8reatness - Suffering

Romans 8:18–25 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

“The camera pans across a starry sky so clear that it has the effect of putting you in touch with the galaxies. When you lie on your back and stare into the night sky, you feel as if you were tumbling upward through space.” The scene makes you feel away. Like you’re a nomad. Like you’re some traveler on some long trip. That’s opening scene Steve Spielberg gave his viewers in a film called E.T. The film became a blockbuster and even surpassed Star Wars to become the highest-grossing film ever – a title it held for another eleven years until Spielberg came out with Jurassic Park. To this day E.T. is still thought of as the greatest science fiction film ever made. And already from the moment the film came out, people recognized its power. Vincent Canby who I quoted before was one of the first people to see the film and went on to say this: “E.T is full of timeless longings expressed in children’s literature of all eras.” Timeless longings. Because we all long. We yearn. We search. We hope for home. I’m probably dating myself by telling you this, but I will never forget that line from E.T. because it resonated with me so deeply, “E.T. phone home.”

I’ll tell you this though. E.T. may fall into the category of children’s literature and may portray the longings of a child, but what E.T. felt was no childish thing. I suppose I could point out the obvious that children weren’t the ones paying to make that film the most wildly successful one in well over a decade, but maybe it’s more useful to point out that E.T. is just one of many, many movies that tap into this collective feeling we all have of feeling not quite home. It was just this past October when a movie called the Martian came out that was all about what it’s like to be on a planet that doesn’t feel like home. It was just a little while before that that Tom Hanks absolutely killed it in the flick called Castaway – being cast away from home. I mean I could go on and on and on and on. Hollywood has done a great job of tapping into the collective angst we all have about not being home, but it’s not just Hollywood. I could tell you about philosophy, music, novels, academia, etc. I won’t, but my point is this: we are all wrestling with a longing for home. We’re all feeling at least a little bit like refugees, like nomads on some crazy journey. And so at times we’re lonely, other times isolated and feeling away, but generally just longing for home.

It makes absolutely no sense. None. Why does it make any sense at all that I can have my heart ripped out of my chest and tears in my eyes as I watch ET’s glowing finger reach for something more? Why did that touch me so deeply? And why did it touch so many others? Why does Coldplay sing a song about what it feels like to be a UFO? Why do novelists describe our longings for something that feels permanent and perfect? Why do philosophers even have special terminology for the longing for home that characterizes us? And why do I sense that in me? Why do I feel right now so much longing when this is my planet, my South Carolina, my Aiken, and my home? Shouldn’t this be enough? Shouldn’t this satisfy me? Paul’s answer? “No, it shouldn’t. And that is God’s will.” “The creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it.” (v. 20) Creation was stopped from fulfilling its purpose, which was to give us our ultimate paradise, our eternal home. It was stopped. That’s why this planet – this life – is not what we want it to be or expect it to be. God willed that this place never feel perfectly like home. And that is frustrating.

And I think that’s putting it mildly. Other words Paul uses in this section to describe what we and the rest of creation experience right now are the words, “our present sufferings,” (v. 18), “decay,” (v. 21), and “groaning as in the pains of childbirth.” (v. 22) You can’t even make it from your bed to your bathroom without experiencing that. Or from your house to your place of work without noticing that. Or flip on the TV without seeing that. You climb out of bed and your neck hurts. You drive down Whiskey Road you spot that tree rotting tree and you notice how that car so tragically plowed into that church. You watch TV and you see governments unwinding, storms ripping, and people crying. And you and I both know I’m just getting started. I really don’t have to tell you about the polar bears or the rhinos, the sea turtles or the African lions. I don’t have to tell you about the emaciated horses, the dogs who limp, or the infants who cry. I don’t have to tell you about any of that because it’s not just out there in creation. It’s right here in your life. It’s your grandpa who has Parkinson’s and your friend who’s dying of cancer. It’s your relationships that can be so up and down and your body that’s just not what it used to be.

But again, I’m not telling you anything new. “We know that the whole creation has been groaning.” (v. 22) We know. And we do. Not just by experience either. We know what’s what’s going on in the whole of creation. We even know what’s been going on in the whole band of human history and that without ever hopping in a time machine. No, I’m not talking about a collective memory or a hive mind. I’m talking about the Scriptures. We were told in Scripture’s Act I that we had to leave the Garden of Eden after sin came and from that moment we all became refugees in a place that wasn’t home. So serious was God about our refugee status that he barred us with angels and a flaming sword from ever coming home here.  He couldn’t have us coming home here. He didn’t want us to mistake true home. Like we could be home without him. Like we could ever be satisfied without him. So off we went into exile. Into suffering. Into an earth slaked with thirst, full of hurting animals, and walking with bodies that would slowly whither and finally die.

Truly, God didn’t want to do that. God had to do that. Do you understand that? He had to keep us searching. So we’d only find in him. He had to keep us looking. So we’d finally get when we saw him. He had to keep us feeling away. So we’d only come home in him. Do you see that? Because of sin, there was no other way to keep us pointed at our true home with God than through suffering. In other words – and this a huge point to understand – God is totally out to get you. No seriously he is. God is totally out to get you. He wants your heart. He wants your thoughts. He wants you. And he’s serious enough about having you that he’s willing to do what it takes. I need you to see that with me. That’s what makes him your Father. A father is willing to do whatever it takes. I actually get this as a father myself. Every true father does. There is nothing that will stand in our way. There is no road we won’t travel and no option we won’t exhaust for the good of our kids. And your Father is willing to do what it takes to get you. He’s even willing to break his own heart – he doesn’t want you to hurt – but if he can make you forever healthy and get you home then nothing’s too much. That’s what father’s do. They do what it takes and nothing’s too much. Not even a broken heart.

Not even a broken heart. You have to see that God spares no expense for you. Not even a broken heart. He was willing and God remains willing to break his own heart if it means that in the end he will have you. What else explains the fact that you were saved? And, yes, that is past tense. We were saved. That happened. God sent us his heart. He sent us Jesus. God told Jesus to leave the perfect paradise of his presence not because he had to, but because God longed for us that much. He sent Jesus to our slaked dirt, our dying planet, and our dead souls to give us life. He sent Jesus far, far away from home. He sent Jesus so far from home Jesus became the perfect outsider and ultimate nomad when he was consigned to hell – you can’t get any farther away from God than that. Because that’s what fathers do. God spared nothing. Not even his own heart – it broke – for you! He sent Jesus away. To bring you home. He separated Jesus from his love. To reconcile you to it. He sent Jesus to hell. To bring you to heaven. “For in this hope we were saved.” (v. 24)

That’s God’s big deal right now. Hope. God’s after hope. Did you know that? God’s after hope. That’s why he names hope as his goal six times in this section. Six! God’s after hope. And you can’t hope for something if you already see it. And you can’t hope for something if you already have it. But, “if you do not yet have,” (v. 25) then you can hope. You can hope. In fact, I would argue that what we have here is a world perfectly designed to guide you to hope in Him. Every polar bear that suffers; every horse that hurts and dog that dies is another nudge to look forward to the coming new creation. Every disease that strikes us, all harm that comes into our lives, and every tree that rots is another opportunity to yearn and long and pray to God for him to keep his promises to us in Christ. Every moment we might try to get to comfortable here, God makes us hungry for there. Every time we might be tempted to only revel in our present house and job and family, God gets us anticipating our future house, our future job, and our heavenly family. Every time we think we’re comfortable here in our current skin, God makes us people, “waiting eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.” (v. 23)

You know what the outtake of all this is? We need to make suffering work for us. And, yes, I did just say that. We need to make our suffering work for us. That’s the whole point. No loving God would send suffering for the sake of suffering. God’s not some big, bully in the sky. God’s not some massive meanie on the playground called life. He’s a Father who broke his own heart for us. He’s a Father who only does what’s best for his kids. And, therefore, suffering isn’t just something to get past. It’s got to mean something. And, therefore, suffering isn’t just something to get through. It’s got to grow us somehow. And, therefore, suffering isn’t just something to endure. It’s got to work for us. So make your suffering work for you. Use suffering. Don’t just get through it. Don’t just endure it. Make your suffering work for you. That’s what Paul modeled, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing the glory that will be revealed in us.” (v. 18) Make your suffering work for you. Here’s how: Do the comparison between your current suffering and an eternity of glory.  Do that spiritual math. Consider the suffering vs. the payoff. And when you do, your suffering will produce hope.

And, yes, Paul did say, “I consider.” This a very, very personal thing. It’s an, “I,” thing and it’s a, “you,” thing. Nobody else can make your suffering work for you. Nobody. The comparison Paul’s talking about is something you get to do to grow your personal hope. You get to think about your tough childhood and say, “Worth it. Worth for the way to pushed me to hope for an eternity of ease with God.” You get to think about that emotional abuse you suffered for five years in that relationship and say, “Worth it. Worth it for the way it pushed me to Jesus.” You get to think about that death and that dog and that unemployment and think, “Worth it if the dogs there will stick around and the employment there will be joyous and the life there unending.” You get to do think, “My current sickness – God, I see this now – you’re focusing me on home.” You get to consider, “The deep sadness I feel – Lord for the first time in my life my heart’s becoming unglued from this time and place. I can’t wait for you take me home.” You get to glimpse the glory of what God’s been up to ever since he’s been up to anything at all, “God, you’re after me. You’ve sent me Jesus. You’ve even bent all of creation and my entire life at me. God I see that you want me to hope and you want me home.”

So please do, hope. Next time your dog limps, hope. Hope for that time when creation will be renewed and when the lion will lay down with the lamb. Next time your heart breaks, hope. Hope for that time when your heart never break again. Next time your knee creaks, hope. Hope in that time when Jesus will give you the eternal knee replacement called the resurrection from the dead. Next time your marriage cracks, hope. Hope for that place when all your relationships will be so good that marriage will be obsolete. Next time you’re longing for home – life here has left you feeling like the E.T. in your own life and you just want to phone home –  hope for that time when Jesus will one up you that. Hope for that time when you will get to go home. When Jesus will give you that bear hug that you know is coming and his Father will wipe away every one of your tears.

Did you know you’re not the only one hoping for that moment? God’s got his whole creation waiting on bated breath for that moment. Just waiting for you to be home. It’s actually a whole lot like birth pains in that way. The suffering can be incredibly intense, but the payoff – the payoff – is so worth it. A glorious, liberated, and new creation. A new you. A new home. Consider that. Consider that and I promise that when you do you will hope. And you will continue to hope until that time comes when you will never have to hope again because you’ll finally be home. Amen.

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