As we are frequently reminded, pain is part of life. It may be as small as a temporary inconvenience or as large as a catastrophe that changes us forever. It may be the result of everyday mishaps or systemic injustice. But in one form or another, suffering and discouragement inevitably come. When it does, we need encouragement.
And as Christians, we specifically need biblical encouragement.
If you’ve hung around local congregations for any length of time, I suspect you’ve heard some well-meaning person approach a suffering brother or sister with the words of Paul: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28, NRSV). Usually, it’s meant as a message of encouragement, a way of saying, “Things look bad now, but just hang in there. Keep praying; keep believing. It will all work out in the end, you’ll see.”
I agree. Except, possibly, for one thing: it matters — and it matters a lot — which “end” you have in mind.
I’m reminded here of the lyrics to a popular praise chorus:
I know breakthrough is coming
By faith, I see a miracle
My God made me a promise
And it won’t stop now…
Here, the question is: what promise, exactly? What miracle? You can imagine that different people might hear those lines in quite different ways.
On the one hand, the promised “breakthrough” may be the miracle of resurrection. This is indeed a thoroughly biblical promise, and one that New Testament holds up as the centerpiece of our hope.
On the other hand, it’s possible to hear this in terms of whatever promise we think God has made to us personally. Our prayers may be deep and heartfelt. Prayers for a much needed job. For a sign telling us which way to go with a difficult decision. For the salvation of a loved one. For justice. For healing from a painful or terminal illness.
And don’t get me wrong: we should go to God with all these things. But we should also be careful not to confuse what God wills with what we’re asking for or what we want, no matter how badly we want it, no matter how right, honorable, or even biblical our requests are.
When Paul says that all things will work together for good, he has the long game in view. Things will indeed work out in the end. But the “end” he has in mind is not the happy ending to a difficult chapter in my story, but the glorious triumph of God’s story, when all of creation “will be set free from its bondage to decay” (Rom 8:21a).
Thankfully, as believers, as God’s children (vs. 21b), we have a part in that story of redemption. But that doesn’t mean that everything will work out the way I’d like in the earthly, pre-resurrection part of my story.
I’m not saying that God doesn’t make specific, personal promises to people. When Paul first came to Corinth, for example, he was fearful — and God made him a concrete promise of protection (Acts 18:9-10). But let’s not forget the frightening list of trials he catalogued for the Corinthians, from sleepless nights, to near starvation, to being beaten with rods (2 Cor 11:23-28). Few people know suffering as Paul did.
And indeed, that is why the passage in Romans 8 cannot be read in any breezily optimistic way. It bears the stamp of a man who has suffered much for the gospel. He wants believers to have the right perspective: the suffering of the present time is nothing compared to the glory of the future (Rom 8:18).
That’s not to say that our suffering is literally nothing. It is to say that the future is really something — and that believers need to hang onto that promise.
His picture of believers in the present is not of happy-go-lucky people who believe that God will protect them from trouble. Far from it. Rather, all of creation groans in pain, like a woman in labor (is that graphic enough for you?), and we groan right along with it, waiting for God’s work to be finished, waiting for resurrection (Rom 8:22-23).
Christian hope is not mere optimism. It looks squarely into the face of suffering and yet clings to the promise of resurrection. Perhaps that doesn’t seem like much, especially compared to the belief that God will get us out of today’s jam, and tomorrow’s, and the next day’s. To truly grasp the Christian life as a life of groaning might make us a bit weak in the knees.
Perhaps you know what Paul is describing. You’ve wrestled and wrestled with some trial. You’ve worn out your knees in prayer. And yet the situation continues with no end in sight. You groan. Come on, Paul — that all you got?
No. Paul doesn’t leave us there. God knows our weakness, our suffering, and supports us in and through it: “the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (Rom 8:26).
Let that sink in for a bit. When we suffer, when we groan, when the wounds feel so deep that we can’t even squeak out a proper prayer — then what? God doesn’t say, “Why are you being so faithless? When you’ve got your act together, come back and see me.” God doesn’t say, “Oh, buck up, you wimp. Everything’s going to be fine.”
No: as Paul insists, the Holy Spirit groans with us, for us, through us, to God. We are not abandoned to our suffering. We are not alone.
And that should be encouraging.