Romans 8:9-17; St. Matthew 13:1-23
A woman once said to me, “My husband and I have very serious religious differences. He thinks he is God but I don’t.” She was kidding of course but religious differences are very serious and should never be taken lightly; especially religious differences that exist within ourselves. In particular I am referring to the times when we allow doubt to be mixed with our faith. This results in what James in his Epistle calls “double mindedness” and James goes on to say that a double minded man is unstable in all his ways. None of us want that.
I bring this up because our lesson from Romans today addresses the uncomfortable topic of suffering and when it comes to suffering and reconciling it with the goodness of God it is all too easy to let doubt sneak in, to become double minded. We become conflicted or we just try to ignore the subject. But ignoring it does not make it go away and being double minded about it makes us unstable in our faith. So in spite of it being an unpleasant topic, we should bite the bullet and address it head on.
First I think that it is important that we not look for quick answers or settle for platitudes. The Book of Job is one of the longest books in the Bible, consisting of 42 chapters. We can conclude from this that if the Lord is going to take 42 chapters to address the problem of human suffering then we are not doing our due diligence if we are satisfied with a pithy statement like, “God won’t put on you more than you can handle.” We have to dig deeper than that.
Second we cannot settle for answers about human suffering that question the character and nature of God by suggesting that He is not all loving or all powerful. Nor is it a valid option for a Christian to believe in non-theistic powers like fate or karma.
Third, as much as we may want it to be an option, avoiding suffering by retreating from the world is not one of them. That is one of the conclusions that we can draw from Jesus’ parable of the wheat and tares. As long as Christians are in this world but not of this world, as long as wheat and tares coexist, there is going to be conflict. And Jesus points out that things are not going to be made right until the end of the age when the angels come and “gathers out of His kingdom all causes of sin and all lawbreakers and throw them into the fiery furnace.” So if we are expecting to see peace and justice in our lifetime we may be waiting a very long time. It doesn’t mean that we should not work for them but we should not hold our breath.
Allow me to take a quick digression. Note what happens after the angels come and take away all the tares and throw them in the furnace. The passage says, “Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” This sounds like it is the wicked who are taken away and it is the righteous who are left behind. Interesting. But that is another sermon.
Back to the topic of not being double minded about suffering. Around 2008 when the housing balloon popped and the economy tanked, I heard an interview with a life coach on his perspective for getting through challenging times. His suggestion was that we need to develop what he called “mental toughness” and he used as an example my parent’s generation. First, they lived through the Great Depression. My mother has stories of picking apples and only having apple sauce to eat for a meal. Then they fought World War II and won it. Then they came home and started careers and built homes and raised families and sent their kids off to college. The life coach went on to say that every generation faces tough times and this is our time to learn and to shine like the Greatest Generation.
I believe that there is some truth in what that life coach said, but where I would probably disagree with him is that I do not believe the answer for mental toughness comes from reaching deep within and drawing on our own reserves. James’ answer for gaining mental toughness and not being double minded was this. “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” It is the wisdom of God that grants us mental toughness because as we develop God’s perspective we find ourselves standing on solid rock and not shifting sands.
With that understanding let’s return to our passage from Romans and see what we can glean from there of God’s wisdom about suffering.
First we need to define suffering. Given all that St. Paul has gone through while sharing the gospel; beatings, imprisonment, stoning, shipwreck etc., the suffering he is speaking about includes persecution for the sake of the Gospel. While that may not be our immediate experience we know that it is going on all around the world and not just in Muslim countries. I have been corresponding with an Anglican priest named Babu, who is shepherding a small flock of Pakistanis who have fled to Thailand because of persecution in their homeland. Sadly the government of Thailand is treating them as criminals so they are being pressured from both sides and yet they remain faithful brothers and sisters.
So while suffering surely includes persecution I don’t believe it is limited to persecution. St. Paul goes on to speak of even creation itself suffering which is clearly not a result of persecution. Why is creation suffering? It is suffering because of the universal and damnable consequences of the fall. It was not God who introduced sin into the world; it was man. And the effects of sin not only warped man but also the creation over which man had been given dominion. St. Paul says, “For we know that whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.”
It is important to understand that suffering is not just limited to persecution so that you will know that you can turn to the Lord no matter what the cause of your suffering and not just only when you are being opposed for your faith. So this can include dealing with an illness, staying faithful in a difficult marriage, being treated unfairly by others and a whole host of other reasons.
So how do we respond to the suffering? St. Paul points to three things in this short passage.
First he calls on us to enlarge our vision. He says, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” Now that is easier said than done. When you are suffering it is hard to look up to see the horizon. When you mash your thumb with a hammer you don’t automatically think about your upcoming vacation to the beach. But with the grace of God we can transform our minds to think this way. Whatever you are going through now, no matter how bad it is, it is not even to be compared with how good it is going to be.
Many of you have already had a foretaste of this. You have faced some suffering in your past that at the time liked to have killed you. But then years later you are in such a good place that looking back you wonder why you fretted so. In the midst of your suffering you could not see God’s hand at work but now you know He was busy the whole while. You are a living testimony that “All things work together for the good for those who love God and are called according to His purpose.”
But that was just a foretaste. The glory we will experience will be infinitely better than the good place we are in now and so in the midst of our present suffering we enlarge our vision to include the glory that is to come. And if you suffering includes some form of injustice you can take rest in the knowledge, going back to Jesus parable of the wheat and the tares, that the tares will one day be dealt with and justice will be served.
The second piece of God’s wisdom that St. Paul gives us to make us mentally tough when suffering is to have hope. He says, “And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we are saved.”
The Bible uses the word “hope” differently than we use it in common parlance. When we speak of “hope” we speak of an uncertainty. “I hope that I will get a raise this year.” We say “hope” because it may or may not happen. But when the Bible uses the word “hope” it means a reality or a fact that is not yet seen or experienced. For example St. Paul calls on us to have hope in the resurrection in his letter to the Thessalonians. Jesus’ resurrection is proof of our resurrection and as certain as it is we hope in it because we do not see it yet.
So the hope that we are to have as we suffer is the certainty that we will be fully adopted as children of God, our resurrected bodies will be raised incorruptible and all that is wrong with us and with all creation will be made right. That is a fact that is even more certain than the sun rising tomorrow. That is biblical hope.
Lastly St. Paul calls us to mental toughness by adding to our hope, patience. He says, “Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” I want to tread lightly here. If you tell someone who is suffering to just be patient, you could get a punch in the face. But notice that St. Paul is not calling on us to be patient for the sake of patience. He is connecting patience with the biblical hope that we just spoke about. So in many ways the patience that we are to have when suffering is a fruit of the hope that we have.
If I truly believe that all things will be made right at the end of the age then I don’t have to have all things made right today. I just need to repeat to myself, “Wheat and tares baby, wheat and tares!” I don’t have to be bothered that the wicked prosper. “Wheat and tares baby, wheat and tares!” I don’t have to have my boss to stop being such a jerk. “Wheat and tares baby, wheat and tares!” I don’t have to have the people who have wronged me ask my forgiveness. “Wheat and tares baby, wheat and tares!”
Straightening out the wheat and the tares is not my job, it is the job of the angels and the One who will come to judge the quick and the dead. And as an added bonus the Lord blesses the patience that we exhibit by using even the suffering for our good. As the great hymn puts it, “When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie, my grace all sufficient shall be thy supply. The flame shall not hurt thee I only design thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.”
If we will embrace this teaching of St. Paul about suffering then we will become spiritually tough minded and not fear whatever the future holds. I want to end by returning us to a couple of verses of our Psalm today and offering it as a prayer for us all. Let us pray. “Teach me your way O Lord, and I will walk in your truth; knit my heart to you that I may fear your Name. I will thank you O Lord my God with all my heart, and glorify your Name for evermore.” Amen.