Saturday, March 13, 2010
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.
Suffering is something we shy away from, and certainly we cannot imagine boasting in our suffering. And yet here we have scripture telling us "we boast in our suffering." How does this work? How does one truly 'boast' in one's suffering?" How can we as the people of God and the body of Christ, who truly suffered, bring hope to others who are struggling under the burden of their own struggling.
In recent conversations I have had with others about 'suffering,' it seems that many people feel that suffering comes from God. Suffering from God comes either directly, in that God gave it to them to either test them or punish them, or indirectly, in that God allowed their suffering. This understanding can be harmful, even damaging, to those who are struggling and really need a message of love and grace from God. The people who view suffering this way seem to have an attitude of "poor me," but console themselves in their suffering with the understanding that God must be shoring them up for something really difficult in the future." It seems they want to be tested by God in this way, but really what is their alternative in their way of thinking? If it weren't God testing them, then their suffering is coming from God as punishment, or that God is allowing this suffering to happen to them, which brings about feelings of abandonment. Their outlook is pessimistic to say the least. Therefore, when things are going well in their lives, they cringe in fear of the next struggle that will come their way, never enjoying anything in life.
I cannot see this as boasting. It seems more masochistic to me. This type of suffering seems to multiply as well, because the people who view suffering this way, always seem to be suffering, or anticipating their next suffering on a rare good day. They aren't boasting, they are wallowing. How can they be a help and a hope in a hurting world? How can they bring the message of the gospel, "good news," to those who truly need it? They seem to have not even found it for themselves. So, if this isn't the answer, what is? How do we boast in our suffering?
I have read this passage in the past, but my reading today brought up new inight. I have recently shared my testimony at a women's retreat, and in preparing for this, I had to truly look at all the things that have happened to me in my life. Some of the things are awful, and I remember during those times people would say things to me like, "God won't give you more than you can bear." That was never very comforting to me. My purpose in sharing my testimony at this time is to show how God has worked in my life to bring me to the point where I am today, how God's grace has been with me all along, even in spite of what has been done to me by others, or even in spite of what I have done to myself. I had to reflect deeply on the suffering of my past, and look at it differently than I did at the time I was in the midst of it.
I have learned through observation and experience, that suffering is not exclusively Christian. But I suppose that some would view non-Christian suffering as punishment or wrath of God. Truthfully, suffering is a universal element of life. When we are born, we begin the struggle, simply to breathe our first breath. And our struggles do not stop until we struggle to breathe our last. So, what was Paul talking about that was unique to the Christians of his day.
This is what I have discovered about suffering, at least the suffering my own life. I did have more than I could bear on occasion. But we aren't to bear it alone anyway. God is there with us, helping us in our struggles. I can now look back and see the many, many ways God was working in my life, even if I couldn't see it at the time. During some of these times, I remember I felt abandoned by God because I couldn't see the handwork of God bringing grace, love, peace and mercy in my life.
I have discovered and through God's grace have been able to admit my own culpability in some of my suffering. The things we do to ourselves tends to be equally as devastating (if not more so) as that which is done to us. We fear looking at it, let alone admitting that we may have contributed to our own suffering. And in my life, some of these places, I was struggling against God, which brought about an even greater feeling of loneliness.
I have learned that as lonely as I may have felt in my suffering, as unique as my problems felt to me, many people have gone through the type of suffering I faced. The overwhelming nature of such thought brings a sense of hopelessness unless we find the hope we have in Christ. Because I have learned the way out of the valley, it is only right that I share that with others. All too often we struggle under the burden of our suffering, and when we finally are free of it, we boast in ourselves, "see how I made it through that." And this type of thinking is where we find we leave others in the suffering we once experienced. We leave them there and shy away from them because their suffering reminds us too much of our own. So we run from the valley and never look back. But as Christians, this is not what we are called to do. We are all called to bring a message of hope and good news.
As I have reflected and shared my testimony, I realized that standing up there that day, I was boasting. Yes, really I was. I was actually excited even. I was telling these women the horrible things that have happened in my life and said, "see God was at work here, and more importantly, I am where I am today, I am who I am today because of everything that has happened in my life. And I like who God has formed me to be." I could boast on how God has worked in my life to bring good out of bad, beauty from ugly, and comfort even in the midst of pain. Isn't God awesome, to work like that in our lives?
I have seen where God has worked in my life, when troubles come up, I know that God is there. I never doubt it. I know that even though I cannot imagine how it might work, or cannot see how it is working, I know that God will bring wholeness to our brokenness. It is our limited imagination that thinks the broken pieces must be put back exactly as they were in order to be 'whole,' but God's imagination isn't as limited. God can take the pieces of our broken lives and create something completely new, something beautiful.
So now, I read Romans. We can know 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 suffered, and in my suffering I have learned, which gives me character, and by this outlook, I do have hope. And because I know where my hope comes from, I am not disappointed, and when we aren't living in the shadow of disappointment we can feel God's love in our life, and share God's love with others.
Ah, now I get it.