“We continue to shout our praise even when we’re hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next. In alert expectancy such as this, we’re never left feeling shortchanged. Quite the contrary—we can’t round up enough containers to hold everything God generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit!” (Romans 5:3,4 MSG)
In the older version: “We rejoice in our sufferings”. It’s an easy statement to misconstrue. There are some who would say that if we had sufficient faith, then we would not suffer at all. They maintain this in the face of an extraordinary amount of Biblical evidence. Think of the life of Job, Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” and, of course, the very tenor of the life and work –and death- of Jesus himself.
No, “In this world, you WILL have trouble…” (John 16:33).
Again there are those who would say that what was to be done was to grit your teeth and bear it. It’s the reply of the Stoic.
“No matter how strait the gate
nor charged with punishment the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the master of my soul.”
Now I know that this was a life-changing insight for Nelson Mandela and am not belittling the fortitude of those who are forced to bear suffering. But we must acknowledge that this is not the point Paul was making. I do not rejoice in my suffering against all odds.
Nor do I enjoy pain! Any visit to the dentist should bring home with resounding clarity the fact that we are not called to be masochists!
No. Paul was able to say “We rejoice in our sufferings” because of what those sufferings produce. “Suffering [he goes on] produces perseverance, perseverance, character; and character, hope.”
He was indicating a process that created something, and he rejoiced in the fact of that result. Now, strictly speaking, the word that he uses for “suffering” does not mean sickness, sorrow or bereavement but tribulation (thlipsis) which includes all the pressures and pains of a hostile world. “When troubles come, and my heart burdened be…” It’s the stuff that comes at you all the time.
Jesus described such suffering as a door into glory. Look at Luke 24:26. “The Christ must suffer and so enter into his glory”. Paul says the same in Romans 8:17. We follow his lead, as servants following their boss: “Provided we suffer with him, in order that we may also be glorified with him”.
We don’t rejoice in the sufferings themselves, but we learn to see the big picture. We rejoice in our anticipation of the glory to come (v2) and we rejoice in the troubles that form the door to it (v3). Not as a masochist, not as a stoic, but because it works something out in us. The process has three stages.
It produces perseverance (or endurance). That is, the very endurance we need in suffering is produced by it, just as antibodies are produced in the human body by infection. I’m not glad of the infection but I’m glad for what it produces. I cannot learn to stick it out without suffering, because without that suffering there would be nothing to stick out!
Secondly, perseverance produces character (or experience AV). Character is the quality of someone who, in the old expression, has “gone through the mill”. Interesting, isn’t it? If you have “gone through the mill, then you’ve been pushed and pulled in every direction, but ultimately, what comes forth is a good, useful product. So it is with us. Don’t you know someone who has “been through it” and come out strong? They have character.
I always think of Matt and Beth Redman and their poignant song “Blessed be your name” with its mature reflection on this point. It’s a song of experience and trust. Character. “Suffering produces endurance and endurance, character.”
And character produces hope. Hope here means the happy certainty of final glory. When you have been through the mill and come out triumphant, your triumph is not in your own ability to withstand pressure but in your developing insight into what God is doing, and into what he will do, ultimately. “He who has begun a good work in you will complete it…”
Ultimately, HE is centre-stage, number one, the hero of my life, not me. He is working to transform my character so that it radiates with his glory. I expect it. I anticipate it, and I see all this “stuff” happening, as part of the journey into it.
And that’s the link that is always there, between suffering and glory. So if in v2 we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God, then in v3 we rejoice in our sufferings too, because glory is the end and suffering is the means to the end.
And Paul –who knew very well what it was to go through physical pain and distresses- Paul selects an interesting word to describe his response to suffering. In English, you choose between saying “I’m pleased” or “I’m happy” or “It’s ok, I guess.” But Paul pushes it up a notch: “I’m delighted” “I’m thrilled” “I’m ecstatic”. He uses a word that describes punching a fist in the air and shouting YES. I EXULT in my sufferings. I gloat over them, not because of what they are but because of what they do, pushing me into Christ, developing my resolve to be in him, totally.