I am not well-acquainted with suffering. Most of what I would term “suffering” in my life was self-chosen so that I could compete as an athlete. Soccer had not caught on in northwestern Pennsylvania in the early 1990s. My high school was all about football. I graduated with around 100 others, but on a Friday night—particularly if the team was competitive—you could expect thousands in the stands.
The soccer team was for the misfits—the kids who didn’t want to play football. We were the scrawny but fast. We were scrappy, and so we knew that if we were going to compete with the bigger, more established schools, we’d have to outwork them. My sophomore year our team was rounding into shape. We had some seniors with good ball skills. The tallest guy in the school played goalie. Our coach was a former college soccer standout from South Africa, and he knew that if were going to excel, we’d had have to put in the preseason work.
This meant two-a-day practices in the August heat. We’d gather at 6:00 a.m. for conditioning at the football field. We expected to run, which we did, but our coach was determined to push us harder than we’d ever been pushed. After a two-mile warmup run, we’d spend the next 90 minutes jumping up and down the football stands, doing painful ab exercises, and sprinting on the track. For those two hours, we wouldn’t even see a soccer ball. The afternoon practices were for actually playing soccer. The mornings were for torture.
But the excruciating work paid off. We became known as the team that could outwork our opponents. While we lost to some teams who were just flat-out more skillful than us, we never gave up a goal late in the game, and we never lost an overtime match. We were able to get through those workouts because of the hopes and goals of the season. We were able to get through them because we had each other to encourage us to push for the higher goals.
Romans 5:3-4 immediately made me think of those painful conditioning days for soccer. “We boast in our sufferings,” Paul writes, “knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” Quite literally for our soccer team, our suffering produced endurance (never lost in overtime!). Our endurance produced character (the team trusted each other because we had gone through all of this together). And the character produced hope—in our case a hope of making the playoffs, a hope that we realized and even made it three rounds into the playoffs before meeting our match.
Unlike me in general, Paul was acquainted with suffering. In 2 Corinthians, Paul details some of what has happened to him since he started following Jesus. “But whatever anyone dares to boast of [check out my résumé] with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless floggings, and often near death. 24 Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. 28 And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I am not indignant. 30 If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.”
That’s quite the biography, isn’t it? We boast in our accomplishments—success on the field or court, a promotion at work, a fix around the house that solved a problem. That’s what we boast in, but not Paul. He boasts in his weakness. He wrote those words I just shared around the year 56 A.D. Around five years earlier, he spent a year in Corinth, learning to love the challenging church in that great city—a church that dealt with all sorts of difficulty due to its members selfishly boasting in their own accomplishments to the detriment of others.
Following his time in Corinth, Paul ends up in prison for a year in Ephesus. After his release he goes back to Corinth, finds the church a mess again, and writes the letter we know as 2 Corinthians, where he holds up his sufferings as an example of Christlike living. The next year Paul pens his masterpiece—Romans—from which we pull our text today. It’s clear Paul still has his troubles on his mind, but before I dig a little bit more into verses 3-4, I want to highlight how Paul frames his suffering with his confidence in God’s work and in how these hardships happen within the loving embrace of community.
Our Romans passage begins with God’s good claim on us. Because of what God has done through Jesus, we have access to “this grace in which we stand.” Notice that this is the work of God in individual lives—not work that any one of us has pulled off through our own efforts. Grace is God’s work in Jesus. It’s a gift. It is good, and it is that work that God—Father, Son, and Spirit—has done on our behalf that allows us to reframe the hardships of life. So, Paul pivots from what we’d consider a wonderful good—salvation by grace that leads to peace between us and God—to his strange boasting.
He writes, “But we also boast in our afflictions.” Let’s be real. We don’t boast in our afflictions naturally. We’re more likely to withdraw from community when things aren’t going right. We’re more likely to pull away from God when things are hard. Yet, Paul says we should boast even in the hard things because God can frame even those sufferings as part of our story, as part of how God is shaping us, as part of how God is walking with us particularly in the hard times and turning even the worst things into meaningful things.
This is not a natural way to live, but just imagine with me how our perspective shifts when we start to think that God is redeeming everything in our lives, including the suffering. When we have a fight with someone we love, God can take even that hard part of our story and turn it to good. When we lose out on the promotion we worked hard for, we believe that God is at work even in that disappointment setting us up for greater glory. When we try to do something good but still manage to make a mess of things, we believe that God is at work—even there—taking the mess and making it meaningful.
That’s how Paul can boast about his afflictions; he has faith that God is redeeming all things, even the worst things. So he boasts in his sufferings—the imprisonments, beatings, shipwrecks, and even his poor physical health—because he sees them having a purpose. His suffering builds endurance. Endurance is the capacity to bear up in the face of difficulty. What doesn’t kill him makes him stronger. That endurance strengthens his character. Character is the experience of going through a test where you rise to the occasion. Character is like solid ground in a shaky world, strengthening our resolve to trust in God’s promises. And character produces hope. Hope is looking forward to something with reason to be confident in it actually happening.
So, we can see how Paul can encourage all of us that God is even taking the hard parts of our stories and working them into something better and greater. Therefore we have confidence that our suffering produces endurance, which produces character, which produces hope. He concludes that “hope does not disappoint, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” All of life—the wonderful gifts and the terrible tragedy—is part of God’s redemptive work in each of us, and because the Holy Spirit is present with us we can trust that God’s love is with us. God’s love isn’t some well-meaning valentine delivered at an expected time. No, it’s more like the fierce love of a parent determined to rescue a child in trouble. It’s a love that isn’t scared of the hardships in our stories; it’s a love that can redeem even those.
Paul was well-acquainted with suffering, and so are each and every one of us in our own unique way. While most of us could say of our lives that they are pretty decent most of the time, that doesn’t mean we escape suffering. It’s touched all of us because of the pandemic for sure. Have you considered how God is redeeming even the last two years? You might not have a good answer for that yet, but even here suffering produces endurance and character and hope. We always land on hope. All of us know broken relationships. All of us know disappointment. All of us are acquainted with sorrow, yet God is there redeeming even those things.
We are surrounded by hope—a hope that will not disappoint us because the one who calls us into existence and redeems us through Jesus is faithful. Today is Trinity Sunday. It’s an annual reminder that God’s very being exists in relationship—Father, Son, and Spirit. It is that beautiful relationship that called us to life and into relationship with God and with each other. We are never alone.
I was able to endure the painful conditioning for soccer both because I had hope in a good season ahead and because I had my teammates. Together we held fast to the glory that lay ahead. Paul was able to endure all of his afflictions—far more than many of us have ever faced—because he knew the promises of God and because he could rely on others to carry him when he was at his weakest.
We can endure anything because we have God’s promises redeeming our lives even now and because we have each other to carry us towards that glory. It’s human to back away from others when things are difficult, but we miss out on God’s design of how we get to be part of redeeming even the hardest things in life. So, know that you are never alone. Know that God calls you to bear each other’s burdens. Know that this hope we have is not vain. It’s a hope that redeems everything—everything!—even the hard things. You are a gift to this world. We are a gift to each other. Let us never take the community we share for granted. It’s a gift from God.