to go back to England. They had climbed into a ship and were in that harbor heading back to England, ready to give up. It was only as they saw another ship coming the other way, and on that ship there was a Frenchman named Delaware, and he came with some medical supplies and some food, that they had enough hope to go back and to try to live in the midst of those adverse sufferings. And yet they came to that first Thanksgiving with the spirit of giving and of sharing and of thankfulness.
The free will of man, the fallen world in which we live, and the reality that we see through a mirror dimly—these three biblical principles serve as a backdrop to what we learn this morning in the fifth chapter of Romans.
II. Rejoicing in the Midst of Suffering
“Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand and we rejoice. We rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God.” So says Romans 5:1
The key word for this passage of Scripture is the word rejoice. It comes from the Greek term kauchometha, and it literally means “hope and glory.” We have hope and glory.
Then we come, in verse three, to a verse that has puzzled and troubled Bible students through the centuries. What in the world is Paul driving at in verse 3 of Romans chapter 5? “More than that,” he says, “we rejoice, we glory and hope, in our suffering.” Notice the preposition. He doesn’t say for our suffering, as it’s taught in many segments of the Christian church. We don’t rejoice for the suffering, but (a better translation in terms of New Testament Greek) in the midst of the suffering. Right in the midst of it, we can rejoice. Please realize this is no verse that we can just pull out of its context and say that it is affirmed only here. No, it is the unanimous witness of the New Testament that somehow in the midst of suffering the Christian can rejoice.
He doesn’t just say, “We rejoice in the midst of suffering,” period. He says, “We rejoice in the midst of suffering because it produces something.” What does it produce? Look at the next phrase in your Bibles. “We rejoice in the midst of our suffering, knowing that suffering produces endurance. Endurance produces character.” Character is the blockbuster term here in Romans chapter 5. That’s the Greek term dokimas, and it literally means “someone or something that has been put to the test and has measured up.” If you have ever traveled to the Middle East, you may have taken note of the fact that you can visit a potter and you will look at a vessel that’s been through the furnace, and it’s been through the fire, and it hasn’t cracked. It hasn’t broken; it comes out whole. It comes out complete. If you turn that vessel over, on the bottom there is stamped DOKIMAS. It means “approved.” This is a vessel of character. It has withstood the test of the furnace where it has been refined, and it hasn’t broken; it is whole, complete. That’s character, tested and true. We will be refined in the furnace of life. Character, our character, is refined with adversity – financial loss, death in the family, persecution, loss of job, serious illness, or accident. God can use our suffering to make us stronger.
In verse four, it continues: “Character produces hope.” In the flow of the New Testament passage here, that hope is looking toward the future, the certainty we will spend eternity with Christ. As the Scripture says, “If we share in the sufferings of Jesus, we shall also share in his glory.” As Paul will say later in Romans 8:17 to these Christians living under the reign of Nero, “I reckon that the sufferings of this present hour cannot even be compared with the glory that shall be revealed.” This is a glory passage.
Let’s move on to the fifth and last verse we will look at today. Verse 5 introduces two new ingredients the apostle Paul has not yet mentioned so far in this great but brief theological treatise: the love of God and the Spirit of God. God’s love, God’s Spirit, enters our lives, and it changes everything. When one of the early martyrs was being burned at the stake, with the flames coming around his body, he looked down upon those who were burning him to death and he said, “Sirs, it matters little to me whether I burn in the air or one day rot in the ground. I have a physical body that will be exchanged for a spiritual one incorruptible. Do you think you can burn up God’s love?” You cannot burn up God’s love. It is with us even in the midst of the suffering, and in that we rejoice.
A widow shares her heart. Her husband has died suddenly, a massive heart attack. Her children have grown up, and they live in distant cities. And this woman, this widow, comes home from work at night, and as she arrives at home, she begins to fix dinner. She sets the table, and she gets out the plates for two, the placemats for two, the utensils, the knives, the forks, the spoons for two. She sets the table, and she cooks the meal, and she sits down. She looks across the table and realizes what she has done out of habit year after year after year. There will not be two; there will be one at that dinner table. And she opens up her study Bible, and she reads Romans 5, verse 3: “We rejoice in our suffering.” Then she says, “ what in the world does this mean?”
A pastor once officiated at the dedication service for a little baby named Steven. It was a typical dedication service with the exception that it did not take place in a sanctuary; it took place in a hospital room. Steven was 7 months old, and from the very first day of his birth he was critically ill. They sang and they prayed and they laughed and cried and they dedicated this baby to the Lord. A few days later he participated in a second service for little Steven, a memorial service. He died; he has gone to be with God, and his mother and father with empty and aching arms ask me, “What does Paul mean when he says, in Romans 5:3, we’re to rejoice even in this?”
Or consider the words of a letter that came across another pastor’s desk from a 9-year-old girl, Tammy. She writes, “I remember it was near my birthday. Dad said at lunch that he was leaving us. I tried to say, “No, Dad, don’t do it. Don’t go,” but I couldn’t get my voice up. My life sort of changed at that point—like I used to always be happy, but ever since then I have been sad.”
On the Upside, There are Three Reasons to Rejoice in the Midst of Suffering
Paul, in Romans 5, is seeking to sketch in for us a strategy as to how a person of faith is going to respond to suffering. In closing, let’s draw together three biblical principles that he affirms.
First, we can rejoice in the midst of our suffering because through suffering we can identify with Christ. Like it or not, you cannot deny the reality that there is an identification with Christ in suffering that comes in no other time or in no other place in life.
Another pastor writes, “in my last pastorate we went through an incredible agony together as a congregation, and that was the agony of one of our associate pastors who suffered and died with cancer. I can remember visiting him in our community hospital on one occasion. That particular day he had just lost control of all bodily functions and was becoming dehydrated. He had lost a tremendous amount of weight, and he was very weak. He turned to me, looked up, and saw that it was me sitting beside his bed, and as we held hands together, the first words he said to me were, “Ron, today I have sensed an identification with Christ when he was on that cross, and the humiliation that he must have felt there for hour after hour on that cross, that I have never felt before in my life. I am closer to him than ever.” I walked away inspired.”
As you begin to grow, as you begin to mature in a faith that touches the mind, the heart, and the will, you begin to discover that one of the great truths of Scripture is this: Christ did not die so that we wouldn’t suffer any more. Christ died that our suffering might be like his suffering. What was his suffering like? It was purposeful; it was sacrificial; it was for others.
Take some struggle in our lives. Many of you, struggle, for example, with sensitivity. You’re overly sensitive about any criticism that might come your way. What should you do? You should go before the Father, and say, “Lord, take this sensitivity that presently is a liability in my life, and turn it into an asset, that this sensitivity might go out to others—to the poor, the forgotten, the hungry, the unborn, the elderly—so that this sensitivity might be purposeful and self-sacrificial.” Jesus didn’t come that we wouldn’t suffer anymore. He came that our suffering might be like his suffering.
Second, we rejoice in the midst of our suffering because we know that suffering produces character. We suffer as the non-Christian suffers, but in the midst of the suffering we realize that something of eternal value can be produced: namely, dokimas, character. You go through the furnace, you go through the fire, and you come out on the other end, and the stamp is dokimas, “approved,” a man, a woman, of character.
If I can mention Tom Landry again, he shared once at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes conference. “My task,” he said, “is to renew the minds of our players so that I can get them to do what they do not want to do in order for them to achieve what they want to achieve.” We all want the character; we just don’t want the suffering. And yet Romans 5 teaches us that as we go through the process of suffering, there is produced the product of character.
Third and finally, we can rejoice in the midst of our suffering because we know that our suffering provides us with an opportunity to minister to others in their brokenness. Romans 5, verse 5: “God’s love breaks through.” And when it breaks through and touches our heart, it gives us a passion to take whatever wound has come into our life and to use it as a source of healing for others. Who best can minister to the alcoholic but the reforming alcoholic? Who best can minister to the family who has lost a child but another family who has lost a child? Who best can minister to the person who is going through the heartache of divorce, through a business failure, through a rebellious teenager in the home, through a difficult weight problem, through a low-self-esteem struggle year after year than someone who has been there and has felt God’s healing touch there? 2 Corinthians 1:3-5 says, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our comfort also abounds through Christ.”
What God wants us to be as a family of faith, according to Romans 5, is a group of wounded healers, taking our wounds, however big or small, and transforming them into a healing ministry for Christ. Elisabeth Elliot has been one of the great mentors and models of many Christians. After the death of her first husband, Jim Elliot (at the hand of the primitive Auca tribe of the Amazon) , she reached the Auca tribe for Jesus Christ. Years later she married another missionary, Addison Leitch. Shortly after Elisabeth Elliot married Addison Leitch, Addison was diagnosed as having two entirely distinct, unique, unrelated, painful types of cancer, and day and night, literally, Elisabeth Elliot had to care for this godly man. She said she used to pray that God would give her strength to get her through the week. Then it got so difficult that all she could pray for was that God would give her strength to get through the day. Then she used to pray that somehow God would just give her the strength to get through the hour, because at 9 a.m. it was unbearable to think about praying somehow about getting strength for 10 a.m. Some of you know that experience. In the midst of her struggle, when it was the most difficult, when Addison Leitch was going through the greatest amount of pain, she reread in her quiet time the story of John 6, where the Lord Jesus met a little boy who had five loaves and two fish. The disciples, as always, wanted to push the little ones away, but Jesus, as always, reached out in love to the little ones. He reached forward to that little one, took that offering, as meager as it was, blessed it, and transformed it, and it fed a multitude. She realized on that day that that was what Jesus Christ wanted to do with her suffering. No matter how big or how small, for any of us, God wants to take it as we offer it to him, and he will bless it, and he will transform it, and it will feed a multitude—as it has in the life of Elisabeth Elliot, and as it has in the lives of some of you in this church, who can affirm that truth over and over again. It might seem like a pittance. It might seem very small in relationship to somebody else’s suffering, but offer it to God, and he transforms it and uses it as a source of healing ministry forever.
Conclusion: Romans 5:1-5 Is Dependable
This is no message written from some ivory tower, some theological statement about suffering. Suffering has entered my life. I have suffered severe financial loss several times, as many of you have. There are no verses in Scripture that I have read as frequently as Romans 5:1-5. Let’s turn to this passage again and re-read it: “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God. And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” I affirm this morning that as God knows my heart, these words are true. They are dependable. We can bank our lives, all the days of our lives, upon them.
Nate Wright, some of you will remember, was an all-pro quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings. He had a story that was his favorite story, because it told the story of his life. Years ago, there was a master violinist in Europe. He would play in concerts, and he had a magnificent Stradivarius violin, extremely expensive. He would play the Stradivarius violin in concert and everyone would whisper in the crowd, “Listen to the beautiful sounds of the Stradivarius.” He would play in churches, and people would say, “Listen to the beautiful sounds of the Stradivarius.” He even played before kings and queens, and they, too, would turn to one another and say, “Listen to the beautiful sounds of the Stradivarius.” All the glory went to the instrument.
Then one day this master violinist was walking by a pawn shop. He noticed an old, beat-up, worn-out violin. He walked into the pawn shop and asked how much it would cost. The owner of the pawn shop told him the American equivalent of five dollars. He bought the violin, and he took it home. He polished it, and he refined it, and he tuned it, and he retuned it, and he built some character into that violin. Then, when he was to play the greatest performance of his life in a concert hall, he took out the little, five-dollar, worn-out, beat-up violin that he had polished and refined. He put it up to his chin, and he began to play, and everybody in the concert hall whispered, “Listen to the beautiful sounds of the Stradivarius.”
Many of you in this room know the truth of that story. There are people who look at some of you and say, “What a great man of faith! What a wonderful Christian woman!” and want to give glory to the instrument. But when you know the truth of Romans, chapters 1-5, you know the glory never goes to the instrument. The glory goes to the Master who has taken your life. He has shaped it, and he’s refined it, and he’s polished it, and he is beginning to transform you into someone who is making beautiful music. When you know that, because you know him, then you know the true meaning of Thanksgiving.
Let’s close with Philippians 4:4, “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice!” This week, meditate on these words penned by the Apostle Paul as he sat in his jail cell awaiting execution at the hand of his Roman captors, and then “rejoice” – it’s not Paul’s suggestion, it’s a command!
And 2 Corinthians 2:9-10: “And He said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness." Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ's sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
So, meditate on God’s goodness towards you this Thanksgiving Day. May He richly bless you as you walk close to Him.