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Jan 03, 2010

Suffering, Perseverance and Hope

Passage: Romans 5:1-5

Preacher: Dan Doriani

Series: Romans - The Gospel of Life


Sermon for Sunday, January 3, 2010
Dr. Dan Doriani


Romans, 5:1-5

Our theme today is suffering - joy, perseverance and hope in suffering. Sadly, we are all too familiar with suffering, with war, disease, disappointment, loneliness, and sadness. I present God's promise to sufferers, and His challenge.

The promise: We can and should rejoice in suffering because we know God works through it to build endurance and character in us. The challenge: We must see trials as God does and persevere in them so that we can receive what God promises. But first, let’s put the teaching in context.

In Romans 1-2, Paul declared that we need the gospel because of sin. We commit particular sins such as lying. Worse, we tend to be hostile, indifferent or arrogant toward God. This puts us on a collision course with Him and we're the lightweights.

In Romans 3-4, Paul presented the content of the gospel: God acted to prevent that collision. He atoned for our sin through the life and death of Jesus Christ. Now every sinner who repents and believes is justified; we have peace with God. This holds for everyone – for good men who do good things and for bad men who do great evil. Everyone sins, everyone fails, and God has a just, strong wrath toward sin and sinners and we're all sinners. But He is merciful to all who repent.

In Romans 5, Paul turns to the fruit or results of the gospel, the blessed life that follows faith (5:1-2): Since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God. Further (today), we can rejoice in affliction or hardship, since He assures us of His care. Under His guidance, affliction builds endurance, character and hope.

The chain in 5:3-4 is vital: "We rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope." James 1:2-4 says the same: "Consider it pure joy... whenever you face trials… the testing of your faith develops perseverance.

Trials don't always have this effect. Calvin says, "Tribulation provokes a great part of mankind to murmur against God, even to curse him. But if we add faith to tribulation, things change. Trials can lead to self-examination: "Did I do something to deserve this? Did I, in any way, bring this on myself?" If so, trials can lead to repentance. More than that, trials can deepen our faith and build our character. But first, let's be sure we hear Paul's message…

In 5:2, Paul says we rejoice in our faith now and in the hope of what is to come. In 5:3 he adds that we can and should rejoice in sufferings or trials. The term can refer to trouble in general or to suffering brought by persecution.

Paul does not suggest that pain or suffering is intrinsically good. That is the message of anarchists, communists, revolutionaries: Burn it all down! No, this world is flawed, but in the hands of God the Father, suffering brings discipline, strength, perseverance. We rejoice in that. When? When a friend or a boss betrays us, when our body betrays us, when a good friend moves. We rejoice, believing God has a purpose, to make us stronger: "Now if we are children, then we are… co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory" (Romans 8:17).

Perseverance leads to proven character. In the Greek, it is a rare word meaning provenness. Someone is proven when they have faced and passed a serious test. A woman says she loves her child unconditionally and she does love that child through a stretch of bratty behavior. That is provenness.

Provenness is the difference between a new recruit and the veteran. The newcomer may have real skill and energy, but the veteran has no fear in a crisis. Veterans have seen it before and know the way forward. They know God won't let us down 1. Thus they persevere - let's consider that more deeply.

Perseverance is the proper response to trials

"Since we have been justified by faith" we can "rejoice in our sufferings." Why? "Because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope" (5:1-4). We know that Jesus bore and exhausted the wrath of God on the cross, therefore believers never suffer God's punishment. All suffering either disciplines us when we stray or strengthens us for higher service.

In C. S. Lewis' novel, A Horse and His Boy, Shasta braves searing heat, terrible thirst, even an attack by a lion, to cross a desert to warn the people of Narnia of a surprise invasion from treacherous foes. After days of walking and riding, Shasta tumbles into the yard of an old watchman to announce the coming threat. He thinks he is finally done. “No”, the watchman says. The horses are spent, but Shasta is not. He must run, run, without rest, straight to the king. If he runs hard, he will reach the king and warn him in time. Lewis notes: Thus "the reward for a good deed is usually to be set to do another and harder and better one." This is what trials do at best: They prepare us for "harder and better deeds."

James makes the same point: "Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance" (James 1:2-3). Paul says we "rejoice… because we know that suffering produces perseverance" (5:3). James says, "Consider." Both say we must make mental judgments about trials. They seem like accidents. Yet God intends them to strengthen our faith. A believer knows God is sovereign over our trials.

Humanly speaking, suffering and trials seem like random evils. James 1:2 says we "face" trials or they befall us. But our Sovereign oversees the trial itself and oversees us in the trial, so it can, should strengthen and deepen our faith. This does not mean we live in what the philosopher Gottfried Leibniz called the "best of all possible worlds," that is, the best world God could make, the one that causes people less pain, more options, than any other that could be imagined.

Nor do we comfort ourselves with a vague nostrum, "Everything will work out in the end." God does not promise that everything works out for everyone. Nor does He promise that everything works out in this life. He does promise that "for those who love God all things work together for good" (Romans 8:28, English Standard Version). And He promises us "an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade." God keeps that inheritance in heaven for us, and He "keeps" us for it, even in trials (1 Peter 1:4-6).

Paul says we rejoice in sufferings [afflictions] since they produce endurance and character. James says testing produces perseverance (James 1:3). Cross country runners prepare to run a race of three miles by running five miles. Preachers learn to speak without notes by seeing there is no podium. Resistance or adversity is necessary for the development of any great skill or trait, especially the development of endurance.

This doesn't mean we feign indifference to pain. The model is the woman who rejoices to learn that she is pregnant. She knows she faces nausea, then childbirth, but she rejoices because she looks past these things and sees the end - her child. So it is with the Christian.

Endurance is strong and active. To endure is to continue on the right path no matter how difficult. In fact, true virtue does not exist without perseverance. A soldier may think he is courageous because he sleeps on the ground and faces a short skirmish. But if he collapses and runs from the assault of a fully enemy, we call the man a coward. A man is brave if he shows courage, even in the fiercest battle. A man is brave if he perseveres in it.

No significant accomplishment is possible without perseverance through trials. Every great task faces obstacles. When we endure one obstacle, we gain confidence to endure another.

When they face hardship, people may guess what they should learn from it: "The Lord will teach me patience through this," or, "This will teach me to trust God more completely." The Lord can deepen patience or trust through trials.

But God doesn't say trials produce one particular virtue. Perseverance leads to maturity in general: "Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything" (James 1:4). Trials lead to well-rounded character. Trials can deepen any virtue and address any defect.

Abigail Adams said of the Revolutionary era: "These are the times in which a genius would wish to live. It is not in the still calm of life that great characters are formed. The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties. Great necessities call out great virtues… Then those qualities which would otherwise lay dormant, wake into life and form the character of the hero and the statesman."

The wrong response to trials.

When immersed in intense trials, people commonly ask the wrong questions: Why is this happening to me? Whose fault is this? There are several reasons why evil may strike us: It can be the result of personal sin or folly, the result of oppression, or natural disaster. It can be the result of social evils, the work of an enemy or satanic opposition. But we may never know why, so it's better to focus elsewhere. We do know that "suffering produces perseverance, character, and hope" (5:3-4). So we should ask how we can grow to maturity through our trial.

You may think, "No one knows the suffering I must endure. If they did, they would never say it can strengthen me." Perhaps you're right: no one knows how bad it is. But God does know our sorrows and He says we can rejoice in them – at least in time. If nothing else, trials can teach us to seek God afresh. Trials can break us down, but they can also prepare believers for eternity. And suffering or trial can build our character.

Perseverance, trials and character illustrated.

I discovered this when our children were young and I was a college professor in Pennsylvania. I lived just a few blocks from campus. I would walk home quietly along a tree-lined street, arriving home refreshed around 5:30. The minutes before supper are difficult for small children. Hunger or weariness spurs them to disobey or quarrel, but mothers can't focus on them while they prepare dinner. Each night, I strode in the door, prepared to size up the situation and rescue the hour if necessary.

If everyone was happy, we had time for a romp or a story. If they misbehaved, I coolly analyzed each child. Did they require gentle discipline? Loving attention? A new activity? A gentle prod to obey their mother? What voice should I use? The gentle one, the authoritative one, or the gently authoritative one? Should I stand beside them, towering over them, letting my size inspire awe? Should I kneel down to their level and look them in the eye? Or should I lie on floor and let them climb all over me in blessed oblivion?

How I relished the role of "wise father." My children were like putty in my hands. I often wondered why other parents couldn't lead their children as easily as I could. You hear the pride, of course. Because of my childhood, the story has a twist. During my violent childhood, I often vowed that I would become an excellent father – loving, patient, kind and fun. Noble goals, but they also tempted me to idolatry, to find my identity in my "good-father-ness."

Then one day, exactly twenty years ago, someone tossed a canister of tear gas into my house of paternal bliss (metaphorically). My wife suffered a herniated disk. After a week in the hospital, she was on bed rest for two more weeks. Life was hard enough when she was in the hospital: I played mother, father, cook, and caretaker to three small children, seven, five and one and now, I had to become a nurse, too.

I had to leave work early, with work unfinished, to prepare dinner as the children whined at me for a change. The more I was home, the less impact my special voices – authority, tenderness, basso-profundo - had. And I simply didn't have time to bend over and look each child in the eye every time I spoke.

For a while I gritted my teeth trying to maintain control. But after about two weeks, I wore out. I got louder. I spent less time patiently explaining "why" and more time uttering commands like, "Because I said so." Debbie silently observed all this from her post on the floor. But one suppertime, she simply tilted her head and caught my eye. Her look said, "So where is the wise father now?"

What had gone wrong? My family was suffering. I was in a trial and failing. I realized that I had exaggerated my skills as a father. I had less self-control and more pride than I wished to see.

James says, "The testing of your faith develops perseverance" (1:3-4). That is, the trial could help me develop true perseverance as a father. My ways of fathering worked when all was easy, but the trial revealed my weakness. I was not as masterful as I dreamed. The trial let me repent and pursue maturity as a father. As Paul says, "We rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance, character, and hope" (5:3-4).

Paul never suggests that we rejoice in suffering, pain or loss per se, but we can be thankful for the lessons learned in them. At minimum, trials expose our flaws so we know where we must grow. Trials expose our sin, our inability to reform ourselves, our need of a Savior. Trusting the Savior gives us hope.

Perseverance gives hope.

When we persevere in afflictions, we gain strength of character. Then our hope or confidence in God grows. Trials don't alarm the way they did. Yet the promise that suffering produces character and hope is like many others in Scripture: it's conditional. That is, God doesn't promise that no matter what you do, trials will strengthen you. In Romans 12:12, Paul commands the Romans to rejoice in hope and endure in affliction. The terms for endure and affliction are same as 5:3. If we refuse to claim the promise, we can't expect to receive the promise.

The year 2009 ended with great sorrow. I know so many people – more than any of you could guess, whether from St. Louis or elsewhere, whether in the church or loosely connected to it - who made a wreck of their lives in '09 with self-destruction, broken promises, lies, and foolishness. Some days I'm shocked, stunned, some days I'm angry, some days nothing surprises me; I detach and think about damage control.

As your pastors, we grieve, pray and try to help. We wonder how these things happen. Why do people who call themselves disciples act this way, committing serious sins, wreaking havoc and hurting so many people?

Why do people who claim to follow Jesus, look so similar to the world at large? Alcoholism, drug abuse, abortion, cohabitation, and affairs are less common in the church, but not by very much. As you may know, divorce rates among secular Europeans is lower than that among evangelical Christians. How can this be? How did we get here? Here are some possible answers.

Maybe its' consumerism. The constitution says it is our inalienable right to pursue happiness. One branch of the marketing/advertising world tells us over and over that we have the right to everything we see.

Serious philosophers and theologians wonder what the super-abundance of food is doing to us. Until 100 years ago, food was almost always scarce. Eating too much was a serious offense with a serious label – gluttony (Proverbs 23:2, Matthew 11:19). Today gluttony is a joke – at most a metaphor. Food, good food, is everywhere, all the time. So is drink, beautiful music, and other creature comforts. Does the abundance teach us that we can have whatever we want – if not now, then soon? Are we making instant gratification a habit? Have we lost the ability to say no to our desires? Has the will become lazy?

Certainly a part of our culture suggests that we should deny ourselves nothing – if we really want it. Extend that mindset to all of life and the result is disaster.

We abuse the doctrines of grace. We know: we are right with God by faith through grace. We affirm that every week in this church. But it's possible to abuse God's grace. Some think: Whatever I do, whenever I do it, however often I do it, it's all covered by grace. And if we truly repent of every evil, that is true. But repentance includes a desire to stop sinning. We insult God when we use grace as an excuse. We sin and sin, trash His law, hurt our neighbors, offend His holiness, and then say, "Oh, but He will forgive." But if it's mere words, if it's a religious word game, He will not forgive.

The Bible says Christians endure, we persevere. We resist sin, we mourn when we sin. When we pursue godly character in God's strength and for his sake, then hope grows strong. In hardship, as we persevere, God pours His love into our hearts. He assures us that He has given a gift – His Spirit in our lives.

Grace is a gift, the Spirit is a gift. But we are not entirely passive. We endure, persevere. When Job suffered terrible loss and affliction, his wife told him to curse God and die. But Job persevered and that proved his character and hope.

Listen: Perseverance is both a promise and an imperative. Jesus says, "The one who perseveres to the end will be saved" (Matthew 10:22, 24:13). Paul says, "Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers" (1 Timothy 4:16). Hebrews says, "You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised" (Hebrews. 10:36, 12:7). Peter said, "If you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God" (2:20).

So perseverance is both a promise and an obligation. God promises to guard us, to finish the good work he has begun in us (1 Peter 1:5, Philippians 1:6). But these promises aren't a license for lazy self-indulgence. Assurance of salvation is a great doctrine, but it doesn't mean all will be well no matter what we do.

I know - someone is thinking, "Legalist! Pharisee! You don't understand grace." And I say, "Convict me of this charge from Scripture." For Scripture says, "Godless men change the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord" (Jude 4).

Paul says, "The grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say 'No' to ungodliness and worldly passions and to live… godly lives in this present age" (Titus 2:11-12).

I hope we truly love God's grace; I also hope we understand grace as Jesus does. Grace and striving are not contradictory. Jesus said, "How hard it is to enter the kingdom of God" (Mark 10:24). Paul said, "We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God" (Acts 14:22). In his grace, God perseveres with us and we must try to persevere with Him.

We need to be careful. If we repent and believe, God is so gracious when we falter. We are right with God by faith through grace. We affirm that every day. But let's not abuse God's grace, assuming all will be fine, no matter what we do.

Paul says, "If we endure, we will also reign with him" (2 Timothy 2:12). James says,: "Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God promised those who love him" (James 1:12).

So we rejoice in trials. Nothing happens without God's permission and oversight. Trials teach us to lean on God. They reveal our flaws, where we need to grow. But when we hold fast to Him in trials, God promises we will gain character and hope and assurance of His love.

1arme John Stott, Romans, page 142d

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