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Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Hope for Decaying Bodies

If God is so loving and so powerful, why does he allow suffering? It's the oldest and biggest question in what is called the "philosophy of religion". Indeed, it's such an obvious question that even my youngest students (12 year-olds) could always be trusted to think of it spontaneously when we start exploring life's "ultimate questions".

It is a question that just cannot be evaded by anyone, believer or unbeliever, whose life has been touched by bereavement, illness, violence or a broken relationship. I remember it bouncing around in my head when my first marriage broke down, and again when one of the closest friends I have ever had, a devout Christian, died from illness in his thirties a few months after getting married: If God is as loving and as powerful as I believe, why does he allow things like this to happen? As the philosopher David Hume put it, is it that he is incapable of stopping it, or is it that he just doesn’t care?

Of course neither of Hume's despairing explanations is valid; the Bible offers a third alternative. But the strange thing about the Bible’s handling of this crucial question about life is that it doesn’t do the obvious. Unlike philosophers down the ages it doesn’t try to offer a logical justification of suffering – at least not one that would convince a militant atheist that there is a loving, all-powerful God. What the Bible offers instead is a series of vivid snapshots, culled from very different cultures over a time-span of nearly 2,000 years, of people and communities whose lives were transformed through discovering at first hand the infinite love and the infinite power of God in the most unexpected places – and most unexpectedly of all, in the midst of suffering.

The supreme example, of course – the ultimate expression of love, and the fulfilment of every picture of suffering in the Bible – is the image of God himself suffering and dying on the cross in the person of Jesus Christ. The fact that God’s anointed Messiah, God himself in human form, should have to suffer and die, is the conclusive answer to every human question about the necessity of suffering in this life – if even God himself suffers, then what right has any human to protest the unfairness of it? But the true wonder of what God did in the past, through the cross of Christ, is that it procured for those of us who believe a future from which all suffering will be erased.

This is where Romans chapter 8 comes in. To my mind it is one of the most hopeful passages in the whole Bible when set against the suffering that is an inevitable part of this life, because it contrasts the horror of pain, persecution, decay and death with the glory that those who are in Christ are certain to inherit. And verses 23-25 offer special reassurance and hope to people who, like me, are only too well aware that their bodies are decaying.

We are not making light of other more extreme forms of evil like infant mortality by noting that the ageing process can seem a particularly cruel affliction. I’ve had quite an easy life, and already I’ve already experienced the impact of high blood pressure, diabetes, gout and back pain on my own ability to achieve what I would like with the rest of my life, and the process is all one way. I eventually came to be healed of the loss of my friend, but my decaying body will not be healed this side of heaven. As most readers will know, the Bible teaches that the inevitable consequence of human sin is death, but as Romans 8:21 reminds us, that sentence of death manifests itself throughout our adult lives as a bondage to decay. It’s rarely a case of living our life and then dying. We start to decay almost before we’re fully aware that we’re alive.

But the Bible also offers us hope. To begin to open up what Paul says to us with his marvellous economy of words, let me draw a light-hearted parallel with what many of us will have experienced at work. One of the most pressured times in teaching and many other professions is in the run-up to the holidays. In teaching the last week before the long summer holiday is worst of all: as the great day approaches student behaviour deteriorates, academic progress slows down and the pressure to get all kinds of outstanding jobs finished before the six-week break can become unbearable. However, if there is one time in the whole year that you can take it all in your stride, grit your teeth and get through it, it is that last week of the summer term. And why? Obviously, because of what you have to look forward to: you know that if you have focused on getting everything done, and steadfastly put up with all the chaos and abuse of those final days, then, when that final bell goes at the end of the final period, you will make your getaway. You can live that whole painful and tumultuous week in the light of the guaranteed peace that is to come.

Of course this is a rather light-hearted comparison, and I am not being glib about the terrible suffering and loss some people have to endure in their later lives. But if the pain we may have to get through in our final years as our bodies decay is more gruelling than a homespun illustration can possibly suggest, so too is the future we as Christians have to look forward to infinitely more wonderful. To see this underlying message in the verses we are looking at to day, we have to cast our eyes back to the beginning of the paragraph at verse 18 "I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to revealed to us."

Do you see what the writer is doing? He is not trying to give a point-by-point explanation of precisely why God allows suffering. Nor is he joining the eastern mystics in pretending that suffering is in some sense unreal. He is admitting that the present is full of suffering. But he is also saying that these sufferings (however terrible they may be) are dwarfed alongside the glory that we have to look forward to when we have got through this last difficult period in our lives.

Indeed, the contrast between the bad present and the glorious future is so radical that Paul can compare the whole of the present order of existence to a mother’s labour pains: We know that that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now (verse 22). I was with my wife throughout my son's birth, and while I couldn’t share the pains I could see just how excruciating they were. And yet this was her 4th child, so she knew what she was letting herself in for, and still she was willing to submit to that suffering and get through the painful hours of labour for the sake of future joy, for the sake of the child we hoped for. And of course a successful birth is never guaranteed, but the message of Scripture is that in Christ our victory is assured. We can live with decay and all the sufferings of this age in certain hope of future joy and peace.

Now, a question that may be going through some people’s heads as they listen is, Is that enough of a comfort? Should Christians expect to share the sufferings of the present life with non-believers? There are some who have difficulty accepting that present suffering is as much on the agenda for Christians as for non-Christians; you may have encountered it if you have watched the miracle-centred religious programming on satellite TV. But if you want to see how crisply Paul the Apostle demolishes this spurious teaching, look at verse 23. He’s just said in v22 that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now, and as he goes on to say in v23: not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

There is some debate as to exactly how these words should be interpreted, but what is beyond debate is that Paul did not see Christian faith as an escape route from the pain of living as part of a fallen creation. Healings may come – I have personally seen wonderful cases of release from suffering that I have believed to be the Spirit’s miraculous work – but his top priority is to give a different kind of empowerment: the hope that would enable a suffering or decaying person to make the most of life until they taste the sweetness of that guaranteed victory.

If anyone is afraid that I could be reading too much into a few words here, read on to verses 24,25: "For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience."


I wonder how you use the words hope and patience. Let’s try hope. “I hope I win the jackpot.” “ I hope it’s sunny for the weekend” (a forlorn hope if the forecast says it’s going to pour with rain). We so often use the word hope in this vague, wish-y kind of way. But when Paul talks about hope, he’s not indulging in mere wishful thinking that against all expectation things might turn out OK. On the contrary, he is talking about a positive, well-informed and life-changing assurance that even a situation that seems hopeless will turn out to be for the best.
And by the same token, when Paul refers at the end of the verse to patience, he is not talking about the kind of switched-off half-life you experience when you’re stuck at London Bridge station, idly killing time among the alcoholics and discarded fast-food wrappings as you wait for the late-night train home. Rather, it’s a spirited determination that, however long this present life may go on, whatever challenges it may entail, we will in Jesus’ words have it abundantly, using it to the utmost in his service.
In short, Paul is holding two competing impulses in the balance: eagerness for heaven and determination to make the best of this life. On the one hand, the hope that Paul talks about is the eager anticipation of a glorious future that is certain – the kind of impatience for glory that will make the temporary pains of life easier to bear; the kind of inner voice that says, “just this one last push and I’m home free”. On the other hand, the patience he talks about at the end of v25 is the kind of determined acceptance of life’s troubles that will keep us living life in abundance and doing our best for Christ however long it lasts.
Paul himself put this balance between fullness of present life and impatience for future glory in a nutshell in Philippians chapter 1: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain . . . my desire is to depart and be with Christ, but (for me) to remain in the flesh is more use to you.” A more recent Christian writer put it less eloquently but more pithily: We should live as if Christ were coming back tomorrow, and work as if he were not coming back for a thousand years.
So to summarise:
  1. Suffering is real, and should be expected by Christians.
  2. Part of the suffering, especially for people of my generation, is the slow decay that goes with age.
  3. Our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that we can look forward to as Christians.
  4. This future glory is not some vague wishful thinking, but a thrilling certainty that should affect the way we  perceive our whole lives and all our sufferings – this is what I believe Paul means by hope.
  5. The proper response to that hope is not just to switch off and wait for heaven, but to make the most of every minute that remains to us to glorify Christ, such that when heaven comes it is nothing less than the fulfilment of what we have done with our lives – that is what I believe Paul means by patience.

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