“Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”
Romans 5:3-4 (NIV 1984)
Last week, we said that we can and should rejoice because of what Jesus has done for us, and we also learned that this rejoicing can take place even when we are in significant physical or emotional pain. But should we rejoice about our sufferings? The way that the old NIV (which a lot of people still have on their self) translates Romans 5:3-4 would seem to suggest as much. Other translations, too, leave the reader with the impression that suffering should elicit joy (cf. HCSB, NCV, NET, NLT). The Voice even uses the word “celebrate” to describe how we should react to suffering. Could this possibly be correct? And what exactly is Paul trying to say in these verses?
Describing a Different Action
There can be no doubt that Paul calls for expressions of joy in Philippians 4; the verb he uses comes from the same root as the noun that we translate “joy.” Paul, however, does not use that verb in Romans 5:3-4. Rather, he uses a verb that is not morphologically related to the “joy” words that are so prevalent in the New Testament.
The verb that Paul chooses in our text has its own rich history, one that is deeply rooted in the Greco-Roman tradition of boasting. In social-scientific terms, boasting refers to the practice of proclaiming one’s positive distinctiveness in order that this distinctiveness might be recognized by others (particularly members of one’s social group or of a competing social group). Men (most of our evidence for social behavior in this period comes from distinctively male spheres of social activity) regularly competed with one another for honor (the most important social value in the Greco-Roman world) by boasting about what they had achieved or about who their friends were. Obvious or unjustified boasting was looked down upon in polite society, but there were socially acceptable ways to boast.
Whether Paul intended his readers to actually “boast” about their sufferings is a matter of less importance to us than the fact the he intends them to see their sufferings as something that made them positively distinctive in comparison with those who are not in Christ. Boasting does not play the same role in modern North American culture that it played in the ancient Mediterranean world (although it is certainly still done), and the standard lexicon of early Christian Greek offers “take pride in” as one of the primary ways of rendering our verb. Still, we need to realize that, for Paul, suffering is not something that we should hide in shame. Many people in the ancient world saw suffering as evidence that one is hated by God (or the gods), but Paul turns that logic on its head. Suffering, as both the 2011 edition of the NIV and the NRSV indicate, is a part of our story that we simply must share.
Another Pesky Preposition
So what exactly is the nature of the relationship between the pride we have in our positive distinctiveness and the suffering that we experience? Once again, we have a pesky preposition with which we must contend. It is the same one that we have in Philippians 4:4. If we translate the verb “take pride in”, we already have the preposition we need to make the clause work, but if we translate it “boast”, then we have a decision to make. Are we offering our boast “in the context of” our suffering or are we actually boasting “about” our suffering? Given what Paul goes on to say, I think that the latter is best. Whether we are thinking about our own attitude towards suffering or about the way we talk about our suffering with others, Paul’s point is the same. We consider suffering to be a part of what makes us positively distinctive.
Suffering, Transformation, and Hope
But why in the world would Paul tell his readers that Christians boast about their sufferings? After all, suffering is no fun at all, as Paul himself knew quite well. More to the point, what benefit is there to following Jesus if doing so is simply going to lead to suffering? One could well say that we have plenty enough of that on our own without Jesus dragging us into more.
Paul answers our anguished question by pointing to the results of suffering. When we endure suffering, it produces “perseverance.” Perseverance may not sound like very much fun, especially in a culture where we glory in sharing the negative psychological impact of our suffering in the name of authenticity and where patience is seen as a sign of weakness rather than a virtue.
Perseverance, however, is important because it produces “character.” Inherent in this word is the idea that character does not really exist, and certainly cannot be perceived, unless it is tested. Paul’s point is that persevering in the midst of suffering creates character. Moreover, perseverance makes it possible for others to see that character in us.
But is character really that important? Is it worth the pain that it takes to acquire it? The rhetoric of Paul’s letter to the Romans would suggest that it is. The kind of character that Paul is talking about is inconsistent with the sinful orientation that Paul condemns in 1:18-3:20 and again in 6:1-23. That orientation is directed wholly towards the self and its desires, and, for that reason, it enslaves the self to the deadly power of sin. Character, on the other hand, contains within itself the inherent recognition that there are things more important than the satisfaction of selfish desires. It cannot help but do so, for it is born out of experiences that are painful–or even traumatic–for the self.
In our section of the letter’s argument, however, Paul wants to make a different point. When character that has been tested by hardship comes into full bloom, it produces “hope.” Nothing is so cruel as false hope, but “we” know that the hope we have is not false. The Holy Spirit resides within every person who is “in Christ,” and it serves as the conduit through which those of us who are “in Christ” receive and experience God’s love.
God’s loving presence in the midst of our suffering is not just the promise that life will not always be like this; it also provides us a tantalizing preview of what life will be like when all things are made new. This “foretaste of glory divine” (as the old hymn describes it) does more than prompt us to anticipate a better world. It allows us to experience that better world, even if only in part. And that experience reshapes how we understand our suffering, which, in turn, gives us the strength and the motivation to persevere. That perseverance produces even more character, and the cycle repeats itself.
The Power of Redemption
For Paul, suffering is not an end unto itself. The word translated “also” in verse three could just as easily be rendered “even.” Why is this important? Go back to the top of this entry and read the verses again. Now read my translation: “Not only so, but we even boast about our sufferings, for we know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance produces character, and character produces hope.” The difference is surely apparent. Rather than suffering being something that we proclaim as good in and of itself, it is just one more arena in which God’s redemptive activity is at work.
Implicit in Paul’s argument is the assumption that suffering will come to us whether we follow Jesus or not. Moreover, suffering is painful, and it is the result of sin’s destructive work in the world. That is why we “weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15). Love compels us to do so.
But the question we must all answer is, “Do we want to suffer with Christ or without him?” Paul’s emphatic response is that it is far better to suffer with Christ, for, through Christ, we are able to see God’s redemptive hand at work in our suffering. With this new perspective, we are able to see whatever pleasure or pain comes our way as an opportunity to experience God’s goodness, to allow God to strengthen our character, and to live ever more fully in the hope that God’s love provides.