The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
July 30, 2017
Brené Brown suffered some devastating setbacks and hurts that led to what she called her “breakdown”.
Upon hearing that attending church had helped others going through tough times, she embraced the Christian life in both its individual and its communal aspect, and started going to church. She went, however, with the false expectation that it might work like an epidural and take away all her pain. She now realizes that church doesn’t work like that. It doesn’t take away all our hurts, but rather gives us the right kind of hurts. It helps us like a midwife who stands with us when we’re about to give birth and cries out, “Push! It’s supposed to hurt.” It supports and encourages us in the painful process of bringing forth into the world a new life – specifically, a new us, a new and different me who, now having peace with God, erupts like a geyser of jubilation over the “hope of sharing the glory of God” – that is, over the hope of fulfilling the high destiny and identity of someone who was made after the likeness, and in the image, of God.
Today’s scripture talks about “boasting” in such hope. “Boasting”, however, may not be the most helpful translation of the Greek word, kauchaomai, because “boasting” suggests an egocentric, self-congratulatory activity when the whole movement of the Christian life impels us to turn away from self-regard and self-preoccupation and turn to a glad and grateful love for, and preoccupation with, God. Thus, the King James translation renders this verse to speak about our “glorying” in hope; and the New International Version, about our “rejoicing” in that hope. Those of us who are Christians are meant to exult in hope, to be jubilant with the anticipation of enjoying better times and becoming better people – thanks to the gratuitous, unearned work of God in us.
Boasting in being a beneficiary of such unmerited kindness and generosity is not difficult to understand, but boasting in its accompanying pains is perplexing. Yet, the Apostle Paul continues, “And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings.”
Our default setting is to view trials and tribulations as attacks upon our happiness and well-being which we have to withstand. Paul, however, sees them another way: as opportunities of which to take advantage, as disguised blessings to be made the most of, for what they can achieve for us and in us.
We will, like Paul, see our trials as terrific gifts from the gracious hand of God once we see how they can, if we handle them rightly, build up our confidence in God’s grace and thereby our expectation of the realization of God’s best dreams for our lives. In other words, we also will boast in our suffering if we learn to appreciate its capacity, on the condition of our responding to it wisely and well, to reinforce and enlarge our hope in God.
Trials are to be valued because they set off, provided we exercise a little faith and faithfulness, a causal chain. Provided we do our small part, “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” Let us look at each link in this chain.
First, suffering can produce “endurance”. The Greek word there is hupomene. It doesn’t mean a passive, resigned acceptance of hardship. It means the fortitude, the resilient hardiness, to outlast adversity and overcome opposition. It means the indomitable toughness to persevere resolutely in the pursuit of our purpose no matter how heavy the costs of the pursuit or how long the process of attaining its reward.
Notice I said that the suffering can produce such triumphant “endurance”. There is nothing automatic here. Under the same set of adverse circumstances, one person succumbs to despair while another is stirred to surmount challenges. It depends on what the person is made of, for the same sun that melts wax fortifies clay.
Whether a trial is terrible or terrific for a person is determined, not by their inherited or inherent nature, but by the intentional decisions they make: decisions about where they will turn for strength. Will they turn to their willpower, their capacity for strenuous effort, their stoutness of heart; or will they turn to the deep meaning of their life and the exhilarating purpose of their existence, and to the God who works in all things for good and who makes lemonade out of lemons?
Dan McConchie is a Christian and a former lobbyist in Washington D.C. A decade ago, a car crashed into Dan while he was riding his motorcycle, and severely damaged his spinal cord. Ever since, Dan has been confined to a wheelchair. The trial of life as a paralytic has been a tough burden but even more, Dan declares, a terrific boon to his spiritual life and to his developing deeper happiness. He claims it has helped him discover a more enduring and satisfying joy than he had ever known before. Dan bears this witness: “My prayers are different today than they were eight years ago. Back then I looked at God like Santa Claus. I asked Him to send nice things my way. Now, I have one prayer that I pray more than any other: ‘Lord, may I be able to say at the end of today that I was faithful.”
For Dan, and for anyone who exercises faith and faithfulness, endurance does produce character. The Greek word for “character” here is dokime. It is the word used in the refining of a precious metal. For example, silver that has been super-heated with fire and has had base elements drawn out of it is said to have developed its dokime. It has become purely itself in its most essential and best identity. And just as silversmiths know their silver has attained its pure “silver-ness” when they can see their image reflected in it, so God knows that the trials He has put us through have achieved their purpose when He can see His image reflected in our character and conduct.
That God-like character and conduct produces hope, this scripture says. For dokime, developed through adversity and pain, proves the validity of our confidence in God and the remembrance of His generous faithfulness in the past strengthens and enlarges our confidence for the future. It enables us to take sure possession of that hope that “does not disappoint us’.
So let us hope big, not just in spite of our trials, but because of our trials. For God makes of them terrific blessings!