“Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
When I read this passage from Romans, my first thought is, “I wish I could bypass the suffering and just enjoy the rest of what Paul lists here—endurance, character, hope, and love.” Wouldn’t it be great if we could have these things and skip the difficulty of suffering? While that sounds like a better option from our human perspective, we know from God’s Word that the difficulty we experience in this life is often what God uses to accomplish his purposes for us (Psalm 34.19; Romans 8.28; Romans 12.1–2; 2 Corinthians 4.8–9; James 1.2–3). I think we know this to be true intuitively as well. As much as we enjoy when things are going our way, we understand that the most meaningful growth happens in our lives when we are able to persevere through hard times. Those of us who are parents know that as much as we would like to protect our kids from facing challenges, persevering and working through those challenges is what will give them the strength and perspective they need to endure difficulty once they’re out from under our care.
In August of 2020, our family returned to South Carolina from 4 ½ years of missionary service in Europe. God taught us a lot during our time overseas, and he taught us most of it by letting us go through difficult situations. He taught us how to depend on him when we didn’t have a strong network of Christians around us. He taught us how to focus on daily faithfulness when there didn’t seem to be a clear strategy for long-term ministry in place. He taught us how to thank him for his goodness even when things around us weren’t great. Ultimately, he was teaching us what he means when he says his ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55.8–9). If we had been able to handpick what our time overseas would look like, it would have looked a lot different than what we ended up experiencing. We would have opted out of the team issues, the health issues, the visa issues, the stress, and the discouragement we faced at various points in our ministry. But in the end, we would have been avoiding the very things God used to grow us and conform us into the image of Christ.
We don’t always have to go through something difficult in order to grow in our faith, and I don’t think Paul’s encouragement here is to seek out suffering so you can enjoy the benefits it produces. But when we face those hard times, we need to remember that God’s promise is not that he’ll spare us from difficulty but that he will sustain us through it and use our difficulties to accomplish his purposes in our lives. He used the greatest tragedy imaginable—the death of Christ—to provide us with the greatest gift imaginable—forgiveness for our sin and eternal life with him. God is in the business of bringing good results out of bad circumstances (cf. Genesis 50.20), and we can take great comfort from Paul’s reminder that God desires to work through our suffering to produce godly character in our lives. God is using our suffering to make us fit for an eternity where suffering and sorrow will no longer exist, and until that time when we are able to enjoy eternal perfection in his presence, we not only get the benefits of his work in our lives, but we also get the gift of God himself dwelling inside us through his Holy Spirit, and that’s a reality that should spur us to rejoice no matter what situation God has placed us in.