Suffering through Romans: Part Three

In the first part of this series I briefly sketched the historical and socio-cultural backdrop of the Roman Empire, its capital city Rome, and its citizens. In the second part I surveyed this theme in Romans within the wider of context of Pauline theology. In this third part I will cover the scope of suffering.


The Scope of Suffering

L. N Jervis helpfully distinguishes the suffering believers experience with two categories, namely, “in Christ” suffering and “with Christ” suffering. While she recognizes these distinctions are heuristic and not part of Paul’s systematizing of thought, and while we may conclude they create a dangerous and false dualism, nevertheless they are useful categories for thinking through the issues. [1]

When a person places their faith in Jesus, they become one with the Spirit of God and are incorporated into the body of Christ. This participation Paul calls being “in Christ.” As believers, everything we know and experience is in Christ. Consequently, when a believer experiences suffering they suffer “in Christ.” This suffering does not differ in type from the suffering that is common to all of humanity–believers still share and participate in a world bearing the effects of sin. Accordingly this suffering is non-optional. What is different for believers is the context in which this general suffering takes place.

“In Christ” suffering happens within the context of the life of God we have received through him that defeats death. As believers we are dead to sin (6:6, 11), and alive to Christ (6:11): we are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit (8:9). That is we are no longer controlled by sin or under its dominion of death, but orientated towards Christ and united with him in a death like his (6:5); a death that accomplishes righteousness (6:10), newness of life and resurrection (6:4; 8:11). Suffering is therefore transformed by hope.

As Karl Barth says;

“Thus our tribulation . . . is transformed. . . . no longer passive, dangerous, poisonous, destructive tribulation . . . but [is] creative, fruitful, powerful, promising.”[2]

“In Christ” suffering happens within the context of God’s love. Christ has revealed to us the love of God by dealing with the cause of suffering. We are thus reconciled to God (5:10), have peace with God (5:1), are children of God (8:16), no longer enemies but made righteous (5:1, 9). The Spirit of God has been given to us and has transformed us by pouring love into our hearts (5:3-5). Jewett paraphrases the fuller development of the theme in 5:4-5; “Endurance comes from the constant reassurance by the Spirit of the love of God. It is the vital relationship with the “God of patience” (Rom 15:5), not the actual prospects of surviving a particular persecution, that allows one to endure patiently.”[3]

Through the Spirit we are made capable knowing his loving presence in the midst of suffering. The wider context of God’s life and love envelops suffering with joy, patience, prayer and love. It enables us to bear the suffering in a way that we could not when we were without Christ.

“With Christ” suffering is the suffering believers experience because they have been incorporated into Christ. This suffering is optional in the sense that being “in Christ” is voluntary, but it is necessary in the sense that it is the normal state of those who share in the life and love of Christ. “With Christ” suffering is to share in Christ’s sufferings and to suffer for his sake, which imbues suffering with tremendous purpose.

One such multi-faceted purpose is to reveal the glory of God’s redemptive activity. This activity is the elimination of sin and the suffering that accompanies it. This is hinted at in Col 1:24 where Paul[4] tells us he is suffering for the sake of the church to make known the mystery of Christ in you, the hope of glory (Col 1:27). Christ suffering on the cross meant the redemption of the world, and because he is the source of the church so suffering with Christ is to participate in that same mission of reconciliation (cf. 2 Cor 1:5-6). As the head, Christ’s redemptive sufferings persist through believers who are members of the body of Christ. Rom 8:23-25 reveals that creation’s eventual liberation is in part dependant on we who are waiting expectantly for our adoption as sons–the redemption of our bodies (8:23), for the fulfillment of this hope will mean the redemption of the whole of creation.

Paul says he wants to know Christ, the power of his resurrection, and to “share in the fellowship of his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,” that he may attain the resurrection from the dead (Phil 3:10-11). Paul wanted to know Christ so well that he not only understood his power that overcame death, but also his passion.[5] What Christ was passionate about was for the world to be reconciled to him, and this passion led Jesus to his death on a cross. Paul similarly was consumed with a passion to reconcile the world to Christ, and for this apostolic ministry he suffered much (2 Cor 11:23-28). Like Christ who loves the church, Paul also loves the church and pours his life out for it (2 Cor 11:29).

A further purpose for “with Christ” suffering includes our transformation to be like Christ. Suffering produces Godly character and endurance (5:3-4), and allows for the possibility of hope. The Holy Spirit is working through suffering to conform us into the image of his glorious son (8:29), and make us children and heirs of God, and co-heirs with Christ (8:17). The glorification of the sons–and daughters–of God (8:14) will be the end of sin, ergo the end of suffering.

For the inheritance God has promised, Paul uses an “if” in v. 17 as a real conditional, as in v. 9.[6] The early church fathers commentating on 8:17 understood Paul to mean that the extent to which we suffer with Christ is correlated to the reward we shall receive in the kingdom. One representative example is Diodore of Tarsus (died c. 390).[7] He states;

“To suffer with Christ means to endure the same sufferings that he was forced to suffer by the Jews because he preached the gospel . . . If we suffer with him we shall be worthy to be glorified with him as well. This glory is the reward of our sufferings and is not to be regarded as a free gift. The free gift is that we have received remission of our former sins.”[8]

It should be remembered that the Fathers were generally working in, or on the heels of, tremendous persecution: suffering while trying to make sense of suffering. In a sense they were correct in that a son – or adopted son – would not usually receive the full privileges of his inheritance until a future time (cf. Gal 4:1-7). Inheritance of glory was a now-but-not-yet dynamic. However, in later Judaism the focus of an “inheritance” was shifted from exclusively a spatial notion of land and the promises given to Abraham’s “seed,” i.e. rewards or accreditation, to including the idea of the “eschatological life.”[9] And those who have been promised this future life are those who have faith in Christ (Rom 4:13-15; cf. Gal 3:16-19, 29).

Thus, those who have faith in Christ, are those who allow themselves to be shaped by the Spirit of Christ (8:9), are those who endure suffering with him, are those who will be “glorified with him.” If we are in Christ we inherit his glory, but we also inherit his way to glory, which included suffering. Moo summarizes; “For the glory of the kingdom of God is attained only through participation in Christ, and belonging to Christ cannot but bring our participation in the sufferings of Christ.”[10]

Romans 8:17 transitions Paul’s description of the adopted children and heirs of Christ (vv. 14-16) to a picture of the full benefits waiting for them in the future (vv. 18-30). 8:18 compares the “weight” of our current affliction to the “weight” of the glory to come, and finds no comparison from the standpoint of faith.[11] Paul is not dismissive of our current anxieties, tensions and persecutions. He faces them, and accepts them for what they truly are. For the naturalist this life is filled with adversity that is insurmountable–but for believers like Paul–who know of their future inheritance and glory that transcends this life, suffering becomes “a slight momentary affliction” (2 Cor 4:17).

For “in Christ” suffering there is God’s life and love, and for “with Christ” suffering we have glory. In both we have hope. The “sufferings of the present time” (8:18) apply to the whole gamut of human suffering, as well as the “groaning” of creation (8:22).[12] We hope for the time when God’s glory, already partially fulfilled on the cross and through the Spirit in the hearts of believers, is complete. This will be when the kingdom of God has been consummated, and the “sin-death duo”[13] – the enemy of God – will be no more. We have hope because we have been justified and so have peace with God (5:1), because love is being poured into our hearts (5:5), because our character is being transformed to be like Christ (5:4), because suffering will end, and end in glory. In the present we are able to see beyond the death of our bodies to our resurrection, because we know Christ was resurrected. We are able to see beyond the tribulation of today to the reward of tomorrow, because we know Christ has secured for us a tomorrow.


Footnotes:

[1] For a similar distinction see also Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, 511-2.

[2] Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans (London: Oxford University Press, 1933), 156.

[3] Robert Jewett, Romans: A Commentary, 513-4. “The Spirit evokes hope in spite of persecution and other adversities because it communicates the love of God that is experienced with particular clarity when all other supports fail. Joy in the specific early Christian sense was distinct from happy moods or victorious exultations. . . . it is not a matter of joy concerning the future accomplishment of what is hoped for but the joy in the eschatological hope evoked by the Spirit in the present difficult circumstances. This gives one power to “persevere in affliction” in that the faithful status of resting one’s being in the love of God provides sustenance in the midst of adversity. . . ”

[4] Pauline authorship is assumed here contra some modern critical scholars. I stick with Pauline authorship on the basis of traditional convention, as well as the salutation of Col 1:1 in which the author names himself, the typical Pauline greeting and farewell in 1:2 and 4:18, and the autobiographical statement of 4:18.

[5] The things that we gladly suffer for are the things that we are passionate about. Passion derives from the Latin Pati meaning “suffer.”

[6] Some commentators (e.g., Cranfield; Siber) argue for an assumed condition, “Since (eiper) we suffer for him,” rather than a real condition “If.” Moo tentatively suggests a real condition, with emphasis on the condition, i.e. “If it is true that we suffer with him.” (See Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, 506.) As in “Provided we suffer with him” (ESV) and “if, in fact, we suffer with him” (NRSV).

[7] Others include; Ambrosiaster, Commentary on Paul’s Epistles. CSEL 81.1:275-77; Cyril of Alexandria, Explanation of the Letter to the Romans. Migne PG 74 col. 821.; Theodoret of Cry, Interpretation of the Letter to the Romans. IER, Migne PG 82 col. 136.; Cyprian, Exhortation to Martyrdom, To Fortunatus 13 FC 36:343

[8] Diodor steers away from the implication of a works based theology, (possibly) unlike Pelagius. See Rom 5:15-18. Pauline Commentary from the Greek Church. NTA 15:93, Cited in Gerald Bray and Thomas C. Oden, eds. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Romans, New Testament VI (Downers Grove, IL.: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 211-2.

[9] Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, 505.

[10] Ibid., 506.

[11] “Consider” is often used with a connotation of from a standpoint of faith. (cf. Rom 2:3; 3:28; 6:11; 14:14; 1 Cor. 4:1; 2 Cor 10:7, 11; 11:5; Phil 3:13; 4:8. See H. W. Heidland, TDNT IV, 288.)

[12] Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, 511-2.

[13] L. Ann Jervis, At the heart of the Gospel: Suffering in the Earliest Christian Message (Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans, 2007), 114.

 

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