I have a confession to make. I have a real struggle with one part of this
scripture text. I like the emphasis on the peace of God and the grace of God. I like
the progression of suffering producing endurance producing character producing
hope that does not disappoint us. I like the notion of God’s love pouring into our
hearts through the deepening of our faith. There is much in portion of Paul’s
letter to like.
Where do I struggle? Paul’s notion that we boast (the NRSV translation) or
even rejoice (the Inclusive Bible and NIV translation) in our sufferings. That’s hard
for me to accept, let alone justify. I think Paul is wrong. We understand what Paul
is trying to do here. He’s trying to not only explain the suffering we experience in
life, but also help us to understand how it can be beneficial to our faith.
There’s a degree of truth in that logic. Separating out the notion of rejoicing
or boasting in our suffering for a moment, I think we can generally agree that
there are unique lessons in our lives and faith that we learn through our struggles
and hardship that we do not learn otherwise. We know that we will experience
times of suffering, struggles and hardship, just as we know we will experience
tranquility, joy, and peace. Each of those experiences is part of what it means to
We know we learn from our failures – that often it is how we pick up
ourselves and learn from our mistakes and failings that define who we are as
much as, if not more so than our successes. But that’s not what Paul is saying here
either. He doesn’t address mistakes or failings or sin. He specifically cites that we
should rejoice in our suffering. He doesn’t even say that there are lessons we
should learn from our suffering, like the following progression that leads to hope.
If he cited the phrase in that way, I’d not struggle with it, as I believe it
acknowledges a truth that we all experience in our own ways.
Instead, he tells the Romans to boast or rejoice in their suffering. And quite
frankly, I have a problem with that. It could be that phrase is one intended
specifically for the Roman church, to help know that they are experiencing
tremendous suffering and persecution for their faith, and to put that suffering in
context. Maybe. But left as a broader lesson for us, I think it sets up a dangerous
paradigm that either justifies bad things that happen to us or encourages us to
race to be the ones who suffer the most and boast about it.
I have shared with some of you that I struggle at times with small group
clergy conversations when those conversations are centered on the ‘state of
one’s congregation and the clergy’s ministry.’ Far too often in those
conversations, the sharing results in the clergy either sharing how great or how
terrible her or his congregation is. Neither is particularly honest or life giving. Both
feel boastful in ways that are not especially helpful. In many instances, the clergy
are fine people themselves, but the sharing offered is lacking and doesn’t feel
That last word is the key. Paul’s encouragement to rejoice or boast in our
sufferings doesn’t feel authentic. It feels like a slippery slope that is strangely
intended for us to somehow hope that we suffer so that we ultimately are filled
with greater hope. That seems like counter-productive, circular reasoning to me.
While Paul is correct that our suffering can produce endurance, which can
produce character, which can produce hope, there is no guarantee that will
definitively happen. And the dangerous thing with this progression is the fall out
when the progression does not lead to hope, but instead leads to shame and
greater suffering. Would we dare say to other people in that situation that they
have not learn enough from their suffering to gain endurance, character and hope
respectively? I would hope not.
Paul frames this entire section of text under the notion of gaining peace
with God. That peace is gained through a deepened understanding of and faith in
Jesus’ teachings. It’s important to remember that Jesus did not want to suffer for
the sake of gaining hope. He understood the nature of his suffering for the good
of humanity and the world, but when he spoke of the looming suffering he would
experience at the end of Holy Week, he did not boast or rejoice in it, but instead
said to God, ‘If by your will this cup would pass by me without my drinking of it,
your will be done.’ In other words, I will suffer if I must, but I’d really prefer not to
Can we blame Jesus for that? Would any of us feel differently? And yet,
Jesus gains the peace of God he so critically needs at the time in which he needs
it. Perhaps that is the broader lesson we learn about the peace of God from this
text. The real peace of God is modeled for us in the person and example of Jesus –
not just in what he said, but in how he experienced adversity and suffering in his
own life. Jesus did not go looking to suffer, nor did he shy away from suffering
when it came to him. He responded by seeking peace, God’s peace, real peace,
that would sustain him in the struggles and suffering he faced.
If we don’t have real peace, then we’re stuck with one of three things: fake
peace, crippling anxiety or numbness. Fake peace is the kind of peace that we
know is not really real, but that we can get by pretending. We can do this because
we’re so successful at amassing expensive computers, cars, recreational vehicles,
vacation homes, club memberships and smartphones that should make any
normal person a happy, contented and peaceful person. Except they don’t.
If we’re not even trying to fake peace of mind and heart, then we may be
suffering from crippling anxiety. This might be caused by the stress of trying to
succeed at fake peace — getting all the stuff we wanted in order to fake peace.
Or, the anxiety may be a result of professional stressors or difficulty in
relationships. Until our anxiety is resolved, no peace, real or fake, is possible.
Finally, we might simply be numb. We simply don’t care anymore. So many
people are yelling. So many people are outraged. Righteous indignation and anger
becomes a cottage industry in our politics, culture, and church. So, we go numb.
And I’m not clear that Paul’s instructions in this text have any application or
helpfulness towards finding real peace for when we are numb or anxious or
gravitate towards false peace.
The late actor actor Robert Mitchum had a difficult and challenging
upbringing that included everything from growing up in New York’s “Hell’s
Kitchen” neighborhood, to being a hobo riding the rails, to spending time on a
Georgia chain gang and even doing a stint in the boxing ring before becoming a
Hollywood star. Mitchum defined the peace of God as, “becoming the person I
always wanted to be.” No matter the circumstance, Mitchum recognized that
peace of mind is the result of an internal orientation. It’s not dependent on what
one accomplishes or accumulates. He may be onto something. Finding real peace
is the result of cultivating an intimate knowledge of oneself, knowing and valuing
the person you are and want to be and living fully in the present moment.
Let’s think about this notion in a different way. Many of us have some
awareness of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s often used ‘Serenity Prayer.’ “God,
grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change
the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Few of us know and are
aware of the remaining lines of that prayer.
“Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time, accepting
hardship as the pathway to peace; taking, as Jesus did, this suffering world as it is,
not as I would have it; trusting that he will make all things right if I surrender to
his will; that I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with him
forever in the next.” Those additional lines change the meaning of the whole
prayer? If you end with the first sentence, serenity can become a kind of goal we
can achieve, perhaps even rejoice in or boast about.
Even though the prayer says, “God grant me the serenity,” it’s easy to skip
over that. Serenity is an important step, but not the only step. The peace we
crave is not achieved solely through a kind of persistent psychological self-
discipline like that of an athlete training for a race. The focus is peace with God
when suffering is upon us, not the absence or avoidance of suffering.
Peace with God leads to the peace of God, and that is a peace that
produces actual peace of mind within us. It’s not a peace that is dependent on
circumstances but a peace based on faith that God is at work in us and is caring
for us. This kind of real peace offers resilience that makes us stand out in contrast
to an anxious world. It’s a real peace that is life giving and life sustaining. It’s a
real peace that allows us to care for others with a love that is deep, restorative,
and abiding. It’s this real peace, a peace with God leads to the peace of God which
leads to peacemaking with the presence of God that can offer hope to the world.