Suffering is a reality that we all deal with. It is evident in every day we live. Death. Decay. Relational stress. Financial need. Poverty. It is all around us.
And for many, suffering causes us to doubt the trustworthiness of God’s love. And often times, when we enter into trials that feel so demanding, we feel that either God is unable to help, or that he doesn’t want to help. What’s worse is that trials can prompt us to feel that perhaps we’ve done something wrong to offend God. We think that maybe our suffering is God’s subtle way of communicating that he is unhappy with us.
But are these thoughts about suffering correct? Is God really made at us? According to Paul’s letter to the Romans, this mindset is simply not correct. More than that, the New Testament as a whole never assumes that suffering and God’s love can’t be happily intermingled. In fact, in the book of Romans, the concept of suffering is harmonized with God’s goodness and purpose for his people. In Romans 5:1-5, Paul says:
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only that, but 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.
Paul has just finished talking about the justification of God for those who place faith in Christ. For those in Christ, God’s wrath is no longer against us, and he now sees us as just and righteous because of Christ death and resurrection on our behalf. What good news!
But in verse 3, Paul then declares that because we are justified through Christ, we can now rejoice in our sufferings. What an astonishing statement! Apparently for Paul, the gospel and our forgiveness in Christ transforms our suffering, and rather than doubting God’s love, we can actually rejoice all the more in our suffering. But how does the gospel transform our suffering?
First, the gospel transforms our suffering by assuring us that God is not angry with us:
During great trials, it is easy for the Christian to believe that God is holding a grudge against you. Perhaps you have been unable to find a job, and bills are piling up. It may be tempting to think, especially as a responsible adult, that God is withholding from you in some way. I mean, doesn’t God want us to have good jobs to provide for our families? Why would he withhold this sort of thing from his children? After asking this questions, it is easy, in our own fleshly and limited minds, to think that perhaps it’s not God’s fault, but our own. Maybe there is some sort of sin that we haven’t repented of, or perhaps I haven’t given enough of my life over to him. If we are honest with ourselves, we have all considered these things during hardship.
But, Romans 5:1 tells us that through Christ, we have peace with God. And this means that God is no longer at enmity with us because of our sin. Consequently, this means that he is no longer angry, even in the greatest of trials. The reason is because the wrath of God was poured out on Christ instead of us, and therefore this means that any and every trial is not, nor will it ever be, connected with God’s wrath. God is not punishing his children because he’s upset. God is not holding a grudge against us. And it is because God has already poured out all of the wrath he had toward us in Christ.
And so this means that in the midst of trials, we can rest assured that we are not experiencing suffering because of God’s anger.
Second, the gospel transforms our suffering by allowing us to trust that God is using it for good, and not bad:
This point is crucial. Not only is God not angry at us, but also, God is able to use whatever we go through to, as Paul says, produce character, endurance, and hope. Because God is not using the trials we experience to harm us, and because we are at peace with God, Paul is able to assure us that God is using suffering to grow us, not to harm us.
How does God do this though? Paul expounds on this point in Romans 8:28, saying that “we know that for those who love God, all things work together for good”. This verse is simply amazing. Even the most traumatic of experiences, according to Paul, can be wielded by God for our ultimate good. In the end, God will use every headache, every unpaid bill, every death, every bout of depression, and every sin for our good.
And it is because we are justified, and made a friend of God, that God will not allow anything we go through to harm us ultimately and finally. Though we may experience temporary pain in the trial, at the end of the trial, ultimately, we are better because of it. And to this end, the Christian can trust in God’s sovereign hand even in the most trying of circumstances.
Third, the gospel transforms our suffering by forcing us to depend on God’s love through his Spirit:
Lastly, the gospel enables us cling ever more closely to the love of God in Christ by the Spirit. Paul says in Romans 5:5 that we gain hope in trials because God’s love is made manifest by his Spirit in our hearts. What Paul means by this is that in trials, we are forced to hope ever more in God’s love, and in nothing else.
We are forced to trust in the midst of fiery trials that God’s love for us does not grow dimmer, but rather burns all the brighter! We are forced in times of distress to trust that God’s love in Christ is sufficient to hold us through it. And in this we find God’s ultimate good in every trial: we are forced to trust in Christ more because of each trial we experience. Without trials, our faith would not have grown to where it is now. And because of this, trials and suffering serve us more than we could ever know, because they force us to recognize other things we may be trusting in, and transfer that trust onto Christ.
Whereas we might think that money gives stability, in times of financial duress, we are forced to no longer trust in money, but in Christ who holds all things together. Whereas we may think that “looking good” will provide popularity and acceptance, when looks start to fade, we are forced to believe that Christ’s righteousness is enough acceptance.
And this is why Paul says that in trials we are able to grow in hope that never puts us to shame. It causes us, by God’s Spirit, to depend more and more on the love of God in Christ Jesus. And it causes us to truly believe that Jesus really is enough.
In this way, the gospel radically transforms our suffering. It is no longer a cause for us to doubt God’s love. Instead, it actually has the opposite effect. It causes us to lean ever more into the depth of love found in Christ Jesus, and to trust that “we have peace with God” (Rom 5:1).