Brethren, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through Him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice 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 which has been given to us. While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Why, one will hardly die for a righteous man—though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die. But God shows His love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we are now justified by His blood, much more shall we be saved by Him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by His life.
Romans 5: 1-10 (Epistle of the Third Sunday)
When I was a kid and I thought something unfair happened to me, as most kids do, I would complain about it. The going phrase then was that “suffering produces character.” There was even a time when people believed that the only way to build character was to suffer. So, suffering was seen by some as a virtue of some sort. I wish I had discovered St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans as a teenager. Because he uses suffering and character in the same sentence, but he throws in some additional words that take focus off suffering and point us to something that transcends everything.
Saint Paul says 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 which has been given to us.” (Romans 5: 3-5) In Saint Paul’s thinking, if hope in Jesus Christ is the ultimate destination, and suffering can be a step on the road to that hope, then suffering isn’t altogether a bad thing. In fact, Saint Paul goes so far as to tell us that he rejoices in his sufferings.
I don’t believe that this means we are supposed to go looking to suffer, but that when suffering comes our way, and it does for each of us, that when we approach suffering properly, it leads us to endurance, character, hope and ultimately Christ.
I’ve seen many people who have been diagnosed with serious illness. In fact, I’m thinking about several of them as I write today’s message. I’ve seen many people suffer with cancer. Some have won the battle with cancer. And some have lost the battle with cancer. I have seen people lost the battle but win the war however. And the war is over the human condition that seeks to tear at our faith. I’ve seen people fight valiantly through suffering, only to lose their struggle, but in the struggle they found hope, and in hope they found Christ, and in finding Christ, they found their salvation. So, the suffering was not for nothing. It got them the ultimate prize—heaven!
Every battle, whether it is a small annoyance, or a life threatening illness, gives us an opportunity to live out these verses that St. Paul wrote to the Romans. Our Christian character is actually shaped through suffering. If you never suffer at all, then your faith really is never tested. Because faith, by its definition, is trusting not knowing the outcome of what you are trusting in. If every outcome is known, then there is no opportunity to trust. I don’t believe that God afflicts people so that they can build their character. But I do believe He allows suffering to happen. He doesn’t stop all suffering. He doesn’t control and take all negative outcomes away otherwise there would be no free will and no faith.
When you (or I) are having a bad time, these words of St. Paul are really powerful. They remind us that suffering isn’t an end unto itself. And suffering, unlike what I was told as a teen, isn’t to build character. Suffering is a step on the path to hope, and hope is what leads us to faith, and faith is what leads us to Christ and Christ is ultimately who leads us to heaven.
If you are reading this message and you are suffering serious illness, and several of you are, reflect carefully on St. Paul’s message—try to put your focus away from suffering today. And meditate on character, and hope and Christ and heaven. We are ultimately all going to suffer death—we don’t know the circumstance. We will ultimately all suffer setbacks—probably many of them. The difference between faith (salvation) and no faith (condemnation) is how we handle ourselves in times of suffering. Do we allow our character to become weakened, so that we lose hope? Or do we endure, grow in character, grow in hope, in faith and ultimately in Christ? Certainly much easier said than done.
The point of today’s message is that character is not the ultimate thing to take from suffering, whether you are a teenager or an adult. Suffering builds character, which produces hope, which leads us to Christ who leads us to salvation. Suffering then is not a character-building exercise, but a spiritual exercise. And the ultimate end of “suffering” as a spiritual experience is salvation, Christ, and the Kingdom of heaven.
When You descended unto death, O Lord who Yourself are immortal Life, then did You mortify Hades by the lightning flash of Your Divinity. Also when You raised the dead from the netherworld, all the Powers of the heavens were crying out: O Giver of Life, Christ our God, glory to You. (Resurrectional Apolytikion of the Second Tone, Trans. by Fr. Seraphim Dedes)
Keep your eyes on the end goal—salvation—and may any suffering you do along the way not only help you grow in character, but in faith!