Suffering and Our Glorious Inheritance
“The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him.” (Rom. 8:16-17) Suffering is a very tough subject, yet one we are all called to face at some point in our lives. The problem of pain has spawned reams of material by Christian authors, from St. Augustine to C.S. Lewis. In Romans 8, Paul encourages his fellow believers to persevere in their suffering. This would have meant a great deal coming from Paul because he knew what it was like to suffer. He had been beaten, stoned, thrown in prison, shipwrecked, rejected by his people. He knew hunger and thirst, exhaustion and poverty. He suffered some kind of thorn in his flesh, which might have been a painful illness or disability. Because he was a man who knew suffering in a personal way, each of us can find great encouragement by his letter. What is suffering? Suffering is quite simply: What I don’t like. That’s all. It may be physical suffering or it may be mental/emotional suffering, but it is suffering because I don’t like it. If I liked it, it really wouldn’t be suffering. I don’t like suffering because it is suffering. But the Bible tells us that suffering is a necessary quality, and you can’t have “glory” without it. If suffering is the means by which God brings us into His glory, we must ask the next question: What is God’s glory? I have heard people talk all my Christian life about the glory of God, and that God wants to manifest His glory in His people. But when the question is asked: What does the manifested glory of God look like? You generally get a blank stare. The reason being, we have made the “Glory of God” a far more abstract idea than the Bible shows it to be. In Exodus 33:18, Moses asks to see God’s glory. God says to Moses, “I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the Lord; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion. But He said ‘You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live!” Then the Lord said, “Behold, there is a place by Me, and you shall stand there on the rock; and it will come about, while My glory is passing by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock and cover you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away and you shall see My back, but My face shall not be seen’ (Exodus 33:19-23). In Exodus 34 this comes to pass, and we are told in verse 6 a very interesting thing that gives us a particular understanding of God’s glory. “Then the Lord passed in front of him and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate, and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished . . . ‘ (Exodus 34:6-7). Here we have God’s description of Himself, by His listing seven characteristics: 1) Compassionate 2) Gracious 3) Slow to anger 4) Lovingkindness 5) Truth 6) Forgiveness 7) Justice God revealed His glory in His character. It’s not all that mystical. And if the Church is to manifest God’s glory this is what it will manifest - these seven characteristics. Manifesting God’s glory is not about lightning coming off the tips of our fingers. It is about reflecting the character of God. When Paul tells us in Romans 3:23 that, “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God,” what is it that he is referring to? He is declaring that we have failed to rise to the standard of these seven characteristics that reveal God’s nature. For us as believers, that “glory” has already been given to us by Christ through the Holy Spirit (John 17:22), but we, both corporately and individually, often fail to manifest that glory. As Paul tells us, “we have this treasure in earthen vessels” (II Cor. 4:7). But like the “vessels” carried by Gideon’s 300, they had to be broken for the light contained inside to shine forth. This is where suffering comes in. Suffering is a means by which God “breaks the vessel,” so that His glory might be revealed, if we respond to it in a proper way. Paul Billheimer, in his book Don’t Waste Your Sorrows: A Study in Sainthood and Suffering, makes this statement, “No one ever becomes a saint without suffering because suffering, properly accepted, is the pathway to glory.” Peter, I believe speaks to this very thing in his first epistle, when he states, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you” (I Peter 4:12-14). Peter, later in this same epistle, speaks of himself as a “witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed” (I Peter 5:1). In Romans 8:18 Paul says, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed in us.” (NAS uses “to” rather than “in.”) Second Corinthians 4:17 states: “For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison.” Second Timothy 2:12 says, “If we suffer, we shall also reign with Him.” Why is this important? Because according to Romans 5:3-5 suffering results in godly character and character is a prerequisite for rulership. Since there is no character development without suffering, suffering is a necessary preparation for rulership. May God enable us to embrace suffering that the character of Christ (God’s glory) might be revealed in us.