All suffering is the result of humanity’s fall in the Garden, as Paul will soon explain (verse 12). Adam’s sin opened the door to sickness, death, Satan’s opposition, and human sin against one another. In all these things Paul says that we rejoice. Now we discover the reason for Paul’s joy in the face of hardship. Simply put, he knows something.
3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,
Just as justification saves us from God’s future wrath, it also does something for us in regard to present suffering. For those who are justified, God’s divine purpose transforms suffering so that it works for us. In the process, we learn to hope for things of eternal glory.
The circle of hope
Not only do we rejoice in hope of the glory of God (verse 2), but we also rejoice in our sufferings. This counterintuitive attitude toward suffering can happen only because we know that suffering begins a chain reaction that circles back to hope. Suffering → perseverance, perseverance → character, and character → hope. Paul wants us to see the complete process so we can trust that God has a purpose for our suffering.
Suffering (literally pressure) includes any kind of affliction, persecution, anxiety, or hardship. The first thing it produces is perseverance, the virtue of bearing up under pressure. Confident that God is in control, we are motivated to persevere. But if instead we complain, or merely resign ourselves, we abort the process before it accomplishes the next virtue in the chain, character.
Character translates a Greek word meaning something that has been tested and approved or found to be true. Is this real gold? What is the quality of this gold? John Murray in his commentary on Romans uses the word “approvedness.” It is a quality of conduct that has been tried and stood the test.
Two kinds of testing
There are two kinds of testing, and they differ according to the motive. Some testing is done with hostile intent. When the devil is doing the testing, the more accurate word is tempting. The devil entices people to engage in behavior that will lead to their destruction.
Of course, God’s testing has an entirely different purpose. God probes and examines our faith and character so that he can demonstrate to himself, to us, and to others that our faith and character pass the test. In Psalm 11:5, David says, “The LORD tests [or examines] the righteous.” God pays close attention to the justified to test the commitment of their hearts.
The devil seeks to grind a saint to dust, but God turns it into the pure gold of Christ-like character.
God is looking to see if we will follow the example of Christ, who for the joy set before him endured the cross (Hebrews 12). We too can persevere by keeping the joy of our end goal set before us. This attitude produces the character that fuels hope.
How character produces hope
The connection between character and hope is not obvious, but I think it works like this. When we become a little more patient or complain less and give thanks more, assurance grows that God really is at work in us. When others notice the upward trend, we know God must be doing something! Seeing character form in us strengthens our hope of being fully conformed to Christ.
Another way character produces hope is to change what we hope for by transforming our concept of pleasure. Our hopes, we must admit, are predominantly self-centered. I don’t think I’ve ever hoped that my neighbor across the street would be given a raise at work. Because we want only good things to happen to us, we don’t see how suffering could produce anything beneficial like hope. We are pleasure seekers, not suffering seekers.
So could it be that suffering, perseverance, and character lead us on a journey that transforms how we conceive of pleasure. We learn to hope more for things that please God and in this find our highest pleasure.
Hoping for the glory of God
It was the Father’s “good pleasure” (Ephesians 1:5) to adopt us into his family and train us to be holy and blameless like Jesus Christ. The Father is passionate that his Son have preeminence in all things, and that is why he has predestined us to take on the Son’s character.
With this mindset—our hope lifted beyond self-interest to seek the pleasure and glory of God—we see suffering and discipline in a whole new light. Now we endure hardship to satisfy the Father’s desire to glorify and give preeminence to his beloved Son. Like Jesus we can say not my will but the Father’s be done. This is an attitude of true maturity, the full expression of agape love: to seek the best interests of the Other. Seeking the Father’s pleasure becomes our pleasure, just as it is his pleasure to bestow such great love on his children (1 John 3:1).
Our heavenly Father is not an uncaring taskmaster, for he comforts us in proportion to our suffering (2 Corinthians 1:3–7). Any suffering we endure is but for a season, and suffering is far from the only thing he uses to conform us to the image of his Son. And he encourages us to come to him for healing and relief. Seeking escape from pain may be the reason we seek the face of God, but the beauty of his face will keep us there long after the pain is gone.
Knowing all these things, we rejoice in our sufferings. We also know this: God will use the least amount of suffering in our life necessary to achieve his purpose. I have written more extensively on this theme in “Surrender to His Ways,” chapter 17 of my book.
Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God (Ps 42:5–6).