My favorite passage of Scripture is Romans 5:1-2. Here Paul is talking about how the believer has been justified or been "made right" with God. He explains at the end of chapter 4, that Jesus was offered up as payment for sin, and was then raised up for our justification. It's interesting to note that the word justification comes from the image of a courtroom scene, and literally refers to someone who has been regarded as "innocent" or proclaimed free from any hint of guilt.
Paul then goes on to explain that Christ followers have gained access to God's grace, through the faith that they have been given. The passage reads like this: "therefore, since we have been justified by grace, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through Him we have also gained access by faith, into the grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God."
This is such a remarkable passage, packed full of great truths and encouragement! I love the way Paul explains it, he says: "Hey, listen to me! You and I have been permanently made right with God through what Jesus did, and as a result, we can now live continually in the grace that He provides, as a manifestation of our right standing with Him." It's a great picture. God first paid the debt that we owed as a result of our pride (selfish thoughts) and brokenness (selfish actions) and then, after paying the debt, He declared us innocent of any wrong doing. And all of this apart from anything we did to deserve it. That's why I love this passage. It removes the pressure from you and me to earn something and points us to the truth which is found in God showing mercy according to His Will. Reading this passage should cause us to smile...
But then, without even taking a breath, Paul writes: "Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance." What? What did he say? Rejoice in suffering? How/why should we do that? Is that really what the Bible teaches? Why would God allow us to suffer and then ask us to rejoice in those difficulties? Well let's take a look... The full passage reads like this: "Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering 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 who has been given to us."
The word for "rejoice" is the Greek word, καυχάομαι kauchaomai (kaf-cha'-o-mai) which means to "boast in or to praise." Now this doesn't seem to make much sense. Why would God ask us to praise in our sufferings? When we look at the root of the word used here for rejoice, εὔχομαι (euchomai) we notice it literally means to pray. So here Paul is telling us that we should be thankful that our difficulties are leading us to God in prayer. God is not telling us to rejoice in the same manner we would when we celebrate an accomplishment, or a blessed season of life. He is instead guiding us to turn towards Him in prayer.
The word used here for "suffering" refers to tribulation. It is the Greek word, θλίψις (thlipsis) and actually means "pressure." This pressure can be a physical, mental, or spiritual burden. Paul explains that these burdens will lead to endurance, character, and hope. It's really interesting that the word "endurance" here refers specifically to "patience." In fact, it refers to the action of continual patience or developing the ability to continually wait for something. Paul says that this development will then lead to good character. So let's follow Paul's thought process... (suffering = endurance = character). The notion of character here is critical. It is when we begin to discover what is really meant by the word character, that things begin to make sense. The word character refers to the idea of something that has been proven to be acceptable by extreme trial. In other words, the continual patience that we develop through suffering moves us towards the type of character that is developed, having been proven by a period of intense testing.
Finally, Paul tells us that this proven character ultimately produces "hope." Now it is very important here for us to understand what the word hope actually means. Many times we get the notion from society that when we hope for something, we are just closing our eyes and crossing our fingers that a circumstance will go our way, or that our team will win, or that we will get that job opportunity. Unfortunately, our modern culture has distorted the true meaning of the word. The type of hope Paul is talking about here is altogether different.
The word in the original language for our English word hope is, ἐλπίς (elpis). This word does not refer to any sort of feeling or wish, but rather an expectation that becomes a foundation of trust - having a sound reason for the expectation. It does not refer to a desperate wish or want, but to a sense of great confidence in the coming of something that is fully expected. The hope that Paul is talking about is the confidence that believers have in eternal life with God because of what Jesus did.
So does God really ask us to rejoice in our sufferings? Let's take a minute to summarize this often misunderstood passage. Paul is certainly not telling us that we should just "be happy" in difficulties. He's not saying, "Hey, just get over it, you're a Christian." Not at all. In fact, Jesus who loves us, grieves with us in our sufferings, and at the effects of sin on this world.
The truth is this; in Romans 5:3-4, Paul is proclaiming to Christ-followers that we should praise God with an attitude of prayer (rejoice) for the difficult pressures (suffering) - physical, mental, spiritual - that we face, because these things produce in us, through the power of the Holy Spirit, the ability to have continual patience (character) in waiting for that which we expect with confidence (hope) to come about. What Paul is really telling us is that our sufferings are what God uses to guide us through the journey of understanding more fully that our hope as Christ-followers (our expected outcome) in Him is secure through Jesus. Amen.