We may be surprised by what Paul says is the response of his readers to their sufferings. Note he includes himself in the mutual rejoicing. In fact, all that he mentions in verses 3-5 is mutual, and since it is mutual it means that he is describing the normal Christian life. But their rejoicing, which we will come back to later, is not the only surprising aspect. Here are some more.
First, Paul’s words give the impression that suffering for Jesus is normal. Later on, towards the end of his life, he wrote to Timothy and said that all who desire to live godly lives will suffer persecution (2 Tim. 3:18). That is a very challenging verse because we at the moment face little physical opposition. It is a very comforting verse in many parts of the world today for God’s suffering church.
Second, Paul’s words indicate that suffering contributes to the process of sanctification. There is a story told of an old Highland worthy who was concerned about his patience. So he went and spoke to a friend and asked him to pray that God would work in his life and produce patience. He was rather perturbed when his friend began to pray that God would send suffering to him. Immediately he asked the petitioner why he was asking for such requests. His friend referred him to this verse as it is translated in the Authorised Version and says that tribulation worketh patience. Leaving aside the issue of translation, we can see that sufferings contribute to the process of sanctification.
It is obvious that the grace of endurance only exists in situations of difficulty. I have never heard of someone who, in normal circumstances, had to endure a pleasant situation. But endurance also has effects, and the outcome of endurance is character. I suppose the essential feature of character is authenticity, which is the opposite of shallowness. To have character in a Christian sense, there must be consistency that is the outflow of consecration. And we can see how consistency and consecration are connected to perseverance in times of trouble.
The next outcome that Paul mentions is hope. As we know, in the New Testament, hope is concerned with the future. It is the expectancy that believers have that they will yet experience what God has promised. This is a reminder that in sanctification we are being taught to look ahead to the fulfillment of God’s great and precious promises.
Paul also indicates that times of suffering are occasions when we can experience the ministry of the Holy Spirit as he gives to us joy from heaven. Joy is part of the fruit of the Spirit, so the rejoicing of the Romans was his work in their hearts.
The question arises, why were they joyful? They were joyful because they were being sanctified in the present and they were anticipating glory in the future. Holiness was their priority as far as life in this world was concerned. And as they looked ahead, they focused on what Jesus had promised in the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:10-12). It would be worth checking to see what he said.