Suffering and Glory
The Fourth Sunday after Trinity| Rev. Rolf Preus| July 5, 2009| Romans 8:18
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.
What kind of a life would we have to live here on earth if our lives ended at the grave? Assume that the death of our bodies is the end of us. We are buried, our bodies return to dust, and we cease to exist. How futile life would be if it ended at the grave! As St. Paul put it in 1 Corinthians 15, 19: “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable.”
But it is not enough to know that there is life after death. We must also know what kind of life awaits us. Most people believe that there is a heaven and a hell but they don’t know where they are going or why. That’s because most people believe that the path to heaven or hell is paved by their own works. They want to believe they have been good enough to go to heaven but they can’t know for sure. They don’t want to believe they might go to hell but they can’t know for sure. Even if they think they are going to heaven they only think it. They don’t know it. Instead of a “know so” faith they have only a “think so” faith, which is really no faith at all.
When they suffer they might get angry because they don’t think it’s fair. “What have I done to deserve this?” Or they might become despondent because God is picking on them. Certainly, a loving God wouldn’t let them suffer. Or they might even think that God is punishing them for some secret sin they haven’t confessed. Since they don’t know where they stand with God they can’t help but view suffering as either pointless or just plain cruel. They have no basis for evaluation. They suffer in misery because suffering is miserable.
The only way to make sense of suffering is by looking at it in light of eternity. St. Paul says, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” But will that glory be revealed in us? How can we know? How can we know for sure?
The only way you can be certain you are going to heaven is if you know Christ. To know Christ is not just to know a great man or a great prophet. It is not just to know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. To know Christ is to know his righteousness as our own. It is to know him as the One who turns aside God’s anger against us by bearing in himself the divine wrath against all sinners. Who can imagine the shame and degradation revealed to Jesus as he, in his body, endured the curse of God’s law?
We see and feel pain and suffering. We wonder where we stand with God. We bring our sins to God. We confess. We admit that it was not love but selfishness that directed what we did. We lied. We cheated. We twisted and turned and mutilated the other’s name. We did not confess God’s truth when we had the chance to do it. We acted as if we belonged to the world instead of to Christ. And we have no excuse. We confess.
So where do we stand? How does God treat our confession? How does he view us? We can’t know the answer by looking at the suffering we experience. We can know the answer only by looking at the suffering that Jesus experienced. His suffering, not ours, guarantees our good standing with God. Christ’s suffering is vicarious. He suffered in our place, in our stead. He suffered instead of us. He suffered in his body the curse of the law.
God cursed the ground on account of Adam’s sin. We call it nature. But what is natural is not always for our benefit. In fact, nature kills. It destroys. It can appear so beautiful. You see the hand of God in its order, power, vastness, intricacy, and beauty. Louis Armstrong was right when he sang: “What a wonderful world!”
Then it will turn on you and leave you helpless, frozen, drowned, beaten, and dead. Cursed is the ground on account of you! So said God to Adam. So says God to the human race.
And the whole creation groans and labors under the curse. It was made for us. The world and all that is in it was made for the human race. In their innocence Adam and Eve were given dominion – that means lordship – over the earth and every living thing in it. There was no fear of animals. There was no fear of severe weather. There was perfect harmony in God’s creation. The man and the woman belonged to one another and were suitable each for the other.
That’s the world God created and that’s the world that eagerly waits for its redemption. The suffering, the pain, the disease, and the death that beset us are contrary to God’s original plan. They are also contrary to God’s future plan. But we don’t live in the past or in the future. We cannot see or feel either the perfection of creation or the perfection of heaven. Faith does not rely on what it sees or feels. It relies solely on God’s word: the present suffering cannot compare to the future glory.
God says we are his children and that he governs everything in this world for our benefit. We don’t see this. St. John writes:
Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God! Therefore the world does not know us, because it did not know Him. Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. 1 John 3, 1-2
We shall be like him. We shall. We who know him now by faith shall know him then by sight. The glory he now enjoys we will enjoy with him. But now we live in bodies that are subject to sin, disease, pain, and death.
We are born from above when we are baptized and we gain a citizenship in heaven. But we’re not there in our bodies. As we sing in the hymn, “Body here yet soul above.” We look to where Jesus suffered. We look to where Jesus is now glorified. We look and consider the promises of God. St. Paul writes:
If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory. Colossians 3, 1-4
To be born again is not to ascend up into glory, escaping the troubles and sufferings of his life. To the contrary, St. Paul writes in the verse just prior to our text:
[We are] heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together. Romans 8, 17
We don’t see or feel. We reckon. We consider. We think upon the fact that the sufferings we presently face aren’t worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed in us.
We have already been set free from the sin that bound us and from the death that claimed us. Christ’s resurrection is proof of that. The sins he bore could not keep him in the grave because he fully paid for them and removed them by his suffering. His resurrection is proof of that.
We claim what Christ’s resurrection guarantees. We were joined to his death and resurrection when we were baptized. We claim what our baptism promises. We don’t claim that we will escape the suffering that sin causes in this world. Being forgiven of our sins and having the guarantee of future glory does not mean that we will not suffer with our Lord Jesus while living here on earth. It does not mean that we will not face heartbreak.
It does mean that the suffering we face as Christians in this world cannot compare to the glory that will be revealed in us when we are glorified on the last day. The pain is temporary. The joy is eternal. The pain is tempered by the knowledge that we are forgiven of our sins. Whatever our suffering may mean, it does not mean that God is punishing us for our sins. He punished Jesus in our place. He will not punish us. God does not punish those who belong to Jesus. He governs the entire universe for their benefit.
Jesus suffered. So does his Church. They persecuted him for his teaching. They will persecute us for our Christian confession. The devil assaulted him with temptations. He assaults us as well. We are daily conformed to Christ’s image in his suffering so that we may also be conformed to his image in glory.
But we’re not there yet. While here we will under the cross. We live under the cross of our own weaknesses and sins. It is not only that every day we see our failures and sins. It’s more than that. We live under the cross of our own weakness and pain. We see in ourselves evidence of sin, the curse God pronounces against it and the death that is its true wages. We’ve been called to glory and there’s no sin in glory so we live under the cross of contradiction.
But we live under another cross. It is the cross of Jesus. It is where he bore in his own body our sin, its punishment and its shame. He suffered all human suffering in order to take it all away. This we consider. And we know that whatever suffering we face in this life cannot be compared to the joy we will experience when we are confirmed in glory in heaven.
In heaven we will not suffer any loss. We will experience no sorrow or pain. Our bodies will be redeemed. They will be set free from their bondage to death. They will not be dying bodies, but immortal bodies. We will face no temptation to sin. We will be sinless. We will experience a joy unmarred by any regret or past sins. All suffering and sin and death will be forgotten forever. We will live at peace with our Creator. All creation will serve us. We will see God face to face. We will know him as he has known us. All questions will be answered at last. We pray for that day every time we pray, “Thy kingdom come.” Even so, come, Lord Jesus, come quickly. Amen