This is an original post from 16 March 2011 at www.thinkingmatters.org.nz. In this first part I sketch the historical and socio-cultural backdrop of the Rome. Here in part two and three I survey the theme of suffering in Romans within the wider of context of Pauline theology. In part four I move on to the appropriate response to suffering in the present, and some thoughts on what application we can draw from this thematic exploration.
Origin of suffering
After introductions and the thematic statement in the prologue (1:1-18), Paul launches into a discussion about the problem with the world (1:19-3:20). The problem is the wickedness of humanity that suppresses the truth of God and fails to honour him as God or give thanks to him (1:20-21). Sin entered the world through Adam and the consequence of sin is separation from the source of life found in right relationship with God. This dissolution of relationship (1:21) has caused in humanity much social and moral depravity (1:28-32). Paul lists a procession of evils: moronic thinking (1:21-22), idolatry (1:23), being consumed by the lusts of the flesh and dishonourable passions (1:24, 26), relational issues that imply suffering such as social violence (1:19), and all manner of unrighteousness and evil (1:29-31). The state of sinful humanity is so base that it promotes that which is evil as good (1:32; cf. Isa 5:20). 
Since Adam “death reigned” (5:14). “Death” here refers to spiritual death and condemnation (5:12), as well as physical death (6:23). “Reigned” emphasises its universality and inescapability. That suffering is universal and inescapable is a sad fact Paul recognises, and he identifies sin as responsible for its proliferation.
The effect of sin is the proliferation of suffering, and this suffering goes beyond just the personal. For Paul “sin” does include the actions of individuals (4:7, 7:5, 11:27, 5:20, 1:24-32), but in Romans “sin” chiefly refers to a cosmic power entwined to the universe. In Romans 8:21 we see Sin also effects creation, being the cause of ecological disasters such as disease and famine (8:35). There is a “groaning” in the whole of the created order (8:22-23): a longing and suffering for the eschatological fulfilment of the promise of its restoration to right relationship with God. This is reminiscent of the teaching of Jesus in John 16:20-22, which likens the relation of the world to the in-breaking kingdom of God to a woman’s travail in child-birth; the sorrow, anguish and intensity of that time of pain, once over being quickly forgotten for the joy that has replaced it.
Paul begins by speaking of humanity in general (1:19-2:16), but focuses in on Jews who have the law (2:17-3:20). He concludes that Jews are not better off, because all are under sin (3:9). “Ruin and misery” (3:16) follow the unrighteous, whether Jew or Greek, for both live under the dominion of sin (3:9). Believers also participate and are, wittingly or unwittingly, shaped by a sinful world, and suffering is the sign of this (7:23-24). The difference between a believer and an unbeliever is their association with sin. While those without Christ are slaves to sin (6:20), those whose trust is in Christ are as freed slaves (6:18), yet still shaped by their captivity, retaining old habits and thinking patterns (12:1)
In part three I continue this survey of suffering in Romans within the wider of context of Pauline theology.
- Isaiah describes such a people and state of affairs with the word “Woe,” (Isaiah 5:20) meaning a condition of deep suffering from misfortune, affliction, or grief. Merriam-Webster, I. (2003). Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. Eleventh ed., (Springfield, Mass.: Merriam-Webster, 4, Inc.) This aptly describes those who become the subjects of God’s wrath (1:20).
- Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, TNICNT (Grand Rapids, MI; Eerdmans, 1996), 333.
- Käsemann, Romans, p. 86. J. L. Martyn, indicates Paul’s thought by capitalizing the word: “Sin” in Romans is “a cosmic power” Galatians, (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 372. Cited in L. Ann Jervis, At the Heart of the Gospel: Suffering in the Earliest Christian Massage (Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans, 2007), 79.
Bibliographic information and list of abbreviations here