“We boast in the hope of the glory of God.” — Romans 5:2
This is part of a wondrous but challenging text.
It evokes awe but invites us to a particular way of experiencing suffering. It puts together two things that don’t seem to go together: boasting in suffering. The passage in full:
Therefore, since we have been set right by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord, Jesus the Messiah, through whom we have gained entrance into this grace in which we stand; and we boast in the hope of the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces perseverance, and perseverance 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 whom God has given to us.
—Romans 5:1–5 (my translation)
Paul builds upon the story of salvation he outlined in Romans 1–4 and anticipates the climax of that story in Romans 5–8. These verses (5:1–5) sit like a hinge between these two sections of Romans. In fact, we might say it summarizes the conclusion of the first four chapters and points us to the significance of the next four.
“Therefore,” Paul writes. Because of what God has done, we have been set right with God, have peace with God, and stand in God’s grace. The language is exalted and deeply rooted in the story of God. It is about justification, reconciliation, and shalom with God.
In fact, it is temple language.
We have gained access to God’s grace through Jesus the Messiah.
We have gained entrance into this grace. We stand in the temple, and we enter into the holy presence of God. We stand in the grace because shalom has been restored. So, now, we boast in the hope of the glory of God.
We Boast in Hope
The grandeur of this statement should not be lost on us. Though created as the glory of God, we have fallen short of the glory of God. Though we were to become like God, we failed to fully be the image of God in our lives. We sinned. But now we boast in the hope of the glory of God. We boast in the hope of sharing God’s glory by being conformed to the image of the Messiah through whom we will share life with God.
We don’t boast in our works, ethnicity, or economics. We boast in the hope of the glory of God because we stand in the grace of God having been reconciled to God through Jesus the Messiah.
If Paul had stopped there, I would have been just fine because what he says next is disturbing. We boast in our hope—that I understand. But it doesn’t make much sense to also boast in our sufferings.
It is counter-intuitive. We want to save God from suffering. We want to remove God from suffering. We don’t want God to get God’s hands dirty. We want to erect a barrier between God and suffering such that God has nothing to do with suffering, and suffering has no value or benefit. Suffering—it seems—is gratuitous and meaningless. There is nothing about which to boast in our sufferings.
But Paul parallels. Just as we boast in the hope of the glory of God, Paul says we also boast in our suffering.
We boast in both hope and suffering.
That’s a head-scratcher. When it comes to affliction, boasting is not my first thought. Complaining is my first thought; lamenting is another thought, even protesting. Lots of thoughts come to my mind, but boasting is not typically one of them. Boasting rubs me the wrong way for some reason, especially when I parallel it with boasting in the hope of the glory of God.
Perhaps we need to wrestle with what Paul is saying here.
Note: John Mark Hicks, author of this post, teaches a video course on suffering and grief, which is available for free. Gain free digital access to this course for you and your entire group here.
We Boast in Suffering
The Greek term for “sufferings” is more like affliction. It is what Paul uses in Romans 8:35 when he asks, “What shall separate us from the love of God?” Affliction is the first word in his response to the question. Shall affliction separate us from the love of God?
No, it will not.
Some limit affliction to persecution, but Romans 8 suggests it is much broader than that. In fact, the word includes the suffering and groaning of humanity and the creation itself. It is about stress, trials, hurts, pains, famine, death, and every form of bondage in which the creation is enslaved. It is not primarily about persecution but every form of suffering.
It is hardship or any kind of affliction.
But shouldn’t standing in the grace of God be like a rose bed? Aren’t Christians spared from such affliction? This is not the promise, and even roses have thorns. Standing in the grace of God does not keep us from affliction. Grace does not mean we are not going to suffer. The reality of suffering is all too apparent to us. Rather, there is something about afflictions that are meaningful, even purposeful.
We can boast in them.
What about suffering is worth the boast?
Paul does not leave us in the dark. We boast, Paul writes, because we know something about suffering. It has value and meaning because we know something. We know suffering produces something.
We boast in suffering because we know: suffering produces perseverance.
Suffering or affliction produces perseverance or endurance. The word has the root idea of standing up under the pressure. We endure affliction (Romans 12:12), but this is not a passive word. Rather, this pressure and its stresses form something. Endurance is an active pursuit that works through the affliction.
Suffering produces endurance; suffering produces a life formed by the stresses of its hardships. This endurance is not something we simply have or possess. It is produced. It is worked out through the experience of suffering and affliction itself.
When we stand in the grace of God, suffering produces endurance. Grace enables us to stand up under the pressure and stress of affliction.
We boast in suffering because we know: suffering produces perseverance, and perseverance produces character.
Character does not quite capture the full meaning of this Greek term. It is difficult to render in English simply. The American Standard Version uses an old English word that is closer to the point: “approvedness.” The word describes a tested character, a proved character. The word “test” or “trial” is built into the Greek word. The stresses of endurance form a seasoned or confirmed character.
Jesus Suffered with Us
Testing is motif that runs through the whole narrative of God. God tested Abraham. God tested Israel in the wilderness to see what was in their heart. God tested Hezekiah to see what was in his heart. The Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tested. Paul says God tests our hearts.
Part of the function of affliction is to test and probe our hearts so that our characters might be formed into the likeness of Christ. Affliction builds character; it is character formation. It is what suffering does. Suffering tests us and forms us.
Does God use suffering for the purpose of character formation, for testing and probing our hearts? We see it in the life of Jesus himself.
Jesus came to suffer with us, and Jesus was made perfect by the things which he suffered. Jesus underwent a process of suffering which formed him, tested him, and perfected him. He suffered with us and for us, and when we suffer, we suffer with Christ.
This process of affliction is not an abstract speculation. Rather, it is a participation in the movement of God from suffering into glory. Jesus went through suffering in order to enter into glory. We follow Jesus, and we therefore follow Jesus into suffering so that we, too, might enter into glory.
Consequently, we boast not only in the hope of the glory of God, but we boast in our suffering.
We boast in suffering because we know: suffering produces perseverance, and perseverance produces character, and character produces hope.
This testing not only forms our character but also cultivates hope in our human hearts.
We Have Hope in God
We do not churn up this hope in ourselves by our own power as some kind of self-actualization. We don’t decide to have it. It is produced. The process produces it. There is something about going through the suffering, enduring the suffering as testing and formation, that produces hope. It is where hope comes alive.
Hope is not a mere thought or wish but a living, breathing reality that arises out of the peace we have with God and the grace in which we stand. Most importantly, hope is produced by the power of the Holy Spirit whom God has given to us and experienced through our suffering.
This hope will neither disappoint nor shame us. When we have hope, it is not because we have generated it ourselves. Rather, it is produced in the midst of suffering through the formation of our character by the love of God present in the Spirit. The love of God has been poured into our hearts, and we experience that love through the presence of the Spirit. That is what gives hope. That is what gives peace, and the Spirit produces hope in us through our experiences of suffering.
We endure, and this forms our character. This tested character produces hope because God’s love is present in our hearts through the indwelling of the Spirit of God. It is in the midst of suffering that our characters are formed in hope through the endurance of the affliction.
But does suffering always produce such meaningful goods?
Sometimes affliction will distract us, or disorient us, and even, at times, destroy us. Suffering does not seem to always produce endurance, character, and hope. Sometimes it produces disorientation, bitterness, and despair. How can Paul say that we know that suffering produces good when we this is not everyone’s experience?
The problem with affliction is not the affliction itself. Rather, it is where we are standing.
When we stand in the grace of God, we endure suffering as character formation in hope. If we don’t have a sense that we stand in God’s presence, if we don’t know we are beloved by God and have peace with God, then affliction can destroy rather than form.
Without the boast of hope, there is not boasting in suffering.
The Spirit Is Present During Suffering
If I have learned anything in my journey with suffering, I believe I can bear witness to that fact that endurance for the sake of character formation takes a long time. It is not an easy road, and it never ends. It is the crucible of life. Just as Jesus the Messiah endured suffering that perfected and formed him in a way that produced hope, so we, too, are perfected and formed through suffering in a way that produces hope in our hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit.
But it does not happen overnight. It takes time. It is a process.
When I come alongside a person who is suffering, it is not my words that help. My words don’t fix anything. God may use my words, and I hope God does. But I do not provide a magical presence or conjure up healing words when someone is seeking comfort. God can use words as instruments and tools, to be sure. But peace, deep peace, that endures, and the hope that comes alive through the affliction is produced by the presence of the Spirit in the midst of suffering.
If I have learned anything in the last eight or nine years, I have learned this particular truth: When I know I am beloved by God, I know affliction produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope.
When I experience that love deep in my soul, when I know it in my heart, when I know it in such a way that no one could convince me otherwise, when I know it so well that nothing could happen to me that would undermine that, I experience the peace of God through the grace, presence, and work of the Spirit even when I am sitting by the grave of my son. That happens by the Spirit’s power, not my own. It is the work of God in my heart.
Though we stand in the grace of God, we will suffer. Though we suffer, we stand in the grace of God.
Consequently, we boast in the hope of the glory of God because we know we stand in the grace of God, and we boast in our suffering because we know our suffering produces hope through endurance and character formation.
We boast in suffering because we also boast in hope.
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