From Suffering to Hope

Romans 5:1-5
3rd Sunday of Lent
Elizabeth M. Deibert

My sister has had a thirty year endurance battle with Crohn’s Disease. She may be facing abdominal surgery for the 8th time. Barbara Staton flew to the west coast to sing hymns of resurrection hope to her closest sister, Betty, who died late Friday night, after two massive strokes. Ivy Ruark, after spending a week here with her baby sister in early March, settling their mother’s estate and house, got word on Wednesday morning that her younger sister had suddenly died.

The people of Japan, whom I’ve heard interviewed are almost stoic about their suffering. They are a resilient people, but oh, my goodness have they suffered. 10, 000 confirmed dead. More than 17,000 missing and most likely dead. And much of their water is now unsafe to drink. But I’d rather be there than in Libya.

Thanks to technological advances, we can feel closer to the pain of people around the world. This will turn out to be a good thing, I am sure. I’ve stopped asking the question, “Why do people suffer?” Why do bad things happen to good people? No, I now assume that people suffer, that it is part of life, and so my question is this: What leads one suffering person to hope and another to despair? Why do some people who struggle become cynical and others keep their spirits up? How do some people endure and become stronger in their trials, while others seem to develop a victim’s mindset, always expecting the worst to happen, never growing in character?

Paul tells the Romans and us we can move from suffering to hope. Because we are made right with God by faith, we have peace through our Lord Jesus Christ. Our peace comes from our Lord Jesus Christ because of this grace in which we stand.

Hear now what the Spirit is saying to her church, through Paul’s letter to the Romans:

NRS Romans 5:1-5 Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3 And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

Now remember from last week’s sermon, faith is an active word. To have faith is to keep putting trust in God. So by continually putting our trust in God, we grow in rightness with God. But not only that, we also grow in peace. Through Jesus Christ, we stand in grace --- God’s free gift of love, which we do not deserve and cannot earn, but nevertheless, have. That free gift of grace, invites us to keep putting our trust in God. The psalmist helps us to continually put our trust, our hope in God. Listen to Psalm 42: When shall I behold the face of God? My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, where is your God… Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God, for I shall again praise him, my help and my God. Paul says hope does not disappoint us because God’s love has been poured into our hearts, through the Holy Spirit. Which brings me to this little song which I’d like to sing before we hear the scripture in another translation.

Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is peace. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is love. There is comfort in life’s darkest hour; there is light and life, there is help and power in the Spirit, in the Spirit of the Lord.

Romans 5:1-5 Therefore, since we have been made right in God's sight by faith, we have peace with God because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us. 2 Because of our faith, Christ has brought us into this place of undeserved privilege where we now stand, and we confidently and joyfully look forward to sharing God's glory. 3 We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. 4 And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. 5 And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love.

Okay, now let’s walk through this, one step at a time:

God fills us with love, by the power of the Holy Spirit. We’re talking about the Sacrament of baptism. Every bit of real love you’ve ever experienced comes from the Holy Spirit working through someone. That doesn’t mean that every loving human relationship is perfect.

No, we all know how hard relationships are – how much work they take. We are caught up in the human condition of sin, so our love is infected with it. We go through some really difficult times in most significant relationships. Teens, don’t think that you’ll have a good marriage by finding the perfect mate. No, you’ll have a good marriage when you learn to relate constructively and value the one you have – because all mates are flawed. So while we get glimpses of perfect love in human relationships, the only perfect love is that of God who came to us in Jesus Christ and whose Spirit lives with us and in us.

Nevertheless, we are filled with God’s love through the Holy Spirit, and we journey in faith. As we do we become more like Christ, and are made right with God through this grace, this free gift of love, in which we stand. This is the confirming of our baptism, as we journey with God, that we receive this gift of grace by living in faith. When we see the grace in which we stand, we cannot do any other than to live like the one who lived and died for us, who gives us the grace.

Now while we are filled with God’s love and are actively growing in our Christian journey of faith, the book-ends of this passage, the middle part is the heart of the message -- We are still going to suffer. Life involves suffering – the natural suffering of grief and loss, as well as the suffering we bring on ourselves by poor choices. Sometimes there’s suffering for and with others. And here’s the heart of the passage, the words on the screen:

Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope. Say it with me. Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope. But not always, does it?

Because suffering can produce resignation, quitting, giving up. Like a person exercising, suffering can produce endurance, if you keep going, without giving up. How do you do that? By faith, by remembering the love of God poured into your heart by the Holy Spirit, by worship, prayer, and surrounding yourself with faithful friends, who can support and encourage you, when you want to quit.

Suffering should produce endurance. The kind of endurance I see in my mother, who when she lost all her siblings in a short period of time, did not quit living, despite her age but kept valuing life. We see this endurance in our friend Gretchen Frueh, who expected to die last summer, and doesn’t feel well at all, but continues to strive to grow in faithfulness. She cares so much about this church’s ministry and members, that she pushes herself to get here to worship every week.

Endurance leads to character, but not always. I’ve seen people who endure trials with bitterness, with cynicism, with a victim’s mindset. They throw themselves a pity party as often as possible. Of course, our laments and our discouragement can be expressed to God and to one another, but those who are building character move on from the pity party eventually to recognize the goodness of God in the little things of life, despite the hardships. They keep loving and being interested in others. They keep perspective on life, and don’t expect it to be easy. They see that with the consolation they receive as they persevere, they can console others. They look to God for those opportunities to grow in character and service.

Character produces hope. We can’t just leapfrog from suffering to hope. It is a process. It involves endurance. This is not a sprint, it is a marathon. God is working on your character and mine. We can be glad that life is hard. The people who have had really easy lives are not worth being around. They are superficial and lacking in empathy. Remember the two words sympathy and empathy include the root pathy/pathos, which means suffering. Those who write sympathy notes do a better job when they feel the pain, when they know the pain of loss. Stephen Ministers are trained to hear the losses, to walk with people in their painful seasons of life, so that folks can more easily move from suffering to endurance to character to hope.

I feel sorry for you if you’ve always been popular and never felt excluded or different or criticized. You’ve missed out on that pain of loneliness. I feel sorry for you if you’ve never lost a job or if you’ve never been discriminated against or treated unfairly because if you haven’t, then you cannot relate to people who have been. I feel sorry for you if all your kids are well above average and all your relationships are relatively cordial and strong. You don’t know the endurance of family life, the agony of hurtful words and the joy of forgiveness.

I feel sorry for you if you’ve made all A’s and gotten accolades all your life, because you don’t know the discouragement of failure and the determination to keep trying after failing. I feel sorry for you if you have never struggled to pay your bills because you’ve missed out on a sense of helplessness that is common to humankind. I feel sorry for you if you’ve never been depressed or racked by grief. Most people have experienced that and need friends who understand. I feel sorry for you if you need to avoid suffering or the appearance of suffering, because only those who are really living and really caring for others ever suffer.

The good news is this: Suffering is good. Not fun, but good for you. It is good when you can find endurance in your suffering. Surrounding yourself with supportive, authentic relationships, you can endure suffering and be unafraid. Filling your life with as much worship and prayer and devotional service to God and neighbor while suffering will help you endure it and find your way through it. Sometimes you will not feel like praying, but just do it anyway. Read the prayers of others. Lean into the faith of others in worship. Suffering can make us humble, which often also makes us more teachable.

And to learn from our suffering, we must endure. Endurance is good. Darn hard, but good. It is an uphill battle. It is just to keep on keeping on. Endurance produces character. I’m not sure why we think we can have good character without the trouble of enduring. That’s like thinking you can be muscular without working out, or educated without study or faithful without prayer.

Finally, as you know, character produces hope because once we have grown in the ways God intends, we naturally have hope. We believe in things we cannot see and cannot always feel. We trust in God, even when life is not a bed of roses. We know, from experience, that God will provide not everything we want but everything we need. And what we most need is to know more deeply the One, Jesus Christ who is always there for us, suffering with us and for us, and leading us day by day into the hope of new life.