by. John Neufeld
Living in this world means suffering. But for the believer suffering and glory belong together. In describing our suffering, Paul is holding a scale before us. Not a bathroom scale, but an ancient scale; one that balanced one weight against the other. On the one side, Paul places all the suffering that Christians will endure on this side of eternity. On the other side of the scale, Paul places our future glory. What does our suffering weigh? How does this compare with the weight of our future glory? 2 Corinthians 4:17 says, “For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” For believers, all present suffering is light and momentary. Our future glory is weighty and eternal.
The Reality of Suffering in the Christian Life
That might seem insensitive, idealistic or even unrealistic. What is light and momentary about life long chronic pain? What is light and momentary about crippling arthritis? What is light and momentary about the death of a loved one? What is light and momentary about being imprisoned unjustly? I come from a family where I am the first generation to have been born without persecution. My parents witnessed and experienced famine, starvation, torture and war. So did their parents. Growing up and hearing their stories have left me with the lasting impression that peace on this earth is the anomaly, that suffering is its normal state to which it always returns, as water to the lowest place.
Philippians 1:29 asserts that it has been graciously granted to us that we should not only believe in Christ, but suffer for his sake. This includes the call to bear the cross of discipleship, for Christ will always be opposed and his followers will always be hated. I have heard many such stories from parishioners in the international church where I pastor. In their culture, shame is the ultimate ignominy, and they are told they have brought shame to their family. The very first step of conversion, which we frequently celebrate with unbridled joy, has come to them with the taste of a crushing load grief. While many of us cannot identify with that, we must remember that the call to suffering always comes about when one takes the commands for obedience seriously. It may come as we struggle with sin, as we seek faithfulness in an unfaithful world or it may come in the form of persecution. The Bible promises, that however it comes, it will come. That is Christ’s promise (Matthew 24:9, John 15:18-21, 16:33, etc).
How Should Christians Respond to the Reality of Suffering?
The book of Hebrews tells us, that for Christians, all suffering, and that includes illness and tragedy, is actually God’s discipline. Not punishment – discipline. In fact, the call to suffering is God’s way of treating us as sons. It is a mark we bear which identifies us as his own. If we don’t suffer, we are illegitimate children.
None of this belittles the suffering of the child of God, indeed, it elevates it. And what is more, Christ cares. He weeps for and with his children, for he understands our suffering. But he graciously sends it, for he knows that it is necessary for our long term good. To see the long-term benefits, we must compare our present experience with suffering to the pleasure in eternity. And so Paul holds a scale before us, and we are given an exercise of faith. Weigh our suffering on one side, and then on the other place the weight of eternity.
One simply can’t compare the sorrow of the moment to the joy before us. Indeed, Jesus himself was able to endure the cross because of the joy set before him. (Hebrews 12:2) We must think of this often. And so, in Romans 8:18, Paul begins with the words “I consider”. In the Greek, “consider” is actually a mathematical word, a word for calculating a sum. Place on one side of a scale the present suffering and then place one’s future glory on the other side. Now calculate the difference of weight. Will not the present suffering be so small, as to render it inconsequential in comparison? Whenever any believer passes through the portal of death; there is at that moment an outburst of beauty, of inexpressible joy, of delight, of soul rapture – that is so profound and real and everlasting – and heavy – that even the greatest suffering of this world is light in comparison.
All of Creation is Fixated on Future Glory
This thought is intended to make us yearn for eternity. But, surprising as it might seem, not only are we yearning for eternity, so also, says the apostle, is the creation. Many of us remember the earlier space launches. The old Apollo space ships included booster rockets, fuel tanks and all sorts of things that were all jettisoned after hurling a tiny little manned capsule into orbit. Some of us think of eternity in that fashion. “It’s all going to burn”, we say. And by that, we tend to discount the meaning of our experiences with the creation.
But, Paul speaks of an eager longing in creation. The word comes from a root word which means “craning of the neck.” I find that I understand that word. Since I am only 5’9”, every time I am in a crowd, someone 6’1” is always standing in front of me. It must be Murphy’s Law. So I end up stretching out my neck as far as I can, leaning over from side to side, even jumping up and down to see what now is partially obscured.
And that is precisely what creation is doing. It is craning the neck for an event which is just ahead. But now comes the really stunning part. We might assume the event is the second coming of Jesus, and of course it is. But that is not what the text says. Rather, creation is jumping up and down, straining its neck for the revealing of the sons of God. What believers presently are is not what we shall be, and this leaves creation trembling, anticipating, and breathless. Why? Because when we are freed, creation will be freed too!
When the first European explorers came down the St. Laurence River, it was then so abundant with fish, that the sailors could lower wicker baskets on ropes from the side of the ship, and then, as they lifted them from the water, they would be full of fish. Imagine that! Today, the St. Laurence is dead seaway. What now is but a shadow of what once was. And if one listens carefully, one can hear the St. Laurence groaning. This is but a faint picture of the world before sin, a world so pulsating with the dynamism of life has been reduced to but a faint image of its former glory.
How did that happen? Our passage says it was deliberately subjected to futility. Indeed, the futility of the earth comes from the hand of God. The very God who pronounced his creation good, has also created a world that would need a cross, need a savior, need redemption. It was God who cursed the creation after the fall. And it is God himself who will redeem it.
The Need for Perspective
Why is all of this so important? It is important because apart from faith, all suffering, all evil, all futility, all disappointment is meaningless and but a sign of death. But in Christ, sufferings are not the final cries in an empty universe, but are rather the rich, anticipatory cries that are the prelude to joy, life, freedom and fulfillment.
Years ago, I read about a product being marketed that never quite took off. For those individuals who were trying to diet, but who loved fattening foods, one could spray a little taste of ice cream, or pie, or chocolate onto ones tongue. The idea was that one could have the taste without eating the food. In theory, just the taste would satisfy you. But if anyone is like me, the taste of chocolate on my tongue makes me want to break into a chocolate factory and sate my appetite. A foretaste never makes me say, “That is enough.” A foretaste only whets my appetite.
That is the idea in Romans 8:23. Of course, the word in Romans 8:23 is not the word, “foretaste,” but is the word “firstfruit.” I have deliberately substituted one word for the other not to give a false sense of what the scripture says, but to help get the point. In the Old Testament, the idea of a firstfruit comes from the idea of offering. At the beginning of the harvest – the worshiper took the firstfruit of his harvest and offered it to God, and in faith – knowing that there was an abundance more to come in. So – in the same way – having the Holy Spirit living in your life is a firstfruit, or a down payment – or a foretaste – of an abundance to come in. Right now, the Holy Spirit has begun preparing us for our future glory. He has given us life and peace (Romans 8:6), the power to kill sin in our lives (Romans 8:13), and the assurance of our adoption (Romans 8:15). And yet…all of this is just the beginning! God’s people are groaning- with joy and anticipation-until we get the whole thing.
The temptation to forget our future glory is a constant threat, to which many Christians succumb. Yet in Romans 8:18-25, the Lord is calling us to keep our eyes fixed on the age to come. Future glory awaits! And…just in case you didn’t know it, that is the reason for our suffering. God doesn’t want you to put your hope in things on this side of eternity. So that you won’t spend your life settling for lesser treasures, God has His children to groan for eternity. And then, our present suffering will seem light and momentary against the weight of eternity.