Theme: Joy in Suffering
This week’s lessons discuss the important benefits that come to every Christian because of their justification given by Jesus Christ.
Scripture: Romans 5:2
You have all heard the tired atheistic rebuttal to Christian doctrine based upon the presence of suffering in the world. One form of it goes like this: “If God were good, he would wish to make his creatures happy, and if God were almighty he would be able to do what he wished. But his creatures are not happy. Therefore God lacks either goodness or power or both.” That objection is insulting in its simplicity, for it assumes that absence of suffering is the only ultimate good and that the only possible factors involved in our quandary are the alleged benevolence and alleged omniscience of God. The Christian knows that there is more to suffering than this.
Still, the problem of suffering is a big one, and it is not always easy to cope with it. How should Christians respond to their trials? How can their response strengthen confidence that they are truly converted persons? Paul says that because Christians stand in grace they are able to respond to their trials by rejoicing in them, however strange, abnormal, or irrational this may seem to unbelievers, and that this is another evidence of their salvation. His exact words are: “Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character, and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us” (vv. 3-5).
Each of the major words in these verses is important. But if someone should ask, “What is the most important word?” I would answer that it is the word “know” in verse 3. The phrase reads “because we know…” The word “know” is important because knowledge is the secret to everything else in the sentence. Christians rejoice in suffering because of what they know about it. These verses state several important truths they know.
Suffering produces perseverance. You may notice another word used to translate this idea in your Bible—if you are using one other than the New International Version—because the word seems to most translators to call for a richness of expression. Some versions say, “patience,” others “endurance,” and still others “patient endurance.”
The full meaning emerges when we consider it together with the word for “suffering,” which occurs just before it in the Greek text and which is the thing Paul says produces “patience.” There are a number of words for suffering in the Greek language, but this one is thlipsis, which has the idea of pressing something down. It was used for the effect of a sledge threshing grain, for instance. The sledge pressed the stalks down and thus broke apart the heads to separate the chaff from the grain. Thlipsis was also used of crushing olives to extract their oil or of grapes to press out wine.
With that in mind, think now of “perseverance.” The word translated “perseverance” is hypomone. The first part of this word is a prefix meaning “under” or “below.” The second part is a word meaning an “abode” or “living place.” So the word as a whole means “to live under something.” If we take this word together with the word for tribulation, we get the full idea, which is to live under difficult circumstances without trying, as we would say, to wriggle out from under them. We express the idea positively when we say, “Hang in there, brother.” It has to do with “hanging tough” when the going gets tough, as it always does sooner or later.
This separates the new Christian from one who has been in the Lord’s school longer. The new believer tries to avoid difficulties and get out from under them. The experienced Christian is steady under fire and does not quit his post.
Suffering produces character. Other versions translate this word “experience.” But it is richer even than these two good renderings. The Greek word is dokime, which is based on the adjective dokimos, meaning something “tested” or “approved.”
In the ancient world silver and gold coins were roughly made, not milled to exact sizes as our coins are. People would often cheat by carefully trimming off some of the excess metal. We know they did this because hundreds of laws were passed against defacing coins. After they had trimmed away enough metal the people would sell it for new coins, and when coins had been trimmed for a longtime they eventually got so light that the merchants would not take them anymore. When that happened the coins were said to be adokimos, “disqualified.”
“Disqualified” is a negative form of what Paul is referring to in Romans 5. He is saying that the pressures of trying to live for Jesus in this world produce endurance which proves that we are qualified to be his servants. I think of it this way too. A disapproved coin is a light coin, and we become spiritually “light” when we draw away from God. We become more and more weightless. But when we suffer and therefore draw close to God, and he also to us, we become spiritually and morally weighty, as he is.
Ray Stedman tells of a time he once asked a nine-year-old boy, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
The boy said, “A returned missionary.”
He did not want to be just a missionary, but a returned one—one who had been through the fires, had them behind him, and was shown to have been of value in God’s work.
Suffering produces hope. The word “hope” means confident expectation of our final glorification, as in “hope of glory,” the phrase with which we will end (v.2). It is further evidence of our new status in Christ since it proves that we are identified with him.
Some years ago Dr. Jonathan Chao gave an address on the suffering of Christians in China, showing that it was the suffering of the church that produced its character. He told of an American student who came to Hong Kong to study the Chinese church. Before he had left America a friend had asked him, “If God loves the Chinese church so much, why did he allow so much suffering to come upon it?”
The student confessed that he had no answer at the time. But after he had traveled to China and had made extensive and meaningful contacts with a number of Chinese Christians, he discovered an answer which he put like this: “I am going back to America and ask my friend this question: If God loves the American church so much, why hasn’t he allowed us to suffer like the church in China?”
It was a good answer since, according to the Bible, suffering is not a harmful but a beneficial thing. It is beneficial because it accomplishes the beneficent purposes of Almighty God. It is part of those circumstances all of which work “for the good of those who love him” (Rom. 8:28).
How does our response to suffering strengthen our assurance of salvation?
Describe the benefits of suffering.
From the lesson, what is the most important word in Romans 5:3, and why?
Reflection: In your own life, how have you found suffering to produce the benefits the Bible says it brings?