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In this blog, there will be a variety of material: thoughts on Bible books, book reviews, historical characters, aspects of Scottish church history and other things.

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Romans 5:3-5 – The problem of suffering

Paul has reminded his readers that when they believed in Jesus they were accepted by God into his presence as justified. This acceptance was the commencement of a life-long experience of God that could be known even though there was intense opposition. Paul deals with some aspects of that experience in these three verses from Romans 5.
One common objection that people have to the Christian faith is the existence of suffering. Of course, suffering covers a wide range of experiences, although mainly the Bible refers to physical suffering when mentioning the topic. Suffering is a difficult topic to speak about because it involves what we can call the three Ds – distress, dread and dilemma. There is distress because suffering involves emotional upset and sometimes shattered hopes; there is dread because we find ourselves in the grip of something we cannot control, or it may bring about a permanent disability or even our demise; and there is the dilemma of why does suffering happen.
Does the Bible have anything to say about suffering? It does, and it speaks about it in different ways from other attempts to assess it. First, it tells us about the origin of suffering, which it connects to the presence of sin at the beginning of time, and says that it extends to the whole of creation. Second, it describes a God who experienced human suffering in Jesus. Third, it promises a future in which suffering is unknown in the new heavens and new earth. Fourth, it indicates that God speaks to us in our own suffering and in the suffering of others – C. S. Lewis said somewhere that God whispers to us in our pleasures and shouts at us in our pain. Fifth, it tells us that we can pray to God to heal or to mitigate sufferings. Sixth, it commands us to help those who are suffering. Seventh, it says that sometimes suffering can be a form of divine judgement on a society, for example a war or a plague.
The Bible also speaks about suffering in the lives of Christians. One of the frequent examples of Christian suffering is that connected to persecution and there are many verses that could be cited. Another aspect of suffering mentioned in the Bible is its connection to personal sanctification. Perhaps the best known example of this is Paul and the thorn in the flesh that was given to him so that he would be kept from becoming proud of his spiritual experiences. Of course, Paul had much more sufferings connected to his role as an apostle. Some were caused by persecution, some were caused by physical weaknesses (bad eyesight), and some were the outcome of arduous service for Christ.
A further aspect of such suffering is Paul’s comment in Philippians 3:10 that it can be a means of fellowship with Jesus. It is debated what Paul means in that comment about but it points to some kind of shared participation by Jesus with his people. Paul himself had been told by Jesus on the Damascus road that he was persecuting Jesus at that time even although he had not seen Jesus. The words of Jesus are very clear in saying that he was involved in what was happening to his people. In what ways would he be involved? In asking this question we have to remember that Jesus is involved in our lives by the Holy Spirit, who is the link between him in heaven and his people on earth. Through the Spirit, Jesus sympathises (feels), succours (strengthens) and stimulates (encourages) his suffering people. The Spirit enables his people to benefit from what Jesus conveys to them.

There is a real pathos here in Paul’s reference to the suffering of his readers. Within a few years, the Christians in Rome were blamed by Nero for the fire that destroyed the city and which he had begun himself in his madness. Their punishment was that they were covered in tar, attached to poles, and set on fire. Maybe the next time we read the names mentioned in Romans 16 we will stop and ask were some of them the victims of Nero.

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