And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 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. (Rom. 5:3–5 NRSV)
There are several stories from the Book of Exodus, that describe occasions when the people of Israel lost faith in God during their 40 years in the wilderness following the exodus from Egypt. The first was when they arrived at the springs of Marah, after three days without water, only to find the water in the springs contaminated. The second was when they travelled from Elim to the wilderness of Sin without food and felt they would die of starvation. On both occasions they did not trust in God to save them, and even though God did provide for them on both of those occasions, the people still lost faith for a third time when they arrived at Rephidim, desperate for water after travelling through the wilderness of Sin, only to find no water there. And once again God, working through His servant Moses, provides for them
On each of these three occasions, they lost faith when they were faced with adversity; when they have to contend with trouble or suffering. This is not something unique to the ancient Israelites. In our world today there are Christians who lose faith in God as a result of an experience of suffering, trouble or tragedy. I read a story recently about a young woman with a strong faith, who experienced a relationship breakdown which was followed by the loss of her child in the ensuing custody hearing. She decided there must not be a God, because if there was, how could He let her go through the pain and suffering she had experienced.
The Apostle Paul had a very different view on this. When writing to the church in Rome, Paul said that Christians had been justified by faith, that is, by the grace of God they were both brought into a good relationship with God, and also given the promise of eternal life with God, if they believed in Jesus Christ. And Paul drew on his own personal experience of suffering to say that not only should Christians boast in the hope of sharing eternal life with God, but they should also boast in their time of suffering. He argued that suffering leads to endurance, which in turn leads to character, which in turn leads to hope, and we are not disappointed in hope, because that hope comes to us through God’s love, which God Himself has given us in the gift of the Holy Spirit. And Paul wasn’t just making this up, it was something he had experienced for himself through his own sufferings while proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross developed a similar sequence to Paul’s which has been described as the ‘five stages of grief’ model, with the stages being: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The model has been applied both to people who are dying, and also to people experiencing the breakdown of a significant relationship.
We have to be careful when thinking about either this model, or Paul’s sequence, that we don’t think of them as being too linear, that is, something that just occurs in a straight line, with one stage automatically following on from the one before it. We know the journey from suffering to hope is not linear and that suffering, endurance, and character are not bus stops that follow automatically. Each stage is a challenge in which we might dwell as witnesses to God’s presence, even in God’s apparent absence.
Paul’s words in verse 5 of today’s passage can help people dwell in each stage with grace: “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” This generosity of God is worth holding up and affirming. God’s love is “poured into our hearts.” We need to have it poured. We need to drink it in, freely, eagerly, over and over again in order for our lives to move, with God’s help, toward the hope that does not disappoint. It’s God’s power at work in us that makes the progression possible. God is with us, even in our times of struggle and suffering.