Suffering with the Spirit
I encourage you to read Romans 8:17–27, as that’s the basis of what’s to follow. Also, if you’ve read some of my past devotionals, where I’ve desired to unpack the rich and glorious contents of Romans 8, you’ll remember that we who claim Christ Jesus as our Lord and Savior are his eternally, and we’re freed to engage in the “glorious pursuit” of him because of the unwavering promise of the opening verse: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Rom. 8:1) This declaration of “no condemnation” is the ground upon which all spiritual life rests. Because “It is finished,” we’re no longer merely surviving under the pressure to get it all done, because, in Christ, it’s already finished!
Provided We Suffer
With that in mind, and with the seemingly uplifting tone of the chapter thus far, verse 17 seems to stand in stark contrast to the rest of the passage. The flow of thought runs beautifully from verse 16 into verse 17, logically reasoning our position as the sons and daughters of God in Christ. And, it’d be quite nice if the apostle were inspired to stop writing at the first half of verse 17: “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 . . .” (Rom. 8:16–17) But he doesn’t, and next clause is what shapes our entire life as believers: “. . . provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” (Rom. 8:17)
“Provided that we suffer” — I wish that phrase wasn’t there. I wish it was never included, and that I could scrub it out of the text. I wish we could be the children of God without suffering, without adversity, without weakness. But, alas, that’s not how God works, nor how his Spirit works. It’s the Spirit that “helps us in our weakness.” (Rom. 8:26) As a matter of fact, “weakness and infirmity form the perfect framework for the exhibition of the splendor of divine power.” (Barnhouse, 141–42) Suffering hits us all. It’s an inescapable part of the world in which we live: a broken world filled with broken people enduring broken situations.
“Trouble is like home,” writes David Jeremiah. “You’re either there, coming from it, or on your way back to it.” (126) As the apostle says earlier in the narrative, the whole creation is “groaning,” aching to be released and delivered from the chains of this brokenness, this sin. (Rom. 8:22–23) Truth be told, every endeavor of man, at its foundation, is merely an endeavor to escape suffering: it’s a pursuit of God amongst smaller, lesser God’s. And while we seek happiness and refuge in all the the wrong places, these God’s, these “things,” will never deliver, never satisfy, never fill us. And until we admit that we’re broken and in desperate need of Jesus, we’ll continue on these futile pursuits of something other than God, and we’ll never celebrate and rejoice over Jesus and what he’s done.
The Stage of Grace
That’s what Christians are, you know? Celebraters, rejoicers — celebrating and rejoicing the glorious gospel that has transformed their lives. Therefore, the first step to freedom is admitting you have a problem! It’s our complete and utter inability to do anything for ourselves that the Spirit helps us with. He “helps us in our weakness” (Rom. 8:26 NLT), in “our infirmities.” (Rom. 8:26 KJV) Our sufferings and infirmities are the perfect stage for the grace of God to get all the attention and praise and glory. What’s more, there’s no possible chance that we’ll ever be truly captivated by God’s grace unless we’re first familiar with our filthiness, brokenness, and helplessness. We have to realize our nothingness, our helplessness, for it’s then that Jesus can changes us.
God fills empty people, heals broken people, and finds lost people. If you think you’re making it, if you think you can keep going and find “happiness” apart from God, you’re, in fact, rejecting him. “It is very important that we recognize our nothingness,” says D. G. Barnhouse, “for that recognition is the doorway to accomplishment for the believer . . . So we have the paradox of being strong when we know we are weak, and of being truly weak when we think we have some strength.” (142) We know that God doesn’t work how we’d expect him to: “His ways aren’t our ways.” The gospel itself is, likewise, very counterintuitive, going against all the strains of human logic and reasoning. Furthermore, gospel-living is very paradoxical.
In the gospel, redemption comes out of wreckage. Good comes from failure. Greatness from insignificance. Jesus works mightily through sufferers, through the small, through the broken. God does amazing things through unexemplary people. In fact, nowhere else, but in the gospel, are we told to “glory in infirmities” (2 Cor. 12:9–10), and to “rejoice in trials.” (James 1:2–4) The remarkable news of the gospel is that our testimony to the world isn’t our “put-together-ness”; it’s not our competence and ability; it’s not our feats of goodness and ability and strength that change the world — it’s our willingness to admit that we’re weak.
The True Christian Witness
The believer’s greatest witness to the world is his confession, his brokenness, because that’s where Jesus is. That’s how we can rejoice in trials: because we know that we’re not the center, and that Jesus is, and all the while he’s to get the glory and that all we endure is divinely constructed by him. If we try to escape suffering by chasing a myriad of other things, we deny our need for Jesus. But, in reality, suffering and weakness is precisely where Christ finds us, “for it is against such infirmity that he can best display his power.” (Barnhouse, 142)
Divine power is best displayed against the backdrop of human weakness. (Zuck and Walvoord, 583)
What’s more, as David Jeremiah notes, “Grace can only shine its ultimate brilliance because it emerges from ultimate darkness.” (30) The relief you seek during trials, the rest you desire during hard times is only realized, is only found in Jesus. The more we try to rest on our own accomplishments, our own strengths, our own abilities, the more we’ll fall flat on our faces. The more we attempt to fix things in our own strength, the more we will fail. It’s only through the interceding, infiltrating, invading grace of the Holy Spirit that we are made to rejoice in suffering; that we’re able to be uplifted and renewed; that we’re made to be transformed into who we ought to be. Yes, it’s “only when God intervenes in sovereign grace [that] man can become what he should be.” (Barnhouse, 143) The relief we seek is found at Jesus’s throne — the throne of eternal grace. (Heb. 4:9–16) The rest this “throne of grace” affords is “mercy to the vilest, mercy to the uttermost, mercy which embraces every sinner on this side of hell! And it is mercy now; mercy to thee as thou standest in thy sin, mercy in which there is no delay, no uncertainty!” (Bonar, #27)
This is your joy, that in suffering — whatever that may be — you can fly to Jesus and fall on him, on his grace and find sweet, eternal rest for your troubled soul. Therefore, I urge and implore you, reader, to fly, to run to Jesus with all haste! Don’t delay, don’t deny your need of him, but right where you are, turn and see him — for he’s there, he’s waiting, ready to forgive, ready and willing, to impart you with forgiving, restoring, delivering grace! Don’t endure suffering on your own — you won’t make it. Lean on Christ and suffer with his Spirit.
Donald G. Barnhouse, Expositions of Bible Doctrines Taking the Epistle to the Romans as a Point of Departure, Vol. 3, Part 3 (Philadelphia: The Evangelical Foundation, 1963).
Horatius Bonar, Kelso Tracts (London: James Nisbet & Co., 1851)
David Jeremiah, Captured by Grace: No One Is Beyond the Reach of a Loving God (Brentwood, TN: Integrity Publishers, 2006).
Roy Zuck and John Walvoord, Bible Knowledge Commentary: New Testament (Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook, 2002).