Romans 8:18-30

The Epistle lesson in Year A of the 3-year lectionary cycle in use with many Christian congregations and denominations is this section from St. Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians.  Actually, it overlaps slightly with the reading for next week, as the section is broken (atrociously!) in the lectionary cycle between verse 27 and 28.  But for this discursus, I’ll deal with what the proper section should have been – verses 18-30.

Paul has masterfully developed his theme of justification exclusively by the grace of God the Father through faith in the atoning sacrifice of God the Son, Jesus the Christ.  He’s laid out how the Old Testament clearly shows this has always been God’s way of working.  He’s discussed the role of the Law now for Christians, not as a condemning force that consigns us to death in our sins, but as the good and holy Word of God that guides and protects us as we live out our lives of faith.  He’s made it clear that the Christian life is fundamentally different than whatever life we might have led before being brought to faith in Jesus.  This may necessitate some rather major changes in how we think, speak, and act.  Paul does not preach cheap grace – whereby we keep doing what we want trusting in Jesus as our Get-out-of-hell-free card.  The Christian is able to strive towards holier living because of the indwelling presence of God the Holy Spirit within them.

But the reality is that we will never be fully freed from sin in this lifetime.  There will be a war within us every day of our lives between the sinful desires that are still part of us and the righteous and holy part of us made possible through faith in Jesus the Christ.  Yet we struggle on!  And part of that struggle, Paul mentions at the end of verse 17, is that we will suffer in this world.  Suffering is a topic Paul has already briefly mentioned back in Chapter 5:1-5, where he discussed that for the Christian, suffering is never fruitless because God who is with us and in us and for us will use periods of suffering to further define and refine our character.  While we don’t crave suffering, if and when we encounter it we do so in the knowledge that God is with us and working in and through us.

Now in Chapter 8 Paul comes back to the topic of suffering.  It might seem that we who are striving after God should somehow be protected from suffering and persecution in our faith, but this is not the case.  Suffering for the faith or because of the faith is often part of the Christian life (despite the historical anomaly that is America over the past 200 years).  How is the Christian to deal with this suffering?  Certainly in part, she should remember what Paul said back in Chapter 5 – that God is working in and through and despite our suffering and therefore we should actively look for and expect such work, not simply the elimination of our suffering.

Here in this section of Chapter 8, Paul lays out three reasons why the Christian should be able to endure suffering while still praising God.  Firstly, whatever suffering we endure is brief compared with the vista of eternity that we continually cast our gaze towards.  Our culture insists that our life is really just the timespan of life as we know it, maybe 100 years or so if you’re lucky, so you better make it count.  More accurately, our culture says that really the most important and vital part of that lifespan extends from about 16 to 30, so you need to make those years count.  Have fun!  Experiment!  Follow your bliss!  Ignore the massive damage this can do to you and those around you!  Don’t stop to think about the long term!

But the Christian seeks to maintain the Biblical perspective – our life is a gift of God that we seek to enjoy but more specifically to use as an opportunity to praise and worship him.  This life does not end at death but continues into eternity.  So if in this life we practice restraint and self-discipline, it is not a waste – it leads us towards something far better!  Likewise, if our existence here and now entails suffering, we know that it is only for a period of time.  By keeping this perspective, we have one means by which to endure the suffering in our life.

Secondly, the Christian can endure suffering is brought out in verse 26 – we do not suffer alone.  The Holy Spirit of God is always with us and doesn’t simply passively abide within us but is active in his intercessions on our behalf.

In the midst of suffering we may be bewildered, frustrated, angry.  We may be unable to focus or concentrate our thoughts, to the point where we aren’t even able to pray!  This might be a terrible thought for us – are we abandoning God because of the suffering in our lives?  Because we’re too frazzled or absorbed in our pain to pray?  By no means!  God the Holy Spirit himself is praying and interceding on our behalf.  Beyond the level of words and articulations, without our actual involvement, even.  We are never left alone, and God himself knows – because of the suffering of Jesus – how deeply suffering can affect us and disrupt our routines and abilities.  So we endure suffering knowing that God is with us and for us and within us at all times!

Paul’s third reason that the Christian can endure suffering is in verse 28 – we know that God works all things for good for those who love him.  This is a restatement or summary in some ways of Paul’s discussion in Romans 5:1-5.  God is at work in us constantly and pervasively, and suffering does not change this but in fact may offer unique opportunities for such divine work.

We need to be careful in our interpretation here.  Verse 28 is not saying that suffering is not real, that evil is not real, that we are simply deluded or misinformed about what goes on within and around us.  The Bible never denies the reality of suffering and persecution and evil, and we never should as well!  But if we suffer in such a way, the Christian rests assured that the suffering cannot separate us from God’s love.  It does not eclipse his goodness to us.  And if we trust in him, one day we will be able to see how He was at work in us during our suffering – upholding, shaping, molding, pruning.  Again, we don’t look for suffering, but when we encounter it, we do so knowing that God is not absent in our suffering, and therefore our suffering has actual meaning – a meaning exactly contrary to the intent of that suffering when it is imposed upon us by those antagonistic to God and to our faith in Christ.

The Christian suffers as no other person can or does suffer, because we can endure it through our faith.  We do so knowing that the suffering will only last so long, and then we will be free of it – perhaps temporarily but certainly eternally!  We endure knowing that God the Holy Spirit is within us interceding on our behalf even when we are unable to pray.  And we endure trusting that regardless of the type or source of our suffering, God is capable of working good things in and through and despite it.

All of this leads Paul to a concluding section of praise and confidence to and in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, before he moves on to a different topic in his letter.  This is such an important thing to me as a pastor, and as I come alongside people in the midst of very real suffering.

Today I visited one of our elderly, home-bound members.  I’ve been calling on her since I arrived at this parish seven years ago.  And in that time she has transitioned from a somewhat independent and mobile woman, full of the confidence and capability that I believe marked her whole adult life, to first a homebound woman and now a woman in her upper 90’s who requires 24-hour care and is physically a shadow of her former self.  She is often confused, and sometimes bewildered.  She speaks often of how she just wants to die and go to be with God.  I’ve talked about our times together before.

I wonder why it is that God has not called her home.  But Paul’s words in Romans 8 are important to me as I minister to her, and as I imagine spectres of my own future as I talk and pray with her.  He has not abandoned or forgotten her.  And while she and I may not know his reasons and timing, we need never trust his goodness and love.  I trust He has his reasons, and one day I’ll be at least better able to understand them and see their perfection.

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