So what about suffering? - Romans 8:18-39

This is a sermon by Malcolm Peters from the Riverside Church service on 10th August 2008.

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Why does a God of love allow suffering? Despite being overtaken by Olympic hype, it’s still a topical issue 2 months on from the earthquake that killed 50,000 people in South-Western China. Now as we saw when we looked at Rom 1 back in April, lots of people like Richard Dawkins, simply use earthquakes and other so-called natural disasters as an excuse. They use them as an excuse for their wicked denial of God’s existence. Because Rom 1 tells us what we know from common sense. The very creation we live in points to the Creator who made it. There’s no excuse for not believing in God. And if you don’t, then the Bible says you’re being wicked. Wicked in your denial of the facts; facts that God has left in ya face so to speak.

But the certainty of God’s existence doesn’t answer all the questions does it? Even for people who believe in a loving God; maybe especially for people who believe in a loving God.

Did God have the power to stop the earthquake? And if He did, why didn’t he?

But for Christians, it’s even worse isn’t it? I wonder if you’ve ever sung the hymn:

Jesus, we celebrate your victory; Jesus, we revel in your love.

And can you remember the end of the second verse: "And in His presence, our problems disappear."

And in His presence our problems disappear. Become a Christian, and life’s a bed of roses. What a load of rubbish?

Some of you know that 6 years ago, my mother more or less dropped dead of a mystery illness. One week she was fine; the next week she was dead; I didn’t even get to the hospital in time the day she died. And then 2 months ago, the same thing nearly happened again when my Father has 2 massive heart attacks in one day.

And I know that there are others here at [SF’s/ Riv] who are suffering similarly painful bereavements or illnesses within the family. Some might be a lot worse. A very close friend of ours died of breast cancer 3 years ago leaving 4 boys. Others might be struggling with children: toddler tantrums or potty training that’s driving you nuts; grunting and stoppy teenagers; older children who’ve flown the nest and seem to have forgotten that you even exist. I could go on couldn’t I: what about those struggling to cope with aging parents and grandparents: those with Alzheimer’s like my Nan. Or what about money, job or business problems. Can’t get a job: can’t stand your job; or maybe it’s a job keeping your job.

And in His presence our problems disappear: absolute rubbish. Christians face exactly the same sort of problems as everyone else. Being a Christian doesn’t exclude you from the everyday problems of life. In fact, if you’re a Christian it’s worse: because, the Bible makes it crystal clear, we’ll face extra grief just for being a Christian. A couple of years ago, 2 Australian Pastors were found guilty of inciting hatred against Muslims; what was their crime? They simply held a seminar for Christians to explain what Muslims believe. And a new law was used as a weapon to persecute Christian clergy. This wasn’t Pakistan or the Middle East. No this was Australia. And our own government tried to pass a similar law here in England. But thankfully, the pressure from Christians led to the new law being watered down enough to prevent similar abuse here in England.

Yes would should make every effort to oppose such dangerous laws. But at the same time, we shouldn’t be naive; Jesus said: he who wants to follow me must take up his cross and follow me. And for many first century Christians, it meant exactly that: being crucified like J; or burnt to death as human torches; or being ripped apart by lions in the Roman Coliseum; and that’s what it means for many Christians living around the world today; those living in China, or Pakistan, or Sudan or Indonesia.

And so we need to be prepared: we will get extra grief in life if we’re Christians. And so the question isn’t: why am I getting grief if I’m a Christian? No, the question is rather: if I never get any grief for being a Christian, does anyone actually know I’m a Christian; am I actually a Christian at all? And this is where the end of last week’s passage left us. So turn with me to Rom 8:16 on p1053/ 1757 of the church Bibles:

16The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God's children. 17Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

A fortnight ago in the first half of chapter 8, we saw that all genuine Christians have the Holy Spirit; not just the charismatics; not just the Pentacostals; all Christians have the Holy Spirit. And one of the marks of the indwelling spirit, we saw in v16, was an inner assurance that we are indeed one of God’s children. But I didn’t mention v17 last time: what’s the other mark of a genuinely saved person; what’s the mark of someone who does have the HS? Well v17 tells us it’s suffering. Jesus suffered and died on the cross. It wasn’t an accident. God planned it; and God planned it for a reason. So that we could be saved.

And so just as Jesus suffered; so will those who are united with him by faith; so will those who are his co-heirs; so will those who follow Jesus. Christians will suffer just like Jesus did. So we’ve all be warned then, haven’t we? Don’t be surprised when suffering comes; you’ve been warned; don’t be surprised when suffering comes your way, as though God’s lost the plot. God never looses the plot and we need to make sure we don’t either. Don’t be thrown off course when suffering comes. Is that new to you? Have you thought about that before? Because the more you expect it, the less it will take you by surprise.

And how to live in the face of suffering is what the rest of chapter 8 is all about. Or as the sermon title puts it: so what about suffering? Which we’re going to cover it under 3 headings:

  • Suffering comes before Glory [v18]
  • The curse will be reversed [v19-27]
  • Glory is certain [v28-39]
  • Suffering comes before Glory [v18]

    First of all then, as we’ve already begun to see in v16 & 17, suffering comes before glory. Suffering comes before glory. Look with me at v18:

    18I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.

    J came to earth at Christmas; but he went back to heaven in Glory. And it’s the same with us. V17 tells us that if we’re truly one of God’s children, then we’ll be glorified; glorified with Jesus in the heavenly new creation. Isn’t that amazing?

    But what comes first? Well what came before the ascension for J? Well it was the physical agony of the cross on Good Friday; the agony of being separated from His Heavenly father; and the agony of spending a weekend in hell itself.

    So what’s the deal for us? Well look at v18 again:

    18I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.

    Paul assumes that Christians will suffer in this present life. If we stop and think, we know this is true, don’t we. And we’ve already looked at loads of ways Christians suffer; indeed, how Christians suffer just for being Christians. The Roman Christians Paul was writing to were suffering all kinds of pressures just for being Christians in the middle of a pagan world superpower. Even if we’re not in danger of being thrown to the lions: it’s the same for us. Yes, glory is coming; but for now, there’s suffering. Because just like Jesus, suffering comes before glory. So let’s put to bed once for all the silly notion that when you become a Christians, all your problems disappear. Because for the Christian, suffering comes before glory. Makes you think, doesn’t it?

    The curse will be reversed


    So now you’re thoroughly depressed, it’s time for some good news. Because in v19-27, we see that the curse will be reversed. The curse will be reversed.

    And the curse goes back to Gen 3 which we looked at last year in our Family Services. Adam and Eve sinned by disobeying God. They didn’t want God to be the king. They wanted to be king; they wanted to be God instead of God. And so they were chucked out of the Garden of Eden. But it was worse. Not only did God pass the death sentence on Adam and Eve. Because of their sin, God put a curse on Adam and Eve. But it wasn’t just Adam and Eve who were cursed. Because of them, God cursed the ground. It wasn’t just the whole of humanity which was cursed, but the whole of creation. And all because Adam and Even disobeyed God.

    And that’s what v20 is all about. The word ‘frustration’ is related to the word ‘curse’. It was God himself who cursed creation, because of Adam’s sin. That’s why in v22, the creation is groaning under the effects of the curse. And it’s because of the curse that creation is in bondage to decay. It’s because of man’s sin that there are so-called natural disasters in the world today. The Bible warns us v carefully not to make a direct connection between the sins of those who died or suffered in that earthquake and the earthquake itself. But the Bible is also crystal clear about the big picture: God created a perfect world. But because of the Fall; because of Adam and Eve’s sin, creation is cursed and bad things happen. Not just so-called man-made disasters like the holocaust. But so-called natural disasters like earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis. The world’s a mess, because of our sin. As GK Chesterton’s famous letter to the Times once put it: Dear Sir: what wrong with the world: I am. Yours sincerely.

    But is not just creation that’s under a curse. Look at v23:

    Rom 8:23 "

    23Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.

    Because we’re all part of creation; because we’re all in Adam, we’re all under God’s curse. We’re all subject to bondage and decay. That’s why we grow old; that’s why our bodies wear out and fall apart; that’s why we groan in the pain of our decaying bodies. This is reality isn’t it: the glossy mags and the tele adverts are on a different planet aren’t they. Even if you could reach the physical perfection we’re all encouraged to aim at; even if we could reach it, it wouldn’t last: Olympic athletes and footballers get old and retire; models are constantly replaced with younger and thinner ones; even once popular prime ministers and presidents get voted out or booted out eventually. Maybe you want to sing with Robbie Williams: I hope I’m old before I die; but we don’t know do we. No matter how much money’s poured into the NHS, unless Jesus came back first, one thing’s guaranteed: one day, your body will stop working and you’ll die. And all because of the curse.

    I thought he was going to give us some good news you might be thinking. Well I am. Because the curse will be reversed. Look with me at v21:

    Rom 8:21: "

    the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.

    At the moment, the creation is suffering in bondage to decay. But glory is coming. Suffering comes before glory; but glory is coming. Because, when Jesus returns, he’ll bring in the new creation. The creation will be set free from its bondage. The curse will be reversed. And we’ll get back to the perfection of Eden. A perfect new creation, with no more pain, no more suffering, no more dieing and no more sin. Glory is coming for the creation.

    But it’s not just for the creation is it? Did you notice the end of v21?

    Rom 8:21: "the creation …. [will be] brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God."

    Rom 8:22:

     22We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.

    It’s not just the creation. It’s also the ‘we’ of v23. Who’s the we then? Well it’s the children of God in v21. It’s those who have the HS as we were looking at last time. It’s all genuine Christians. Just as the creation will be renewed at the second coming; just as the creation will become perfect, with no more earthquakes; no more bondage to decay. So every genuine Christian will also have a perfect new body. That’s what the redemption of our bodies is all about.

    Heaven isn’t a body-less existence where we'll be floating around on clouds playing harps. No, heaven is all about the new creation; the new creation where we’ll have new bodies; bodies that are still recognisably us; just as the resurrected Jesus was. But just as J’s resurrection body was perfect and eternal. So will ours. A perfect, painless and sinless new body, fit for eternity. So let’s get rid of this silly idea that we’ll all be floating in the clouds without a body - bored out of our minds. In the beginning God made the heavens and the earth; and it was good; and it has always been God’s intention that his people would enjoy His perfect creation; in their bodies; forever with him; and so we will, if we are one of His children.

    Is this real. I don’t see it. It’s not the world I live in, you might be thinking. And you’re right. It’s not. The world we live in is cursed. It’s cursed because of our sin. But the curse will be reversed. And God’s people can look forward to the new perfect creation. It’s what the Bible calls hope. Look with me at v24:

    24For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? 25But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

    Knowing where we’re going, makes the journey easier. Even when suffering comes before glory. If we know we’re heading for glory, then it’s easier to endure suffering on the way. When we know we’re heading for glory, it’s easier to have patience.

    But it’s still hard. Which is why the Spirit helps us by praying for us along the way. Yes, God himself, in the person of the HS, prays for you if you’re a Christian. Don’t you find that amazing: The HS prays for you. He prays that God the Father would keep you; he prays that you would endure; and he prays that you will have patience as you suffer; he prays that you would understand; that you would understand that suffering come before glory. And he prays that you would understand that the curse will be reversed. If you’re a Christian, the Spirit is praying for you right now. How amazing is that? [v28-39]

    Glory is certain

    So the curse will be reversed. We live in the hope of the coming glory. But what kind of hope is it. I hope it doesn’t rain on the way home from church; but it might. Is the hope of glory like that? Well no. Because, v28-39 tell us that Glory is certain. Glory is certain.

    Look with me at v29:

    29For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.

    It’s difficult teaching when you first come across it. And some Christians have tied themselves up in theological knots to try and get round it; but these verses, and others like them, clearly teach that God predestines people to become Christians back in eternity; then at a point in time, by His HS, God calls them to repentance and faith.

    And when they confess faith in Jesus, they’re justified. And as justified, forgiven sinners, they have peace with God. That’s why at the beginning of chapter 8, we’re told that there’s now no condemnation for those in Christ J; no condemnation full stop. No if, buts or maybes. Which is why the end of v30 says those God justified, He also glorified.

    No don’t you find that a bit strange? ‘He glorified’, past tense. We don’t have our resurrection bodies yet. And that’s another mistake people often make: taking God’s promises of heaven, and claiming them for now. Yes we've got a foretaste of heaven now; yes God might miraculously heal your body of an illness, if he chooses. But our bodies are not yet glorified. We have to wait until Jesus returns for that.

    And yet, in this verse, Paul says: those God justified, He also glorified, past tense. You see, for Paul, those God’s predestined, those He’s called and those He’s justified - will be gloried. It’s so certain, he can talk about it in the past tense. Because Glory is certain. If you’re a Christian, God chose you before the creation of the world. If you’re a Christian, God predestined you back in eternity. So, for you, Glory is certain. Some words of one of my favourite hymns sum it up:

    No power of hell, no scheme of man,

    can ever pluck me from his hand;

    till he returns, or calls me home,

    here in the power of Christ I'll stand!

    For the Christian, yes suffering comes before glory. But the curse will be reversed. And Glory is certain. More certain than tomorrow’s dawn.

    And Paul spends the last 9 verse of Romans just ramming that certainty home. Let’s have another look at v31:

    Rom 8:31

    31What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? 33Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies..

    And onto v35:

    35Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?   

    37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord."

    Or in short:

    No Power of hell, no scheme of man,

    can ever pluck me from his hand;

    If you’re a Christian, nothing can take away your certainty of heaven. For you, glory is certain. Yes there is suffering. Suffering because we live in a fallen and cursed world. Suffering because we follow a crucified Lord who said: follow me. Yes suffering comes before glory. But Jesus has won the victory. The curse will be reversed. And, for the Christian, glory is certain.

    So if you’re a Christian here this morning, God knows exactly what you’re going through. And the Holy Spirit is saying to you right now: nothing can separate you from God’s love; so don’t grow weary; don’t be discouraged. The Holy Spirit is praying for you right now. So be encouraged and hang in there. Or as Winston Church put it in his shortest speech: "never, never, never, give up".

    But maybe you’re not a Christian here this morning. If so, then you’re looking a gift horse in the mouth. Being a Christian is the most amazing privilege in the world; both in this world but much more importantly in the next. So don’t be a fool. Come to Jesus before it’s too late. Come to Jesus before you die. Let’s pray.

    And V37:

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