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“CLAIMING THE HOPE THAT DOES NOT DISAPPOINT”
CLAIMING THE HOPE THAT DOES NOT DISAPPOINT
Rev. Vernon Gramling
Decatur Presbyterian Church
February 25, 2022
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3 And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
In FIRL the word boast got in the way of the reading of this passage. For most of us, boasting is not considered desirable. Broasting is often a means to inflate ourselves, attract attention and even a way to trash talk an opponent. This however was not the usage in the Greco Roman culture of Paul, boasting had more to do with claiming what you stand for. It served to identify a person’s values more than a self centered braggadocio. Some translations use ‘rejoice’ instead of ‘boast’. So when Paul writes: “we boast (rejoice?) in our hope of sharing the glory of God.”, he is referring to the belief that the damage done in the ‘fall’ was repairable. It is now possible to live as God wants us to live. We are freed from our chronic need to prove ourselves and can live assured that we are valued and loved.
But when we use the word rejoice at the next usage of ‘boast’, it reads: ‘we rejoice in our sufferings.’ We might well rejoice at being part of a New Creation but it is jarring to read “we rejoice (boast?) in our suffering. Whether the translation is boast or rejoice, in real life, very few people do either when it comes to suffering. Almost everyone would call suffering bad and something to be avoided. For most of us, if it hurts, it is bad. “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” is but one of many books that have been written to help us reconcile the pain of the world with a good God. It just doesn’t make sense that suffering could have a good end.
In First Corinithians Paul says it this way: “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles…” For the Jews, a messiah who suffers is a contradiction in terms. They could imagine a Messiah but not a crucified Messiah. For the gentiles, embracing pain and suffering was pure foolishness.
Yet, if we give up our views about how life should be and look at life as it is, pain is not only part of life, it is an experience that must be coped with. When we call extended pain ‘bad’, we add to our pain. We are actually turning pain (which is hard enough to experience) into suffering. We are playing God. Theologically, we succumb to the temptation in the garden to be like God with the knowledge of good and evil. Humans simply do not have that knowledge. Though such labeling is all too human, we are really saying what we like and don’t like— and acting as if that somehow the world is supposed to be more to our liking. But in real life, children die everyday, people have extended, losing battles with cancer, bright capable people fade into death unable to remember the faces of their children. There is a genocide almost every generation, innocents are collateral damage to the power hungry and people will die of malnutrion in lands of plenty. It is hard to accept that pain is so prevalent and harder still to realize there is no explaining it nor who or where protracted pain will strike. Such uncertainty is way too random for us to tolerate. Yet it is ubiquitous.
Jesus clearly did not welcome the pain he foresaw in Gethsemane and in the midst of it he cried out, lost and forsaken, But as unimaginable as it sounds, he yielded to the pain. He did nothing to mitigate the life he could foresee. He accepted it and waited to see how God was working her purposes out. This is what Paul is talking about when he asserts we should boast (rejoice) in our sufferings. We don’t have to like and we certainly do not need to seek pain—there is plenty in life without looking for it—but when it comes we must find a way to live the life we have been given and quit insisting upon the life we wished we had—or the one we think we deserve.
A common learning curve occurs when we encounter pain in real life. In FIRL, every single person had experiences with devastating loss—a terrible diagnosis, the death of a spouse, unemployment, adult children who have yet to launch, adult children who are divorcing or have their own serious medical issues. For many, watching someone we love go through such pain is harder than going through it ourselves. Especially if it is severe pain, we rail against it. We often have trouble imagining we can go on and sometimes, we cannot. But most people do go on. It may take months or years and we might not even know how, but most people survive and find ways to engage life.
At least three things that are ultimately positive emerged out of those experiences. First, each time pain or loss is survived, we gain endurance. What seems impossible becomes possible. It is never less painful but the capacity to endure grows. Anyone who has tried to run any distance or worked out in a gym knows that pain is a necessary part of conditioning. There is no easy way to get stronger. Slowly but surely, we start to learn that pain can be very hard—but new things can happen when we endure it. The old aphorism, ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ is true spiritually, physically and emotionally.
Second, people in the group described despair so deep, they could no longer pray. Their initial hope for relief centered upon the elimination of pain but more often than not, that hope did disappoint. Often that became disappointment in God. But even in the midst of feeling abandoned by God, they gathered comfort from the people who cared for them and who prayed for them. They did not have to believe to receive.
Finally, there often is a new appreciation for what really matters. There is a terrible winnowing out of things that don’t. The visceral meaning of Malach 3:2 “But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire…” I do not believe pain is put in our lives to punish, test or teach us a lesson. But there is much to be learned as we are stripped of our self sufficiency by life losses. We gain a clarity about life, a capacity to cope with what is and a humility that draws us closer to God and each other. This capacity to endure leads to a new character—a new stance in life. We give up our certainties about what is good or bad. We give up trying to control our lives. And we focus upon our faith that love is what matters. As long as we are breathing we can love. Linda Huffine told of two people she knew. One with ALS and another and another with MS. Both steadily and inexorably lost control of their bodies. The man with ALS continued to pray for others even as every limb was paralyzed. The woman with MS was aked in the ER why she was still fighting to live. Neither of these people were fighting for longevity but both wanted to engage the life that had been given them.
Because of Jesus, we can learn that what we would usually avoid and call bad can, in fact, lead to something totally unexpected and even miraculous. Addicts in recovery will often give thanks for their addiction. They would not wish their journey on anyone but they will tell you that if alcoholism or addiction was what it took for them to become part of the spiritual fellowship of recovery, they were grateful.
That is something to rejoice in. That is something to boldly claim. That is a hope to aspire to. The hope that does not disappoint is the hope that love will prevail—even in the harshest of circumstance. It is a hope we need as we face new trials and uncertainties as a church, as a nation and ultimately as a planet. No matter what challenges, hardships or losses await us, our job is to live in the knowledge that God loves us and our job is to love one another.
That is the hope that does not disappoint. That is the hope that gives us direction and which sustains us.
Let it be so.