In the opening chapters of Romans 5, St. Paul presents the Christian life as a movement from hope to hope. Having been justified by faith and now having peace with God, we begin our faith journey in hope and come what may we end that journey in hope, which means that even in the in-between we have hope.
Paul lists the progression hope, suffering, endurance, character, and once again hope. This list is not terminology separated and unconnected from each other. Paul explicitly sees a progression from one to the next.
Our justification and the resulting peace with God gives us hope, and it is in that hope in which we boast. We don't boast in and of ourselves. This salvation we have received is a divine gift. There is no personal pride to be had here. We boast in our hope of sharing in the glory of God. Karl Barth suggests that deification is in mind-- the transformation of saved humanity after the character of God in which we will be fully united in his presence. That deification has not yet happened in its fullness, but it has begun; and Paul is so certain of it he can write confidently to the Romans that believers may hope in its current reality and eventual certainty.
It is that hope in such sharing that Christians can rejoice in their sufferings. Paul is not promoting some masochistic delight in pain, nor is he referring to suffering in general. The suffering in mind is the suffering that results directly from following Jesus. If our ultimate purpose in this life is to bear witness in word and in deed to the truth of the gospel, then we rejoice in our sufferings for the gospel because it reveals that we are truly faithful. In Acts 5:40-42 we read,
...and when they [the Sanhedrin] had called in the apostles, they had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. As they left the council, they rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name. And every day in the temple and at home they did not cease to teach and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah.Suffering for Jesus all too often offers the possibility of redemption to others just as much if not more so than words.
But the movement of the Christian life does not stop with suffering. Suffering leads to endurance. Endurance does not mean hanging on in the midst of the difficulty, but it means pressing on with the mission in spite of the difficulty. Once we realize our suffering is happening because the faith we have embraced matters, something that matters so much it is opposed by others, it leads us to endure and continue to move forward in the calling of the Good News. Suffering does not stop us, it motivates us to continue.
The movement continues-- endurance produces character. The word translated "character" in the Greek was used for metal that had been put through a refining fire and purged of its impurities. William Barclay suggests that this word reflects our word "sterling" for precious metal today. He writes,
When affliction is met with fortitude, out of the battle a man emerges stronger, and purer, and better, and nearer God.It is true that at times suffering reveals lack of character, but it is also just as true that suffering produces character. In this instance, Paul has in mind being fashioned after the character of Jesus Christ.
And finally in this progression we have come full circle back to hope. As followers of Jesus we start in hope and end in hope; and such hope never disappoints us because God in Jesus Christ is our hope. It is such hope that makes it possible for us to suffer and endure and grow in character, and it is such suffering and endurance and character that gives us hope. Hope enables us to be faithful and being faithful gives us continued hope.
The Christian life is a movement from hope to hope.