As I write this, I am sitting in my car alongside Calvin Crest Road listening to chainsaws cutting up the ginormous tree laying across the road. We received our first rain last night in months, and as the rain fell, so did more trees. As I sit and wait, my mind is drawn to the text assigned to me to preach last Sunday for a guest group camping at Calvin Crest over Labor Day Weekend. Oh, the irony.
“More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance and endurance produces character, and character produces hope…” Romans 5:3-4
“Sufferings” carries the idea of distresses, and it comes from the Greek word meaning pressing together or pressure. It is distress or trouble brought about by adverse circumstances.
Suffering is the common lot of us all. Many Christ-followers have asked me over the years if their suffering is a sign that they have done something wrong to somehow deserve it. Early Christians believed just the opposite – that if you were not suffering, something was wrong. They knew that suffering is part of living in a broken world.
I think to “rejoice in suffering” is often misunderstood to think that if we are good Christians, we should be willing to do a happy dance during times of suffering or should be able to exhibit joy – even if it’s a false joy – as we face sad or difficult times.
The Greek word for “rejoice” is often translated “boast” because it comes from a root word meaning “neck” – and it is this idea that we can hold our head up high even in the midst of suffering. Ultimately, we can have confidence and trust God is a good Shepherd who is leading us and can be trusted to provide everything we need. This is how we experience joy in suffering.
Paul goes on to say “knowing that our suffering produces endurance” or steadfastness. Steadfastness is remaining under difficult circumstances without giving up. This word comes from two Greek words: under and to remain. The idea is to remain under the situation or to continue on. This implies an unswerving dimension in our attitude toward suffering. We may proceed in what appears to us as imperceptible progress.
Lately, there have been days when it has not seemed like we are making much progress at Calvin Crest. Covid-19 continues to rear its ugly head; guest groups continue to waver on whether they can hold their events; schools are experiencing lower numbers of students due to parents’ fear of their children being exposed. Our rebuilding efforts after the Mono windstorm are delayed waiting for contractors and architects and insurance approval. And things continue to break. It seems as quickly as we repair things at camp, a dozen more break or go bad. Trees fall. Pipes leak. Air conditioners die. And in the middle of it all, Paul invites us to “remain under” and continue on.
Dallas Willard wrote, “It is only in the heat of pain and suffering, both mental and physical, that real human character is forged. One does not develop courage without facing danger, patience without trials, wisdom without heart and brain racking puzzles, endurance without suffering, or temperance and honesty without temptations. These are the very things we treasure most about people.”
Paul reminds us that when we walk with Jesus in an interactive relationship every day, we can trust that trials will produce endurance, and endurance will produce character. Character is the internal, overall structure of the self that is revealed by our long-run patterns of behavior. It is from our character that our actions more or less automatically arise. What God gets out of my life and your life is the person we become. Who am I becoming? Who are you becoming?
And Paul says character will produce hope. Recently, John Ortberg was referencing Robert Roberts’ writing on the “logic of hope.” He said hope always involves our desire for something and our belief that that ‘something’ can happen. When we have high desire for something, but we have low belief that it will ever happen, the result is despair. When we adjust our expectations and have lower desire so we are not disappointed, and we have little belief that what we want will ever come to pass, the result is resignation. We give up. We settle. We coast. We become apathetic. But when we hold out high desire and have high belief that it can and will come to pass, the result is hope. John reminded us that hope can never be based on external circumstances or on outcomes; rather, our hope is rooted in our Good Shepherd and trusting the fact that He has provided everything we need.
I needed that reminder this week. Maybe you did, too. I pray that wherever you are, whatever you are facing, that you hold your head up high, that you remain strong under your circumstances, that you believe Jesus is forming you to become more like Him, and that you hold on to hope in Him.
The chainsaws stop. The tractor moves. The tree has been cut and moved, and our amazing staff members wave me one and invite me to drive on through. The road is clear once again, and I drive forward.