10 May 2020
Good News for the Suffering
Passage Romans 8:18-27
Speaker Chris Haley
Series Romans: Unashamed
Good News for the Suffering
“Life is suffering” - so said Siddhattha Gotama, commonly known as the Buddha. He’s not the only one to make that observation; Thomas Hardy in his book ‘Jude the Obscure’ has one of his characters note, “All is trouble, adversity and suffering”.
However, the Buddha and Thomas Hardy have no real solution to that problem. The best Buddha can offer is Nirvana- literally ‘blowing out’, ceasing to be. Whereas Thomas Hardy’s novel finishes with Jude dead and the love of his life unhappily married to another man. The suffering can feel, I suppose, in that sense, as never ending as sometimes this lockdown can feel! There’s no end.
The Gospel however has a better answer, and this passage in Romans spells it out for us. There is an end to suffering! One day suffering will be no more, and it’s so much easier, isn’t it, when you can see the end! It’s so much easier to keep going when you can see the end. Hopefully today we’ll find out from the Prime Minister about the end of lockdown, and in this passage this morning we’ll find out about the end of suffering. It’s so much easier when you can see the end.
Our passage last week ended with the promise that we are heirs of God if we suffer with Christ, and you could be left thinking that Christianity was some sort of masochist thing, with people who like being hurt. But no, far from liking suffering- Christianity promises an end to suffering. And not some ceasing to be, but in the end sharing in Jesus’ glory just as we share in Jesus’ sufferings now. And that’s what Paul, the author here, spells out in our passage this morning. So our first point is:
Our Suffering has an end (v18-22)
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.
It’s as though what Paul is doing here is he’s got those old-fashioned scales - you know, one on one side, one on the other – and he’s having a go, and he’s putting our present experiences on one side and the glory to come on the other side. And what he finds is that the glory to come far outweighs the suffering we experience now.
That’s not to say that our suffering now is nothing, not to do it down or make it smaller than it really it is. It’s really that the glory to come is just so much greater. Which, when you think about how Christians suffer across the world, when you think about how much they’ve suffered through the ages - that must mean that that glory is huge! Paul says it’s not worth comparing! It’s like the difference between the Cosmos and a crumb. It’s like the difference between a galaxy and a Galaxy Minstrel. There really is no comparison! One day the suffering will end, and not just to be replaced with nothing- it will be replaced by glory!
How does he know that? Well he tells us that it’s because the whole universe is waiting and groaning for this outcome. Creation is waiting for the day when it will be liberated from suffering and decay. That word there in verse 19, “eager longing” means at its root “with head stretched out”. It’s the picture of someone looking over the horizon, craning their neck to see what’s coming. Really, if you like animals, creation’s sort of doing this, it’s doing like a meerkat stood on its hind legs - looking over at the whole all of creation, looking for what’s coming, waiting in eager expectation for the renewal of creation to come in, the new creation, ending suffering, ending decay.
Paul here personifies creation – makes it like a person - to show us the certainty of that end. Even the creation itself is looking towards this, groaning inwardly and outwardly as though in childbirth until the new creation be born. If you think about it, childbirth is a wonderful picture of this expectation we’re talking about. Childbirth comes about through pain and suffering, but also the end result is incredible! Think of the joy of a parent meeting their child for the first time, that’s the joy that is to come. Or think about VE day, which we celebrated this week. The suffering of war, but at the end of that, that huge joy and celebration as it ends.
But why is creation groaning though? I mean, if you think about it, wouldn’t this just be natural? Isn’t this how things are supposed to be? Why would creation groan?
Well, the answer is no. Creation is not as it was supposed to be. Our passage tells us it has been subjected to futility, that’s what we read in verse 20. One commentator put it that the whole book of Ecclesiastes is a commentary on this one verse. In fact, the world meaningless, that is repeated so often in the Greek version of that book, is the same word as futility here. And we know that our world is subject to futility, don’t we? All of the folks who are still working at the moment know that. No matter how much work you do there’s always more to be done. You feel like you’re getting nowhere, don’t you, as you just carry on working. Even the folks who’ve not been working, who’ve been out in the garden in the lockdown know that too. You do your garden and within a month it looks like you’ve never touched it. You feel like you’re getting nowhere.
That getting nowhere feeling is not natural, it’s part of the condition of our world due to sin. Our rebellion against God has caused this. The world God gave us was not subject to futility and decay, like the world we live in now. We made it that way when we turned our back on God. When we turned our back on God, God subjected the world to futility, to decay, and to corruption. He allowed it to go its own way, following on from what we had done, going our own way too.
That’s not to say there isn’t still beauty and goodness in the world - but it’s a fading beauty, it’s a faulty goodness. The world we live in cannot satisfy us. We were designed for more; we were designed for a world that reflected God’s beauty and goodness in its entirety. That’s why we can find life so dissatisfying. That’s why we find ourselves asking the question: what’s wrong with the world? Why is there suffering? Why is there sadness? As though we were expecting that there would be something else.
But if we were just the product of this sad and suffering world, wouldn’t sadness and suffering just feel natural? Wouldn’t it just feel normal? But it doesn’t, does it? When we come face to face with suffering in this world, it feels profoundly unnatural. It feels profoundly wrong, and that’s because it is wrong- this is not how things were supposed to be. And that’s what makes God’s promise of a new world so great; it will feel profoundly right, it will be all that we feel that this world should be. A world without suffering, without pain, without futility.
Now, it may sound like a pipe dream, like something that you receive in your email spam folder! But this is not some dodgy spammer sat in his mum’s basement, who is telling us this, who could no more deliver on his promise than he could change his own sheets! This is a promise from a God who had the power to make the world we live in, who had the power to subject this world to futility. If anyone can promise to reverse that, to undo that - it’s Him! He’s the only one who can promise to do that. So this is not pie in the sky, it’s a promise of God for all who believe.
But right now… we’re in labour! Creation is groaning and we see its groans daily in the news, and on the internet, don’t we? But it’s not just creation groaning, we’re groaning too, but there’s good news for us there too! So our second point, our struggle has an end.
Our Struggle has an end (v23-25)
And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
As Christians we have the Spirit inside us, that’s what Paul has been saying all the way through this chapter. Now, the Spirit here is described as the firstfruits. The firstfruits were the first batch of the crops from a harvest. They held the promise of what is to come, the guarantee of the harvest to follow. In the Old Testament they were given to God at the festival of firstfruits- otherwise known as Pentecost when the Spirit was given to the church. A pledge of what was to follow, a taste of what is to come. The problem with a taste though is that you always want more - as anyone who’s tried to eat one Pringle or one Malteser will readily confirm! A taste will make you hungry for more.
And that sums up are experience in this age, in this world - fed, but hungry for more. We want the sin inside us dealt with finally, we want an end to our struggle with sin! An end to the battle. Paul assures us it’s coming, that’s what he means by the redemption of our bodies in verse 23, when the whole of us, every part of us will be renewed in line with Christ. But for now, we groan! We ache inside. We’re unhappy with ourselves, we’re unhappy with our spiritual state, we’re unhappy with the mistakes that we continue to make, even as Christians. We long for that day when we will be perfected! When Jesus returns and our mortal flesh is clothed with immortality. Finally, the way we were made to be.
But Paul says we must wait patiently. In this life this is our ‘hope’, that’s what we wait for. Now the Bible word for hope, ‘elpis’ is not like our word for hope. It’s not something unsure, it’s something certain in the future. In Otley, it’s like the difference between Royal Mail and Hermes. If you’ve got a parcel being delivered by Royal Mail in Otley, it’s definitely coming, you just don’t know when – that’s the Greek word hope. If you’ve got a parcel being delivered by Hermes, you’ve no idea if it’s coming or not- you hope it does- that’s our English word for hope!
Hope in Greek is like the future version of faith. You have faith in something in the Bible because it’s real but it’s not visible. You hope in something in the Bible because it’s real, but it just hasn’t happened yet. This glory to come is real, it just hasn’t happened yet. And so we wait for it patiently, we hope for it. If we had it now- we wouldn’t have to hope for it, that what Paul’s point is in verse 24. But for now, we only have a foretaste, that leaves us longing for more. We see that as well in the way that the last passage referred to us as the children of God now. But in verse 23 our adoption is future, linked with the redemption of our bodies. We have something now, but not all of it. It’s what many have called the “now and not yet” of the Gospel.
My favourite illustration of this was when I was on a Young Life leaders’ weekend many, many years ago, and Trevor Knight, who was on that weekend, gave an illustration. He said that he’d been to a church in Northern Ireland. He’d been there just to visit, then he was asked at the door by the person who greets everyone as they leave, shaking their hand, “Are you saved Brother?”
Now Trevor Knight paused for a moment, he thought about it, and he said “by God’s grace I am, I am being, and one day I will be”.
The man at the door said: “What?”
And he said, “Well, I am saved from the penalty of my sin, I am being saved day by day from the power of sin and one day I’ll be saved even from the presence of sin. So I am, I am being, and I will be”.
And the man at the door said, “Oh I like that”, and as the next man passed, he said, “Hey brother- ask me if I’m saved!”. Apparently, he carried on doing that for quite a while!
There’s that tension, there’s that ‘now and not yet’ness of the Christian life. And it causes a struggle, caught between two worlds part of the new, but in the old. Adopted as sons, yet awaiting the adoption of our bodies, waiting for the sons of God to be revealed as he says in verse 19, that day when Jesus returns when all creation will be renewed and followers of Jesus will be revealed for who they are - Sons of the Father.
In this world Christians are not recognised as Sons of God. It’s not even really clear always who’s part of God’s people and who isn’t. Two billion people on this planet claim to be followers of Jesus, but I doubt there are really two billion who really trust in Jesus alone for their salvation. Calling yourself a Christian, or ticking a box on a census, or having a bit of water splashed on you doesn’t make you a Christian. It’s a heart thing, it’s a head thing, it’s something that no one else can do for you. It’s a decision to trust in Jesus’ death alone- which paid for your sin and to turn away from that sin in your life.
And one day it will be clear who those people are, who trusted in Jesus’ death alone and turned away from their sin. The sons of God will be revealed in glory, as they will share in Jesus’ glory - as will the whole of creation!
But for now, we are weak, and we are vulnerable. We don’t look glorious and impressive - we often look quite the opposite, downtrodden and defeated. Is there anyone there to help us in our weakness in this world now? Well, yes there is, and that’s our last point:
In our Weakness we have a Friend (v26-27)
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
The spirit affirms we are sons of God, we saw that last time, and he helps us in our weakness. Paul picks on one key example of our weakness - our prayers! Now, at first you might think, “why pick on that?” - and then you think about your own prayer life, and you see why. At first you think, “why single out that one?” - and then you realise the fact that we wouldn’t pick our prayers shows how little we value them.
The Spirit helps us in our prayers, because we don’t know what to pray for. Now that sounds a bit harsh, doesn’t it - really, don’t we? Well, have you ever thought that maybe we don’t? What does God think of our prayers?
John Piper in a couple of his books speaks of prayer as a wartime walkie-talkie, given to help us call in supplies for our mission. He writes:
“And what did we do with the walkie-talkie? We tried to rig it up as an intercom in our houses and cabins and boats and cars—not to call in firepower for conflict with a mortal enemy but to ask for more comforts in the den.”
Could that be true? The context we’re given here for prayer is the battle – the battle with sin and the ongoing suffering in our world, the struggle that we have. What should we pray for? Should we pray for the suffering to end? Or should we pray for strength to endure, in the midst of suffering?
We can’t always know, can we, because God hasn’t revealed the specifics of the plan for our lives, to each of us. We can know in general terms - that’s what comes in the next few verses - but we don’t know what God has in store for us. We can pray ‘your will be done’, but we don’t know what that will mean for us.
The Spirit, however, does. He knows what God’s will is and He Himself prays for us in wordless groans. He understands the tension of living in the now and not yet, living in the battle and he prays in line with God’s will. It’s for those moments when you don’t know what to say, when you don’t know what to pray, there are just no words. Living in this fallen world just seems too hard!
A friend of mine this week as he was commenting on these verses on Facebook, wrote that “He translates our inner turmoils”. But it’s more than that - He takes our inner turmoils and turns them into godly prayers, prayers we would pray if we knew everything and always prayed the right things. The Spirit groans within us, as we experience the tension of living as new creations in the old creation, as we experience being new wine in old wineskins, as we experience the Spirit yet in our old body at the same time. The Spirit groans within our hearts, He cries out to God in wordless prayers, and He always prays in line with God’s will. We might not know how to pray, but the Spirit knows what to pray. He knows the heart of God, He knows the will of God, and He prays within us for it to come about.
It’s a remarkable fact that in the Bible we’re told that Jesus intercedes for us before Father and also that the Spirit intercedes for us too! I got an email last week from someone in leadership in the FIEC – the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches to which we belong – and he told me that he was praying for me! I thought that’s amazing- I’m so glad that that person’s praying for little old me! I mean, who would you have praying for you if you could?
Well here’s something amazing as we struggle on in this life! The Spirit is praying for us! The Son is praying for us! And it’s not like God the Father is reluctant to answer those prayers! It’s not like they have to twist His arm. He’s not just The Lord God of Hosts, Creator of the Universe - He’s our dad! Our Abba! The whole Trinity is rooting for us! Helping us get through this difficult time where two worlds collide - the new one and the old one. We don’t know what to pray in this time - but the Spirit does. More than that He is praying, He’s always praying the right things for you.
So, God’s plans aren’t failing because we’re praying the wrong things. Sometimes you get that teaching, if only you prayed for the right thing, somehow that would unlock God’s blessing. Now whilst it’s true we should pray for big things - after all we have a VERY big God - God’s plans though are not thwarted because we are praying the wrong things. Two reasons:
One, our prayers are within God’s plans, as well. Sometimes when God wants to accomplish something, He gets his people to pray for it first. Then He doubly gets the glory - as the one who accomplished it, and as the one who graciously answered the prayers of His people. So pray big! It could be God wants to accomplish something big and He wants you to be encouraged by answered prayer all at the same time!
The second reason that God’s plans are not thwarted is that the Spirit is praying from within us anyway. When we reach those moments of not knowing how to pray in line with God’s will, the Spirit is praying on our behalf. Not having words to pray is not a goal for us, if you like, but it is a safety net that means when we genuinely want to pray we can ultimately never fail! Even if we don’t know what to pray in our situation, the Spirit prays from within us.
So God’s plan for our glory will go ahead, despite our weaknesses and failures, nothing can stop it, even our own sin! But again, I’m getting ahead of myself- that’s next week’s passage - but that’s where this passage is leading; God’s unstoppable plan for our world. And in this passage, we’ve seen it spelt out, an end to suffering, an end to the struggle, and a friend in the meantime who lives in us and helps us and prays for us. And not even the Buddha or Thomas Hardy can offer that!
So let’s keep going in the struggle knowing that the end is near, that there is light at the end of the tunnel! And no, it’s not an oncoming train (I know some of you were thinking that!) it’s the glory to come, that is much greater, a future so much brighter, than the suffering that we experience now. It’s so much easier when you can see the end - so let’s keep going - it will be so worth it.