“Though he slay me, yet will I hope in Him.” Job 13:15.
People here who got to know me are calling me Job. Really? As I shared my testimony, I have to say, it depends.
If Job had said that statement above like a hero – unflinching, unwavering, with the sunset behind him and with a child-like faith in God – the way Job is romanticized a lot these days; then, I honestly say, no. That’s not me.
Can I open my heart to tell you that instead, in my earlier days, my Voice more likely resembled the Peter that denied God three times and even cursed him to save his skin? (Mark 14:71) Or, probably more like Jesus when He passionately, like a lost child, with a hint of desperation or even resent, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me? When Jesus addressed God the Father as ‘my God’ instead of the intimate ‘Abba’ that’s similar to calling my father ‘Mr Koh’ instead of Daddy. Ouch. I’m not sure who is hurt more when that happens.
I love the Bible because it shows us its ok to be human; God understands. Within the honest process of self awareness and in the growing awareness of God’s perfect character and desires for us, that’s when true growth starts. That’s also where real love is born. The love that can withstand questions. The love that can withstand the rare occasion that you no longer know what to think. Its no longer a ‘like’ where we are totally enamored with the beautiful picture of God, but never really reached a true tying of heartstrings that bring a relationship to a level that defies natural laws that we are accustomed to.
Sometimes, life as a Christian can be hard (Romans 5). There will be things that you can’t understand. You thought you knew the perfect, loving nature of God yet what you are going through makes no sense. Or worse, the people around you don’t understand the situation and make light of you. Hey! But Romans 5 has says because of who God is (not a function of your deeds, or the collective opinions of man) we can have hope and hope doesn’t disappoint. Here is one part of the chapter:
“… And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverence, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us …” Romans 5:2-5 (NIV)
Something was off. God had me read and re-read Romans 5 over and over again. After the nth time, a question rose to the top. It was unavoidable and contrary to the popular truism of “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. Why should Sufferings give rise to Perseverance to Character to Hope? Over and over, as a person who has endured pain and extraordinary circumstances and has counseled many others I realized that there is no guarantee that suffering makes people into better people. In the furnace of suffering and injustice, for every Mother Teresa that comes forth, so there is a Adolf Hitler.
- Yes, I know what years of crippling adversity is all about – I suffered this arduously for 30 years.
Mother Teresa (1910 – 1997), then Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, was born in Macedonia to a financially comfortable Albanian family. From observations of great social injustices, Mother Teresa lived a life for others. She held on to an objective truth that all people are loved by God and should be cared for. In 1946, she realized what her true calling was “to give up all and follow Christ into the slums to serve him among the poorest of the poor.” Hence, she devoted her life to take care of the outcasts in India despite great opposition. This opposition caused depression and dissonance in her spirit. What sort of world would oppose taking care of the outcasts? In her depression, she penned in her memoirs,
Surrounds me on all sides – I can’t lift my soul to God – no light or inspiration enters my soul . . . Heaven, what emptiness – not a single thought of Heaven enters my mind – for there is no hope. . . The place of God in my soul is blank.
Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta, My God, how painful is this unknown pain.
Her soul was close to dead. She saw the worst parts of humanity. Children suffering, the poor and handicapped, and a class of people willing to encourage such inequalities because of religious nonsense. Our natural inclination is to give up or lash out and destroy those people who are against us. In our anger, we humans can justify anything. But it is praise-worthy to continue to do good when we are exhausted and in the face of opposition. This is true strength, it is not predictable and it is certainly not natural.
An interesting contemporary was Hitler (1889-1945). He grew up in a broken family. His father married three times, and 4 out of his 5 siblings died at childhood. A failed artist, Hitler spent four years living on the streets of Vienna, selling postcards of his artwork to make a little money. He is the typical liberal hero if you think about it. Grew up poor – don’t the poor have more character? He was an artist – don’t they have beautiful liberated souls? But he turned out be a murderous dictator, disposing of his political opponents and executing all those he deemed not worthy. His soul was as callous as the natural selection he religiously believed in. Jews, blacks, crippled, and retarded – all these people were deemed fundamentally less than human and fit for execution. Did he grow strong? Yes. He was strong in his own mind and his own definition, but this strength is boring, it’s so common. Destroy those who destroy you? Elevate your ego to become a god? So predictable. In it’s predictability is how truly weak it is, because that’s the natural inclination of everyone.
God is not impressed if you lord over people. On the sermon on the mount, Jesus said:
But to those of you who will listen, I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you… If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? Luke 6:27-33
Both Teresa and Hitler had more than their fair share of adversity and both were exposed to suffering and injustices, yet one turned out to be a saint and the other a monster. One is infinitely stronger than the other, because one of them dealt with evil and injustice God’s way – to continue serving and not allow yourself to become the monster that you are fighting against. The other dealt with injustice by creating an even bigger injustice to satisfy his own ego. Hitler was entirely predictable and unimpressive. But it was Mother Teresa’s response in darkness that boggles me, heightens my curiosity and scares me and inspires me at the same time.
“Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating.” Simone Weil
So suffering does not automatically lead to character and hope. Could the saying, “That that does not kill you makes you stronger” just be an over simplified and over romanticized half truth that people dish out when they really have nothing to say and just want to sound relevant? I have seen people, who have been hit with problem after problem … and they turn out bitter, selfish, with a fatalistic mindset, with no trust for other people and even themselves. Bart Erhman, the bible scholar that lost his faith over the reality of suffering aptly put it, “For many people who inhabit this planet, life is a cesspool of misery and suffering. I came to a point where I simply could not believe that there is a good and kindly disposed Ruler who is in charge of it.” Honestly, there are days that I feel I have very much in common with Erhman’s thoughts. Yet, ironically, the bible already told us to expect suffering in this world.
Simply put, without the things of God, men, although capable of doing some good will ultimately be selfish. Sure, some poor people seem to have the best characters, they are poor, yet generous as though they are millionaires; and we have much to learn from these people who have nothing. But for others… the poor become more selfish. Building character in the face of suffering actually does not occur naturally – especially in a naturalistic world where it’s the survival of the fittest. A lover scorned by her ideal dream guy does not naturally become a more forgiving person. A girl cheated on by her boyfriend does not naturally put more faith in other guys. A man who’s skin is undergoing systemic failure over years does not naturally become more larger than life. In fact, taking nature for example, the main recurrent themes do not give us much reason for hope. From natural selection, survival of the fittest to the entropy or the eventual wearing down of physical matter, we see not only that death and destruction is a necessary function in nature, its an eventuality with a natural tendency towards chaos. You can bet Solomon knew this when he sighed, “Everything is meaningless.” (Ecc 5)
But that’s the point! Because suffering tends to bruise and embitter the soul; WHEN you see that it DOES build character – that’s NOT normal – is shows God is there, and there is a work being done on you. That seed that springs life; even when others can’t see it, you see it. There’s a dual correlation between suffering – perseverance – character. Because of God’s love and divine plan, you will NOT be totally destroyed; there IS a plan… and that’s why suffering leads to character; you see part of that plan, you see part of God’s sovereignty. Because you know there is a purpose and a God that loves you, your suffering is temporary and it allows you to have empathy for other sufferers. If you have no purpose and no God, you have no choice but to take matters in your own hands in a world you know if heavily flawed.
People who have no frame of reference to any objective truth about their own destinies will not gain from suffering, they will only learn how to AVOID future suffering. I recently met an ex-dignitary; he used to attend conferences with George W Bush, and was a lecturer in University on Foreign Relations. But after 3 business deals gone bad, and being estranged from his family – there he was, bitter, untrusting, with a massive chip on both shoulders. There was no extraordinary character, in fact, there was a void in his character – that’s why most of his friends avoided him. All he wanted was to earn back all of his money to “show them”. Isn’t this just like Hitler, except on a smaller scale?
In the shroud of great depression, Mother Teresa can say
I have found the paradox, that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love.
One can only believe this if she is seeded with the infinite. Deep in her soul, she knows that no matter how ugly and unfair the world is, there is a grace that is even bigger than that. She is seeded with Christ. She fought the monsters of the world to defeat it with God’s grace.
Contrast this with Hitler’s truisms:
It is not truth that matters, but victory.
Success is the sole earthly judge of right and wrong.
At one time, he painted himself a victim, urging people to fight “the monster”, but he didn’t fight the monster to defeat it, he fought the monster because he wanted to take it’s place and did.
So suffering doesn’t naturally cause character. So who can the Bible state that hope
What causes character is what you are seeded with. Suffering exposes what you truly are by growing what is already deep inside you. Think of a cake. Suffering is the oven you place the cake in. The heat reveals what ingredients are inside.
However, if the shroud of suffering is cast on the bedrock of God’s love and destiny for you, there is much to gain, and we learn to see God’s love and power more clearly and its this Hope of God that is a vehicle to usher in character. Concurrently, when you see character being formed, you are alive with Hope because you know that the suffering leads to character ONLY if God is involved with His sovereignty and glory following Him like an entourage. King David knew this point very well when he declared, in the face of calamity, exactly where his hope came from, “I would have lost heart, unless I had believed, That I would see the glory of the Lord in the land of the living.” Psalm 27:13 (NKJV) (Italics and bold mine). It was because of this belief that he did not become a Saul who was trying to kill David to protect his throne out of jealousy.
So here’s the kicker on the illusive word ‘hope’ that’s peppered around Romans 5. To me, ‘Hope’ is a lot like Robin, as in the dark knight Batman and wimpy laughable Robin. Why? Because when Hope surfaces when there is no reason to hope, it means God is nearby to affect change… sooner or later. Evil villains, brewing with sinister Pinky & the Brain ideas of ruling the world, look at Robin have the natural inclination to laugh at the Boy Wonder. Boy I do wonder; Who would be afraid of this circus looking fashionably challenged post pubescent boy-acrobat, underwear on the outside, skipping from point to point with his hairless legs showing, a high voice to boot, and absolutely fashioning no weapons in hand? I can imagine Joker, Penguin and Cat Woman sarcastically slurring out their thoughts out loud, “oh look, its the BOY, WONDER if he’s going to trapeze, plie and arabesque us to death?” But the Pinky’s Brainesque villains in fact are intimidated by the idea of Robin – not because of Robin, but because of what’s invariably connected with Robin; if Robin is around, than the Dark Knight is nearby ready to unload a can of ninja style shadow like ‘now you see me, now you never will’ whoop ass made complete by totally cryptic and self reinforcing fear inducing one liners (delivered with a manly low raspy voice no less) that even children can understand, “I’m Batman”. Enough said.
How many times when you had gone through season upon seasons of disappointments and have many postmoderns, insulated in their own superficial indulgent world, drop you the hackneyed old saying, “oh, just have hope, just hope …”? Hope in itself really is nothing but positive but somewhat deceptively voluminous thoughts – deceptive because it seems big and floaty like a hot air balloon. But that’s just it – hot air. For instance, I could try putting my hope in the blueberry (affectionately called Bluesy) I just ate for dinner. Yes… Bluesy can carry me through all my adversities, make me more than conquerers with even exceedingly and abundantly more than I can ask for (Rom 8:27, Eph 3:20); and it can shape the adversities around me to support me instead of destroy me (Rom 8:28, Jer 29:11). If I placed my hope that Blueberry Bluesy could do that, I myself would probably turn blue and shrivel up after awhile, not to mention also because of people laughing at my misplaced hope. Hence my decision to eat the Blueberry Bluesy instead of worshiping it – Bluesy was delicious.
Therefore, dear friends, it’s the object of hope that gives hope its power and authority. Trust me when I say that when adversity piles up like mighty mountains, when is it seems to be no more fathomable silver linings in any horizon; when you look down and you’re standing in poop and you look up and see a cluster of pigeons raining poop on you – that’s when hope naturally implodes and whatever is left gets pounded to the ground . But for you, dear Christian, if you see even a little trace, in the face of prolonged suffering, that hope in your life is still bouncing around in his underwear (though probably a lot less ostentatiously), then it means your hope is not just due to your own positive “hot air” thoughts. It means The World Changing, Paradigm Confounding, Mighty to Save God IS CLOSE BY and and hope (Robin) is His forerunner. Just as we feel warm automatically if we are close to flame. Hope is automatically generated in any people who are around Him. And why do those Jokers shudder at the thought of Batman anyways? Its not because of plastic looking body armor with strategically placed dents and pointy ears are just so knee-knockingly scary (although Donatella Versace might say otherwise); its because they know that whenever Batman is involved, things change. Things change to conform to how Batman wants it, not how the Jokers like it. Can I hear an AMEN? Although David was somewhat fatalistic at the beginning of Psalm 27, his hope was still alive not because he is some mystic guru that can convince himself none of his problems were real, but rather because the glory of the Lord was/is alive and nearby as well. David was in the presence of the forerunner. He didn’t WILL himself to hope, rather hope came alive because God was alive.
So back to the original opening of this e-mail:
If Job had said that statement above like a hero, unflinching, unwavering, with the sunset behind him and a child-like faith in God, the way Job is romanticized a lot these days, then, i honestly say, that no. That’s not me. But fortunately also for me, I don’t think Job said it that ‘Johnny Bravo’ way heroically either. His dialogue with his friends reeked of dissonance. He said it totally confounded him, that maybe God wasn’t who He said He was, or that maybe Job himself was crazy… (I would be too if I had THOSE friends trying to point out what’s WRONG with Job even though he was unfathomably inflicted). I’m just in that real struggle to figuring things out, learning to embrace this experience as I learn to embrace other’s journeys – trying to see the Robins in my life and point out the Robins in other’s lives. And we know that if we see Robin is alive then not only is world changing Batman alive too, but nearby. God is nearby, and He can change your world – we only need to have the right attitude. We change our attitudes, He changes our world. Lingering, rising hope is the barometer of the proximity of the goodness of God and His adversity shadowing glory.
Brothers and sisters, be encouraged!
Hey! That’s where I last saw Robin in your life!
PS: “I’M BATMAN!” Christian Bale, Batman Begins
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2 thoughts on “A New Way at Looking at Christian Hope (Romans 5)”
Thank you Ken for not giving up in the face of what probably seemed like permanent adversity and abandonment by God. God showed me Job 19 the other day which was new information for me. Job pivoted his attitude somehow from an attitude of “this life sucks” to “I know my redeemer lives and I will rise again from the ashes”.
Happy New Year brother 🙂
Be encouraged that few have been called to endure what you went through. Sometimes there are no answers on this side of life. Hebrews chapter 11 convey distinctly the heroes of faith. Some got cut in half for their faith. This is not to minimize the extent of your suffering, but to ponder the possibility that God has better plans to reveal His unfinished business in your life which is still unfolding. Be strong. Praying daily for you as always. love, uncle john