Bible reading in 2010 has put me in some of Scripture’s ‘big’ books–the Gospels, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and lately, Romans. My glacial pace (trying to stay slow enough to let the text settle and/or disturb) slowed to a stop when I hit the eighth chapter of that book. How to move forward once one encounters Spirit (vs. law; life vs. death), glory (glory is all over the place these days), or the strong pull and deep well of love (a notion of continued interest here)? Or, this odd entry: suffering.
Suffering, in the company of love, glory, Spirit? This, along with other ideas encountered in chapter 8, took me back to what Paul had already been saying, to the ‘case’ he had been building since the start of this letter. It’s involved, rich and complex, and worthy of close encounter and prolonged musing. So much to unpack, like the way this section recalls a chunk in chapter 5, where Paul mentions–I think for the first time in this letter–suffering (v. 3), in the same neighborhood as Spirit, glory and love.
Typically we read NT epistles’ comments on suffering in light of the increasing marginalization of Christ followers by inhospitable political and religious forces; apostles write epistles aware of this dynamic, and their words encourage. At the same time, in Romans, there is little direct comment from Paul about hostility Christians are facing in Italy. That leads me to wonder whether something else is afoot with his remarks on suffering, like maybe what it means to deal with a life that hasn’t turned out quite as had been expected.
One of the classic Biblical texts on suffering is the book of Job, where the titular character undergoes all manner of trouble. Compatriots who come to comfort bring judgment instead, accusing Job of being responsible for his own misfortune. We think they’re calloused in this, but more likely, they’re simply reflecting the conventional wisdom that those experiencing difficulty have only themselves to blame. But this book overturns that notion: sometimes, bad things just happen. It’s a bitter pill, perhaps, but subsequent teaching helps us swallow the rather new (and uncomfortable) idea by offering a more nuanced understanding. For example: Jesus’ response to the question—who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind? Conventional wisdom had two possibilities for blindness, both of which put the blame squarely on the wrong-doer. Jesus instead says that the man’s condition was not the result of human failing, but rather, so that “the work of God might be displayed” (John 9:3). In this case, suffering is not punishment for sin, but a canvas on which God will paint.
Now, back to Paul and Romans 5 & 8, where he refers to suffering. It could be that he’s speaking to people bowed under pressure from religious leaders and politicians. But it might also be the case that his audience is composed of those who, having put their faith in the mercy, love and grace of God to rescue them from the dominion of darkness (Colossians 1:13), had been thinking that now life will get better, only to run aground on the rocks of heartache and disaster, ill-health and setbacks. What if Paul is writing to people who are struggling with the exigencies of life, and wondering why they didn’t get a pass on account of their faith?
Read through this lens, Paul’s commentary on suffering has a different ring to it. He’s driving a stake into any sense of entitlement Christ-followers might have (NT Wright makes the point that part of Paul’s program was to rewrite Jewish expectations that national origins determined divine favor; Paul may have a similar strategy of dismantling here, though applied to a different batch of circumstances); he’s preparing them for a long slog. He’s saying that suffering is part of life here and now, and that it’s even an opportunity to see and welcome the activity of God.
But he’s no sadist–and neither is God. Rather, Paul is facing a real issue head on. In the book Deep Survival, the author suggests that tragedy often befalls those who refuse to accept their circumstances: they make light of what is really happening to and around them. Success–by which Laurence Gonzales means survival–is possible only by acknowledging what one is up against, and then plotting a course forward (Jim Collins raised a similar point with his ‘Stockdale Paradox’ in Good to Great). Paul (if my reading here has merit) knows that life lived on this planet brings with it a certain measure of drama and discomfort–neither of which one escapes by aligning with Jesus. So he writes to disabuse Christ-followers of the notion that they will slide with smiling ease through their days like Jamaican bobsledders.
Then, by nesting his talk of suffering in the context of Spirit, glory and love, Paul also shows that it need not get the upper hand. There are stronger realities afoot, bigger dreams, grander visions. The problem with suffering is how it shrinks a world to the size of one’s pain; Paul doesn’t minimize that pain, but instead offers a different focal point. But not a point so much as a canvas, a mural, a sprawling mosaic of ideas and possibilities, and a future still unfurling. “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” he says (Romans 8:18). Does he want Christians to ignore, or make light of the difficulties they’re experiencing? No. Instead, he wants to remind them that all they see and feel is not all there is. And if he can nudge them toward adopting that perspective, two things happen. First, they find a way to make sense of present experience (Paul’s counsel in this regard is to reckon how suffering produces perseverance, which develops character, which yields hope–Romans 5:3-4). Second, they learn to anticipate that which is both real and good. He’s an advocate of delayed gratification rather than the insistence on right now I want it (i.e. life that is better, richer, faster, fuller, more pain-free, less encumbered by tiresome troubles). He’s telling us that in lining up with Jesus, we embark on a different way of seeing and doing life—one that is strengthened by the Spirit, rooted in love and aiming for glory.