In the previous post, I confessed to discovering that in reading Romans 8 through the lens of my own concerns, I had missed something vital. The Christian life is about hope: yes, I understand that. Our present sufferings in a fallen world need to be reinterpreted in light of that future hope: yes, I get that too. That future hope includes a bodily resurrection: believe me, I’m looking forward to that. But Paul suggests that our hope should be a patient one (vs. 25)–and that’s where I stumble. In the midst of all that one suffers in this lifetime, in the midst of all that causes us to groan, how does one look patiently toward the future?
Paul puts our suffering in context. All of God’s good creation suffers from the ravages of sin; God grand work of restoration is happening all around us, and even through us and in us; God’s raising Jesus from the dead is the foundation of the hope that we too will share in his resurrection glory. Here’s a sample of Paul’s argument:
We know that the whole creation is groaning together and suffering labor pains up until now. And it’s not only the creation. We ourselves who have the Spirit as the first crop of the harvest also groan inside as we wait to be adopted and for our bodies to be set free. (Rom 8:22-23, CEB)
Preoccupied with physical suffering, I’ve tended to laser in on that last part, of our bodies being set free “from slavery to decay” (vs. 21, CEB) in a physical resurrection. This is the hope that looks forward to the day in which God will wipe away every tear and abolish death and pain: the old broken down world will pass away and be replaced by a renewed and glorious one (Rev 21:4).
But how is that a patient kind of hope? I certainly wouldn’t want to tell someone suffering from chronic pain or terminal illness, “Just be patient. One day, all these things will pass. It may not happen in your lifetime, but, oh well.”
We need the other side: we who have the Spirit groan as we wait to be adopted. That isn’t simply waiting for brokenness to be replaced by wholeness, but for brokenness to be swept away so that we can experience the fullness and completion of what is already true.
In Romans 9:2, Paul says “I have great sadness and constant pain in my heart” (CEB). Why? Because he grieves over his fellow Israelites: all of the privileges of being adopted as God’s children should have been theirs (vss. 4-5), and that destiny was too easily taken for granted. For Paul, the cross and the resurrection have become the lens through which the whole story of Israel and of God’s promises has to be reinterpreted (see, for example, this book by Daniel Kirk), a story which now–surprise!–includes Gentiles and the many new Christians in Rome.
We now are the adopted ones, led by the Spirit of Christ (Rom 8:9), calling upon God as our Father as Jesus himself did:
All who are led by God’s Spirit are God’s sons and daughters. You didn’t receive a spirit of slavery to lead you back again into fear, but you received a Spirit that shows you are adopted as his children. With this Spirit, we cry, “Abba, Father.” The same Spirit agrees with our spirit, that we are God’s children. But if we are children, we are also heirs. We are God’s heirs and fellow heirs with Christ, if we really suffer with him so that we can also be glorified with him. (Rom 8:14-17, CEB)
And the Spirit through whom we cry out to God as Father is the same one who groans with and for us in our weakness, when we can’t even put together the words to pray (Rom 8:26).
Again, a more patient hope is grounded in the expectation of receiving in fullness what we already know to be true: we are God’s children and with Christ, we are co-heirs of the kingdom. We know this by the internal witness of the Holy Spirit.
It comes down to this: patience and hope in the face of suffering are the fruit of life in the Spirit, the Spirit who reminds us who we really are in Christ now–God’s adopted children. Our groaning in this lifetime is the legitimate desire for that truth to be the whole truth of who we are. For that, we will have to wait.
But if the Spirit testifies with our spirit that we are in fact God’s children, then we can wait a little more patiently.