Have you seen the movie Wall-E? While the protagonist of the movie is an adorable trash compacting robot, what I found really interesting was its depiction of humanity. In the movie, humans have evolved in such a way as to spare them any suffering. They float around in chairs, so they don’t have to walk. They stare at screens instead of engaging in risky human interaction. When they are hungry or thirsty, robots hurriedly bring them refreshment.
We are not quite there in our society yet, but there is a lot of money made every year on products trying to make life a little less painful. We make luxury cars with surround sound satellite radio so commuting is comfortable. We make diet pills and elaborate exercise machines so we can lose weight without making too many sacrifices. We make lightweight electronic books, so we don’t have to schlep around ten pounds of novels when we’re on vacation.
We are incredibly lucky to live in a society where we can protect ourselves from an enormous amount of suffering—we have running water and indoor toilets; our doctors are trained in hygiene and anesthesia; our police, fire brigades and EMTS protect us without bribes.
And yet, even with all of our advances we can never protect ourselves fully from suffering. Our hearts will still be broken. Our loved ones will still die, some years before they should. Our bodies will still betray us. Suffering is a fundamental part of what it means to be human.
Now, if I were marketing a religion, I would make sure that part of the package would be a promise of relief from suffering. I would tell my followers that if they just followed my God, they would receive an easy life, filled with pleasure. Paul, however (and that’s St. Paul, not our rector), does not seem to be working with a PR consultant.
In the letter to the Romans, Paul acknowledges what all of us know. Suffering is part of life and a part of faith. None of us can escape suffering, no matter how much we try to pad our life with luxuries. Paul captures this beautifully in the 8th chapter of Romans, writing:
We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.
This image of all of us, along with all of Creation, leaning forward, groaning, waiting for God really captures the human experience. When something awful happens: a child’s death, long term unemployment, hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil about to destroy miles of coastline, there is nothing we can do, but groan our prayers and hope for redemption.
But, Paul’s view of suffering is not entirely negative.
Whenever my sister and I grumbled about doing something that annoyed us, my father would tell us, “You’ll build character!” At first Paul’s stair step argument in Romans 5 can feel a little bit like a parent telling us to grin and bear our suffering.
Paul writes that we can boast in our suffering and that our suffering will lead to endurance, which will lead to character, which will end in hope.
We all know that suffering does not necessarily produce that outcome. We all know people for whom suffering has done nothing but embitter them. So, when we read this text, we may read it cautiously. We may hold it at arms’ length and think to ourselves, “Oh yeah, Paul? Prove it.”
We are helped when we understand the context in which Paul is writing. Paul has been telling the Romans how no one is righteous. No one can keep the law. No one can earn righteousness before God. Paul goes on to explain that through Jesus ‘ willing sacrifice, we are granted righteousness before God. That righteousness is given to us as pure gift.
In our passage today, Paul is explaining what that gift gives us. The gift reconciles us to God, giving us peace with our Creator. We use this passage on Trinity Sunday, because Paul goes on to say that the Holy Spirit pours God’s love in our hearts. So, the Father sends the Son, who sacrifices himself so we can be at peace with God. He in turn sends the Holy Spirit, who fills us with God’s love.
So, transformation of suffering into hope is part of this gift, too. Paul is probably talking about eschatalogical suffering here—suffering having to do with the end of times—since Paul thought Jesus’ return was immanent. But really, we are all moving toward the Kingdom of God, and we all experience suffering on the way, so I think it is fair to say that our suffering can be included in this conversation.
What’s important to note here is that this transformation of suffering into hope is not something that the sufferer does. Paul’s whole point is that that God’s gift to us is pure gift—and is not something we can earn. We can place ourselves before God and pray that our suffering might be transformed into endurance, character and hope. But we should never use this passage as a weapon against ourselves or anyone else who might be stuck in grief or pain or suffering of any kind. This passage should never be used to nag or berate. Instead, this passage offers us a beacon of hope.
Paul’s words offer us hope that our tears and pain may deepen and broaden our compassion, rather than harden our hearts. His words offer us hope that our crises may make us into more mature, thoughtful people. His words offer us hope that we might yet be transformed into people of hope—people who so in touch with God’s presence, that our hearts feel deep peace.
We don’t need to be like the characters in Wall-E, completely protected from pain.
Paul’s words give us courage to face the world honestly. They give us courage to step out of our padded luxury cars, put down our laptops, turn off our televisions. Paul’s words give us courage to face our broken hearts and bodies head on, knowing that God can transform our suffering into something that betters us.
In my last parish, I had a friend who was in her 80s. She had a series of health scares, including an episode of congestive heart failure that was completely terrifying to her. She called me in the midst of all of her struggles and asked if I could come see her. When I went to visit her, I expected to hear about her pain, her fears, maybe her loneliness. Instead, she told me, “Sarah, I want to talk with you, because my pain has made me think about all the people in pain around the world. I want to use this as an opportunity to pray for those people.”
That moment has been one of the most profound of my entire life, because she exemplified what Paul is talking about in his letter to the Romans. God gave her the grace to experience her suffering as a broadening, deepening experience. Instead of feeling sorry for herself, she found a way to reach out to the world and care for them through her prayers. The love of God flowed through her and out to those for whom she prayed.
And whether we are people who feel that kind of hope, or not, Paul is right when he says that God’s hope will not disappoint us. Because the gift of Jesus’ sacrifice, the gift of God’s love poured out by the Holy Spirit, is our gift, even in our deepest suffering. Even at our terrified, grief stricken, self-absorbed worst. Even when we feel not one iota of character or endurance or hope, God’s love pours out for us. And that love will not disappoint us.