I often get caught up in trying. Trying to be a better man, a better sibling, a better son, a better future spouse, and all of this drives me nuts most of the time. The truth is that with all my trying, I can never be the person I want to be. This is because “trying” seems to be filled with selfishness. It oozes with the idea that we can become something or someone else based purely on the things that we do. Say the word out loud. Right now. Trying. It just sounds whiny, doesn’t it? I mean, how many times have you shouted in desperation the words, “But….I’m trying!”
Now, putting forth “effort” feels completely different to me. While trying makes me feel selfish, effort has a connotation of grace. Grace is beyond our control, but we put forth effort because grace affects us. I love what Dallas Willard says about grace. He says, “Grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning. Earning is an attitude. Effort is an action. Grace, you know, does not just have to do with forgiveness of sins alone.”
In Romans 5:3-4, Paul talks about how suffering leads to perseverance, perseverance leads to character, and character leads to hope. I see how this road to hope is full of grace, but I also see how this road isn’t traveled in one day, or even one decade. I can see how this road can take a lifetime, but we have to start somewhere and that somewhere is unfortunately suffering.
Suffering sucks. It really does. Suffering is unbiased. It isn’t judgmental or prejudiced. It is all-encompassing. For some, to call suffering terrible is an understatement because there is no end in sight. Sometimes in the midst of suffering it feels like standing still while the world around you keeps moving.
When I was three years old I was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. From the age of three to nine, I was in various stages of the sickness. I went through chemotherapy, radiation, and bone marrow treatments. Over a few years, I went into remission, but I remember in the early parts of my childhood not being able to do things other kids did. I played tee-ball (baseball for kids) on a team, and I was slow. Like really slow. Making it to first base was a chore.
All the other kids were moving forward at a different pace than me. There are large chunks of my childhood that I wish I could have back. I wish I could relive them like a normal kid. I understand what it’s like to question why God would allow such things to happen. I’ve never once said, “Oh man, God, that was such a great idea,” but honestly, I’ve also never thought that suffering was God’s idea in the first place.
If suffering wasn’t God’s idea, you better believe that He’s trying to do something about it. This is where I think Paul’s progression in Romans 5:3-5 makes so much sense.
So where does our hope come from? If I am constantly disappointed by the hope I have, it’s probably because I’ve placed it in something that will always fail me.
Through our suffering, the Spirit produces perseverance. With the Spirit’s help, we can endure suffering just like my body was able to fight off cancerous cells with the help of medicine. Strength can still be found in suffering. Whether it is strength found within oneself, strength gained from friends or loved ones, or strength given through the Holy Spirit, the more we endure suffering, the more perseverance we receive, and the more perseverance we have, the more character we gain, and when we possess more character, it leads to hope.
Paul is making a logical progression. In this logical progression, character isn’t the end because hope is the final goal–not being a better person. I put forth effort in this life, struggling and all, because I am affected by Jesus’ willingness to put effort into helping me. I want to be more like Jesus.
There is tension between suffering and hope though. Sometimes suffering doesn’t end. For some, suffering won’t stop until they see Jesus face to face, but Romans 5:5 says that “…hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.”
Hope is not a disappointment. It’s easy to have a pessimistic view of hope, because in essence, hope only exists in something’s absence. We cannot hope for things that we already have. I’ve never seen someone stare at their car keys and say, “Man, I hope I can find my keys.” My parents didn’t look at my cured body and say, “Oh my goodness. I wish he was well.” No! It’s a scramble around the house when the keys are missing, not right in front of you. It’s the constant tears and prayers for the sick when they are at their worst.
When God’s timing doesn’t match with ours, and we don’t see the fruit of our hope, our first reaction is to lose hope. We want to bring about what we are hoping for on our own terms. However, we can move forward, even if it feels like we’re standing still because our hope shouldn’t be in this world. Our hope must be found in Jesus.
Eternal life is not a disappointment. Eugene Petersen says, the Christian life is “a long obedience in the same direction.” We know that Christ’s promise of eternal life never changes. God does not go back on His word. We can put forth effort, fail, put forth effort, fail, put forth effort, win a little victory, and continue to put forth effort in light of the sure and certain hope of eternal life achieved for us through the grace poured out on the cross.
So where does our hope come from? Is it a self-produced hope? In whom does our hope lie? Is it in ourselves? Is it a hope that one day we will be the people God wants us to be? Or is our hope in Christ?
If I am constantly disappointed by the hope I have, it’s probably because I’ve placed it in something that will always fail me. I know that even if my struggles do not end, they are not the ultimate end. They will pass. Perseverance is not the end. There will be a day where God’s kingdom will be here, and I won’t have to persevere anymore. Character is not the end. There will be a day where I will be the man God wants me to be. But thanks be to God that Hope is the end, because Jesus is our Hope.