Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our afflictions, knowing that affliction 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 that has been given to us.Romans 5:1-5
This was a difficult sermon to preach. I got home from attending my father’s funeral the night before. I was tired, grieving, and still processing a very difficult couple of weeks. But I wanted to be with my church family, and so I prayed and shared a sermon on this powerful passage from Romans. Here is the manuscript:
I have to be honest with you. As some of you know, I just got home from a very trying time with my family in Florida. It was a long, exhausting experience. But it was important to me to be with you today. So, here I am. Maybe not bringing my “A Game,” so to speak, but I am here. Worshiping our living and loving God with you.
And for my sermon today, I am going to cheat a little. I am going to base this sermon on one that I preached six years ago, on today’s second reading. This passage is about suffering and hope, so it seems fitting to preach today, in many ways. For me, personally. But for all of us, really. Because we all face times of suffering. And we all long for hope.
I don’t know who first said, “People become bitter or they become better,” but in my experience it is true. They do. We do. We become bitter or better as we go through the ups and downs of life. And life has plenty of ups and downs, doesn’t it? It doesn’t matter how strong our faith is, or whether we believe in God or not, we will have ups and downs in life. We don’t have any choice about that. But we do have a choice about how we respond to those ups and downs.
The apostle Paul is someone who responded to his ups and downs by becoming better. He accepted the thorn in his flesh, as he called his physical ailment; he sang praises to the Lord when he was imprisoned for proclaiming the Christian faith; he learned to be content with whatever he had; and as he awaited his execution he wrote letters encouraging fellow Christians. Paul became better, not bitter, as he faced challenges in his life.
And in today’s second reading, he gives us an insight into how we can do that, too. In five brief verses in his Letter to the Romans Chapter 5, Paul gives us a path toward better, a path that leads from suffering to hope. Suffering, Paul tells us, can produce endurance, and endurance can produce character, and character can produce hope, when we are on this path. So let’s take a look today at how to get on this path and stay on this path, the path that takes us not to bitter but to better as we face challenges in life.
Justified by Faith
Paul begins by pointing out the all-important first step on this path. And that is faith. This journey toward better begins with being justified by faith, Paul tells us. But what does it mean to be justified? To be justified in this way is to be made right with God, to be put into a right relationship with God.
If we want to become better, not bitter, it starts with our relationship with God. Always. If that is not right, then nothing else matters, and nothing else will lead us on the path to hope. But if our relationship with God is right, then you might also say that nothing else matters. Or, at least, nothing else matters more.
But how does this happen? How do we get into a right relationship with God? For Paul, the answer is faith. We are justified by faith. But faith for Paul means much more than simply believing that God exists. In our world, faith is often reduced to that, to believing or not believing that God exists. But being in a right relationship with someone involves much more than simply believing that they exist. It also means trusting them. God wants more from us than simply to believe that God exists. God wants us to trust Him. Even when things get tough. And I know that this isn’t always easy.
Help My Unbelief
There is a famous verse in Mark’s Gospel (Mark 9:14-24) about a father who struggled to trust in this way. He had brought his son to Jesus’ disciples to be healed. They couldn’t do it, so he brought his child to Jesus and said to him: “If you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” Jesus said to him, “If you are able! – All things can be done for the one who believes.” And immediately the father of the child cried out to Jesus one of my all-time favorite prayers: “I believe; help my unbelief!”
If you struggle sometimes to have the kind of faith fully trusts in God, this is a great prayer: “I believe; help my unbelief.” Ask God to help you believe in Him, and trust in Him. This father struggled to believe, and shared his struggle with Jesus. And that is all that our Lord wants – He wants us to share our struggle with Him. Even our struggle to believe.
Peace with God
And when we do that, Paul tells us that something quite wonderful happens – we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. When we are justified by faith, we have peace with God. And there isn’t anything more valuable, and life-changing, than the gift of peace with God. And when we have peace with God, we are on the path toward better, not bitter, to be sure.
But it’s important to remember that peace with God isn’t the same thing as a peaceful life. God never promises us a peaceful life. Instead, he promises us a life filled with peace. He promises us that no matter what we are facing in life, there is a peace He can give us that is greater. A peace that surpasses all understanding.
Think again of that road from suffering to hope, from bitter to better. When we have peace with God, then at every fork in the road, God helps us to choose the path that leads to better. There are four of these forks in the road, as outlined by Paul in this passage from Romans.
The first fork in the road is suffering. Paul says that when we have peace with God, we boast in our sufferings. Or, as other translations put it, we can rejoice in our sufferings. This is not easy. Not at all. But one thing that I have learned in my life is that God is present in our suffering. God is with us, in ways that we can often even as we suffer, and even more so when we look back.
When I look back at the last couple of weeks of my life, I have no doubt that I will see the ways in which God was present. I have already seen many of them. And that, to me, is why we can rejoice in our suffering. Because God is present in our suffering.
The next fork, Paul tells us, is endurance. Suffering, borne in faith and trust in God, produces endurance. What does he mean? Well, endurance in this case means waiting patiently in hope. It means trusting in God in the midst of the suffering, and waiting for God to act. Think about the difference between waiting with faith, versus waiting without faith. And the difference leads to endurance.
When we have faith that something good is coming, we are willing to wait. Think about the lines at the Apple stores before a new iPhone is made available, for example, or the line at a Chick-Fil-A when it opens for the first time. Those crowds are waiting with hope, and even with joy, and this gives them endurance. They will wait for days for these things! Now, on the other hand, think of the line when you don’t have any hope that something good is coming. You are trying to get your driver’s license renewed, or pay an overdue water bill, or turn in a cable TV box. Those lines are often filled with impatient, unhappy people. No joy. And no endurance.
When we trust that God is at work in our lives, even when we are facing sufferings, we will take the fork in the road called endurance on the road that leads to better.
Next, Paul tells us that endurance produces character. Character in this case means the quality of being approved as a result of tests and trials. It is the same Greek word used in First Peter (1 Peter 1:6-7), when Peter says that when our faith is tested by fire, it reveals how genuine it is. Our true character, the genuineness of our faith, is revealed through our endurance in the midst of suffering. Suffering that is endured with trust in God has a way of leading us to a much deeper faith in God, a faith that others can clearly see, because it is so genuine. It is real. That is what this word is getting at.
Someone once said that character is what we do when no one else is watching. It is who we really are. And when we endure our sufferings with trust in God, we get better, not bitter. Not only on the outside, but on the inside, too, where no one else can see.
And this path, from suffering to endurance to character, finally produces the quality that is most evident to me in someone who is better rather than bitter, and that is hope. Suffering, Paul tells us, produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
When I think of someone who has grown better, not bitter, this is one of the main differences I see: they have hope. They believe in God. They trust in God. They know that God loves them, and that God is with them on their journey. And as a result, no matter what they are facing in their life, they have a hope that does not disappoint them.
A person who is hopeful is never bitter. And a person whose hope is the result of suffering and endurance and character? That is a person who has a hope that is so strong that nothing in this world will take it away. They believe and trust that God will make everything right in the end.
It reminds me of something that the great saint, Julian of Norwich, would often say. She was a mystic who suffered much in her life, but her hope was evident when she famously said: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
It is true. All shall be well. I believe that, with all my heart. In Christ, all shall be well. And when we believe that, how can we help but have faith, and hope, and love? And how can we help but have peace with God? And how can we help but become better, not bitter? And so, may the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.