Whenever we suffer in any way, “from men, from demons or from the body,” as St. Isaac puts it, we are tempted. And how we deal with that temptation makes all the difference. Do we turn to Christ or deny Christ (perhaps not so much with our words, but with our actions)? Do we continue to love others or begin to blame, accuse and condemn others. Do we thank God for all things, or do we grumble in our hearts? It is a temptation. Every difficult and painful circumstance in our lives is a temptation.
And because such suffering is a temptation to sin, it is also an opportunity to deny Christ. It is an opportunity to curse God or curse man made in the image of God. It is an opportunity to become lost in self pity and never-ending introspection. It is an opportunity to become engrossed in the immediate human or demonic or biological causes, and to ignore God almost completely, as though our suffering and difficult circumstance were happening behind God’s back.
The same difficult or painful circumstance becomes for us the means by which we either grow in Christ or in some way deny Him. And of course what is happening to us never makes any sense in the midst of the suffering. That’s part of the temptation. We don’t know why God is letting this happen. We don’t know what God is doing. It just doesn’t make sense. And at that point of confusion, that dark night of the body and soul, all we have left is naked trust, naked hope that God is still God despite all of the evidence to the contrary, despite the pain and confusion and injustice of the situation. Can we say with Job, “Even if He slay me, yet will I trust in Him”?
I just ran across another place in Romans where Paul says two opposite things one after another, and in so doing demonstrates that they’re actually the same thing. This one is in 5:2f. The NRSV says, “… we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings …”
The “glory of God” in which we will share is Paul’s way (in this instance) of describing our heavenly goal, or the final consummation of our salvation. What’s remarkable here is that he puts our sharing in the divine glory in parallel with our sufferings here on earth. Let’s unpack what’s happening.
When Paul describes salvation in verses 1-2, he’s not describing a one-off single event that we can point to and say, “that’s the moment I got saved.” It begins with justification, which results with us entering into a state of peace with God. That state of peace gives us access to grace which ultimately leads to our sharing in the divine glory. In other words, Paul views salvation as a long term process. It is not the escape from the wrath to come that is the interesting part of salvation in this particular text, it is rather because of our access to grace we can be transformed and that transformation will allow us to ultimately share in the divine glory, the same glory that would have surely killed us (Judges 13:22, et al.) prior to being transformed.
Beginning in verse 3, Paul describes another series of connected events, starting with the phrase “but we also boast in our sufferings”: suffering – endurance – character – hope … hope that does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. Notice that both series start with a boast and end with our hope. Paul is describing parallel actions. The one description views the action from what we might call the divine side (justification – peace – grace – glory) and the other describes the action from the human side (suffering – endurance – character – hope/Holy Spirit).
They’re the same thing! And let me reiterate: To make sure we don’t miss that point, Paul says something a bit odd. He says that we “boast” in both of these actions. The term “boast” (kauchaomai) is a wonderfully evocative word that has no good English equivalent. It is used in either the middle or passive tense, so “boast” (which is inherently an active tense word) is not a particularly good translation. It is not something that we do but neither is it something that is done to us. It is more akin to a state of being in which we live.
The word is also found in Rom 5:11. One strengths of the NRSV is that it tries hard to consistently use the same English term for a Greek term. Thus it says, “we even boast in God.” Although it is not particularly good English (thus other translations didn’t follow along) the King James Version of Rom 5:11 gets to the sense of this word. “We also joy in God.” That is a state of being! We’re not boasting nor are we rejoicing exactly. Rather, “we joy in our hope” (v 2), “we joy in our sufferings” (v 3) and “we joy in God (v 11).
But back to the point of this essay. How are we transformed? How do we ultimately share in the glory of God? Suffering! Suffering is what allows us to be transformed. Read the following very carefully, because the idea of suffering being in any way salvific went totally off the rails during the Middle Ages, and we still feel the lingering effects of that silliness. Paul says that suffering produces “endurance.” As is so common when translating from one language to another, it is impossible to find equivalent terms. “Endurance” expresses perfectly one half of the Greek word “hypomone.” The way to strengthen a muscle is to work it hard (ie, make it suffer); over time the muscle can endure more.
But there’s another angle to this word that is better illustrated by a dog than a gym rat. An untrained dog on a leash jumps from one side of the sidewalk to the other, straining toward any sort of thing that interests it. A well trained dog doesn’t even need a leash because it has learned to ignore distractions. In the same vein, the Ignatian spiritual exercises make a distinction between a thought passing through the brain (something we cannot stop) and the active part of the brain actually grabbing hold of that thought and running with it. Calmness is not the absence of thoughts, it’s the ability to ignore or let pass any thought so that it is not distracting; thoughts are always flowing, it’s the holding on to the thought that interrupts the peace. This is the second angle of “hypomone” That is not expressed in the English term “endurance.”
In the Orthodox East this idea of letting thoughts go is a particularly beloved monastic practice, but is expressed more commonly in relation to things rather than thoughts among the average Christian. Sin causes to lose sight of the truly spiritual and focus on the physical. Since we are created to enter into union with God, sin causes us to cling to physical things (family, fame, wealth, power, shoes, trucks, you get the idea). At its most pernicious we so completely identify with the things we love, we have a hard time separating our true selves from the things that have come to define us.
Suffering begins to tear away at these things that have come to define us. True suffering no doubt feels like (and I’m speaking metaphorically here) our very skin and flesh are being peeled off our bones. For a self-centered sinner, it is probably the worst thing imaginable. But as that happens we slowly begin to discover that these things that have defined us are not actually us. We begin to discover our true self. And as we begin to discover our true self and put a bit of separation between our “selves” and the “things” that defined us, we discover that we no longer have that compulsion to grasp on to those things. As our hands begin to loosen and unfold from their grasping, the Holy Spirit (v 5) that was given to us can now actually begin to dig through all those things all the way into the true self … and transformation can begin.
This is the potential force of that seemingly simple word “endurance” (hypomone) that Paul uses. It is also worth noting that not all suffering has this effect. Suffering must be faced within in the context of faith, justification, and the peace that grows out of that. Suffering is not salvific in and of itself but in the context of the work of salvation that God is doing, it is the tool that opens us up to God’s work of grace that ultimately leads to sharing in his glory.
And this brings us full circle back to the wonderful mash-up that Paul offers in Rom. 5:2-3. We joy in the hope of sharing God’s glory just as we joy in our sufferings, because when the whole process is understood, we realize that human suffering has the potential to be the back side of divine glory. Thanks be to God.
I was reminded this morning of what Jürgen Moltmann said in The Crucified God (sorry, no pg #, the book’s at home). He identified God as “the event of Golgotha.” The wags wondered if it is possible to pray to an event. In response, Moltmann said that we don’t pray to the event, but rather pray in the event of Golgotha.
Let’s be clear. Moltmann’s original observation is a bit of Existentialist clap-trap. God is the event? …
But then again, there may be a nugget hidden beneath the shell. First, the idea that we pray in the crucifixion is a marvelous insight into our proper response and posture to suffering. God made us priests of creation so we respond from the inside out rather than as mere observers from the outside in.
A second observation (and this is where my mind was today): While God as “the event of Golgotha” is an expression of Moltmann’s Existentialism, it can also be reframed in sacramental terms. One can properly say in an Orthodox context that Christ is the only sacrament. The Table and Font are sacraments in that through them the Christian truly and really participates in Christ and Christ in his Body.
There is therefore a sense that “the event of Golgotha” is indeed God in this sacramental sense (in Roman Catholic terms, a “sacramental” rather than a “sacrament”), insofar as the person of Jesus Christ infuses the event and makes it real. So it is that praying in the event of Golgotha is praying in Christ himself who suffers alongside us. And we can expand this out to include the Spirit. According to Paul, the Spirit groans on our behalf with groans that are beyond our comprehension.
If we allow it, suffering can isolate us from others, from God, and even from ourselves. But if we allow it, suffering can also allow God, and specifically the fullness of the Trinity, to participate in us and in our deepest need, bringing us into fellowship with Christ and His Body.