“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is going to be revealed to us. For the creation eagerly waits with anticipation for God’s sons to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to futility — not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it — in the hope that the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage of corruption into the glorious freedom of God’s children.” (Romans 8:18-21 HCSB)
My children were recently commenting on FaceBook about what it was like to travel with me when they were young. Like my parents did with me and my brothers, I have loaded them into our minivan and taken to the road on many, many trips. We’ve been all over the Midwest, especially Texas, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas and Louisiana. As they’ve grown up and had children of their own, I’ve done the same with the grandkids. We’ve hiked the mountains, splashed in the waves of the Gulf of Mexico, eaten beignets, drank chicory coffee and listened to jazz in the French Quarter of New Orleans, and grown weary and tired staring across the seemingly endless, grassy plains of Kansas. One of the most memorable trips was in a new Mustang as we took off for a drive up the east coast to Maine to participate in a road rally, stopping in Boston and Washington DC on the way back home. Fun times…
But why were my children commenting on these trips? Because it wasn’t uncommon for us to drive for 14 or 15 hours a day. We would stop and get gas, go to the restroom, grab a snack or meal and then eat in the car while we continued our trip. Why? Because the trip wasn’t about the scene along the highway as we drove, it was about the destination. Hurry up, let’s get going. We need to make better time. I didn’t want to spend an extra day driving when we could spend that time enjoying the mountains, fishing a stream, walking the beach, strolling along the Strand in Galveston or gawking at the night life in New Orleans. The trip wasn’t about the long, arduous journey, it was about the destination. Would I do it, again? You bet. When do we leave?
In a sense, that’s what Paul is describing in this passage. He begins our focal passage by emphasizing that our present struggles and sufferings are not worth comparing to the glory that God will reveal to us and through us. Paul has had several brief exposures to that glory and speaks from experience. If you’ll recall, Paul experienced the glory of Christ during his Damascus Road encounter with the resurrected Lord (see Acts 9:1-9). His glory was SO immense and overwhelming that Paul was blinded as a result. In addition, he describes the “extraordinary revelations” he had seen and experienced and that his personal and painful “thorn in the flesh” was God’s way of keeping him humble (see 2 Cor. 12:6-10). So, Paul assures the Roman believers, and us, that our present suffering is not even worthy of being compared to the glory that God will reveal to us.
Pain is one of those things that draws all of your attention onto itself and it is easy to lose yourself and hope in the midst of overwhelming pain. So, why doesn’t God just alleviate pain? That is really the question our culture asks because of our beliefs – “If [your] God is so loving and powerful then why doesn’t He just eliminate all pain and suffering?” In fact, that is really the question that most people think the entire book of Job poses – “Why God? Why do these things happen? Why do you let bad things happen to good people?” I really want to respond, “Which of you is really good?” But at the heart of it, the issue exposed in the book of Job is not really Job’s lingering question about why he’s suffering but is really all about Satan’s accusation – “Job only loves and obeys you because you bless him. Take away the blessings and he’ll curse you to your face (see Job 2).” While scripture doesn’t give us a simple answer for the tough question about why God permits us to suffer in specific situations, it does imply that there is purpose in our pain and that’s what Paul proposes in this passage – “our present suffering doesn’t even compare with the glory God is going to reveal to us.”
I asked a question above that needs a little more consideration. Why doesn’t God just alleviate all pain and suffering? Paul implies here, and all of scripture supports his supposition, that God has a higher purpose in pain. A purpose that is often lost or overlooked. While we will look at this purpose in more detail in the coming weeks, I will tell you that the purpose of pain is personal holiness. God is at work in and through our pain to bring us onto the path of individual, personal holiness and righteousness. Like the trips with my kids, the struggles of this painful trip will be worth it when we reach our true destination – God’s glory revealed to us and in us.
“We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” ― C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain
We can ignore even pleasure, but pain insists upon being attended to. Lewis has a way of framing those challenging issues, doesn’t he? Have you ever noticed that when everything is going well in someone’s life, they often ignore God and take full credit for their current situation? But when things go badly, as they always do, then God certainly gets blamed, or at the very least – accused, because of their pain and struggles. We take credit for our successes and blame Him for our failures. Given our tendencies and God’s character, that seems a bit backwards doesn’t it? What Lewis suggests is that we grow comfortable, complacent or oddly silent and even devoid of praise and worship when our life is pleasant and good but pain rouses us from our contented slumber. It forces us to face the failures and challenges of life and ask ourselves, “Why? What’s going on? What’s wrong with my life? It isn’t meant to be like this, is it?”
What a fascinating question. Life isn’t meant to be like this, is it? Let that one sink in, a bit. There’s a ton of implications and presuppositions in that question and most of them point us right back to God. If life as we know it, and as naturalistic humanism claims, is the direct result of cosmic chances and chemical accidents then the question shouldn’t even exist. Why? Because this life – like it is, broken and very painful – is all that has ever been or ever will be and the question is not only irrelevant, it is nonsensical. If life has truly ALWAYS been like this then we would never expect or hope for it to be any different, any better. Yet, we all feel it don’t we? That’s why we pose the question. That’s why the issue of pain and our hope that there can be a better life, a life without pain points us directly back to God. You see, what we hope and long for is our world like He originally created it. A world where God, man and nature lived in close fellowship and complete harmony. Now, listen to Paul’s next statement:
“For the creation eagerly waits with anticipation for God’s sons to be revealed.” (Romans 8:19 HCSB)
We don’t just ask that question, nature ALSO asks that question. “Life isn’t supposed to be like this, is it?” Creation eagerly waits with anticipation for God’s sons to be revealed! Our inheritance is a world in which God reigns as King and all of creation enjoys LIFE as it was meant to be! Walking with Him. Obeying Him. Living together in peace and harmony. The curse lifted, joy restored, praise flowing from our lips with worship and obedience as the natural expression of our love and gratitude. The REVEALING of God’s sons. Now listen to this next phrase:
“For the creation was subjected to futility — not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it — in the hope that the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage of corruption into the glorious freedom of God’s children.” (Romans 8:20-21 HCSB)
Creation was subjected to futility… the word can also be translated as frustration, vanity/nothingness or less than it was meant to be. Just like us, nature has been subjected to the ravages and consequences of sin. This didn’t happen because nature desired it, but because God willfully subjected it to the same struggles and pain that we suffer in the expectation (hope) that it will also be liberated and set free at the same time we receive our completed redemption. God willfully subjected us and all of creation to the power, influence and pain of sin as we struggle to free ourselves from God’s grasp and authority. Why? To lovingly draw us back into submission, obedience, dependence and fellowship in Him. Pain appears to be the only thing that breaks through our conceited minds, our fiercely independent wills and reveals our need for God’s grace, forgiveness and strength. Pain tells us we aren’t invincible. It reminds us we aren’t god. It reveals our true nature (sin) and our true need (Him). As He told Paul, pain keeps us humble, keeps our humanity in plain sight and always, always keeps us dependent upon Him and His strength.
So, that brings me back to the question where I started. Is it worth it? Is the pain along the journey worth the destination? That is really the question you must ask yourself. We all face pain and struggles, but following God’s path and pursuing Him will increase those struggles and the pain. God’s way is contrary to any culture and the world and will always elicit a negative response from them. Paul believes the pain is well worth it because of the glory that God will reveal in us. Do you? If so, then lean into the struggle and recognize the pain as a part of God’s purpose to refine you and define you according to His plan and destiny for your life. One thing I can promise, His plan is not only BIGGER than yours but it CANNOT fail because it is His plan.
After thought: This isn’t really an after thought, but one I simply decided to add to the end. One of the issues facing our modern culture are the concerns raised by global warming. Now, before you jump on that issue and take me to task for believing all of the liberal media hype, hear me out. While I do think that some of the concerns are overstated for the sake of media coverage and attention, there’s little doubt that we are seeing an increase in severe storms and major weather issues that are “once in a hundred year” type of events and fossil fuels are not renewable and are being depleted at a rapid rate. But the bigger concern for me as a pastor is the approach that too many Christians take with our stewardship responsibilities and our planet’s resources. The term “steward” is a biblical term that emphasizes the responsibility of the steward to the owner in meeting the owner’s expectations for the assigned property. The steward is given the authority to oversee and make decisions regarding the property but is always held accountable to the owner for the outcome. The approach many seem to take with Christian stewardship of the earth is: “God gave it to us and we can use it in any way we choose.” That’s simply not true. God did give us oversight and management to “subdue” and use its resources, but always in accordance with His purposes and desires. As Christians, we should be leading out regarding the proper care, protection and management of our world and its natural resources. They are not ours, they are God’s and we are accountable to Him for how we use and misuse the things He’s put under our care. Our care for the planet should reflect our love, worship and adoration of the One who created it in the same manner and ways that we treasure the sanctity of life and are appalled by the idea and practice of abortion.
“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky proclaims the work of His hands. Day after day they pour out speech; night after night they communicate knowledge.” (Psalms 19:1-2 HCSB)