Series: What Does God Say to Sufferers?
What does God say to sufferers? He doesn’t avoid suffering; He speaks right into it, but with hope: Your present sufferings are nothing compared to your future glory.
Romans (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), 2nd ed., Tom Schreiner
Romans 8-16 For You, Timothy Keller
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We’re in week 2 now of service streaming at Citylight, and this week a few of the pastors sat down together to talk about what we’d preach on, guided by the question, “What does God say to sufferers?” After thinking about it a couple minutes, the problem we quickly ran into wasn’t, “What are we going to preach on?” but “What aren’t we going to preach on?” The reality is, this book, from first page to last, was written to suffers, people who regularly faced calamity. It’s all God speaking to sufferers, because as we’re going to see in the passage we’re looking at today, the present age in which we live is marked by various sufferings. Yet we’re also going to see that in this present age, during the sufferings, incredible hope is available to us, because your present sufferings are nothing compared to your future glory, and our passage gives us two reasons: First, all of creation is waiting for that future glory, and second, we too are waiting for it.
All creation waits for it
Our text today begins in verse 18 with this idea that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. Notice how broad the category is: “The sufferings of this present time.” Later in the chapter Paul, the author of Romans, will rattle off some examples: Tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, sword, death…sufferings of this present time. COVID-19 is the latest iteration, but it’s far from the first. Sufferings are part and parcel of the present time.
Some of you know that well through firsthand experience; many of us know it to a lesser extent. That’s nothing to feel guilty about; it’s God’s mercy to you if you’ve experienced less suffering, but it does limit your perspective. C.S. Lewis was a Christian professor from England who lived in the early-mid 1900s and who was asked one time how we should live in the age of the atomic bomb. Here’s what he said: “How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.” In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation.”
Let us not begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. It’s novel to many of us; it’s not novel to the present time in which we live. As Pastor John Piper said years ago: “Calamities are not exceptional, they’re just a breaking of the surface of the ocean of sorrow.” So COVID-19 is not the exception, but it is breaking the surface of the ocean of sorrow. It is forcing us to think about the sufferings of the present age, and it is putting to all of us a question: How will you deal with the reality, the reality we all face, Christian or not, coronavirus or not, that the present age in which we live is characterized by sufferings?
Various answers are proposed to that question. One way is to avoid it; fill your mind with positive thoughts, pleasures, and entertainment; don’t think about the suffering of the present age. And there’s some wisdom in that: We certainly shouldn’t spend all of our time thinking about suffering, there are good gifts in life God has given us to enjoy, but if that’s all you’ve got, you’re going to run into a problem: Suffering will find you. It’s like if you see a mouse in your house; just choosing to think about something else, flipping on the TV, is possible when there’s only 1, but if that’s all you do, someday there will be 20, and you’ll have to think about them then. We have to deal with the reality of the sufferings of the present age.
Ok, then here’s another answer to how to do so: Fix it. Give your life to studying the disease, developing the cure. And again, a lot of wisdom in there: We do have the power as bearers of God’s image to address suffering and alleviating the suffering of others especially is a great way to use the life God has given you. But again, if that’s all you’ve got, you’re going to be constantly frustrated, because stuff like coronaviruses will keep popping up. We can and should address individual causes of suffering, but we can’t rid the present age of its sufferings. Did anyone else feel like when they heard about the coronavirus, “Well I mean, I’m sure we have the technology and medical care to stop it”? I did, and yet on it spreads. All the scientists agree by the way: Whatever changes we make now, whether we solve the coronavirus pandemic or not, the universe is headed toward death, death for you and me, death for the earth, death for the solar system.
So, third answer: Just embrace it. Life’s hard, get a helmet, suffering is life, you’re going to die; get over it and get on living your life. And again, the wisdom here is we do have to face the reality of suffering, but this approach doesn’t give direction or meaning to your life. So if you try this approach, you’ll have to look for something to give your life a sense of direction and meaning: “I’m going to open my own restaurant,” “I’m going to have a great family,” “I’m going to travel the world.” But you see the problem? What happens in a time like this, when your restaurant might go out of business, when your family might contract the virus, and all travel is shut down? You invested all your meaning in life in those things, and the sufferings of this present age can take them away in a moment. You still can’t deal with suffering.
Our passage gives us a better way to deal with the sufferings of this present age: “hope.” When you hear hope, don’t think uncertainty, “Well I hope we get through this”; that’s not how the Bible uses the word. In the Bible, hope is assurance of a better future. It’s not avoiding suffering; it’s looking at it head on with all its ugliness, but then thinking about and embracing by faith how that suffering itself points forward to a future in which there will be such glory revealed to us as to make all the sufferings of this present age seem like nothing, “not worth being compared” as verse 18 puts it. The sufferings of this present time are real, but they aren’t the final word. The creation itself is actually waiting for this future glory that will be revealed to us. How do we know that? Verse 20: Because the creation was subject to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it. There was a creation that was very good, with no suffering, that was only later subject to futility by God as judgment on human sin. If suffering is baked into the world, if suffering is life, then there’s no hope for a life without suffering. But if suffering is only present because God has subjected the world to it, God can also set the world free from it, and that’s exactly what we read was His plan in verses 20-21.
The creation was subject to futility, in hope that the creation itself would be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. God subjected the world to futility with the assurance that He would set it free from that very futility and bring it into glory. You have to think about the coronavirus and all the problems it can cause; the news will help you with that, but don’t stop thinking there. Think about the future glory: A world with no tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, or sword. A world with no viruses, wars, atomic bombs, car accidents, or cancer. That world is coming.
And so, the futility of the world, verse 23 tells us, is not the end of the story. It’s the pain of childbirth. Childbirth is both painful and hopeful. It is quite painful I’m told, but while going through the pain a mother expects that it will end, and that afterwards there will be something so glorious as to make all the pain seem like nothing. She doesn’t yet see the child while in pain, but the very expectation of the end of the pain and the glory of the child changes her experience of the pain. It’s why moms are willing to go through it, and what Scripture is telling us here is that is what the creation itself is going through now. It’s subject to futility, filled with suffering, but looking forward to the day when it will be over, and there will be such glory revealed as to make it all seem like nothing in comparison. Your present sufferings are nothing compared to your future glory because all creation is eagerly waiting for that very glory. And, we wait for it too.
We wait for it
By “we” here I’m referring to Christians, because that’s who verse 23 refers to when it says, “And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit…” One of the ways to even define a Christian is someone in whom God the Holy Spirit dwells, who then through the Spirit believes in Jesus Christ. I know for some of you tuning in that’s not you yet, and we’re really glad you’re listening. I’m going to talk to the Christians for a bit, but listen in and then we’ll talk about how anyone can get in on it. Ok, Christians: We ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, we too groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
In other words, the futility to which the whole creation was subjected, the sufferings of this present age, are not sufferings we are shielded from by virtue of being Christians. COVID-19 is not missing all the Christians. Trusting Jesus is not a coronavirus vaccine. When a tsunami hit Southeast Asia in 2004, it swept away whole churches right alongside the hundreds of thousands of other lives it claimed. If someone told you, “just trust Jesus, have enough faith in Him, and you’ll be healed of all disease and prosper” they lied to you, and I’m sorry they did, because the truth is far better. The same glory the creation eagerly awaits is one we eagerly await, one we will enjoy and be wrapped up in, and we know this because we really do have the firstfruits of the Spirit now.
Firstfruits are the first part of the harvest of a crop. They’re only part of a crop, but in harvesting them, they provide assurance that the rest of the crop is coming. The Holy Spirit is the firstfruits of this new creation, this future glory we’ve been talking about. When He comes to dwell in you, He gives you a new heart, a new faith in Christ, with new desires to love God and people, new joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, and hope, a certain expectation, that one day your body itself will be redeemed, just as you’ve begun to experience that redemption inwardly.
As Christians we do groan inwardly: The sufferings of this present time are still painful, the prospect of future suffering is still scary, but we aren’t just miserable and afraid. Verse 23: As we groan inwardly we also wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. After death we will later be resurrected in our bodies, to live forever in a new creation. That’s what we mean when in the Apostles’ Creed we say, “We believe in the resurrection of the body, and the live everlasting.” It is in this hope we were saved, verse 24 says. We weren’t saved in the hope that nothing bad would ever happen to us. We were saved in the hope that though the worst thing happens to us, though death itself find us, as it certainly will, yet we will live again. And the reason that is hope, verse 24 goes on to say, is not because it’s uncertain, but because it’s unseen. So where do we get this hope if we can’t see it? Is it just another form of the avoidance I mentioned earlier, another positive thought to distract us from the sufferings of this present time? No, for two reasons: 1.) It’s a hope that addresses the sufferings of the present time, rather than avoiding them. 2.) It’s rooted in something that actually happened in history. In this hope we were saved, past tense.
God subjected the creation to futility, to tribulations, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, sword, virus, and death as a just judgment on human sin, of which we are all guilty. That is how much God matters: To sin against Him brings that kind of judgment, of which COVID-19 is just one little piece. And yet, while we were still sinners, that same God who subjected His creation to futility, so loved us that He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to that very creation. And even He, who was true God in the flesh, the one through whom all things were made, groaned inwardly. He was a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief, in all things like unto us, except sin, who yet suffered under the curse of sin on our behalf. The creation was subjected to futility unwillingly, but Christ subjected Himself to futility willingly to take our curse upon Himself on the cross, and because He did, God freed Him from the bondage of death, rose Him from the dead, body and all, to eternal life, the life that comes to live in us when the Holy Spirit gives new life to our souls, the life we now wait for eagerly when Jesus comes again and our bodies are risen with Him.
In that hope we were saved when we believed in Christ, and that is why if you are listening today and you are not yet a Christian, you can get in on this too. Jesus has already accomplished everything necessary for this future to be yours. He suffered and died; believe in Him today, and you will suffer and die with Him still. But His body has been redeemed; believe in Him today, and yours will be too. Look, no matter what you believe, you’re going to experience the sufferings of this present time, but your experience of those things can be different. It can be pain ending only in death, with no eager expectation beyond, or it can be the pain of childbirth, inward groaning with eager expectation of a glory that will make all the suffering seem like nothing. Jesus is already enjoying it; it is secure in Him; look to Him and get in on it.
And if you do believe today, your future is incredibly bright. I’m really looking forward to the day when social distancing is over, but do you know we have an even better future than that ahead? Not only will there be a glorious new creation; there will be a glorious new humanity. A world where we don’t die, a world where we freely embrace one another instead of being forced to distance ourselves from one another, because there is no virus to fear, a world in which we know, love, and worship God for who He undeniably is, instead of doubting, ignoring, or rejecting Him. Let the sufferings of this present time make you eager for the glory that is to be revealed.
And be patient. Verse 25 concludes: If we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain, as we sung in one of our hymns last week. Paraphrasing Lewis, “A virus may break our bodies, but it need not dominate our minds.” By the power of the Holy Spirit who is in you now, keep worshipping the Lord, keep bearing one another’s burdens, keep loving your neighbor. And when it feels like no matter how much you do, there’s still an ocean of suffering you’ve only taken a drop out of, be patient. Only the Lord can empty the ocean, and one day He will. In that day, COVID-19 and all the other sufferings of this present time will be nothing in comparison to the glory you’ll be enjoying.