Monday, 6 February 2012

How can suffering be 'good'?

28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. (Romans 8)

3 More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. 6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die - 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5)
I've been considering these two passages in light of each other. I suspect most Christians will find themselves reflecting on Romans 8:28 at various times in their walk. It can be a cause of both encouragement and consternation. Consternation because often when we're in the midst of a trial what we experience feels far from good. Yet encouragement because we know that our great Saviour who endured the ultimate trial so that He could call us according to His purpose is at work for our good in all situations. Since Jesus demonstrated His love for us by dying on the cross for our sin we can be sure that He will never leave nor forsake us and, since we know that God rules over all His creation, we can be sure that the same love is actively at work when God allows suffering and tribulation into our lives. We may not understand what He is doing but we can be sure His motive is love.

Of course, it takes faith to believe all this and that is not always easy when our circumstances and emotions scream for our attention and our doubts and fears seem more real to us than God's promised presence. God may want to use it to develop in me endurance, character and hope but, if I'm honest, I'd rather He did that without me having to suffer! Besides isn't this the wrong way round? I mean, if I must endure suffering, then can't God give me the hope, character and endurance I need first? Then I'd be better equipped to cope with suffering! Why do I have to suffer in order to develop the sort of character that can endure suffering? That sounds like an employer who says you can't have this job without already having experience of doing this job! As if that's not enough, I'm talking about coping but Paul expects us to rejoice in our suffering! You have to be kidding, right? Sometimes God's ways can seem so hard to us.

As I reflect on these verses I have to admit that my experience of rejoicing in suffering is very limited. Naturally, I would rather not suffer at all, but, since scripture tells me to expect it in so many places (e.g. 1 Pet. 2:21) then my goal has to be to endure it well and seek to glorify God through it. It is quite humbling to think how often I have sought to escape suffering rather than embrace it as part of God’s necessary plan of working all things for good. No surprise then that I know little about rejoicing in suffering.

This brings me to why I am considering these two passages together. The problem with Romans 8:28 is what we do with the word 'good'. It is very easy to read into it whatever we want to define as good. Thoughts of a life of comfort and ease may readily come to mind. Certainly it’s hard to think of suffering as being good. Then there's the danger that we may happily endure a season of trail only because deep down, we expect some sort of reward from God in this life. The truth is, it may never come.

So, what is the 'good' of Romans 8:28? And, if suffering is a necessary part of our walk with Christ that is to be embraced, how does suffering work for this good? Drawing from Romans 5 we can see that suffering is a necessary part of being transformed to become more like Christ for it produces character and character in turn produces hope. This hope is a confident trust in Christ. It's a hope that will not disappoint because it’s not based on anything this world has to offer but on the rock solid promises of God. However what I am learning is how hard it is to have this kind of hope when we are also secretly trying to trust in our own performance, seek approval from those around us, control people and circumstances or satisfy the longings of our souls with worldly pleasures. These are all false saviours and gods - idols. Thus any suffering that takes these idols from us is a mercy because it leads us to trust in Christ alone who is our true treasure in heaven.

So one answer to the question how do we rejoice in suffering is because we know that through suffering we will be further stripped of our dependency on the things that we would trust instead of Christ so that we may rest and rejoice in Him alone. Since we were made for God, that is, to find our purpose and satisfaction in Him, all created things are meant to be pointers to lead us to thank and worship Him. The problem is we turn created things into ultimate things that we value above the God who made them. Thus anything which leads us further into the purpose for which we were made and into the loving embrace of the God who is love and who will never reject us and who is the only one who will truly satisfy the longings of our souls is a far greater 'good' than anything else we can imagine. This is a 'good' worth suffering for.

So, in summary, I put these two verses together to remind me that the good I really want is the one that God has planned for me. A good where I am always looking to Him, rejoicing in Him, being satisfied in Him and counting all things as rubbish compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Jesus Christ my Lord. Though this will involve suffering, in fact, it will require nothing less than me dying to all my own selfish fantasies about how my life should go, yet, because God is working that good in me, it will be worthwhile because the ultimate goal, to borrow the language of John Piper, is for God to be more glorified in me through me being more satisfied in Him.

There is a line in the song "It was Your grace" which goes "You stripped me of everything I would depend on, so I’d depend on You". I am realising that this process has a long way to go in me but I have tasted of His goodness and am thirsty for more. May God who gave His son for my sake and who has poured His love into my heart through the Holy Spirit work all things for good in me for the glory of His holy name. Amen.

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