Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 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. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 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.I have many questions arising from our scriptures today. The psalmist asks “Who are we that God is so good to us?” “What did Jesus mean when he said “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” What did Paul mean when he talked about justification by faith? How are we supposed to know what the Spirit of Truth is? And the biggie, “why are we supposed to rejoice in our sufferings?”
Sometimes it seems like scripture raises more questions than it answers, and some may wonder why we bother at all. The complicated game we call life means that we are constantly curious about all knids of things, from the number of stars in the universe to the reason why mosquitos exist. But none is as perplexing to me as why is there suffering?
Why do children get cancer, why do young people get involved in situations that lead to shootings, why does someone’s whole house burn down but the cross for her dead nephew stays standing? Why does a prominent member of Athabasca die in a motorcycle collision?
These kinds of questions are a part of being human, they are part of our struggle to find meaning in a world that all too often feels like the atheists have got it right; life is a meaningless piece of chaos that is one long experience of struggle and suffering. Or life is what you make of it, get off your chair and get working. Or buy this miracle pill or try this wonder diet or go to hear this fabulous guru who will answer all your questions, or get your horoscope done now and you will know your future. We often want the instant remedy that will solve all our problems and eliminate all our suffering.
And there’s always someone with an answer, “If God closes a door, he’ll open a window”, or “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger”, or “Everything happens for a reason”, or ‘no pain, no gain’. The platitudes that we all know seem to work for everyone else but us.
Jesus was speaking to his disciples on the last day of his life, and he didn’t have easy answers for them. He didn’t tell them that life was going to be rosy, with glorious times ahead. He didn’t make promises that they were all going to end up rich, powerful and surrounded by friends. He left them with a mystery.
He left them with a promise. He left them with the sense that they would find support. He left them with an understanding that there was more to come, and that they would grow into that ‘more’. He left them with guidance, not answers. But he did promise them truth and peace.
Paul also talked about peace coming from a deep connection with God. It grieves me when I hear about folks who look for peace elsewhere than God. The people who put all their hopes in another person, ‘if only I had a boyfriend or girlfriend, that will solve all my problems’, or the folks that turn to suicide or expensive non-medical plastic surgery. The folks that horde up money but live in run-down housing with less than healthy conditions. The people addicted to their household items that fill up their homes until their family and friends call a television show to stage an intervention. The grandparents who dote on their children and grandchildren, only to see those childrens lives destroyed by drugs. So much pain.
So when we hear about ‘boasting in our suffering’, we need to be very careful. It’s not that we are to go on some massive pity party, seeing who can brag about who has the biggest scars or the longest chemo treatment. No, we need to look at the culture of the time. Paul was writing to folks who believed that the stars were the lights coming from holes poked in the big bowl of the sky that let God’s light in to the world below. There was some basic understanding of some people that the world was more curved than flat, but many sailors still believed that if they sailed too far from land, they would fall off the earth. The gods of Zeus, Apollo, Hera and Athena quarrelled like humans, took lovers amongst themselves and played with humans like they were toys. If disaster hit, it was because the humans had done something terrible to deserve that. So misfortune was a sign of shame and disgrace in the community. It was something to be hidden and shunned and not talked about.
Paul is not saying we should brag obnoxiously about our health problems or family squabbles. What he is saying is don’t be ashamed of our faith when we have difficult times. Don’t hide our pain or our frustration or our anger. But speak our truth with love and sensitivity. When we find safe places to talk about our hurt and confusion, our frustration and our fear, we can become transformed.
I have seen several folks this week find a deep sense of inner peace from finding someone safe to talk to about what they are really going through. It is amazing to watch that transformation and healing that occurs. It may not be big dramatic healings, but it may be as simple as cutting out a prayer from the bulletin or a quote from the bible and putting it on your fridge. It may be a little reminder, a thank you note or a pressed flower that you keep in a special place. It can be a walk in the rain where we are reminded of the amazing mystery of life going on around us, the renewal in the spring when we thought nothing would grow again in our lives.
God still speaks, words that encourage us and help us find peace in the midst of our suffering. Let us hang onto the promise that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 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.