The Path to Hope – Romans 5:3-5
By: Alistair Brown
(Part 2 of a study of Romans 5:1-11.)
One of our Northern seminary students told me how her way of understanding her Christian life was changed by something that happened in one of her classes. Everyone had the task of drawing a picture which would illustrate their Christian life, their experience of walking with Christ. She did a great job – lots of light and bright colors, with images that showed the joy of her salvation, the hope that shone in her heart, the glory of the eternal life she now has.
It was impressive and the professor congratulated her. But she also asked the student a hard question: “There’s no darkness at all in your picture,” she said, “so where are the hard times? Have there been no struggles in your Christian experience?”
There had been struggles, but the student told me it had never occurred to her to show those in her picture. It was as if she had tried to forget them. Yet, she said, when she’d reflected on the professor’s question and on her life, she had learned as much through the hard times as she had in the easy times. Maybe more.
Paul knew that. When he writes to the Romans, he’s clearly excited about God’s goodness in giving us peace and grace, but his picture of the Christian life has dark colors too.
Romans 5: 3-5
3 Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.
Paul never imagined a Christian life without problems or trials. Peter, John, and all the first Christians were threatened and harmed. Paul was often persecuted. There is no such thing as a trouble free Christian experience.
When I was going through a hard time, a good friend said to me, “What matters most Alistair, is not what happens to you but how you will use what happens to you.”
Paul would have agreed. In these three verses, he’s saying: You can become bitter and angry about hard and dark times, or you can see how God uses them to make you the Christian he always wanted you to be. Something good can come out of this. He summarizes how that happens using four key words.
This is the starting point. Paul does not discuss whether a Christian should experience sufferings; it’s a given that the Christian will. There’s no doubt and no debate. The Christian life is a hard life.
Our word sufferings translates the Greek thlipsis. At root that word means pressure. Pressure can destroy, but not always or necessarily. For example, I have a saying, “A deadline is the mother of motivation.” The pressure of a deadline spurs me to work, and to word hard! Or, I remember a man describing how a heart attack was the best thing that ever happened to him. Why? Because, he said, for the first time ever he felt pressurized to exercise, and because he’d gone through the heart attack he’d taken up a disciplined exercise regime. And now he was strong and fit like he should have been all his life.
Paul is thinking like that, that good can come from suffering. In this one sentence he’s not trying to give a full-blown philosophical or theological treatise on suffering. He’s saying the sufferings that come from being a Christian generate good consequences in our lives.
Paul goes on to list those good outcomes. What good can lie beyond sufferings?
“Suffering produces perseverance,” Paul says.
If I ever enter a marathon it will prove the age of miracles is not past or that I am completely insane. Trust me, it will not happen. But my children run half or full marathons, and I know some of the challenges marathon runners go through.
Many talk about ‘hitting the wall,’ that moment when the body screams that it can go no further and it seems the race is over. One article in a running magazine called it “a bodily form of sedition” when the legs don’t want to move, the stomach is erupting, and the brain begins to hallucinate. The body says ‘stop!’
Oddly, a great number of marathon runners do manage to keep going, and often the pain begins to ease off. How can that happen? One theory is that a fatigued brain almost assumes the legs must be fatigued and could not run another step, so the brain shuts down the body. In other words, it’s not the body that is saying ‘stop,’ it’s the brain. But – if that theory is right – there is strength left in the body, and if the runner can press on new energy is found in those legs, and with determination that runner can finish strongly.
Suffering is real – Paul is in no doubt about that – but it doesn’t mean the Christian race is over. Instead suffering spurs perseverance, the get-up-and-get-on instinct that carries someone through the trial and towards their goal.
Paul goes on: “Suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character.”
If I said “Joanne is a woman of great character,” I might be thinking she is a great example to others of how to live out the values with which she had been raised.
Paul probably uses the word character in a slightly different sense to my example. Paul is not thinking of the character someone inherits but the character they become. He uses the Greek word dokimē, and it means ‘proven character,’ the kind that comes from testing.
It’s like precious metal put through white hot fire so that everything impure is burned away. Only the best remains.
The Old Testament character Job described that experience to his friends. Speaking about how God was dealing with him, he said:
“But he knows the way that I take;
when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold” (Job 23:10)
Job was experiencing great suffering, but knew it was the Refiner’s fire, and he would come out as gold.
Suffering does not rob Christians of their potential. Suffering plus perseverance gets them to their potential. Christian character is not inherited, it’s not taught, it doesn’t even come through Bible study or prayer. Christian character comes through testing, walking the dark road of pain or hardship or persecution. What should not stay in our lives is burned away; what is needed for our lives grows stronger.
Paul writes: “Suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”
Here is my boast: I have played golf with Paul Lawrie, winner of the 1999 Open Golf Championship at Carnoustie, Scotland. Sadly, I was not playing alongside him at Carnoustie. I was at a corporate golf event and everyone got to play just one hole with Lawrie. But it was fun, and I like Paul Lawrie.
I like Lawrie for at least two reasons more than just that I played golf with him for fifteen minutes. One, he comes from Aberdeen on the north east coast of Scotland where I was also a pastor for ten and a half years. Two, he doesn’t get nearly enough credit for that Open Championship win in 1999.
Many golf fans have not remembered who won, only who lost and how he lost. That was Frenchman Jean Van de Velde.
He looked certain to win when he came to the very last hole of the tournament with a three shot lead. In fact, the engraver had already put his name on the famous Claret Jug trophy given to the winner. But Van de Velde’s play on that 72nd hole was a collection of calamities. He scored a three over par 7, and instead of winning, he tied with Lawrie and Justin Leonard, and Lawrie won a play-off which meant the trophy engraver had to work fast to erase Van de Velde’s name and inscribe Lawrie’s.
But here is the really amazing part: At the start of that day no-one would have imagined Lawrie had any hope of winning. When Lawrie began his final round he was ten shots back from leader Van de Velde. No-one before or since has ever won a major championship starting their last round so far behind.
But Lawrie had hope. He had belief. He knew his game was good enough. He knew his temperament was strong enough. Most others would have gone through the motions on that last day, settled for a good enough score, and been happy with a healthy check for their winnings. Not Lawrie. He played his heart out and shot 67, which was ten better than Van de Velde. Lawrie finished in style by winning the play-off with an amazing birdie on Carnoustie’s ultra-tough last hole.
Hope is what keeps someone going against all odds. Paul says it’s suffering that produces perseverance, which in turn produces character, and out of that tested, refined character comes hope.
And – in closing these verses – Paul says, “Hope does not put us to shame.” It doesn’t disappoint. It’s not vain hope, not hope without a reward.
We suffer but learn to persevere.
We persevere and through many trials and tests our character is formed.
Out of that godly character emerges hope – we look to God, we trust him, we believe he has no plans other than good plans for our lives (Jer 29:11), and we are not let down. We turned our eyes to heaven and were met by the tender eyes of the living God who pours his love upon us and into our hearts.
I had many accidents when I was a child:
- Run down by a car
- Crashed to the ground at speed off bicycles
- Ripped open my leg on a barbed wire fence
- Tore open my knee falling on a gravel path
- Fell out of a tree
- Injured my back playing rugby
- Even had a shed collapse on me.
Every one of those things hurt. But somehow I always found my way back to Dad or Mom, and they’d wrap their arms around me, soothe the pain, make me better, and because of their love and encouragement I’d move on to whatever was next in life.
God’s comfort and God’s redemption are much deeper than that. But the reassurance is the same. Through the hardest of times, the worst of sufferings, our heavenly Father holds us and uses what is wretched and dreadful to build good things in our lives. And our hope and our trust in him will find only and always love, reassurance, acceptance, and a new life.