Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom. 8:35–39)
“Lord, don’t you care?!” The Gospels record two occasions when some of Jesus’ closest disciples posed that question to him (Mark 4:38; Luke 10:40). In the book of Job and in the Psalms, others pose the same question to the Lord many times and in different ways. How about you? Have you ever cried out to Jesus, wondering if he cares? Perhaps you turned to him in the midst of your own terrible storm when help seemed nowhere to be found. Some of you might be there right now. In the midst of trials, especially long-lasting ones, we can begin to feel that God is ignoring us—or worse still, has simply stopped caring about us and our suffering at all.
In this essay, I want to meditate together on God’s good news for all suffering believers, good news the whole church confesses at the very heart of our creed: “I believe in Jesus Christ . . . who suffered.”
Suffering Looms Large in Human Experience
In June, we saw in the news that the submersible Titan imploded, killing all on board, hundreds of largely Afghani and Pakistani asylum seekers drowned when their overloaded fishing boat sank en route from Libya to Italy, and several American towns were devastated by tornadoes. One of the Titan’s passengers was a billionaire (the tour cost $250,000 per person), while the asylum seekers were doubtless at the other end of the economic spectrum, and the tornado victims were likely somewhere in between. Notwithstanding their varied nationalities, economic status, and personal differences, all these people shared in the reality of human suffering, as did their friends and loved ones.
Their stories were prominent in the media at the time, but the same subjection to suffering takes place to a less acute degree for everyone, everywhere. We live in a world where beauty, goodness, and joy abound. Yet despite our best efforts (and sometimes by means of our worst efforts), ugliness and pain are part of life in this fallen world. Suffering’s nature, extent, and intensity vary greatly, and people respond to it differently; but sooner or later, suffering looms large in every human life.
Suffering’s Centrality to the Christian Faith and Its Gospel Message
Given suffering’s presence and prominence in human life as a universal problem, it may come as a surprise to find it prominent in the Christian faith as God’s universal solution. This is reflected in both the Apostles’ and the Nicene Creeds where the word suffered appears centrally in connection with Jesus’ crucifixion “under Pontius Pilate.” That one word contains a glorious fact: by virtue of the two natures united in Christ’s Person, the impassible God submitted to unfathomable suffering and overcame it so that he might free us, suffering’s deserving subjects, from an eternity of suffering. In the gospel, God doesn’t ignore or run away from the reality of suffering. He solves our problem by taking it upon himself.
The various Lutheran, Reformed, and Anglican confessions and catechisms echo and expand on this creedal confession of Jesus’ suffering. For example, in his Shorter Catechism, Luther explains this article in the creed this way:
I believe that Jesus Christ . . . has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, that I may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true.
The Heidelberg Catechism (Q. 37) focuses on the word suffered:
What do you understand by the word “suffered”?
That . . . Christ sustained in body and soul the anger of God against the sin of the whole human race. This He did in order that, by his suffering as the only atoning sacrifice, he might set us free, body and soul from eternal condemnation, and gain for us God’s grace, righteousness, and eternal life.
The Anglican catechism contained in the Book of Common Prayer (first edition) is briefer on this point, but it still underscores the personal and cosmic significance of the redemptive purpose of Christ’s suffering:
What dost thou chiefly learn in these Articles of thy Belief? . . .
Suffering Is an Inevitable Part of the Life of Faith
That suffering is part of the life of faith should not surprise or discourage us because of who we are called to believe in and follow as disciples, the One who “was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53:3). Indeed, Paul made the intimate connection between following Christ and suffering clear earlier in Romans 8, and in so doing simply reflected the plain teaching of Christ and the rest of the New Testament:
The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. (Rom. 8:16–17)
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matt. 16:24)
For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. . . . Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. (1 Pet. 2:21; 4:12–13)
In Romans 8:35, Paul lists a wide range of severe sufferings believers might face, as he himself had done: “tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword.” In verse 36, he quotes Psalm 44:22 to show that such sufferings are nothing new for God’s people, “As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’” The psalmist was not suffering because of some sin on his part, but because of his faithfulness to Yahweh: “for your sake.” Think of the “heroes of the faith” in Hebrews 11 who “were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated . . . wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.”
Our suffering might be evidence of fatherly discipline—and even that is an expression of love (Heb. 12)—but it might not be. It might, instead, be “the fellowship of His sufferings”; that is, evidence of our identity with Christ whom the world and its evil ruler hate (John 15:16, 18–19). In either case, the Bible’s point is that suffering is not an anomaly or evidence of God’s indifference or hostility toward believers, but an ordinary and even necessary part of the life of faith. Through that suffering, God is accomplishing his purposes of grace and glory for us in Christ.
Believers Overwhelmingly Conquer in and through Our Sufferings
Romans 8:37 is even shorter in Greek than in English, but for all its terseness, it’s altogether glorious: “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” The Greek for “more than conquerors” is one word: literally, “hyper-victors” or as F. F. Bruce translates it, “super-conquerors.” Notice, too, that there are no exceptions to the rule. “In all these things”—even in the worst of our struggles, we’re completely victorious. This victory is not achieved or obtained in or by our own strength but “through Him who loved us.” Paul mentions the Spirit twenty times in this chapter’s thirty-nine verses, where God’s many names and descriptions underscore the richness of his ministry to us and our unbreakable union with Christ through him.
By means of our union with Christ and the ministry of his Spirit, believers overwhelmingly conquer in and through our sufferings in at least three wonderful ways highlighted by Romans 8. First, we’re wonderfully sustained in the midst of our sufferings. For instance, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness” (v. 26). While this verse mentions the Spirit’s ministry to us in prayer, many other testimonies make clear the breadth and richness of the Spirit’s work in upholding us in our suffering (Isa. 40:31; 41:10; Rom. 5:3–5; 2 Cor. 12:9–10, just to cite a few).
Second, we’re not only sustained in and through our sufferings, but we’re also surprisingly blessed by means of them. That’s the point of the justly famous verse 28: “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” This verse is unfortunately too often divorced from the next that describes the specific “purpose” and the “good” toward which God is working: his glory in the Son’s exaltation among a vast host of redeemed sons and daughters who reflect his lovely image. Our conformity to that image is the great purpose and good to which the Lord is orchestrating even our worst sufferings.
And third, we hyper-triumph in our sufferings in that we’ll eventually be completely delivered from them and all their sources will be utterly vanquished and destroyed while we are exalted and blessed forever:
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. (Rom. 8:18–21)
All these promises are contained in the creeds’ wonderful confession that Jesus Christ “suffered.” Because he was forsaken for a time (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?!”) yet not abandoned in the grave, neither shall we ever be. And not only did Jesus take upon himself the suffering that we deserved, but by his grace, we partake of the blessing that he deserves. So, any forsakenness or abandonment we experience is only apparent and temporary. Because he suffered, “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).
Surely, besides being the rock-solid object of our faith and hope, these promises are abundant reasons for wonder, love, and praise as we consider the Son’s love for us and his past and present ministry to us, not to mention the richness of the Spirit’s work as well. There is also an additional challenge for us to constantly trust and rest in the reality of these great facts, especially when we’re in the midst of terrible trials. Our circumstances and feelings don’t dictate or change God’s truth. No matter what we’re going through, we can confess with the universal church that “Jesus Christ suffered.” Our calling is to remember and believe it, rejoice in it, and claim its reality for ourselves, even when it’s hard—especially when it’s hard! His grace can and will sustain us in our trials. We can know God better and become more like him through them. They can equip us to minister to others. And in his perfect timing, we will be delivered from them forever.
God’s Love in Our Suffering and Triumphant Savior Is Our Ultimate Hope
While he was dying, Hugh Kennedy, an eminent Scottish Christian, called for a Bible. Since his sight was gone, he said to his children gathered around the bed,
“Turn me to the eighty of the Romans, and set my finger at these words, I am persuaded that neither death nor life, etc.” Now, said he, “is my finger upon them?” And, when they told him it was, without speaking any more, he said, “Now, God be with you, my children; I have breakfasted with you, and shall sup with my Lord Jesus Christ this night;” and so departed.
The Christian faith and its gospel of a suffering and triumphant Savior are the Creator’s gracious response to suffering’s root cause: sin and its corruption. While we still groan under the weight of suffering, he promises not only to comfort us in it but to completely eradicate it upon the renewal of his good world, when “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4).
Wherever we may be when our time comes, may Hugh Kennedy’s experience be ours as well—if not in our beds with our fingers on these verses of Romans 8, then with them in the forefront of our minds and hearts. And may we not only die that way but also live that way—and suffer as “more than conquerors, through Him who loved us,” rejoicing in the absolute certainty that nothing “in all creation” will ever be able to separate us “from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Martin Luther, “The Creed,” Luther’s Small Catechism, https://catechism.cph.org/en/creed.html.Back
Ecumenical Creeds and Reformed Confessions (Grand Rapids: Board of Publications of the Christian Reformed Church, 1979), 21.Back
“A Catechism,” The Church of England, https://www.churchofengland.org/prayer-and-worship/worship-textsBack
F. F. Bruce, The Epistle of Paul to the Romans, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1963), 181.Back
“Matthew Henry’s Commentary—Verses 31–39,” BibleGateway, https://www.biblegateway.com/resources/matthew-henry/Rom.8.31-Rom.8.39.Back