First published 13 August 2013
This post is now incorporated with 22 other similar ‘reflections’ in my book, Facing Cancer with Faith.
“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” So said the apostle Paul in Romans 8:18.
Paul, who suffered beatings, lashings, shipwrecks, snake bites, desertion by friends, persecution, imprisonment after false accusation, loss of loved ones, called all these things “light momentary affliction” compared to the “eternal weight of glory” that awaits us (2 Corinthians 4:17).
I find myself regularly pondering the purpose of suffering. I’ve written on it before. It still occupies my mind. I have a feeling it will be a lifelong project. Perhaps the pondering itself is one of God’s purposes!
But surely one of God’s purposes in the suffering of believers is right there in these verses. If sufferings are considered “light” and “momentary” in comparison to the glory to come, then one way we appreciate the glory of the future is in contrast against the afflictions we experience now. In other words, the more we suffer the more we appreciate the full glory of the future, because the greater the suffering the more glorious the future has to be to tip the scales. And the Bible assures us that however much we suffer, the scales are always toppled by the eternal weight of glory. The sufferings are “not worth comparing”.
What causes us to lose heart? Isn’t it when things come along which threaten our hopes and dreams? I may want to see my children grow into mature and successful adults, but serious illness (mine or theirs) may prevent that. I may want to have financial stability, a successful career and to feel like I’ve made a difference for good in my work, but time after time I get made redundant and then struggle to find work. I am tempted to lose heart because I can’t achieve what I want to.
We lose heart when the darkness of suffering looms larger than our view of the hope, when the threat is big enough to snuff out our view of the light at the end of the tunnel.
But we’re taught in the Bible that there is no affliction large enough to eclipse the hope that we have in Christ Jesus. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:35-38)
Hearing that is one thing. Believing it is another.
Believing it is one thing. Knowing it is another.
Knowing it requires experience; experience of affliction, proving for ourselves that what God assures us through the Bible is true, as we act according to our belief, our faith.
In order to not lose heart (2 Corinthians 4:16) we must set our hearts on things unshakable and certain, like Jesus who, “for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising its shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:2)
If my heart is set on a successful career, then I may lose heart when redundancy comes. If my heart is set on providing for and protecting my family, then I may lose heart when tragedy strikes or when I lose my strength to provide and protect. If my heart is set on sharing the gospel with those who do not know him, I may lose heart when blockages fall in my way and opportunities are few. If my heart is set on doing great things for God, then I may lose heart when my projects fail.
Instead we must have a vision of the glory of God, the glory that we will share in because of our adoption as His sons through the gracious work of the Lord Jesus Christ; a vision not dependent on my power to achieve it, or on my goodness or wisdom, or on any other finite being, but only on our great God and Saviour; a vision that is big enough to overcome any dark shadows of affliction or discouragement that would try to eclipse it.
The bigger the shadows, the bigger the vision needed.
And God is all about expanding our vision of Him, so that we treasure Him more, so that we love Him more as we appreciate His grace and His love more clearly and more gloriously. God’s love, grace and glory are infinite. Yet we are finite. So our capacity to take in His glory is limited. So our capacity can and must be stretched and expanded.
Personally speaking I know that my appreciation of God’s glory, His grace and mercy in Christ, His surpassing righteousness, His love for me, is so weak. I don’t feel as consumed by it as I know I should.
And I also know that the times my capacity to appreciate that has expanded have been the times I’ve run out of myself under pressure of things I can’t cope with: relationship difficulties, redundancies, career failures, illnesses, rejection. As those dark times have threatened to make me lose heart, I’ve been forced to cling more tightly to Jesus and to see just how brightly His glory shines and really does always obliterate the darkness. It really is impossible to be separated from the love of God in Christ Jesus. He has secured it unshakably forever. There really is something infinitely more wonderful and eternal waiting for us.
Anything we might lose heart about in this life is so short term, so trifling, compared to the eternity waiting for us, enjoying our position as children of the only true God, the One who created all things and holds all things together.
Hence often the purpose of our suffering is to expand our vision of God, to detach our hope from ourselves, to focus us more tightly on Jesus, to appreciate more fully the “eternal weight of glory”.
And with that appreciation comes great joy.
“We rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing the suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:2-5)