The Problem of Suffering; the Promise of Glory
Scripture: Romans 8:18–8:25
Every promise in life is undergirded by hope. When a parent promises a child a future fulfilment, hope fills the child even when waiting seems long. When a lover promises marriage to his beloved, hope fills the heart until the day of wedding arrives. When a treatment promises healing, hope sustains through the pains of therapy. Sometimes the promise seems to be far off and waiting feels hard; patience may falter or even the promise itself might be relegated to memory. At other times such promises fail and hope crumbles. The fulfilment does not happen; the relationship falls apart; the wound never heals; cancer is not beaten. Waiting and suffering seem to have been in vain. But when the promise is realized, the day is glorious and joy is abundant. Waiting for the promise was worth it; patience was not in vain; suffering was not meaningless. And it all really seems to have been but for a moment when the promise at last is received.
Such is the case of the promise of eternal glory in Christ which has been given to us since the moment of our salvation. The Spirit of God who gave us life and inducted us into adoption is the Spirit of assurance that we are children of God and his heirs. The verses of the first half of this chapter have all been proclaiming these truths until the 2nd half of v.17 where Paul gives the provision that we will be glorified with Christ if we will suffer with him. And so we arrive to this passage that expounds this idea by addressing the reality of present suffering, the waiting of patient expectation, and the promise and hope of glory.
The Reality of Present Suffering
The provision Paul makes of our suffering with Christ anchors its reality in our present time even as we look forward to future glory. It is imperative we talk about the problem of suffering, even when time fails us to do a full treatise of it. Suffering is an essential question that all worldviews must give a meaningful answer to: why do we suffer? How long? And what is the purpose? Suffering affects people of all backgrounds and worldviews, albeit some more than others and in various ways. Cancer affects Americans and Iranians; war came to Lebanese and Vietnamese; pain hurts children and adults; loss affects males and females; persecution displaces West Bank Christians and Uighur Muslims. Paul himself knew much suffering from persecution, assassination attempts, stoning, shipwrecking, snake bite, the thorn in his flesh, in addition to his fighting the desires of the body which led him to say at the end of ch.7: wretched man that I am! In other words: woe is me! Who will deliver me from this body of death? In addition to such various types of suffering, Paul has been arguing that Christians have the unique call of suffering in our fight against sin. Pushing against darkness is exhausting. It seems interminable. It would be futile to try to do it in our own strength; but we have the promise that it is by the Spirit that we put to death the deeds of the body (v.13).
Still you might wonder: why must we suffer? If we have already been saved, why do we not have our best life now? Why are we still tempted? We cry with the Psalmist: how long O Lord (Psalm 13)? How long will it hurt? Why the diagnosis of cancer? Or type 1 Diabetes? Or COVID pneumonia? Or a miscarriage? Why did a tornado kill dozens of people in Kentucky? Why did heavy snow suffocate tourists in Pakistan? Why did a Tsunami drown people? Why did fire consume children? Why are humans trafficked? How long will war ravage innocent families? Why does justice seem hard to find? Why are unborn babies still being murdered? Must we come to glory with Christ through this suffering?
Why do we suffer? If you and I are honest with ourselves, the answer becomes clear: we suffer because we deserve it. We have sinned against a holy God whose eyes are too pure to look upon evil and sin (Habakkuk 1:13). We rebelled against him, and we deserve condemnation. That is exactly why Jesus suffered in bearing our sin as God’s justice was exercised upon him on the cross so that a way was made for us to be saved: that is the only way by which we receive mercy and find grace in our deepest need for him.
Friends: Christ suffered because of our sin. We and all humanity suffer because of our sin. Even more, our sin did not only affect humanity, but it affected all of creation. The story of life has been marred by suffering since the sin of our father Adam. The Fall did not affect Adam and Eve and their descendants alone, but its consequences spread like an infestation in all of creation. Trees become sick; animals develop cancer; droughts scorch the earth; then there are floods, winds, storms, hail, heat waves, floods, infestations, ravaging locusts and others. All of subhuman creation - which is Paul’s intent in these verses - groans because our sin affects the entire cosmos – this earth that was created for us to live on. Some people think that our sin has no consequence on the lives of others or that sin is impersonal. We believe our own lie that what we do in our own lives does not affect anyone or anything else. But your sin and my sin affect us all, especially in the body of Christ. Why are there divisions, disunity, and quarrels among us? Our sin!
In fact, Paul says that the whole world was subjected to futility and depravity because of our sin. We were given dominion over all the works of God’s hands. In Genesis 1 God commands us to be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, subdue it and have dominion over all creation. Psalm 8:6 repeats the mandate of dominion that God gave us over the works of his hands, and he has put all things under our feet. When man fell, his sin affected all that is within the realm of this dominion. The depravity that had totally affected our inclinations, every intention of the thoughts of our heart (Genesis 6:5) and our actions extended to the totality of the created order. That makes you and I and Adam and Eve responsible for the effects of sin in the world. Think about it this way: if there were no humans on this earth, there would be no sin nor consequences of sin on the rest of creation. It is true that Satan rebelled first against the Creator God, but it is only after humans rebelled and sinned that creation was subjected to futility and the earth was cursed because of us. When writing these verses, Paul may have had in mind Genesis 3:17-19: cursed is the ground because of you. The suffering of creation is not a sign of God’s failure; it is a sign of our failure – of your sin and mine.
But thank God the story does not end here. Praise God there is hope in this wonderful truth: though you and I might suffer pain, or persecution, or ridicule, or loss, or death, or disease, or suffer in our struggle and fight against sin, all these sufferings, no matter how long, hard or weighty, are momentary as we await the promised glory of God which is eternal. If we suffer with Christ, we will see God’s glory and we ourselves will be glorified with him. Paul himself reiterates this thought in 2 Corinthians 4:17 saying: this light and momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. Friends: take courage: the Spirit announces these things to us so that we may have peace. For in this world we will have trouble; but take heart: Jesus has overcome the world! (John 16:33) Though suffering feels overwhelming, God will overwhelm suffering with an eternal weight of glory! Though we endure in the present age, this promise helps us wait patiently for what will be revealed.
Waiting in Patient Expectation
All suffering - of humans and the rest of creation - is a declaration of our sin and also a cry for redemption. When God made the heavens and the earth, he declared all things to be good. Creation sang a symphony of praise glorifying its Conductor. And in many ways creation still sings his praises and declares his glory (Psalm 19:1). But we all know that things now are not the way they were intended to be. Even creation itself here personified by Paul also knows it. Our sin affected it deeply, but not irreversibly. Yet it was not our sin that subjected it to futility, nor was it we who did so, nor was it Satan, nor was it creation that did it to itself. While all of us are able to do a lot of damage, we are unable to bring about hope. That is why we must understand that it is the Sovereign God himself who subjected the creation to futility because he is the only one who does so in hope. When he cursed the ground because of us in Genesis 3:17, it was not without hope, for in the same discourse God also proclaimed the protoevangelium, the good news that the offspring of the woman will bring an end to the curse.
And just like the saints of old looked forward to the day the Messiah would come, so has creation been awaiting in hope, like an enslaved captive shackled to corruption and suffering and yearning for freedom. For the promise of the resurrection of believers comes with the promise of the revelation of the glory of God and the promise of renewal of all creation and its freedom from decay, corruption, death and suffering. Were creation subjected to futility vainly and without hope, the whole of life would be meaningless. Meaningless, meaningless says the writer of Ecclesiastes; or vanity of vanities (Eccl. 1:2). But it was not without hope. For if we look carefully at the promises and prophesies of Scripture, we will see distinctly that God’s plan of redemption is for all creation. Isaiah 11:6-7 says: the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. Isaiah 65:17-25 has the promises of a new heaven and a new earth, of plentiful harvests, of peace and of safety. And of course Revelation 21-22 proclaims the renewal of heaven and earth, the presence of peace and bounty; the absence of pain, suffering and death; and many more promises as the One seated on the throne says: Behold, I am making all things new (Rev 21:5).
Verses 19-22 tell us in many ways that creation is eagerly awaiting the fulfilment of this promise of renewal. The literal translation here would be that the eager waiting of creation is expecting the revelation of the sons of God. Such patient expectation in suspense for the promise to come is compared here (v.22) to the patient expectation of a woman in labor. Many in this congregation have given birth, and several are expecting. The wait is long and at times difficult and fearful of the pain to come, particularly in the final weeks. It has been a while now, but when I was still a physician back in Lebanon, I worked at the largest governmental hospital, and I had the privilege of delivering many babies, sometimes several in one night, and typically without epidural anesthesia which people could not afford. There was a lot of pain and a lot of screaming. And I tell you I do not want to experience the pains of childbirth. But the mother always said the joy of a new life in her arms was worth it. And she’d do it again.
But let me tell you of another experience. In my critical care work, we sometimes care for very sick pregnant women - many during this pandemic. It may not be a coincidence that I am speaking of this today which happens to be the Sanctity of Life Sunday, and me being a physician committed to every human life, born and unborn, made in the image of God who gently and beautifully knits together strands of DNA from both parents to create a unique genetic code that is at the core of every unique cell of every unique human being he delights in giving life to. I tell you this: death never becomes easy even when I see it every single day. The difficulty is compounded when I am caring for a human being within a human being. One of the worst moments is when we lose a baby: many a time the mother holds the baby and takes photos, and we make molds of lifeless hands and feet. The joyful expectation of a promised new life suddenly turns into the sorrow of death and lost hope and an urgency to make lasting memories of fleeting moments.
Stillbirths are very painful. They are pains no one wants to experience. Such would be the pain of a creation without hope. Yet just as we celebrate when we can save both mother and baby, we praise our Lord that the creation’s pains of childbirth come with the hope of the joyful sound of a new life where God will make all things new. Jesus said in Matthew 24:8 that all sufferings of this present time are but the beginnings of the pains of childbirth that will one day reveal to all his plan of renewal of heaven and earth. Creation waits for this hope of glory to be revealed because the revelation of the glory of the children of God announces the redemption of creation. Christ’s first coming ushered the new kingdom: he has come to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found. And she – creation – is straining her eyes looking forward as far as she can to the second coming, to that glorious moment when he will make all things new.
The Promise and Hope of Glory
If creation is personified as feeling an-almost-impatient sense of urgency for the hope to come, how much more are we to be eagerly expecting what we have been promised?! The last passage introduced the concept of our adoption by God through his Spirit. In him was the inception of our adoption through the new life birthed in us. Still however this was in bodies subject to death and decay. V.23 here brings us to the consummation of our adoption which will be fulfilled as our bodies are redeemed. What is corruptible will be raised incorruptible (1 Cor 15:42). The Christian worldview is unique in its respect for the human body. We do not see it as a trap for the soul from which it is to be released. That is why traditionally Christians – unlike pagan religions – did not burn the body. For this body itself, though imperfect now, will be raised a spiritual body with glorified perfected senses that would enjoy eternal fellowship with the glorious God.
Looking back again at Paul’s words in 2 Cor 4 & 5, this body is a tent in which we groan, just like creation, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling which is made by God. And we long with hope because the God who has prepared this very promise for us has given us the Spirit as a guarantee, a down payment, a firstfruit, an antipasto, the beginning of the harvest, a foretaste of the glorious reality to come. The Spirit of life, of sanctification, of adoption is the Spirit of assurance, the seal of our inheritance and the guarantor of our glorification. (2 Cor 1:20, 22) For all the promises of God find their Yes in [Jesus]. […] and [God] has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee. Philippians 3:20-21: But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.
Therefore, we wait eagerly and expectantly, for there is hope. Let’s be clear that we are saved by faith not by hope, but in hope and for hope. And we walk by faith when our sight may only show us suffering in this present time. But one day, faith will become sight in eternity, and what we hope for will become our reality. But not yet. Nonetheless, even now we have all the right reasons to rejoice. For we have been justified by faith; we have peace with God; even now we are children of God and co-heirs with Christ; we stand in grace; and we rejoice in hope. Paul’s argument in this section of Romans started all the way back in Ch.5 saying: we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character and character produces hope, 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. Suffering, endurance, character, hope; through it all we will not be ashamed because he will not fail. Though we do not yet see eternal glory and the new heaven and earth, but the eye of our faith can behold it with hope and wait for it patiently, but also eagerly, expectantly and with anticipation. For we have the promise which Paul mentions a few verses later that those whom he justified he also glorified (v.30). It is sealed and guaranteed. We cannot get a more already-not-yet statement than this.
And so we circle back to Paul’s initial argument in this passage on the glory to be revealed to us and our revelation as sons of God. It might be hard to unsee our current ailments, or to discern future glory through the fog of present suffering, but the eyes of faith look to the Spirit within who is the guarantee of our inheritance; they look back to Christ’s completed work on the cross and his work of justification in us; and they look forward with eagerness to the hope of glory that we have been promised.
There are many false or unfulfilled promises in this life which may add to suffering. I wish to tell you that believing in Christ promises your best life now, but I would be a false prophet, or a teacher of a false gospel, a no-gospel-at-all. Brother and sisters: this passage is a direct affront to the so-called “prosperity gospel:” the false narrative that if you believe in Jesus, he will fix everything right here and right now and you will never suffer; the false narrative of Job’s friends that if you have pain you must have done something wrong; the false narrative wolves in sheepskin that if you experience suffering you do not have enough faith. Friends: there is no hope in the “prosperity gospel,” for when suffering comes – and it will come – sands shift under unsteady feet and people falter. The “prosperity gospel” gives the false hope of what you should seek here. But Christ our brother did not preach such bad news; in fact, he led the way in suffering. And in our union with him, we are united with him both in present suffering and in future glory. That is why we, as children of God, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, suffer with our brother in order that we may be glorified with him (v.17).
C.S. Lewis said: If tribulation is a necessary element in redemption, we must anticipate that it will never cease till God sees the world to be either redeemed or no further redeemable (C.S. Lewis; The Problem of Pain; Harper One; 1940; Ch.7; pp. 112; 22-25). The reality of present suffering – of this tribulation – is felt by people and by all the rest of creation. Yet we wait patiently, and we look forward to the future with hope, trusting the assurance we have that we will be redeemed and so will this world be. We do so without fear or anxiety because of the following radical truth: we deserve no good thing; we have no treasure on earth; we trust that our gracious God provides. So there is really no reason to be anxious or afraid. Instead, we pray and we rejoice insofar as we share in Christ’s sufferings that we may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed (1 Peter 4:13), when believers are resurrected, when creation is renewed, knowing that our suffering comes with an expiration date.
Rejoice does not mean feel happy. Job was not happy when his 10 children died, when his possessions were destroyed, when his animals were stolen, or when his body was broken. Nor was he happy around his miserable comforters or his wife who counseled him to curse God. And though the Lord restored his fortunes and gave him another 10 children, I bet he was not very happy when he looked upon the graves of the first 10 children. Yet in the middle of his misery, in hope he still proclaimed: [For] I know that my Redeemer lives and at last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me! (Job 19:25-27). His words are still sung today in Handel’s Messiah, proclaiming that our Redeemer lives and that he will redeem our mortal bodies.
Dear friends: suffering is hard. Pain can be overwhelming. We would be odd if we do not hurt and callous if we do not hurt with others. Yet we live together in a community of faith, and everything is easier in a community. Let us encourage and bear with one another. This affliction is momentary; this suffering is momentary; your marriage is momentary; your work is momentary; your retirement is momentary; but the weight of glory is eternal! We stand in a long line of witnesses, of prophets, of priests, of saints who have shown us how to suffer for the kingdom in hope and how to encourage one another. For the time being, the indwelling Spirit gives us joy, and the coming glory gives us hope, but the interim suspense gives us pain (John Stott; The Message of Romans; Intervarsity Press; 1994; pp.242;7-8). But let us take heart as we wait and press on toward the goal: Christ is risen; Christ will come again; and we will be with him and behold his glory through all eternity, and it will all be worth it!
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