I’ve been thinking a lot about suffering lately, mostly because current events surrounding COVID-19 seem to have brought suffering to the forefront of the news even moreso than usual.
I am not personally suffering right now, but I do spend a lot of time worrying about potential suffering. So, of course, when all this virus stuff happened, I was very anxious over the implications of it.
In God’s providence, though, my husband and I began studying the book of Romans together and it has been very timely for me as Paul speaks directly about suffering in Romans.
There are two main things that I’ve learned about suffering specifically through Romans 8:16-30.
We can endure suffering.
First, we can endure suffering because through the gospel, we have hope that one day suffering will end and we will be with Christ forever. We suffer because our world is broken. Brokenness is the result of humanity’s actions way back in the garden, when man chose to rebel against God. And this passage in Romans reminds us that sin has affected everything—our bodies, our relationships with God, others and ourselves, even creation itself suffers under the weight of sin. Verses 22-23 say that all of creation groans—it is in bondage to corruption. We are waiting to be set free.
And while we wait, we suffer. Note that Paul doesn’t act like suffering is an option—he assumes it’s going to happen and there’s nothing we can do to avoid it. Honestly, I don’t know if I could get to the end of ways we may suffer because that is how badly sin has broken us. All people—believers and nonbelievers alike— experience the suffering that comes as a result of sin’s presence in this world.
But, there is good news. Paul writes about two things that encourage us and help us endure suffering.
We have hope for the future.
Paul focuses on the future in this passage. In verse 18 he says that the suffering we go through in this life is not worth comparing to the glory that will one day be revealed in us. It’s almost as if he’s saying the glory that awaits us is so big, so good, so incomparable, and so eternal that it would be a waste of time to try to measure our suffering against it. Compared to that glory, our suffering is a tiny blip on the radar.
If you, like me, start to become anxious over suffering, consider this line from A Small Book for the Anxious Heart, by Edward Welch:
“If you are going to venture out into the future, continue far enough out so that the story ends with you welcomed into heaven for an eternity of no more sorrow, tears, and fears (Revelation 21:4).”
Our hope is not in this life; it’s in the next life where Christ will dwell with us forever.
But, as good as that news is, that’s not all. In verse 28, Paul says that God will work all things for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. Too often this verse is taken out of context. Many think that when Paul says that things will work out for our “good,” he means that our circumstances will work out however we want them to work out. But that’s not what he means.
The “good” Paul talks about is our sanctification. God has a purpose in all things, even our suffering. That purpose is to conform us to Christ’s image, with the promise that one day we will be glorified with Christ.
God also gives us help in the present.
The Spirit intercedes for us in prayer. Even when we don’t know how to pray or what we need, God knows, and because the Spirit has the mind of God, the Spirit can intercede on our behalf to ask God to give us what we need.
So this promised hope and this promised help should completely transform our perspective on suffering. Romans 5 tells us that we can actually rejoice in our afflictions, because suffering produces in us endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces a hope that does not disappoint us.
That does not mean we take suffering lightly. But note that grief and rejoicing can actually coexist. In Romans 5, Paul talks about rejoicing in our afflictions, but in Romans 8 he talks about groaning and longing for the day when suffering ends. Grief is a natural response to suffering.
But when we suffer, we don’t suffer as those who have no hope. The gospel gives us the hope we need to endure suffering and it helps us wait patiently for the day suffering will end.
The gospel is worth our suffering.
Second, with this good news in mind, we can obey whatever God calls us to do because the gospel is worth suffering for now.
There are actually two kinds of suffering in this passage. Paul also addresses the kind of suffering that comes specifically to those who are Christ-followers, because they are Christ-followers.
So Paul says in verses 16-17 that we are God’s children and heirs with Christ, if we suffer with Christ. He assumes that, like Jesus, we will suffer as a result of our obedience to God.
While we don’t need to seek out martyrdom, we do need to consider what it means to suffer for Christ in our context. It may mean we lose social standing. Our friends may think we’re weird for talking about Jesus. We may be ostracized, ridiculed, called intolerant, passed up for a promotion, or even sued as our beliefs become increasingly offensive.
Or, many of us may need to consider if God is calling us to sacrifice something besides our social standing for his sake. For some of us, obedience may mean sacrificing everything familiar to plant a church in another part of the country, or to move overseas as missionaries to take the gospel to people who may never hear about Jesus otherwise.
God uses his church to spread the gospel, and if we’re part of his church, that means he potentially wants us to give up everything and be the ones who go. So that’s a kind of suffering we may experience specifically because we are Christians.
Are we willing to be 100% obedient to Jesus, even if it means we suffer for it? Obedience and self-preservation often do not go hand in hand, so we need to decide if we truly believe the gospel is worth suffering for.
If we truly believe that the gospel is worth our sacrifice, we can be radically obedient to whatever God calls us to do, knowing that we are working towards something that is eternal. God will give us the grace we need to persevere through any suffering we may encounter. The hope we have as we suffer through brokenness is the same hope we have when we suffer for Christ’s sake.
Consider the glory.
So whatever your situation might be right now, consider the glory that is waiting for you. Let it change your perspective and strengthen you to endure suffering—even to willingly accept suffering if it comes as a result of your obedience to God.
Suffering is hard, to be sure. It hurts. But remember that this life is not it. Through Christ, we have hope in a future in which all of creation will be restored. No part of our existence will be broken anymore. One day, suffering will end and the glory we receive in the end is totally worth whatever hardships we may encounter in this life.
At the end of Romans 8, Paul reminds us that nothing can separate us from God’s love. So, whether we are suffering for Christ or suffering because we live in this broken world, remember that our suffering is not in vain. Our hope will not disappoint us because God is always faithful. He promises to make all things new.
If you’re in Christ, you’re one of those things he will make new. So as you’re going through your daily life, I pray that you’ll dwell in the gospel and be encouraged knowing that one day this world won’t be broken anymore and we will be with Christ forever.