This is an original post from 17 March 2011 at www.thinkingmatters.org.nz. In part one I sketch the historical and socio-cultural backdrop of the Roman Empire, its capital city Rome, and its citizens. In part two and three I survey the theme of suffering in Romans within the wider of context of Pauline theology. In this final part, 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.
The appropriate response to suffering
Paul’s response to suffering is altogether amazing. It is completely counter-cultural, distinctly different to all other worldviews – perhaps even to the current Christian perspective. When Paul turns to the application of his teaching (12:1-15:15) he gives practical advice for the alleviation of suffering (esp. 12:9-13). In this advice he says, “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.” (12:12)
Because of the hope we have in Christ, we can rejoice. Paul does not use the usual word for joy, chara, but a word meaning ‘boast.’ This is a genuine joy that the Spirit causes to well up from within (5:1-5; cf. 8:6). Tribulation is genuine as well, but with celebration comes triumph, for as we rise above our present circumstances and cling to what is good (12:9) the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus (Phil 4:4-9). We rejoice not for the absence of pain, but in the pain with eyes set on the promise.
We have further cause to rejoice because suffering produces endurance (5:3), and by enduring, our character is tested, which in turn strengthens the hope we have (cf. 1 Pet 4:8). We are as iron being refined in fire: being prepared for a glory we could not have attained otherwise. Paul’s instruction is to be patient in tribulation. Not only is tribulation unavoidable, it strengthens our fortitude. Rom 4:18-21 tells of how Abraham’s faith grew strong as he maintained the right attitude, giving glory to God. Origen (c. 185-254) speaks of the word “rejoice” in 5:3;“If suffering produces patience and patience is one of the virtues of the soul, then there is no doubt that suffering must be called not evil or neutral but definitely good.”
If Origen goes too far by calling suffering “definitely good,” he at least emphasizes for us that God can take something that is horrid and heinous to him, and redeem it for his purposes.
Paul’s admonition is to be “constant in prayer” is in this context a reminder to maintain a close relationship with the Spirit of God (12:11; 8:26-28). When we bear up well during the sting of persecution, we feel the Spirit’s pleasure. In early Christianity there was an ongoing emphasis on prayer, following the pattern and teaching of Jesus. This was driven out of relationship, rather than the legalism of Judaism and later Islam. The verb “persists” is used in Acts (1:14; 2:42; 6:4) to refer to the communal setting in which prayer took place. The gathering of the brethren is thus important for their mutual encouragement and edification in a hostile environment (cf. Heb 10:25). Ambrosiaster wrote as someone who knows; “Prayer is essential if we are to survive tribulation!”
The victorious Christian life is not denying there are ever any troubles. It is rather an attitude that though many troubles abound in the present they are acknowledged, joyfully accepted and endured. When we are oriented towards the Spirit, we know his assurance of our eventual glorification (8:39-30) and the love he has for us (8:31-35), and in this way we are able to overcome. Through “tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword,” (8:35) yea, even though they slay us, we are more than conquers (8:37), for we endure through.
We should remember the suffering of the early churches, such as the church in Rome, who suffered far more than we ever will in the modern western world. We can be thankful for the blessed state we now live in.
We should not abandon the church, but pray together fervently, sustained by and under the direction of the Spirit. As members of the body of Christ, we bear suffering with each other. We pray for release, as well as the ability to face it and overcome it while in its grip. Together our mission is to alleviate suffering, first with the message of the righteousness that is by faith, and then with the ethical living that is its fruit.
We will suffer for the work that God calls us to accomplish – a mission is not called such because it is a walk in the park. We groan together with creation, on behalf of creation. In Acts 9:14-16 the voice of God speaks of Paul as his chosen instrument and missionary to the Gentiles, saying “I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” Just as Paul was glad to be God’s instrument and suffer for his name’s sake, so we too should be glad. Our reaction to persecution and other hardship should not be grumbling, but jumping and jubilation.
Since hope: the expectation of future glory, is only available to those who are in Christ, our attitude should be one of extreme compassion and tenderness towards those who are outside Christ. They are slaves to the compulsions of a sinful nature, and in their suffering they are without the consolation of our great hope.
We should make it a habit set our minds and hearts on the glory to which we are destined. We suffer in Christ and with Christ, and this assures our eventual adoption as sons and daughters, glorification and bodily resurrection. We should be eagerly anticipating the day when sin and death shall be no more. Christ suffered and attained glory through his suffering, and by our inclusion into Christ, we can likewise conquer (6:3-4).
- Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, 303.
- Origen, Commentary on the Epistles to the Romans. CER 2:268, 274. Cited in Gerald Bray and Thomas C. Oden, eds. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Romans, New Testament VI (Downers Grove, IL.: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 124.
- Robert Jewett, Romans: A Commentary, 514.
- “Even if the times do not allow us to speak publicly about our faith, nevertheless we must rejoice in tribulation, for this sadness brings joy . . . With the joy of hope we can endure tribulation, knowing that the things which are promised to those who suffer are much greater. Prayer is essential if we are to survive tribulation!” Ambrosiaster, Commentary on Paul’s Epistles. CSEL 81.1:405-7 Cited in Gerald Bray and Thomas C. Oden, eds. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Romans, New Testament VI (Downers Grove, IL.: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 304-5.
- Barth, Karl. The Epistle to the Romans, London: Oxford University Press, 1933.
- Bray, Gerald and Thomas C. Oden, eds., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Romans, New Testament VI. Downers Grove, IL.: InterVarsity Press, 1998.
- Cassidy, Richard, J. Paul in Chains: Roman Imprisonment and the Letters of St Paul, New York, NY.: Crossroad, 2001.
- Hodge, Charles. Romans, Edinburgh: Banner, 1983.
- Jervis, Ann, L. At the heart of the Gospel: Suffering in the Earliest Christian Message, Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans, 2007.
- Jewett, Robert. Romans: A Commentary, Hermenia; Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2007.
- Moo, Douglas, J. The Epistle to the Romans, TNICNT, Grand Rapids, MI; Eerdmans, 1996.
- Oaks, Peter, Reading Romans in Pompeii: Paul’s Letter at Ground Level, Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2009.
- Roffé, Sarina. “A Historical Background of Italian Jewry” No pages. Cited 19 November 2010. Online: http://www.jewishgen.org/sephardic/coliseum.htm
- CSEL: Corpus Scriptorium Ecclesiastoicorum Latinorum. Vienna: Tempsky, 1866
- PG: J.P. Migne, ed. Patrologia cursus completes. Series Graeta. 166 vols. Paris: Migne. 1857-1886
- IER: Theodoret of Cry. Interpretation episteole ad Romanos. PG 82 43-226.
- FC: R. J. Deferrari, ed. Fathers of the Church: A New Translation. Washington, D.D.: Catholic University of America Press, 1947-.
- CER: Origen. Commentarii in Epistulam ad Romanos. Edited by T. Heither. 5 vols. New York: Herder, 1990-1995.
- NTA 15: K. Staab, ed. Pauluskommentare aus der griechischen Kirche: Aus Katenenhandschriften gesammeltund herausgegeben (Pauline Commentary from the Greek Chruch: Collected and Edited Catena Writings). NT Abhandlungen 15. Münster in Westfalen: Aschendorff, 1933.