The saying goes that there are only two things certain in this life: death and taxes. If you’re a baseball fan it used to be certain that the Red Sox would not win another World Series. And if you’re a Cubs fan like I am, then it still seems pretty certain that the Cubs will not win another World Series.
But there are at least 2 other inescapable facts of life that Paul addresses in the 8th chapter of his letter to the Romans. The first is that there is suffering in this life. The second is that for the children of God there is also glory.
First, the bad news: suffering. It’s all too real for most of us, and St. Paul doesn’t sugar coat the reality of it: we must suffer with Christ if we are to be glorified with Him (verse 17); there are sufferings in the present time (18); the creation is subject to vanity or futility (20); we are on bondage to corruption (21); and we groan and labor with birth pangs (22).
And indeed we do groan. Who among us has not felt that deep sense that things are wrong? Who among us has not sighed at the sense that this world is not what it was created to be? We groan because life hurts sometimes, but we also groan because we know we were made for something better than this. If we didn’t have some sense that suffering was not just painful but wrong, we would shut up and take life stoically.
Paul alludes to why it is we experience this suffering: we were subjected to futility and placed in bondage because of our sin – Adams and ours. For the Christian, it is the sin that grieves our God and pierces our own heart – that makes us suffer and groan the most.
This sense of suffering is so acute that one of the first things people universally remember to pray for are those who are in need or suffer in some way. In the Daily Office, we pray for the body, mind, and estate of those we love. Hopefully, we are all aware of the painful persecution our brothers and sisters in Christ are experiencing around the world, in places like Sudan, China, Indonesia and many other places. And there are spiritual, psychological, and emotional pains among us even greater than the bodily pain, though more secret.
Sure, sometimes we all try to hide this fact. We all bravely pretend that nothing is wrong, and when someone asks how we are doing, we usually say “Fine” – even if we’re not. But suffering is a very real and inescapable part of our experience.
Think for a moment – and I promise it will be just a moment – about the suffering you have experienced or are still experiencing.
Take just a few seconds to measure it.
Paul’s real focus is not on our suffering but on an even greater reality, which is that there is a glory for the children of God. I don’t have to tell you how great the suffering of this life can be. But I do need to remind you of how great the glory that awaits you is: it is so exceedingly great that Paul doesn’t think the two are even worth comparing. It’s like the pain of moving: it’s a great chore and pain to box everything up, physically move your possessions, and have things be disorganized for a time – and then to have to put everything back in a strange place.
The Erlandson family has recently been blessed with this pain of moving – in fact, sextuply blessed: in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2007, and 2009. It was not always a smooth transition. At one point in the move to Little Rock (2002), we were afraid that we wouldn’t even be able to close on the house. Oh, we had the money alright. I had sent the money from my bank to my brother’s. But somehow, when his bank tried to get the money from my bank, they discovered that my account didn’t have enough funds. Finally, they accepted my brother’s reasoning that the reason my account didn’t have enough money was that it had already been sent to his bank!
And don’t even get me started about the Great Migration of ’07, in the midst of restricted lending and a domino of contingency sales that disrupted the buying of our house in Hot Springs. Or worse yet, the 2009 Move in the middle of the housing crisis.
But these and other pains are soon forgotten and are relatively insignificant compared to the joy of living in a new home now that it has come.
The truth is, we are all in the process of packing up and moving. We are all on our way to our eternal home, and it is painful. But the pain of this transitory life is paltry compared to the glories of our heavenly home! As St. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:17, “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, works for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.”
This glory is a certainty because it is our birthright, our inheritance. We have been made a glorious thing: the children of the King! Even now we are being revealed as the sons and daughters of God. This glory is the fact that we are sons and daughters of God – and God Himself is our inheritance. Our glory is to be redeemed, reborn, and remade in the image of our Lord. It is a glory beyond all earthly comparison.
What glory does earth offer for you? A glorious sunrise or sunset? A victory in an athletic competition? Success at work? The blinding light of the sun or the sublimity of the mountains or oceans? Grown children who rise up and call their parents blessed? All of these are but miniature portraits of the glory to come.
At what moment in your life did you experience the deepest joy? In a dream come true? A glorious accomplishment? The birth of your first child? The birth of your first grandchild? Your wedding day? All of these are but miniature portraits of the joy to come.
I asked you earlier to take a few seconds to measure your suffering. But now I’d like you to measure the glory God desires to share with you. However great you have judged your suffering to be in your life, God promises to those who truly love and obey Him that the glory He has in store for you is far, far greater than the suffering you have experienced. Here is the divine math: take the measure of that suffering. Now multiply it by 1000. Finally, reverse the sign so that it is not negative but positive. Then you’ll have some small measure of the glory to come.
St. Paul believed that the glory will so outweigh the suffering that the 2 aren’t even worthy of being compared. I agree with him.
But there is one problem we must overcome with these 2 certainties: the difficult thing is that while the suffering and pain are here right now, the glory is largely deferred. The question then becomes: “How are we to endure this great gap between the suffering that is and the glory that will be but is now dim?”
Buddha correctly diagnosed the human condition, at least in part: his one great insight was that life is suffering. But Buddha forgot or didn’t notice that there is also joy and glory, even in this life. And Buddha had the wrong cure for this disease of suffering. His solution was to extinguish all desire, for it was desire that led to suffering. But to give up desire is to give up being human, for all our desires are supposed to be roads to lead us to our true heart’s desire: God!
Jesus Christ offers a much better solution – in fact the only solution. The Christian answer to earthly suffering is Christian hope. Humans have an incredible capacity for hope in the face of suffering – if they can hang on to the glory to come.
On Nov. 23, 1942 a British merchant ship, the Ben Lomond, was torpedoed by a German U-Boat. One of only six survivors was a Chinese seaman named Poon Lim. His first goal was merely to stay afloat, and so he gulped air when he could and tried to keep his head above water. Two hours after being thrown into the sea, he managed to find a life raft made of timbers. Tied to it were some tins of British biscuits, a water jug, and a few other supplies, which he figured he could nurse along for a month – if he were lucky. Twice, rescue seemed imminent, once when a freighter passed within close range, and once when a U.S. Navy patrol plane buzzed his raft. Both times his frantic shouting was ignored. He swam to keep his body in shape. He fashioned a fishhook and caught some fish. He saved some of the fish he caught to rot in order to attract seagulls. After winning a wrestling match with a seagull, he quartered it. Some he ate, and some he used to catch a shark. Through many such ingenious acts of hope and courage, Poon Lim managed to survive 133 days at sea on is small raft.
How did Poon Lim manage to survive such suffering? He had hope that he would see his full life restored.
We also are to hope for what we do not yet see, because God has promised it. We are to hope in God and His promise of glory with Him for all eternity. Where once there was only suffering, God now promises His children glory (verse 18). Where once there was futility there now is hope (20). Where there was bondage of corruption there is now glorious liberty (21). And the groaning of the slave is replaced by the glorious redemption and inheritance of the son (22-23).
So this is how the Christian meets suffering: with hope. And this suffering is not only something God can and does redeem: it is, for the Christian, nothing less than the birth pangs of the new birth. It is the same birth pangs that Jesus Himself once experienced, who first suffered in the flesh, before He was raised to new life in eternal glory. In fact, all throughout the Scriptures, we find this principle at work: that suffering is God’s appointed means to our reaching glory. Paul so clearly sees this truth that he can boldly say that we are heirs of God “if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together (verse 17).
Finally, this hope is something we can hold onto, even today. Remember: the suffering is only temporary, but the glory is eternal. Our Lord Himself suffered for us, and has redeemed suffering so that even it is a part of the divine plan. God has given us hope even in this world because He sent His Son into the world to redeem it. And He sent His Holy Spirit into our hearts as a down payment of the good things to come and because He is truly here already with His people.
Do you suffer in this life? This is a sign that you are human and earthly. But it is also a way for you to measure how great the glory is that God is in the process of sharing with you, the riches of His inheritance, which, like a loving Father He doles out to us now but in heaven will give us without measure. In the meantime, God has given us hope – hope that what God has promised to give to His faithful children He will give them. And by this hope, Paul tells us, we are saved.
Prayer: O Lord, in Whom is our hope, remove far from us, we pray Thee, empty hopes and presumptuous confidence. Make our hearts so right with Thy most holy and loving heart, that hoping in Thee we may do good; until that day when faith and hope shall be abolished by sight and possession, and love shall be all in all. Amen. (Christina Rossetti)
Point for Meditation:
1. The next time you consider any suffering in your life, use it to measure the glory that God has promised you in Him.
2. The next time you are frustrated or feel futile, remember why this is and where your life is truly to be.
Resolution: I resolve to use the suffering that comes my way today as a means of turning to God to hope in the glory He has promised.
© 2012 Fr. Charles Erlandson
Christ on cross bronze – CC image courtesy of Librarian Flickr millicent_bystander.jpg
Category: Give Us This Day