Sunday 16 June 2019
One of the great moral philosophers of our time has said, “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” That philosopher, of course, is Master Yoda. He tells about something like a slippery slope. One thing leads to another, leads to another, leads to another, and before you know it, things have gotten a whole lot worse. So if you want to avoid suffering, then you should avoid hate. If you want to avoid hate, then you should avoid anger. If you want to avoid anger, you should avoid fear. It is a lesson in mindfulness. Beware of where your thoughts wander, because when your mind becomes comfortable with fear, it will more easily move to anger. And when it becomes comfortable with anger, it will more easily move to hate. And when your mind becomes comfortable with hate, it will be comfortable with suffering, more specifically, with inflicting suffering on others. So be mindful of your hatred. Be mindful of your anger. Be mindful of your fear.
In the reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans today, we hear about another kind of progression. And interestingly, it starts in the same place that Yoda ends. Hate leads to suffering, Yoda said. Paul begins with suffering. The translation we read this morning uses the word trouble. We even take pride in our sufferings, Paul says, because we know that suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope. Rather than sliding down a slippery slope, Paul finds that suffering and trouble actually lead, step by step, to something better. How does he make it to that conclusion?
He starts with trouble, suffering. The Greek word is θλῖψις. It literally means pressure, like physical pressure. The feeling of something weighing down, something pressing in. From that sense of compression, it has a metaphorical sense of oppression. It is generally something that comes from outside. It’s not an interior strife. It’s something from outside that puts pressure on your life. For Paul, it probably meant the added pressure that came along with being a Christian, or with being a missionary, in his time—the threat of persecution from the government, the pain of being excluded from family and friends who don’t understand, the suspicion from neighbors.
Some of those pressures are still relevant today. Here in the United States we aren’t under any threat from the government for being Christian. But we do still run the risk of looking strange, looking foolish for our faith. We live in a culture in which participation in a faith community is not the norm. And living by our Christian values, standing up for justice for marginalized peoples can land one in prison. Several of our Lutheran and Methodist sisters and brothers were arrested recently, protesting for humane treatment and access to legal services for those who are being indefinitely detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. They put their own freedom on the line to fight for those whose freedom has been taken away altogether. Living out your Christian values can be risky. Living your Christian values can put you at risk. Living your Christian values can put you under pressure.
But pressure, suffering, might come from other sources. The suffering of grief, the suffering of medical issues, family strife, poverty, prejudice, discrimination, intolerance, hunger, homelessness. Any of these can add weight to your life, can add pressure. Pressure that splits a family in two, puts people on streets..
Paul knows that that kind of pressure can be destructive. He does not encourage people to go out looking for suffering. He does not suggest that people should remain in a state of oppression, but that they should struggle against it.
But he also knows that, by God’s grace, sometimes even suffering can be redeemed. Sometimes suffering can lead to something good.
And the next step on that road of transformation is endurance. Suffering produces endurance. This is a tough one. Endurance. Does it mean simply that you endure suffering, that you survive even though you are in a state of suffering? Does it mean quietly putting up with oppression?
I don’t think so. The Greek word is ὑπομονὴ. It literally means remaining behind, but it is commonly used as endurance, patience—those both sound pretty passive. But it also means perseverance, patient expectation, even obstinance.
Endurance is not passive. It is not simply taking pain. Endurance is about seeing the struggle through to the end. Endurance is not about laying down in the midst of struggle. Endurance is about standing up in the midst of struggle, getting up every time you fall down, moving forward, forward, forward, even in the face of opposition.
When you are in the midst of the struggle, it might not seem like endurance is a good thing. You might feel overwhelmed. You might feel as though no good could ever come out of your situation. You might well feel as though you wish you weren’t in the situation. And like I said, you shouldn’t go out looking for suffering just so you can develop endurance. But when you are in a situation of suffering, it just might be that your endurance is strengthened. It just might be that God pulls good out of the situation of your troubles, in the form of endurance, perseverance, even obstinance.
Struggle produces endurance. Endurance produces character. Doesn’t that sound like something a parent would say when their child complains about whatever it is that they are frustrated with? Oh, it builds character. Talking about character-building can be a bit dismissive of what it is that someone has endured. But Paul agrees with the common wisdom that persisting in the midst of suffering can produce character.
The Greek word is δοκιμὴ. It actually refers to a test or a proof, and then comes to refer to something that has been tested. It is the character of someone who has been proven because they have endured an ordeal.
When you sit down and think about yourself, about who you are as a person, as you think about what constitutes your character, your personality, what is it that produces that character, that personality? Perhaps some of it is just innate in who you are. But some of it comes from your experiences in life. And does your character flow from the experiences in your life that were easy? Or does your character flow from the experiences in your life that were hard? Some of both, I imagine, but likely the strongest parts of you were developed through your struggles, were the parts that were broken and then grew back stronger, like a bone or callus. There may also be tender places within you, the residue of old wounds, but even those tender places can be a source of strength. It is out of our own woundedness that we develop compassion. Sometimes enduring hardship can toughen you up. Sometimes enduring hardship can soften you up. Either of those might make you a stronger person.
So suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character. But what comes next? What is the point of all of this suffering and persistence and character-building? What makes it all worthwhile? What does character lead to?
It’s not victory. It’s not dominance. It’s not safety or security. And it’s not resignation or apathy or despair. Paul tells us that character leads to hope.
And that may seem a bit unsatisfying. After all, hope is not fulfillment. Hope is not completion. Hope is still open and expectant.
Because the truth is that we can never ultimately fix our lives, and we can never ultimately fix our society. We can make progress, but there will always be more. There will always be another illness. There will always be another death. There will always be another broken relationship. There will always be another injustice.
And that can be very deflating. It can be very discouraging. Sometimes we feel so overwhelmed that we begin to think that nothing is worthwhile any more. Why even try if things are never going to be right? Why even try if things are always going wrong?
The why is, if we don’t try, things will never get better. But it’s also that if we don’t try, things can get a whole lot worse.
This is where the idea of the devil can actually be useful. Most of us probably don’t have a particularly strong sense of there being an actual being or person that is the devil. It’s not an essential part of the faith. It’s something we can disagree about and still be church together. I tend to think of the devil as more of a metaphor than an actual being. But that also means, especially in a society that is as stable as ours is, that things are always getting better. Technology advances, scientific discoveries advance. So should ethics and justice, right? But that also gives the impression that if we just leave things alone, the world will stay about the same.
If you believe in the devil, though, that doesn’t make any sense. The devil is intent on stirring up evil. The devil is working every day to make things worse. And that means that every day, people need to be resisting, need to be working to undo the evil that the devil is doing. And the truth is, new evil is always being stirred up in the world. If we just give up and do nothing, things won’t stay the same, things will get worse.
It’s a bit like laundry. No matter how hard I work at it, I can never get all of the laundry done. I can never make it so there is no dirty laundry. But if I get discouraged and start to think that there’s no point in doing laundry because the laundry never gets done, things won’t stay the same. Things will get worse. Things will get a whole lot worse, and very fast.
When we struggle to overcome suffering, injustice, and oppression, there is always going to be more work to do. It’s not like writing a paper or earning a degree, something that you can finish and it’s done. It’s like tending a garden or maintaining a house. The work is never done, because there is always something new to do. We can make things better. But if we stop the struggle, things won’t stay the same, things will get worse.
And that’s where hope comes into the picture. Suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope. The Greek is ἐλπὶς. It’s hope, but it’s not always positive. It can mean anxiety about the future. But it can also mean exception and the prospect of something new. Character produces hope, and hope gives us the strength to keep going. Hope inspires us. Hope gives us reason and purpose. Hope trusts that even when we cannot see it, the things that we do make a difference. Hope is the grace of God, the good that God draws out of suffering.
And it is with God’s hope, God’s expectation, that we live. It is in God’s hope that we are transformed. It is in God’s hope that we are made new. It is in God’s hope that we face whatever it is that we have to face. It is in God’s hope that we overcome. Thanks be to God.