Connections 03.19.2017: What Is and What Will Be

Romans 5:1-11

There was a time when I wanted everything to make sense. It didn’t want to, so I tried to force it.

It didn’t go well.

Somewhere along the way, I gave up on that project. Life’s been better since I did.

But folks do try to explain things, don’t they? One of the things we hear well-intentioned Christians say is, “Life’s tough; then you die. But then you get to go to heaven. So grin and bear it, praise God.” (Okay, that’s my paraphrase—but you’ve heard something like it, haven’t you?)

I’ve actually encountered church folks who deemed it unnecessary and misguided to try to make things better down here. Their logic went something like this: “God’s going to bring it all to an end anyway. So what’s the point in making any improvements?” They seemed to think we contributed to God’s purpose by making things worse. I admit to befuddlement. (They were talking about things like climate change and poverty. Interestingly, they were all about improving the lives of their children and grandchildren.)

That’s a rare opinion, though. I think many more Christians think that being miserable just comes with the earthly territory, but we should put on a happy face, because “when we all get to heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be!”

Now, we Christians do in fact believe that it’s all going to be all right some day. As the Gospel song puts it,

Trials dark on every hand, and we cannot understand
all the ways that God could lead us to that blessed promised land;
but He guides us with His eye, and we’ll follow till we die,
for we’ll understand it better by and by.

By and by, when the morning comes,
when the saints of God are gathered home,
we’ll tell the story how we’ve overcome,
for we’ll understand it better by and by.

Paul teaches us to look forward to overcoming life’s struggles and being gathered home. He talks about “our hope of sharing the glory of God” (v. 2b) and about the ultimate salvation we will receive through Christ (v. 10b).

But when he says that “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 1b), he’s talking about here and now—right here, right now, no matter what we’re going through.

And when he talks about how “we also boast in our sufferings,” he ends up saying that suffering leads to hope, which “does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (v. 5b).

Glory’s a-comin’—and that’s great. We look forward to it. We look forward to being with Jesus forever.

But God’s grace, God’s love, and God’s Spirit are foretastes of glory divine. They are here with us right now—and that’s great, too.

I think that knowing that God is with us and that God loves us is even better than knowing why stuff happens. I know I’d rather be sure of God’s love and presence and have to wonder about suffering than know why we suffer and have to wonder about God’s love and presence.

So yes, let’s look forward to what will be. But let’s rest in what is.…

Discussion

1. What does Paul say is the basis of our being at peace with God?
2. What does Paul mean when he says we “boast in our sufferings” (v. 3)?
3. Paul says that suffering leads to hope. How do we get from suffering to hope? What do we hope in?
4. How do we know God loves us?
5. What does all that God has already done for us teach us about what God will do for us in the future?

Reference Shelf

In 5:3-5, Paul builds on these opening statements, using the rhetorical device known as the sorites or climax. The device consists of a chain of phrases in which the last word of one is picked up by the first word of the next. When properly constructed, the phrases create a sense of urgency and, at the end, of satisfying “climax.” The technique is widely used in antiquity (see H. Fischel, “The Uses of the Sorites [Climax, Gradatio] in the Tannaitic Period,” Hebrew Union College Annual 44 [1973]: 119-51). The most impressive example in the New Testament is 2 Pet 1:5-7. There is a sorites similar to this one in Jas 1:2-4, and in 1 Pet 1:5-7 a less striking combination involving testing and faith. It is possible that all three authors were working with a common tradition. Certainly the theme of “joy in suffering” finds its oxymoronic place in the religion of a crucified and raised messiah! In light of what has been given in Christ, Paul says, Christians can boast “even in tribulations.” The term suggests the sort of afflictions that are imposed from the outside, as by oppressors or opponents (see 1 Thess 1:6; 3:3; 2 Thess 1:4; 1 Cor 7:28; 2 Cor 1:4; 7:4). Paul will pick up this same term again in 8:35, when he declares that “tribulation or distress or persecution” will not separate them from the love of Christ. The experience of affliction instigated by others is deeply ingrained in the Christian experience, beginning with Jesus himself, of whom Paul says in 15:3 (quoting LXX Ps 68:9), “the reproaches of those reproaching you fell on me.” Here Paul affirms that tribulation can be “boasted on” because Christians know something that it can accomplish: “tribulation produces endurance and endurance produces character, and proven character, hope.”

Paul’s remarkably optimistic assessment of suffering has two possible roots. The first is the tradition of Greco-Roman philosophy, which, especially in Stoicism, gave a positive valuation to suffering as an element in the formation of character. The conviction that “to learn meant to suffer” (mathein pathein) enabled otherwise negative human experiences to be given a positive appreciation (see Herodotus, Persian War 1.207; Seneca, On Providence 1.6; Epictetus, Discourses 1.29.33; and C. H. Talbert, Learning through Suffering: The Educational Value of Suffering in the New Testament and in its Milieu [Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991]). More proximately, however, the suffering of Jesus (which Paul saw as continuing in his own sufferings and those of his readers [see Col 1:24; Gal 2:20; 4:19]) guides his perception of suffering as yielding endurance and endurance, proven character, and finally, hope. Jesus’ death on the cross showed how, at the depths of human shame, foolishness, and powerlessness, the glory and wisdom and power of God could most effectively be at work (1 Cor 1:18-25). This conviction concerning the crucified messiah enabled Paul to view all of life’s experiences in this complex, relational fashion, so that suffering takes on entirely new dimensions (see 2 Cor 1:5; 4:11-12). Jesus’ death on the cross then becomes paradigmatic for faith in God’s presence and power despite human appearances: awe felt that we had received the sentence of death; but that was to make us rely, not on ourselves, but on the “God who raises the dead” (2 Cor 1:9).

Luke Timothy Johnson, Reading Romans: A Literary and Theological Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2001), 85-86.

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra and father to Joshua (Michelle) and Sara (Benjamin). A graduate of Mercer University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has previously served as a pastor and as a university professor. He lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville, Georgia. You can visit and communicate with him at MichaelRuffin.com. He is the Connections Series Curriculum Editor.

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