I’m not sure if life could have gotten any worse for Paul Gerhardt. The enemy encircling his hometown promised retreat in exchange for a small fortune. When the townspeople handed the money over, the army still set fire to hundreds of buildings anyways— including Gerhardt’s house. Later that same year, plague swept through his village, leaving over three hundred dead. Somehow Gerhardt still managed to graduate from the seminary, but received no parish. For fifteen years he scraped by as a tutor and hymn-writer. When he did receive his first Call, he was quickly fired because he refused to preach state-ordered false teaching. During unemployment, his wife died. Four of his five children died, leaving him a poor single father with a six-year-old son. Life promised more when he was assigned to a new church— but this calloused, overbearing congregation treated him harshly for the next seven years until he died. I’m really not sure if life could have gotten any worse for Paul Gerhardt.
That’s how life is often viewed, isn’t it? It’s as though a scale hangs inside the heart and we place items on both ends in order to determine their value (or, importance). You sit stuck in traffic, but the other lane is moving. So, you weigh the question: Do I have time to wait or should I switch lanes in the hope of moving ahead? You ache inside. So, you weigh the question: Is this pain worth a doctor-bill or can I treat myself? Your phone pings and you weigh the question: Is the time spent with friends more valuable than resting at home? This one life encounters a myriad of quandaries, leaving you (and I) to weigh what might be the best choice forward.
In most cases, decisions come easy (or, without serious consequence). Yet, when suffering appears, you feel a real tension inside: Is it worth suffering with Christ?
Before you reach an answer, our reading has a question for you: Are Your Expectations of Christ Balanced?
On one end of the scale we find our connection to Christ. Romans chapter eight makes it abundantly clear. God made Jesus our sin offering and condemned him in our place. No longer do you (and I) stand condemned to death in hell. Instead, we are set free! The Holy Spirit has swung open the cell door and led you (and I) out by the hand and into the camp of God. Resting on that scale sits your new identity: Child of God. Heir of eternal life. Co-heir of heaven (Read Romans 8:1-17).
With those titles still ringing in the ears, you hear this: I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. Would you agree?
You see what hangs on the other side of the scale. ‘Suffering’— a heaping pile of real, legitimate suffering. Struggling stock markets, stale social security checks, and a fragile economy stokes stress over if you will have enough. Your relationship strains as communication keeps breaking down. The mere flashback of the casket (or urn) front and center in church still brings tears. Christianity shrinking in America means an increase of un-Christian laws and conversations and topics.
But it’s not necessarily these kinds of suffering that hurt, is it? After all, everyone in the world confronts discouragement and decay and disease and death; you are not alone. No, what makes suffering more painful is the fact that so often suffering comes because of your connection to God!
You stand up for what God’s calls ‘right’ and you suffer consequences. Cancer continues its unstoppable spread despite your many prayers. You do not participate with a corrupt boss, but it is you who loses the job while he still makes money. You stand firm on God’s design for marriage, but your beloved child cuts off communication. You make clear trust in God, but the friend treats you like an idiot. You invite the neighbor to worship, but he just laughs. You obey God, but he does not rescue you. You obey God, but the world still hates you. You obey God, but life does not suddenly become carefree without any inkling trace of trouble.
You feel that balance-scale teetering in the heart. ‘Christ’ sits on one end and ‘suffering’ on the other. You are left weighing: Is it worth suffering with Jesus, or is it better to throw him in the dust and move on without his Word ruling your life? The reason why such a thought could even come up in the first place is because our sinful heart thinks that Christ should reward us for following him.
Might our expectations actually contribute to suffering? I mean, you do realize that God never shies away from the reality that you (and I) can suffer as Christians, right? After all, our reading made it pretty clear: I consider that our present sufferings… those unpleasantries exist! And why? [T]he creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.
Death and decay were never part of God’s intentions; life and immortality were! Yet, Adam and Eve shattered the one simple command God gave: ‘Do not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.’ As a result, sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned (Romans 5:12). Why do hurricanes rip into cities and floods wash away towns? Why do water levels rise and why does water dry up? Why do people oppose Christianity? Why do bodies get sick and break down? Not because God left us! But because sin festers in this world! And a consequence, a wage of that sin is death! (Romans 6:23)
Have you weighed that? Are Your Expectations of Christ Balanced? If we overlook the existence of sin in this world, if we forget to take into account that sin affects all creation, if we fail to grasp that sin without Christ brings death, then we will fail to see what Christ has accomplished for us.
Jesus does not sit at one end of the scale, unwilling to touch the sufferings in this world. Instead, he came into the world and neutralized them one by one. If we think that God has no idea what suffering is, then look at the cross. See the One who shouldered the load of hell itself so that you will never know what it’s like to suffer eternally. See the One who snapped the neck of death itself so that you will never die eternally. See the One who stomped on Satan’s filthy head so that he could silence those slimy lies eternally.
Christ now sits at one end of the scale, but how overwhelming he is! Able to raise every believer— including your cremated husband and your wife who died from cancer. Able to swallow up guilt so that God finds no spot on you. Able to bring all things to a close by his own powerful might and authority.
When you weigh suffering, Are Your Expectations of Christ Balanced? Weigh the cause for discouragement. See Christ conquer that cause, that sin. Persevere in this life with patient eagerness.
The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. ‘Nature’ is pictured as a spectator standing in the crowd outside the Doherty Hotel during the [Clare’s] St. Patty’s parade. She strains her neck and stands on her tip-toes to see— not floats— but you wrapped in God’s glory.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. A woman in labor is usually not smiling. There’s usually shouting and yelling and sweating and pain. But then!— you hear a baby cry and pain suddenly transforms into joy! In childbirth things go from ‘bad’ to ‘better,’ not ‘bad’ to ‘worse.’
Even in creation, you see ‘bad’ knowing there is ‘better.’ Drought and famine is not perfect. Viruses and tumors are not perfect. Down trees and contaminated lakes is not perfect. Diseased deer and invasive species is not perfect. You see these things— but do not dwell on them. Let them be powerful reminders that God will bring all things from ‘bad’ to ‘perfect!’
Not only does creation yearn for Jesus to return, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. Because you know what’s coming. You have the firstfruits of the Spirit. The Israelite gladly gave the very first cuttings of his harvest as an offering to God. He did not worry that he gave too much or go without later. Instead, he gave in the confidence that God would provide more. A pastor put it this way: ‘The firstfruit offering was a pledge, a token, God’s down payment, assuring that God would give them the rest of the harvest also’ (from The People’s Bible: Romans, 136).
God has deposited the Holy Spirit in you when you were baptized. Holy Scripture clearly says: Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). Your baptism is God’s pledge of more to come. You will be wrapped in glory, in pure splendid greatness, forever.
There’s no question about it. God has already adopted you. Jesus signed the legal papers with his blood. The Father has put his seal of approval on that document. And now, God leaves the office and walks down the hallway. We patiently sit in the cafeteria, waiting for his appearing. Because soon the unseen promised will be reality seen.
For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. Patience is difficult— especially today. High-speed internet and on-demand streaming teach us to expect things now. Medicines and hospital offers to remove discomfort now. Cell phones and text messages demand instant response. Our own two feet can take us away from a toxic situation. We live in a world of ‘quick-fix’ solutions to the troubles we face, but God’s many promises in the Bible set our sights on the best yet to come. Not only do unseen promises encourage us, but the actions God has already done prove his seriousness in keeping his Word.
God’s Word anchored Paul Gerhardt through life. I’m really not sure if life could have gotten any worse. What I do know is that Paul Gerhardt wrote some of the most prolific hymns perfectly tying together the Christian’s hope in the face of suffering. Hymns like “Why Should Cross and Trial Grieve Me,” “Jesus, Your Boundless Love to Me,” and “Now Rest Beneath Night’s Shadow” sound so strange given what you know about his life. For a man who lost so much he makes clear that he really lost nothing.
Christ dying and rising again has so overwhelmed all suffering that your future is only one of glory. You may be experiencing suffering now. Yet, God’s Word lifts your eyes to what lies ahead and assures you of victory even this present suffering.
Are Your Expectations of Christ Balanced? Weigh the cause for discouragement. Persevere with patient eagerness.