Life + Culture

There Is No Future in Frustration: Learning to Rejoice in Our Sufferings

There Is No Future in Frustration

On a trip to Australia, I met an Anglican bishop who had been mightily used in evangelism and church planting in three African nations. He was sometimes referred to as “the apostle to Tanzania.”

After he “retired” from his missionary work in Africa, he set up a seminary in the United States. But when I met him, his suffering from Parkinson’s disease was so advanced that he could no longer talk. He could communicate, just barely, by printing out block letters in wavering hand that was almost indecipherable. He often had to draw a word three or four times for me to understand him.

We “talked” about a number of matters close to his heart — at least, I did the “talking,” and tried to ask most of my questions in a form where he could signal merely yes or no. In the short time I spent with him, I sensed a man of unshaken faith, and I had the audacity to ask him how he was coping with his illness. After decades of immensely productive activity, how was he dealing with his own suffering, with the temptation to feel he was now useless and fruitless?

He penned his answer twice before I could make it out: There is no future in frustration.

Reconciled to God

In the Bible, the dominant form of suffering peculiar to God’s people is discipline.

In Romans 5, such discipline is tied both to what it means to be a Christian, and to the kind of character it produces. Paul begins to draw out some of the implications of the doctrine of justification by faith. Justification has a certain primacy in his thought — not that it is necessarily the key around which all other Christian teaching turns, but that it is the entrance point into Christian life and discipleship. “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith” — that is the given — “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1, NIV).

Such peace with God is to be desired above all things. As Paul has taken pains to prove at the beginning of the book, we are all by nature and choice under the wrath of God, and the drama of the epistle to the Romans, like the drama of the Bible as a whole, is how rebels who attract only the wrath of God can be reconciled to him.

Rejoicing in God

The answer is in the gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news of his coming, death, and resurrection. God sent him to die in our place, “so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26, NIV). Because of what Christ has borne, those who trust him are “justified”: they are declared just by the holy God himself, not because they are, or because their sins do not matter, but because Christ has stood in their place. And the consequence of having been “justified through faith,” Paul writes, is that “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

All of this is the work of God’s grace, the unmerited favor which, despite his wrath, he mercifully bestows on needy sinners like me. It is through Jesus, Paul goes on to say, that “we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand” (Romans 5:2, NIV). This, surely, is the cause for unbounded joy.

It means that we are not only reconciled to God here and now, but that one day we shall see him in his unshielded glory. That is what Paul means when he adds, “And we boast in the hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:2, NIV). The word “hope” does not here suggest mere possibility, but certain prospect: our boast is in the prospect of one day seeing the glory of God.

Provedness

So sweeping a vision changes all our priorities. Maximal comfort in this fallen world is now low on the agenda. The real question is how our current circumstances are tied to our faith in Jesus Christ, our peace with God, and our prospect of seeing him. So Paul insists that we rejoice not only in the hope of the glory of God, but “we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Romans 5:3–4, NIV).

Here, then, is a philosophy of suffering, a perspective that ties it both to the salvation we now enjoy and to the consummation of that salvation when the glory of God is fully revealed. Like the discipline of physical training, suffering produces perseverance.

This is not a universal rule, for suffering can evoke muttering and unbelief. But when suffering is mingled with the faith of verses 1–2, and with delight in being reconciled to God, it then produces perseverance. The staying power of our faith is neither demonstrated nor developed until it is tested by suffering.

Felt Christianity

But as perseverance mushrooms, “character” is formed. The word character suggests “provedness,” the kind of maturity that is attained by being “proved” or “tested,” like a metal refined by fire. And as character or “provedness” is formed, hope blossoms: our anticipation of the glory of God (verse 2) is nurtured and strengthened.

This hope “does not put us to shame” (Romans 5:5) — it is not illusory, and so it will never leave us in the lurch, ashamed of our foolish beliefs. Far from it! The object of this hope is certain, and already the hope is reinforced and proves satisfying “because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5, NIV).

The Holy Spirit is given to the believer as the down payment and guarantee of the full inheritance that will one day be ours. This Holy Spirit is the agent who pours God’s love into our hearts: this is felt Christianity, and Paul elsewhere shows that this experience of the richness of God’s love is an essential part of Christian maturity, something for which to pray (Ephesians 3:14–21, especially 17–19). Such experience of the love of God is not yet the perfection of the vision of God; but it is fully satisfying, and strengthens hope, and places our sufferings in a light where they make a certain existential “sense.”

Christ Grew Through Suffering

There is a certain kind of maturity that can be attained only through the discipline of suffering.

During the days of Jesus’s life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him. (Hebrews 5:7–9, NIV)

The idea is not that Jesus was disobedient before he suffered, but that in his incarnate state he too had to learn lessons of obedience, levels of obedience, that could only be attained through suffering. In this sense, he grew to “perfection”: not that he was morally imperfect before his sufferings, but that the fullness, the perfection of his identity with the human race and of his human, temporal obedience to his heavenly Father, could be attained only through the fires of suffering.

This “perfection” he achieved, not only with the result that “he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him,” but also with the result that he is able “to empathize with our weaknesses” since he “has been tempted in every way, just as we are — yet he did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15, NIV).

If even Jesus “learned obedience from what he suffered,” what ghastly misapprehension is it — or arrogance! — that assumes we should be exempt?

Share in His Sufferings

Indeed, it is the set of values articulated in Romans 5 and the example of Jesus adumbrated in Hebrews 5 that accounts for the strong language of the apostle Paul in Philippians 3. He weighs up everything the world offers, sets it against all that he has in Christ Jesus, and concludes,

I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ — the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. (Philippians 3:8–9, NIV)

But this is not a static attainment; Paul is committed to growth in his knowledge of Christ Jesus. So he adds, “I want to know Christ — yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10–11, NIV). How we handle the suffering of testing and discipline, therefore, depends not a little on what we focus on.

That Anglican bishop, “the apostle to Tanzania,” was indeed right. He understood Romans 5 and Hebrews 5. There is no future in frustration — but what a future we do have in Christ.

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