Few doctrines within Christendom tend to make people bristle as much as the doctrine of suffering. While there are many doctrines that divide, this is perhaps one of the more unilateral doctrines that unites Christians of various denominational stripes. The reason I say this is simply due to the fact that many are averse to teaching on suffering, even within my own Reformed-ish world. In some respects, at least within the context of the Western world that I am part of, we all believe the prosperity gospel, even if only a little bit. We might shun the more nefarious teachers of the movement and rightly decry it as a false gospel, providing a false hope—yet what we truly believe about prosperity comes out when we face hardship. In other words, many profess one thing with their lips, yet their hearts cling to another version of the “truth” on the matter.
I wonder, truly wonder, what would happen were our world to come crashing down. How many would prove to be lovers of this world were the choice to be forced: you can either keep Christ, or you can keep your job. Or, perhaps if the choice were less sanguine: renounce the faith or your loved one dies. These types of mental exercises are impossible for first-world Christians to entertain simply because we have no clue of a faith that demands an incredibly costly obedience. In many cases, we think the cross we bear is that we didn’t get the promotion at work, we aren’t able to buy the latest gadgets, or perhaps less materialistically, we are struggling to cope with boredom as we are forced to stay inside for a couple of weeks. This is, as Carl Trueman put it, the luxury suffering of the overstimulated middle-class.
We are a world that in many ways is “safer” than any generation before us, yet more are plagued with anxieties and worries than our forebearers ever were. One of the reasons I believe this is so, is simply because we have become “soft” in many ways. We have little concern of war on our shores; we do not have a multitude of children because of child-mortality rates; we likewise have an abundance of food, some of which will inevitably make its way into the trash simply because we are not “in the mood” for it. We are used to a certain decadence and prosperity that when threatened even minimally, our immediate reaction is one of doubt and uncertainty. Realize how twisted that truly is. Our sense of safety and well-being are intimately wed with having an abundance of things and relative ease. We draw comfort and security from that abundance and then become perplexed as to why we are tossed about by major trials when we failed the test of minor ones. To put it bluntly, we suffer very little, and as a result, we are immature.
Yet rather than embrace suffering as the means of the maturation of the soul, we eschew it, eager to resume our lives of decadence and ease. We marvel at the faithfulness of historic Christians and the persecuted church—yet do everything in our relative power to keep suffering at an arm’s length away from us at all times. Do not misunderstand me. My aim is not to say one should seek out hardship, but rather, one should joyfully embrace it when it comes for the sake of what it produces. Suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope—which does not disappoint because God has poured out His love into our hearts through the Spirit He has given us (Rom. 5:3-5). This passage reveals to us what one might call the “Golden Chain of Suffering” whose end result is a hope fixated upon the love of God.
The word Paul uses here in v. 3 that is often translated as “rejoice” or “exult” would actually be better translated as “boast” in this case. It is the same word Paul uses in his famous “boasting” against the so-called “Super-Apostles” in 2 Cor. 10-12. Rather than boast of his strengths, the apostle boasts of his weaknesses and afflictions. Why? In his weakness, Christ’s power rests upon him; in his frailty, he becomes strong, and therefore, he is εὐδοκῶ, or well-pleased in recognition that God’s favor rests upon him (2 Cor. 12:9-10). The same idea is being expressed here to the Romans. Paul is willing to boast in his tribulations because he knows what will be produced as a result. Paul is aware that suffering produces a patient expectation of future deliverance. Furthermore, his desire is that the Romans would also express such boasting, the basis of which being their justification through faith, the subsequent peace brought through Jesus Christ, and the hope of sharing in the glory of God Himself (Rom. 5:1-2).
This steadfastness then produces tested character—a “tried and true” faith that becomes evident to any who see our resolve in the midst of hardship. This δοκιμήν, or “proven faith,” is the same that Peter speaks of in 1 Pt. 1:7. It is the tested genuineness of our faith produced from perseverance in trials, which is more precious than gold itself, that results in praise, glory, and honor given to Christ. It is a faith that has been tested, and passed the test, and this proven character then produces hope. It is no mere hope that looks to things working out for the sake of their own ends, but it is the Christian expectation set upon the promises of God Himself, whose ultimate purpose is to glorify Himself through a grand display of His covenant-faithfulness.
Thus, what Paul shows the suffering Christian is that their suffering is not purposeless, but linked intrinsically to perseverance, and perseverance is linked intrinsically to a proven faith, and that proven faith finds its basis in the Christian hope. The Christian knows that this hope doesn’t disappoint, because this hope rests upon the love of God Himself, which he now makes clear is grounded in the sacrifice of Christ and all the blessings that entails for the believer, which continues all the way through to the doxology at the end of chapter 11. What is incredibly important for us in this is the recognition that without suffering, there is no resultant endurance. If there is no resultant endurance, there is no proven character. If there is no proven character, there is no hope.
I am more than willing to bet that people want hope though. The problem, of course, is not that individuals desire hope, but that they don’t the desire the God-ordained means by which it is intended to come, as we have already deduced above. In other words: people are all about receiving the hope of God, but few are willing to endure through the long seasons of trials which are guaranteed to come to those in Christ Jesus (Jn. 15:20; Acts 14:22; 2 Tim. 3:12). To put it in another sense, as a friend jokingly paraphrased the simple wisdom of Ronnie Coleman, “Everybody wants them big muscles, but nobody wants to lift them heavy weights.”
Part and parcel to our avoidance of suffering is that we confuse God’s blessing with living in a particularly affluent culture. We do not sense God’s blessing to us in and through adversity, even though the Scriptures speak routinely to this reality above and beyond that of a state of we construe to be a blessing. We also neglect to factor in the reality that God is pleased to have His people be a peculiar people—that in fact, He is pleased to bring us through the crucible, not only to refine us, but to cause us to reflect the image of Christ more clearly to an unbelieving world. It is little wonder to me why so many in the Western Evangelical world reject suffering when they attribute it directly to the hand of Satan, rather than God Himself, who ordains whatsoever comes to pass and it is His will that we would suffer.
If though, we are to be found as a people who testify of the hope within us, that is, the hope that is founded upon the love of God, we must suffer first. The question I ask is if we will endure it. The church has long lived in relative ease and prosperity in the West. We have enjoyed our time at the “cool kids” table—yet even though holding to biblically faithful views in this age is becoming swiftly less popular than in days past, we are not yet persecuted for these ideals. Many have also enjoyed the affluence of a prosperous culture, one where anyone with spare change is able to boast of being in the top 2% of the world’s wealth of all time. Likewise, we are free to practice our faith in the public square, without the prospect of the government imprisoning us for the free exercise of it. We have all of this available to us and more, which in my mind makes it all the harder for the Christian to embrace suffering as the means of the maturation of the soul. We are told to not be surprised when fiery trials come upon us—yet we still see it as a strange thing that is happening to us (1 Pt. 4:12). We neglect to remember that even Jesus learned obedience through suffering (Heb. 5:8). If the route of our Savior was made perfect through the school of suffering, how much greater must we, whose desires are not always in submission to the Father’s will, suffer so that our training in righteousness be made complete?
Interestingly enough, if we do embrace the tribulations that must come, we know the next step in the sequence of the Golden Chain of Suffering is endurance, and from endurance, a tested genuineness of our faith, which then leads to a hope that does not disappoint. As Paul revealed, that hope is placed squarely in the love of God displayed through Christ. The next logical question to ask then, is if our default reaction to suffering is to avoid it, what does that mean for the thing we have placed our hope in?