My purpose in this post is not to provide a philosophical framework to make sense of all human suffering at all times; I’m not even smart enough to do that if I wanted to. Instead, my goal here is to provide an interpretive lens through which followers of Jesus who are experiencing hardship might look at their own situation and find hope. To do that, I want to look at something the apostle Paul wrote to the Christians living in Rome in the first century.
In about the middle of his letter to the Romans, Paul begins to address the issue of suffering. Here’s what he says in verses 17-18:
Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.
Interestingly, Paul seems to say that sharing in the sufferings of Christ is a prerequisite for sharing in his future glory. The first-century Christians really seemed to believe this, which is why when the apostles experienced persecution they “rejoic[ed] because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name” (Acts 5:41). This is also why Peter told his readers to “rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:13), and why James instructed his audience to “consider it pure joy…whenever you face trials of many kinds” (James 5:1). The list goes on and on. Both the example and the teaching of the earliest Christians reveal that suffering is part of the program for followers of Jesus, and that this suffering is directly connected to future glory.
In this particular passage, Paul does not specify the kind of suffering he has in mind. Religious persecution certainly would have been included, but I don’t believe it was limited to that. Paul himself experienced suffering in many forms: persecution, shipwreck, bandits, poverty, etc., (see 2 Corinthians 11:23-27). Later in Romans 8, Paul does mention several forms of suffering: trouble, hardship, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, and sword (v. 35). That list certainly seems to be all-encompassing.
“But Thomas, I thought you said you were going to talk about suffering in a way that would give us hope.”
I will. I promise.
Immediately after telling his Roman audience that participation in the sufferings of Christ was a requirement for future glory, he goes on to say that “our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (v. 18). In other words, as bad as things may get here and now, (and things got pretty bad for the first-century Christians), they will pale in comparison to future glory. That’s pretty hopeful, if you ask me.
Just a few verses later Paul says something that I believe is even more encouraging in the present moment for people experiencing hardship in the present moment.
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose (v. 28, NIV).
Right in the midst of this section on suffering, Paul explains that God is at work for the good of those who love him. If you’ll permit me to get a little technical and nerdy, I’d like to provide what I believe may be an even better translation of this verse directly from the Greek.
We know that, for those who love God and who have been called according to his plan, he is working all things together for good (v. 28, THT).
God is working all things together for good. Even our suffering. Even our troubles. Even our hardship. In other words, God can use your sickness for good. God can use your broken relationship for good. God can use your financial hardship for good.
Now, for a point of clarification. Please don’t read what I’m not saying and what Paul is not saying. We are not saying that suffering is inherently good. Sickness, broken relationships, and financial hardship are not good things in and of themselves. I am not saying, and I don't believe Paul is saying, that God causes these things to happen; I don’t believe he does. What we're saying is that in the hands of God, even terrible suffering can be redeemed and used for good. That’s how good God and beautiful and powerful God is. He can take our broken and painful situations and bring something good and beautiful out from them, not just in “future glory,” but here and now as well.
I’ve spent a few years now working as a church pastor as well as a chaplain in hospital and hospice settings. I can’t tell you how many times I have sat with people who were experiencing terrible suffering – terminal diagnoses, messed up finances, broken relationships, and more – and having them say things to me like, “Thomas, I never would have asked for this, and I wouldn’t wish it on anybody else, but through this situation, God has been able to do some incredible things.”
Suffering is universal; we can’t escape it. But, for those who love God and are called according to his purpose, we can take hope and comfort in the promise that God can take even our suffering and work it together for good. In the next post, we're going to look at an example of God doing that very thing.