A Christian Perspective on Suffering (preaching resource for 7/23/23, 8th Sunday after Pentecost)
This post exegetes Romans 8:17-27, providing context for the 7/23/23 RCL Epistles reading. It draws on "The Expositor’s Bible Commentary" and "The Message of Romans" by John Stott.
|"The Suffering Christ" by de Bois Clair|
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
Romans Chapter 8 addresses the ministry of the Holy Spirit in our sanctification (which, as Paul notes in Romans 7, is something the law is incapable of doing). This transforming ministry of the Spirit has multiple aspects and brings us multiple blessings—several of which are enumerated in Romans 8:1-17. But at the end of v17, Paul introduces a part of our sanctification we often find troubling—the suffering we experience as Christians.
Why do we suffer in this life? Paul now turns to this question, pointing out that for Christians, suffering is not meaningless, nor an indication that God has abandoned us—rather, through the indwelling Spirit, our suffering is redemptive—it leads to our progressive transformation (sanctification) and ultimately our glorification. In vv18-25 Paul describes the nature and context of our suffering, then in vv26- 27 defines the Spirit’s ministry to us in the midst of our suffering. Paul's presentation involves five interrelated and essential truths:
1. Both suffering and glory await us
Romans 8:17-18. Christ suffered and then experienced the fullness of glory. In Christ, so shall we. 'Suffering' and 'glory' are inseparable for Christians, since suffering is the way to glory (17; 1 Pet. 5:10) and since it includes not only the opposition of a godless world but also the trials and frustrations of living with our human frailty—both physical and moral. The glory that awaits us is the unutterable splendor of God, eternal, immortal and incorruptible. One day that glory *will be revealed* (18) 'to us' (RSV) because we will see it, and *in us* (NIV) because we will share in it and be fully transformed by it (2 Thess.1:10). This glory is 'in store for us' (REB), though the precise nature of 'what we will be has not yet been made known' (1 Jn.3:2).
2. Yet our present suffering cannot be compared to our future glory
Romans 8:18. *Our present sufferings*, or literally 'the sufferings of the now time', of this continuing age, painful though they are, *are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us* (18). Though suffering is part of the road to glory, they are not comparable. In an earlier letter Paul has evaluated them in terms of their 'weight'. Our present troubles, he declared, are 'light and momentary', but the glory to come is 'eternal' and 'far outweighs them all' (2 Cor. 4:17). The magnificence of God's revealed glory will greatly surpass the unpleasantness of our present suffering.
3. All creation suffers with us
Romans 8:19-22. We are not alone in our suffering—in fact, all nature shares in it—all of creation suffers in the present and has, with us, the hope and expectation of future glory, hence *the creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed* (19). In discussing creation’s sharing with us, Paul addresses its past, future and present:
PAST: *The creation was subjected to frustration* (20a). God placed on the natural order a curse as the result of Adam's disobedience (Gen. 3:17, Rev. 22:3). In consequence, the ground would 'produce thorns and thistles', so that Adam and his descendants would extract food from it only by 'painful toil' and sweat, until death claimed them and they returned to the dust from which they had been taken. Paul here refers to the result of this curse with the one word *frustration* (literally, ‘emptiness’)—it is the word used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint) in Ecc. 1:2 for 'Vanity of vanities!...All is vanity' (RSV). Ecclesiastes expresses the absurdity and emptiness of a life lived 'under the sun', imprisoned in time and space, with no ultimate reference point to either God or eternity. Paul adds that the creation's subjection to this 'futility' (RSV) was *not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope* (20b). God has hope for the world on which he place the curse because he has the intention and power to reverse that curse. In that reality we take hope as well.
FUTURE: *The creation itself will be liberated* (21a). The word 'hope' (20b) is the pivot on which Paul turns from the past to the future of creation. God promises that its subjection to frustration will not last forever. One day it will experience a new beginning, which Paul terms a 'liberation', with both a negative and a positive aspect.
Negatively, creation will be *liberated from its bondage to decay* (21b). The Greek word for decay seems to denote not only that the universe is running down (as we would say), but that nature is also enslaved, locked into an unending cycle, so that conception, birth and growth are relentlessly followed by decline, decay, death and decomposition. In addition, there may be a passing reference to predation and pain, especially the latter which is mentioned in the next verse. So futility, bondage, decay and pain are the words the apostle uses to indicate that creation is out of joint because it is under judgment. It still works, for the mechanisms of nature are fine-tuned and delicately balanced. And much of it is breathtakingly beautiful, revealing the Creator’s hand. But it is also in bondage to disintegration and frustration. In the end, however, it will be 'freed from the shackles of mortality' (REB), 'rescued from the tyranny of change and decay' (JBP).
Positively, creation will be *liberated...into the glorious freedom of the children of God* (21c), literally 'into the freedom of their glory'. These nouns correspond to those of the previous clause, for nature will be brought out of bondage into freedom, out of decay into glory; that is, out of corruption into incorruption. Indeed, God's creation will share in the glory of God's children, which is itself the glory of Christ. This expectation that nature itself will be renewed is integral to the Old Testament prophetic vision of the messianic age, especially in the Psalms and Isaiah where vivid images are used to express Israel's faith that the earth and heavens will be changed like clothing (Ps. 102:25ff.); that God 'will create new heavens and a new earth', including a new Jerusalem (Is. 65:17; 66:22); that the desert will blossom like the rose, and so display the glory of Yahweh (Is. 35:1; 32:15); that wild and domestic animals will co-exist in peace and that even the most ferocious and poisonous creatures 'will neither harm nor destroy' throughout God's new world (Is.11:6; 65:25).
The New Testament writers do not take up the details of this poetic imagery. But Jesus himself spoke of the 'new birth' of the world at his coming (Mt. 19:28); Peter of the 'restoration’ of all things (Acts 3:19, 21); Paul here of the liberation, and elsewhere of the reconciliation, of all things (Eph. 1:10; Col. 1:20); and others of the new heaven and earth, in which God will dwell with his people, and from which all separation, sorrow, pain and death will have been eliminated (Rev. 21:22; 2 Pet.3:13; Heb.12:26). The general promise of the renovation and transformation of nature is plain, including the eradication of all harmful elements and their replacement by righteousness, peace, harmony, joy and security. But we should be cautious in pressing the details. The future glory is beyond our imagination. What we do know is that God's material creation will be redeemed and glorified, because God's children will be redeemed and glorified.
PRESENT: *The whole creation has been groaning...right up to the present time* (22). While we eagerly await the final revelation (19), the creation, in the present, is *groaning* in pain. These groans are not meaningless, however, or symptoms of despair. On the contrary they are like *the pains of childbirth*, for they provide assurance of the coming emergence of a new order. In Jewish apocalyptic literature Israel's current sufferings were frequently called 'the birthpangs of the messianic age'. That is, they were seen as the painful prelude to, indeed the herald of, the victorious arrival of the Messiah. Jesus himself used the same expression in his own apocalyptic discourse, speaking of false teachers, wars, famines and earthquakes as 'the beginnings of birth-pains' (NIV), that is, preliminary signs of his coming (Mt. 24:8; Mk. 13:8; Jn.16:20).
Verse 22 actually brings together the past, present and future. For not only is the creation groaning now, but it is groaning 'until now', as *has been groaning* in the NIV implies. And since its groans are labor pains, they constitute a longing for the coming new order when the creation will be liberated, transformed and suffused with the glory of God.
4. Though we suffer, we have hope
Romans 8:23-25. Having examined the hope of the creation in the midst of its suffering, Paul next compares it to our circumstance as God’s children:
*We...have the firstfruits of the Spirit* (23a). Suffering can cause God’s children to loose hope. But the indwelling Holy Spirit is our assurance that our glorification is coming. In this way, the Spirit is like the *firstfruits*—the first part of a harvest which is the assurance and pledge that the full harvest will follow. Although we have not yet received our final adoption or redemption, we have already received the Spirit as both foretaste and promise of these future blessings and thus we do not loose hope in our suffering—the best is yet to come!
*We ...groan inwardly* (23b). In this time of waiting, however, we do ‘groan’. This juxtaposition of the Spirit's indwelling and our inward groaning should not surprise us. For the very presence of the Spirit (being only the firstfruits) is a constant reminder of the incompleteness of our salvation as we share with the creation in frustration, bondage to decay and pain. So one reason for our groaning is our physical frailty and mortality. Paul expresses this elsewhere: 'Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling [meaning probably our resurrection body].... for while we are in this tent [our temporary, material body], we groan and are burdened....' (2 Cor.5:2, 4). But it is not only our frail body which makes us groan; it is also our fallen nature, which hinders us from behaving as we should, and would altogether prevent us from it, were it not for the indwelling Spirit (Romans 7:17, 20). We long, therefore, for our *sarx* (fallen nature) to be destroyed and for our *soma* (physical body) to be transformed. Thus our groans express both present pain and future longing. We are thus reminded that pain is part of the journey.
*We wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies* (23c). But in the midst of our groaning, we have eager anticipation. Just as the groaning creation waits eagerly for God's sons to be revealed (19), so we groaning Christians wait eagerly for our bodily redemption—the fullness of our adoption as sons. We have, of course, already been adopted by God (15), and the Spirit assures us that we are already his children (16). Yet there is an even deeper and richer child-Father relationship to come when we are fully 'revealed' as his children (19) and 'conformed [fully] to the likeness of his Son' (29). Again, we have already been redeemed, but not yet our bodies. Already our spirits are alive (10), but one day the Spirit will also give life to our bodies (11). More than that, our bodies will be changed by Christ to be 'like his glorious body' (Phil. 3:21). 'Bondage to decay' will be replaced by the 'freedom of glory' (21).
*In this hope we were saved* (24a). *Were saved* is in the aorist tense, which bears witness to our decisive past liberation from the guilt and bondage of our sins, and from the just future judgment of God upon them (cf. Eph.2:8). In the present we thus remain ‘half-saved’—we have not yet been saved from the outpouring of God's wrath in the Day of Judgment (5:9), nor have the final vestiges of sin in our human personality been eradicated. Not yet has our *sarx* been obliterated; not yet has our *soma* been redeemed. So we are saved *in hope* with the assurance of our future total liberation (24a), just as the creation was subjected to frustration *in...hope* of being set free from it (20). This double hope looks to the future and to things which, being future, are so far unseen. For *hope that is seen*, having been realized in our experience, *is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has?* (24b). Instead, *we hope for what we do not yet have* (25a).
*We wait for it patiently* (25b). Because we have this hope, we are confident in God's promises that the firstfruits will be followed by the full harvest—bondage will be followed by freedom, decay by incorruption, and labor pains by the birth of the new world. This whole section is a notable example of what it means to be living 'in between times', between present difficulty and future destiny, between the already and the not yet, between suffering and glory. 'We were saved in hope' brings them together. And in this tension the correct Christian posture is that of waiting 'eagerly' (23) with keen expectation, and waiting 'patiently' (25), steadfast in the endurance of our trials.
This combination of ‘eagerly’ and ‘patiently’ is significant. We are to wait neither so eagerly that we lose patience, nor so patiently that we lose expectation—but eagerly and patiently together. Yet it is hard to keep this balance. Some Christians over-emphasize the call to patience. They lack enthusiasm and lapse into lethargy, apathy and pessimism. They have forgotten God's promises, and are guilty of unbelief. Others grow impatient of waiting. They are so carried away with enthusiasm that they almost try to force God's hand. They are determined to experience now even what is not yet available. Understandably anxious to emerge out of the painful present of suffering and groaning, they talk as if the resurrection had already taken place, and as if the body should no longer be subject to weakness, disease, pain and decay. Yet such impatience is a form of presumption. It is to rebel against the God of history, who has indeed acted conclusively for our salvation, and who will most assuredly complete (when Christ comes) what he has begun, but who refuses to be hustled into changing his planned timetable just because we do not enjoy having to go on waiting, suffering and groaning.
God give us a patient eagerness and an eager patience as we wait for his promises to be fulfilled!
5. The Spirit intercedes for us as we suffer
Romans 8:26-27. In this life of waiting we face discouragements and struggles, but God does not leave us alone—rather he enters into our suffering with us through the ministry of the Holy Spirit—here viewed from the perspective of his involvement in our prayers. Indeed, Christian prayer is impossible without the Holy Spirit. It is he who causes us to cry 'Abba, *Father*' (15) when we pray. Prayer is in itself an essentially Trinitarian exercise. It is access to the Father through the Son and by the Holy Spirit (Eph.2:18). The inspiration of the Spirit is just as necessary for our prayers as the mediation of the Son. We can approach the Father only through the Son and only by the Spirit. *In the same way*, Paul begins (26), probably meaning that as our Christian hope sustains us, so does the Holy Spirit. In general, *The Spirit helps us in our weakness* (26a), that is, in the ambiguity and frailty of our 'already-not yet' existence. In particular, he helps our weakness in prayer. In this sphere our infirmity is our ignorance: *We do not know what we ought to pray for* (26b). But he knows what we do not know. In consequence, *the Spirit himself intercedes for us* (26c).
Thus the children of God have two divine intercessors: Christ our intercessor in the court of heaven and the Holy Spirit our intercessor in our own hearts. Moreover, the Spirit's intercession is said to be *with groans that words cannot express* (26d), or 'sighs too deep for words' (RSV). The point is not that the groans cannot be put into words, but that in fact they are not. They are unexpressed, rather than inexpressible. In the context, these wordless groans must surely be related to the groans both of God's creation (22) and of God's children (23), namely 'agonized longings' (JBP) for final redemption and the consummation of all things. Why do we not know what to pray for? Perhaps because we are unsure whether to pray for deliverance from our sufferings or for strength to endure them. Also, since we do not know what we will be (1 Jn. 3:2) or when or how, we are in no position to make precise requests. So the Spirit intercedes for us, and does so with speechless groans.
It is truly amazing that, having written of the groaning creation and of the groaning church, Paul should now write that the Holy Spirit intercedes for us in unspoken groanings. That is, his intercession is accompanied by them and expressed in them. True, God's creation and God's children groan because of their present state of imperfection, and there is nothing imperfect about the Holy Spirit. It must be, therefore, that the Holy Spirit identifies with our groans, with the pain of the world and the church, and shares in the longing for the final freedom of both. We and he groan together and although wordless, these groans are not meaningless. For God the Father, *who searches our hearts* - a uniquely divine activity - *knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God's will (27; 1 Jn.5:14).
And so we learn and are comforted to know that three persons are involved in our praying. First, we ourselves in our weakness do not know what to pray for. Secondly, the indwelling Spirit helps us by interceding for us and through us, with speechless groans but according to God's will. Thirdly, God the Father, who both searches our hearts and knows the Spirit's mind, hears and answers accordingly. Of these actors, however, it is the Holy Spirit who is emphasized. Paul makes three statements about him. First, 'the Spirit helps us' (because of our weak half-saved situation); secondly, 'the Spirit intercedes for us' (because of our ignorance of what to pray for); and thirdly, 'the Spirit intercedes according to God's will' (and therefore God listens and responds).
Thanks be to God. Amen.