“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 we know that the whole creation has been groaning…And not only the creation, but we ourselves…groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for…the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved…Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness…the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words…And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good…For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.” -Romans 8:18-29 ESV
As I drove from Raleigh to North Georgia yesterday – on my family’s yearly trek to the motherland for Christmas – I had quite a bit of time to think. The events of the past week and my upcoming teaching series on the subject of doubt kept the problem of evil/suffering bouncing around in my head.
There is always great suffering happening around the world, but over the past six months death has been lingering close to my neighborhood. So many of my friends and church family have experienced great pain and loss.
Some argue that if God is all-powerful, then He is capable of stopping evil/suffering; and if God is all-good, then He would stop it. Therefore, they conclude, an all-powerful, all-good God does not exist. Of course, as Christians we believe that God will stop evil and suffering in the New Creation, and He sent His Son Jesus to begin that restoration project.
Yet we are left with the questions: “Why is this restoration not immediate? Why do we suffer now? Why did this spouse or child die? Why did this financial crisis ensue? Why was this terrorist attack allowed to happen?”
Christians would be disingenuous to fail to acknowledge the real pain and difficulty involved in answering these questions. I don’t for one second intend with this post to belittle the complex nature of suffering. At times we must say with Job, “Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth” (Job 40:4). In other words, God is God and I am not. It is good to sit humbly under this weighty reality.
Yet I do believe there is more that we can say. In fact, there may even be specific “reasons” for our pain beyond our ability to number. However, I think that the bigger story of the Bible along with Romans 8 in particular point us to one beautiful, over-arching reason, and it may just be the most important one.
Track with the Bible’s logic. Man’s sin in the Garden of Eden broke the creation. Enter suffering and death. God sent Jesus to begin the project of restoring creation, but not just back – and this is important! – to its original state in the Eden. Revelation 22’s Garden is much more glorious than Eden. In it there is no possibility of evil or suffering.
One of the central questions of the Bible then is, “How can human beings be transformed in such a way that, even if they were placed back in Eden and given the same choice as Adam and Eve, they would never again choose sin?”
Some immediately respond, “That’s not the point! Jesus chose rightly for us because we never could or would!” But this is only half of the truth. Jesus did live the life we couldn’t live on our behalf, and He did die the death that we deserve in our place. But He also rose from the grave, victorious over sin and death. He defeated death through death. And He has now given us His Spirit – the means by which He is conforming us to the image and character of His Son.
That’s where Romans 8 comes in.
In short, Paul says that the suffering we are experiencing now can’t compare to the glory that’s coming in the New Creation.
Yes, creation is groaning now. Yes, we are groaning now, but even in the midst of our groaning, even when we don’t know how to pray or what to say to God, the Holy Spirit is praying on our behalf!
Then comes the promise that should never become cliche to us: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (8:28). And what is the “good” that Paul promises in the immediate context?
We will become like Jesus.
We will become the kind of human beings who, like Jesus, always choose right.
We will be transformed into the kind of human beings who are fit for a world which has no suffering, the kind of human beings who are no longer capable committing evil or causing suffering in the New Heavens and New Earth.
Ultimately, since we are called and justified by Jesus, we will be glorified just as He is glorified (8:30).
So what’s my point?
What if the only way human beings like us can be changed in our character to this degree is by looking upon the greatness of our God and trusting in Him even (or especially) as we go through the refining furnace of suffering.
Yes, suffering and death in our world are the promised results of Adam and Eve’s sin; but if our Savior was so powerful that He conquered death through death, I don’t think that it’s too far-fetched to suppose that He is, even at this moment, conquering our suffering through our suffering!
If the atheist is right, then Shakespeare’s Macbeth is also right in stating that life is “But a walking shadow, a poor player, / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, / And then is heard no more. / It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.” And there is no one of whom we may ask, “Why?!” In fact, we shouldn’t even ask why, for suffering is merely the natural way things in this material universe.
But if the gospel is true, then we not only have Someome to whom we can cry out in the midst of our pain but also the promise that He will not allow one ounce of it to be wasted.