July 1, 2018
Enduring hope is God’s gift when hopelessness threatens.
I. Enduring grace that gives hope (Romans 5:1-2)
II. Enduring suffering that produces hope (Romans 5:3-4)
III. Enduring Spirit who pours out hope (Romans 5:5)
There were several things that made me want to talk about hope as part of this series on counter-cultural character qualities. Some of those are cultural, some are personal. On the cultural side it was a sense that there is more hopelessness in our culture, even worldwide than there has been in decades. A distant example can be found in modern day China. Fortune magazine had an article called “For Chinese Millennials, Hopelessness is a Brand” Chinese millennials with a dim view of their career and marriage prospects can wallow in despair with a range of teas such as “achieved-absolutely-nothing black tea”, and “my-ex’s-life-is-better-than-mine fruit tea.” A significant number of young Chinese with high expectations have become hopeless and embrace an attitude known on social media as “sang,” after a Chinese character associated with the word “funeral.” “Sang” culture revels in often-ironic defeatism. “It would be great if I could just wake up to retirement tomorrow,” 27 year-old Zhao Zengliang, a “sang” internet personality, wrote in one post.
“Sang” is also a rebellion against intense social and family pressure to succeed, in a declining economy. The average cost of a two-bedroom home in Beijing is around $900,000, but the starting salary of a college graduates dropped by 16 percent this year to $608 per month. “Our media and society have shoved too many success stories down our throat,” said Zhao. “‘Sang’ is a quiet protest against society’s relentless push for achieving the traditional notion of success. It is about admitting that you just can’t make it.”
But hopelessness hits much closer to home. I was appalled and deeply saddened to learn that suicide rates in this country are up by 25 percent since 1999, and teen suicide rates have risen even more sharply. One article said “Suicide rates for teens rose between 2010 and 2015 after declining for nearly two decades, according to data from the CDC. A recent study suggests one factor could be rising social media use. Recent suicides have been blamed on cyberbullying, and social media posts depicting “perfect” lives may be taking a toll on teens’ mental health, researchers say.” Jean Twenge, the lead author of the study says “We tried to go systematically through possible explanations and rule them in or out and, at the end of the day, the pronounced increase in smartphone ownership seems like the most logical explanation. It was by far the largest change in teens lives between 2012 and 2015.” I’ve said already in this series that I’m convinced screens contribute greatly to the epidemic of loneliness in our culture. Loneliness, social isolation and the projected image of false perfection that no one can live up could be leading to hopelessness.
But it’s broader than that. Many of us struggle with weariness, discouragement, depression and hopelessness. I’ve felt the power of these things the past few months. The thoughts that I call “counsels of despair,” have gotten louder, the voice of the enemy telling me that nothing I’ve done in my life has made any difference, that I might as well just give up. And I’ve got it easy. I don’t have the health circumstances some of you deal with. I don’t have the family trauma that many have. I don’t have the economic hardship that long-term loss of a job brings. I don’t have chronic pain. I’ve got it really good. And I’m not really hope-less, but the last few months I have really been hope-full either.
You too may be in one of the hard places on the border of hopelessness. I have one friend who looks at the decline of culture and oscillates between anger and fatigue. Another struggles with change. He wants to change how he responds to the circumstances of his life, but then, he doesn’t change, and has no hope.
To these people, to myself, to all in this room I want to say that hope is God’s gift when hopelessness threatens. You may not be able to see, think or walk your way out of hard circumstances, but there is a God who gives hope. In Romans 5:1-5 we’ll see the enduring grace that gives hope, the enduring suffering that produces hope and the enduring Spirit who pours out hope. Let’s read Romans 5:1-5 Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. 3Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
One thing I love about this passage is that it starts at the beginning. Scripture doesn’t call a person suffering from grief or trial to generate hope in themselves. Hope is found in the grace of God. Romans 1 says “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” Paul then gives a careful, sequenced argument showing that there is no way to earn or merit God’s favor, but that his salvation is given as a free gift of grace through faith in Jesus.
But this presumes that people have a problem of separation from God. Romans 1:18 “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness.” People are separated from God by their rejection of Him and their willful sin.
Paul teaches that everyone has a heart knowledge of God, from creation if nothing else, but they suppress that knowledge and put created things rather than the creator at the center of their lives. We turn from God to worship earthly idols or comforts or selfish pursuits. Paul also teaches that everyone has a heart knowledge of right and wrong, and has chosen to do what’s wrong, hurting themselves or others. No one has a clean slate before God. Further, no one can earn salvation. You can’t suddenly decide, in your own power that you will make up for all this putting yourself first, make up for all this disobedience and get enough ahead by being good that God will accept you. Paul says plainly in Romans 3:20 “No one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law. Rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.”
By the end of chapter 3, Paul has us cornered. We’ve offended God and man and don’t deserve to be rescued from the consequences. But then Paul wonderfully shows God’s solution. Romans 3:21 “But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” The sacrifice of Jesus pays the price we could not pay. We’ve all sinned, fallen short, but we’re declared righteous, justified freely by his grace, The foundation of our hope is God’s grace in Jesus. No price is asked, no payment extracted, all he asks is that you trust what Jesus did on the cross for you, and accept his free gift.
With this as background, Paul turns to the blessings our our salvation. Romans 5:1 “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God” Peace isn’t just absence of strife, but, ‘shalom’ the presence of relationship, fullness of life, wholeness. The ground of our hope is God’s peace-making, his justification of us through Jesus. And on this foundation we stand by grace. Verse 2: “Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand.” The word access does not mean a door through which we have to walk, but implies being escorted through the door, ushered in. This is pure grace. We stand in grace and by grace we have peace, and hope.
Many years ago an early submarine was being tested and had to remain submerged. When they returned they found the harbor in chaos. They were asked "How did the terrible storm effect you?" The captain responded "Storm? We didn't even know there was one!" The sub had been so deep that though the ocean was whipped into huge waves by high winds, the waters they sailed in were never stirred. Such is Paul's promise to believers. We have peace with God. We stand in grace. We are in the deeps of God's love. No matter what wind or wave assails us, we can claim at our core a settled reliance on a gracious God.
And because we have peace of God, receiving daily the grace of God, we have hope, hope that the book of Hebrews tells us is an anchor for the soul. The end of verse 2: because we now stand in grace we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. The word rejoice means to exult, to boast. It's confidence, satisfaction, not in ourselves, but in God himself. The antidote to hopelessness is not found in hope itself but in the seeing God’s glory through his rescue. The radiant splendor of all his perfections is being revealed to us. It was already displayed in creation, shown to Israel, and perfected in Jesus. But someday we’ll see his glory, splendor and majesty with our own eyes. This is our tremendous hope, a confident expectation that having been chosen by grace, we will see his glory. This hope is the antidote to hopelessness because it’s not based in our right behavior, it’s not based on the world being satisfying, it’s based in God and the promises he’s already kept and the certainty of those yet to come.
That’s the foundation. We have enduring hope because of the grace and provision of God in Jesus. Any other foundation is false, because circumstances change, people change, we change. Only God and his promises are faithful and sure. As a result, verses 3-4, we can endure suffering and find that this leads to hope. “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” This is the central thought of the passage. Rather than give in to hopelessness in the face of suffering and troubles, we are brought through them to an even greater hope. We rejoice in our sufferings. This is the same word for rejoice that we saw earlier. We exult. We jubilate. And the word for suffering is used for a wide range of hardship, from economic need, to daily troubles, emotional hardship, losses, and ultimately to persecution.
This fits with what Joni Eareckson Tada often says, that there is a sense in which we all suffer. We may not be paralyzed, fighting cancer, undergoing persecution, but our sufferings, our own troubles are still very real. There are those here who have suffered this week, and experienced possibly great emotional pain, over relationships that aren’t working, over sicknes, over stress, over financial set-backs, over weariness and too much to do. This too is suffering, and needs to be borne with the same endurance, cheerfulness and hope as larger sufferings. The result is that the small things I’ve been enduring can produce in me the same hope that great suffering could. And that’s a hopeful truth.
Paul says we can rejoice even in our suffering if we keep in mind what God’s doing. There is a process initiated by suffering that ends in hope. The first step is that suffering produces endurance. If there’s a common characteristic to suffering, it’s that it doesn't end soon enough. In order to survive hardship, we first learn to persevere under it. We learn that God gives grace for the next step.
I remember hearing Paul Harvey tell “The Rest of the Story” of Margaret Day, who was a young college professor in England. One summer she went with friends to the south of England, where she contracted encephalitis. Before her family could reach her she entered a coma. Doctors said her condition was hopeless, but the family persevered. Today they’d have faced great pressure to remove her feeding tube, but this was 1926. They kept her clean, fed, and cared for. And one day, she woke up. She’d lost her memory yet her hard work and intelligence enabled her to return to teaching, to live a full life. But it was the perseverance of her family that struck me. They had to have suffered incredibly as they watched her lie there. For the rest of the story is that she went into the coma in 1926 and woke up in 1943. 17 years.
We rejoice in our sufferings, for suffering develops endurance. And endurance, according to Paul, leads to character, tested character. The Greek word is used of refining metals. Suffering refines us, melts away the dross, and purifies our character. Some of you here have that proven character, you've been changed by suffering in positive ways. There’s a good old story loved by preachers about a man who received a commission from the Lord to push against a large rock in front of his cabin. The man did, day after day, for many years, his shoulders set squarely to the cold, massive surface of the unmoving rock. Each night the man went to his cabin sore, worn out, having made no progress.
Eventually the man became discouraged "Lord" he said, "I have labored long and hard in your service, putting all my strength to do what you asked. Yet, after all this time I have not even budged that rock a half a millimeter. I’m never going to move it.” The Lord responded. "My friend, when I asked you to serve me I told you your task was to push against the rock with all of your strength. Never once did I mention to you that I expected you to move it. Now you come to me, your strength spent, thinking that you have failed. But, is that really so? Look at yourself. Your arms are strong, your back muscled, your hands callused from constant pressure, and your legs have become massive and hard. Through opposition you have grown. This was what I was after.”
Perseverance builds character. I always chuckle when I say that because I’m a big fan of Calvin and Hobbs. Calvin’s dad was always telling him that any suffering or perseverance built character. The camping experience, mosquitos, diarrhea, spam, builds character. The classic one is shoveling snow. “Shovel, shovel, shovel. Why can’t we get a snowblower. We must be the only family in the world that still shovels the driveway by hand. I’m freezing.” “It builds character. Keep at it.” “Pretty convenient how every time I build character he saves a couple hundred dollars.” Sometimes it feels that way. Yet God is at work through suffering, through perseverance, in our most difficult moments.
The tested character developed through suffering leads to the same hope that we reached as a result of our salvation in verses 1 and 2. The person whose character is refined and purified, is the person most sensitive to the fact that God is in control, and that all his works are works of love, and that ultimately he will fulfill his plan for us and for his world. Hope is an amazing thing. It is a present experience of a future reality. It is a far off light that nonetheless relieves this present darkness. I read a blog post this week with the title “Hope is the light in the darkness,” and it really struck me. The author of the post told the story of a camping trip with her three-year-old daughter. When the little girl need to go up to the bathroom in the night, the mom discovered that this campsite was pitch dark. She didn’t know how she would make there and especially back. Then her daughter said “Mom, don’t we need a flashlight.” That little bit of light coming from a child’s flashlight made all the difference.
But again this is a hope not in ourselves, nor in our circumstances, nor even in some anticipated present change for the better in our circumstances. This is hope in God, in his character and in his promises for the future. God has promised that a day is coming when the death, the mourning, the crying and the pain of this world will be wiped from our eyes in a new heaven and a new earth of perfect shalom. Joseph Bayly was a Christian writer and editor. Some of what he wrote was on the subject of suffering and death, because he himself had lost three sons in death. He wrote a book called “Psalms of My Life,” and called one of them “A Psalm of Anticipation” It’s very short: “Lord Christ, Your servant Martin Luther said he only had two days on his calendar: today and that day. And that’s what I want too. And I want to live today for that day.”
That’s hope. Suffering, perseverance, character, and hope now for the promises yet to come. As I said I’ve been struggling myself with discouragement. One of the things I’ve done is create a playlist called “Yet to Come,” which has all kinds of songs about those future promises. The latest addition is a Caroline Cobb song called “Behold, Behold.” I haven’t made a video of it yet, but I love some of the thoughts “Come thirsty taste and see. Come hungry to the feast. Come weary find your peace. The Bride and Spirit sing. Come! Come! Behold, behold God makes His home with us He’ll take his throne, forever glorious! The curse will be undone. Oh come, Lord Jesus, come.”
Hope is a light in darkness, a present experience of a future reality. We experience hope because we now have God the Holy Spirit living in us, pouring God’s love into our hearts. Romans 5:5 “And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” Hope does not put us to shame, or as the New International Version says, hope does not disappoint.
Stott explains this well. “Hope does not disappoint us and never will. It will never betray us by proving to be an illusion. This hope is no mere fantasy. But how do we know? What is the ultimate ground on which our hope rests, our hope of glory? It is the steadfast love of God. The reason our hope will never let us down is that God will never let us down. His love will never give us up.”
But how do we know that? Paul is about to give an objective reason, which I did not include in today’s text, but which will be the focus of our communion. Romans 5:6 “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” How do we know that God loves us, and thus that our hope is sure? Christ died for us. This is the uniform testimony of Scripture. John uses that little phrase ‘for us’ in almost the exact same way Paul does ‘By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us.” Substitutionary uses of the word ‘for’ are common. In Luke’s record of the Last Supper he says “And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 20And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” The objective ground of our hope is the love of God shown in the sacrifice of Jesus, this ultimate act of grace for us, for us.
But the inward ground of our hope is God the Holy Spirit who graciously dwells within us. Romans 5:5, again, “And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” Every Christmas we call Jesus “Immanuel,” “God with us.” And he is and was and will be. But now for all believers “God with us” is God the Holy Spirit, who, in humility and love, comes and dwells with us and within us even though we haven’t become fully sanctified, that is, holy in practice. It is God the Holy Spirit’s presence that confirms his love and thus seals our hope. This is what Paul says in Ephesians “In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, 14who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.”
God the Holy Spirit witnesses with our spirits that we are now beloved children of God and so, no matter how hopeless our circumstances, no matter how loud the lies of the enemy calling us to despair, no matter how weary we are, no matter how many times we have failed to live the way we know we should, no matter how hard the road or how devastating the loss or how disappointing the love of those around us, we have hope.
This isn’t just a little hope, or a tenuous hope, or a flickering hope or a trickle of hope. The love of God has been poured out into our hearts and so we have an overflow of hope. This hope is the present assurance of a future reality. The object of our hope is often future. But the hope itself is a present moment reality, just as hopelessness is a present reality for us at times and for some many people so much of the time. So important is this thought to the Apostle Paul that out of all the truth of the fantastic book of Romans, all the life changing doctrine, all the practical instruction, this truth is the one Paul picks up and prays for the Romans as he closes the letter. Romans 15:13. “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
Some years ago I gave our high schoolers a list of Paul’s prayers and asked them to pick one of them for me to pray for them, individually. I asked them to tell me what prayer they had chosen and why. The clear winner was Romans 15:13. Why? Because in every life circumstance where hopelessness threatens, from the family and personal struggles of the teen years to the circumstantial and relational struggles of adulthood, to the disappointment of dreams unfulfilled, to the chronic pain, illness and injury of the later years, all people need hope. The God of hope offers peace and joy as we trust in him, so that we overflow with hope not by our own power but by the power of the Holy Spirit.