Reflections on Romans 8 and Suffering

Romans 8:28-39 is probably my favorite passage in the Bible. It is written on a travel mug my wife gave me and it is embedded on my heart. For me, this passage provides hope and comfort… but not of the sort usually sought from it. Romans 8:28-39 doesn’t give the hope that God will end pain today, take away poverty, or take away my distress—it offers so much more. The comfort Romans 8 gives, the answer to suffering it provides, is infinitely more than the promise of a painless life here and now, it is the promise of transformed suffering, of beauty and hope in horror and distress.

I have friends and know families that have gone through far more suffering than I could ever imagine, but that doesn’t make me a stranger to pain and suffering. Like every person on this earth, I have felt shadow of death encroaching on my delusions of immortality, bringing the reality of the deathly consequences of sin like a lightning shock to my soul. I have lost friends, and even some family. Beyond that, I have felt the utter confusion and soul wrenching distress of losing minutes of my memory at the hands of subtle seizures. I have felt the horrors of having other people recall things I did without any recollection of their occurrence. I have felt the pain of the mind numbing confusion, disorientation, and headaches accompanying daily petite mal and absence seizures. I have felt the brain cracking throbs of post-surgery aches as my brain and skull recovered from the absence of some of their members. What I only see now, in hindsight, is the great hope Romans 8 provides for suffering now. There is an end to suffering, Romans 8 testifies to that much, and this is great fodder for our hope in this life, but Paul goes beyond just telling us that our suffering will end, he tells us how our suffering will be transformed.

He calls to mind first what we should all know; “28And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (NASB). But before he lets us fill “good” with all sorts of worldly baggage—such as prosperity, health, and comfort—he informs us of the nature of this “good.”

29For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; 30and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified.”

What is the good Paul envisions? Conformity to Christ, the Spirit wrought Christ-likeness emerging as our outer man wastes away but our inner man is renewed day by day, that glorious hope of God’s good creation that we await in glory. It was hard, and is now hard, to see that hope in the midst of pain; as my body was wracked by convulsions and paramedics came into my kitchen, taking me away after my seizures escalated, it was hard to see how even this agony was for my good—how could God wish, and even have ordained, such pain? Only now can I see that those birth pangs, the bitter echoes of God’s curse upon sin playing out in daily life, were needed to produce in me an eternal weight of glory, a hope and abiding faith in the one true God.

The comfort of Romans 8 is not the absence of pain we all long for, but the transformation of pain that I now treasure. Looking back at those pains, ending just over 6 years ago, I treasure all that God did then and the effects the pain has wrought in my heart by the Holy Spirit’s touch. I rejoice that I suffered for 4 years under the weight of epilepsy and a growing brain tumor, for I now see more and more each day that good for which God ordained my pain. Without that suffering, my faith would be the anemic and frail confession I once held, a profession with my lips that never pierced the stone of my heart. I would not have tasted the joy that comes from knowing and trusting God, as I now experience day by day.

I would probably still be working a pointless job to make ends meet with no desire to do what was necessary to move on in life, content to waste my days on video games, books, and sin. But God knew what I needed; He knew that suffering, pain, distress was what would shock my sinful heart from its stupor and awaken my heart to the joy of living every day to the glory of God. The comfort of Romans 8 is this hope, that as we suffer pain we rejoice that we are becoming ever more like Christ, and as such, we see more clearly every day the abundant and overflowing joy that emerges out of life in Christ and the living in the presence of God. It also gives us the hope that no matter the horrors of the trials we face, we never have to fear missing glory. Firstly, because of Christ, we have no condemnation and no accuser can bring a charge against us; we are right before God. Secondly, because of the Spirit at work in our hearts, we are assured that no matter what evil befalls us, God will work it out for our good; we will be glorified and reign with Him forever in the new heavens and the new earth. With Paul we can cry out,

Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; 34who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us. 35Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36Just as it is written,

“For Your sake we are being put to death all day long;

We were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”

37But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

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