Advent Reflection: Romans 5
Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:1-8)
Romans 5:3 is one of my favorite and least favorite scripture verses. Favorite, because it reminds me that God has a purpose for our sufferings, and least favorite because you have to suffer in order to know the purpose.
What is it about suffering that leads to hope?
Suffering is human. People everywhere suffer from some level of physical, emotional, spiritual and relational pain, regardless of geography, socio-economics, religion or age. Some may suffer more than others, but everyone suffers. It’s what makes us human. We live in a fallen and broken world where we hurt each other, we hurt ourselves, we get sick. Suffering connects us across nations and across neighborhoods, across demographics and across centuries. Suffering connects us. We are not alone.
Suffering is humbling. When we suffer we not only recognize our human condition, but we ask for help from God and others. We are connected again to a community that is available to support, pray, heal, correct, rescue. When life is without suffering it’s easy to believe we have no need for anyone--we’ve done it, we’ve accomplished it, we’ve got it all together. The truth is we need help. Heroes are made in suffering, standing up for the victim, becoming a voice for the voiceless, or as Jesus said, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner, feed the hungry, and take care of widows and orphans.
Our humility requires the hero and the sufferer to trust God, look to God, listen to God, depend on God and cry out to God. Suffering happens to individuals, families and the church worldwide. The statistics are staggering about suffering in the universal church. I’ve heard Nicky Gumbel from Holy Trinity Brompton, London, report, “In fact, in more than 60 countries in the world, Christians are harassed, abused, arrested, tortured or executed specifically because of their faith. 200 million Christians throughout the world live in daily fear of secret police, vigilantes or state repression and discrimination. Yet the church in those parts of the world, according to all accounts, seems to be, again, very strong.”
I remember praying over the last twenty-two years of pastoral ministry for our churches to grow; I’ve never prayed they would suffer. Yet an indicator of church growth internationally seems to be suffering. For example, the church is growing in China, which is emerging from seven decades of repression through the communist era. In 2007 I worshipped in an historic church in Shanghai built by Methodist missionaries that only a few decades ago was empty. Now there is standing room only.
From 1958 to 1964, Nikita Khrushchev was certain the government could eliminate Christianity in the Soviet Union through laws, atheist training among teenagers and persecution. Alex was six years old when the KGB refused to allow him to enter church with his grandmother. She took him back to her apartment, and at great risk to herself, invited children to her apartment to learn about Jesus. In 1984, Amy and I attended the InterVarsity Urbana mission conference in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois and heard Billy Graham talk about preaching at the Baptist Church in Moscow. We were among the 20,000 college students who prayed with Dr. Graham for the fall of communism and for the faithfulness of the church in the USSR.
In 2010, Amy and I visited the Baptist Church in Moscow with our choir. As Pastor Alex told me his own story, I realized the pulpit I would stand in was the same pulpit Billy Graham preached from 26 years earlier; the people gathered in the pews were the mothers, fathers and children who were denied access decades ago; and this was the church we had prayed for to be faithful. They had learned more about suffering, perseverance, character and hope than I could ever teach them.
I was humbled.
Our hope is rooted the Savior who suffered and died for us, the Teacher who promised there would be suffering, “but take heart I have overcome the world,” the Lord of the Church who is at work building his Kingdom in surprising ways and places, including our own hearts.
As we see suffering around the world and within our community this Advent season, pray this prayer from the Northumbria Community:
If I open my eyes to the world around me, if I open my heart to the people that surround me, then I feel pain and brokenness, I see suffering and injustice. Lord, see what evil the prince of this world is devising. Let the wind of Your Spirit blow and reverse the works of darkness: and Your fire will cover the earth. Deliver us, Lord, from every evil and grant us peace in our day. In your mercy, Lord, keep us free from sin, and protect us from all anxiety as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Let your Kingdom come, Lord, in me. Amen.