Suffering comes in all shapes and sizes. From common illnesses to terminal illnesses, from putting to death the sinful deeds of the body to being put to death by those who hate the gospel, from fighting enemies within to fighting enemies without, the church suffers. It is our calling. The work of salvation that Jesus definitively began in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension will not be complete until his body, the church, is also bodily raised from the dead at the last day. Between this time and that we have been called to endure the suffering that comes in a creation that has not yet been completely liberated from the corruption of sin.
This suffering, however, is not without a purpose. It is not a fight that ends in a draw. It is a training camp for Christians to learn to rule the creation as it ought to be ruled. Just as Jesus did in his life, so we learn obedience through the things that we suffer. And like him, we are being matured through what we suffer (cf. Heb 5.8-9). Somehow and some way that is not presently clear to us, God is working all of our sufferings for our good and, consequently, the good of the rest of creation, which will be saved when we are revealed to be the sons of God through the redemption of our bodies (that is, in the resurrection; Rom 8.19-21, 28).
The question is, What gives us the strength to endure these present sufferings? Hope. More specifically, the hope of glory.
This hope is not the wispy positive thinking of some motivational speaker who tells you that everything will turn out alright because everything always turns out alright. That’s wishful thinking. It’s not a solid foundation for hope. Hope built on the sands of wishful thinking will eventually crumble when the tides of suffering are relentless.
Our hope of glory–the hope that we ourselves will one day be completely freed from the corruption of sin and its death in body and mind and that the rest of creation will follow us–our hope of glory is firmly fixed on the Word of God declared boldly in the resurrection of Jesus and confirmed continually by the presence of his Spirit with us. The Word that was before the world and that created everything that we see is the Word in whom we trust. Our hope in Christ Jesus is surer than the things in the creation that we can touch, see, feel, or taste.
Having this hope we have the strength to endure all of the battles with sin and its corruption in this present life; whether those battles rise from within us in being tempted to sin, or they come from without in dealing with the corrupting power of sin in relationships. We can endure because we have a sure hope that this is not the way it will always be. God promised.
Our future hope gives us the present strength to endure. What you hope for shapes what you desire and the way you live right now. The young man who has been promised by his parents that he may buy his first car when he is sixteen, works and saves with that hope in mind. He resists temptation to buy other things that are frivolous. He has to say “No” to activities with his friends at times because he has to work. He gets tired along the way, but then he remembers the prize. He keeps pushing on, maintaining the disciplines that will get him to his hope.
So it is with us as Christians and our hope. Our future hope shapes our desires and the way we live. Because we long for what God has promised, knowing that we must suffer with Christ in order that we may be glorified together (Rom 8.17), that means that we discipline our lives accordingly. We must say “No” to temptations, even when everyone else is doing it. There may even be things that are technically lawful for us to do, but they are not as profitable to our lives as they should be (cf. 1Cor 6.12). Our desire for the best outweighs our desire for the acceptable.
Show me how you’re living, and I will tell you what you hope for.
When that young man finally buys that car, when his hope is realized, all that he went through to get there will seem like no real trouble at all because it all came together to bring him to this place. “I reckon that sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared to the glory that shall be revealed to us” (Rom 8.18). When we, the church, finally reach our hope, we will understand that this was but a “momentary light affliction” that was working in us an “eternal weight of glory” (2Cor 4.17). Weighed in the balances, our present sufferings are not even worth comparing to our future glory.
Not all of our suffering is directly produced by sin and its corruption. Some of our suffering is produced by our hope. Our hope has been deferred, and our hearts are sick (Prov 13.12). Knowing what is coming, knowing that one day we will be liberated from all of the bondage of corruption, creates in us a longing that groans in pain until that day arrives. We suffer because we have hope. We see the world around us living contrary to the gospel, killing itself. We stand by the bedsides of loved ones, watching them die. We feel the sting of an unfaithful spouse. We get caught up in the tension of someone’s bitterness toward us. We live in a church that is, at many points, unnecessarily divided. We read of our brothers and sisters being slaughtered by oppressive governments and religions. We hear that dreaded diagnosis and prognosis from the doctor. In all of this, we suffer from the sin itself as well as the presence of hope that makes our longings even greater and our groaning even deeper. We begin to understand the cries of the Psalmists, and we cry out in song with them , “How long, O Lord?”
Our hope produces groaning in a sinful world, but it is also our strength through it.