The Ladder to Christlikeness
Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Romans 5:3a (Holman) And not only that, but we also rejoice in our afflictions,
Happy news: justification by faith gives us peace with God, and access to a new world named Grace. Tough news: salvation brings “afflictions”. We pause here a while to work through what feels unnatural, and goes against our grain.
Our text teaches us Christians suffer. The Greek word for afflictions literally means pressure. It refers to life’s everyday stresses and difficulties that constantly press in on us. We all face concerns about health, finances, family, friends, etc.
Some preachers leave the impression that becoming a Christ-follower ends all difficulties. This wrong teaching helps explain why some desert the Christian life at the first sign of trouble. They were led to believe they would have no more problems.
The Bible speaks to this issue with blunt honesty; no sugarcoated fairy tales, just straightforward truth. Jesus warned His disciples, “In the world ye shall have tribulation” (JN 16:33). Do not be surprised at pressures and stress. Expect them, and as much as God grants you strength, treat them as ordinary, albeit annoying, guests.
We do enjoy peace with God, and live in a new world, Grace, but our spirits inhabit physical bodies that are stuck in an evil world. In our spirits is sunshine; in our flesh, rain. Sometimes pleasant sunshine dominates; at other times rain prevails.
Ours is an inexplicable paradox. We can hurt, yet feel good, at the same time; sorrow on the surface, joy underneath. Paul saw himself “as grieving yet always rejoicing” (2 C 6:10). Richard Baxter said near death, “I have pain. . . .I have peace!”
To rejoice “in” our afflictions does not mean we think they are fun. Christ-followers do not enjoy afflictions. When life goes awry, we are not expected to feel good about it immediately. God does not expect us to be psychological weirdos. Christians share the common lot of humanity, meeting trouble with an initial sadness.
As a Pastor, I hasten to add, even in our saddest moments, believers should sense a strong assurance undergirding them. Life weighs us down, but we never have to hit rock bottom, because underneath us are God’s everlasting arms (DT 33:27).
As Paul will explain in these verses, believers can have a new insight; we can believe it is possible to benefit from afflictions. We can see they have value. We rejoice not in a given affliction itself, but in the spiritual benefits it can offer us.
Romans 5:3b Because we know that afflictions produces endurance,
Paul, realizing it would be difficult for us to rejoice in afflictions, elaborated on why we should. The results of afflictions can help us more than the afflictions themselves can harm us. If being ever more like Jesus is our passion, we can see troubles in a new light, and view them as not only harmful, but actually helpful.
The pressures of life can develop in us endurance, the bulldog determination to carry on in pursuit of God’s chosen purposes for us, despite hard sufferings. It means remaining loyal to the task, staying to the work, doing one’s duty, whatever happens.
Affliction causing endurance is ideal, but the opposite is often reality. Troubles irritate most people. The natural reaction is to whine, bellyache, give up, and quit.
A supernatural empowering is necessary for afflictions to produce spiritual endurance. God’s miraculously working grace must work in with the tribulation.
Suffering improves us when it helps us distrust ourselves. Pride is so real in us that we must repeatedly be reminded of our weaknesses to appreciate God’s strength.
We tend to overrate ourselves, thinking we are stronger than we are. Suffering keeps us from being on good terms with our own perceived ability. We’re not all we crack our self up to be. Suffering reminds us of this and helps us stay close to Jesus.
Without troubles, we grow careless in our walk. Our interaction with Jesus becomes spasmodic. The Psalmist learned this lesson, “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep Your word” (PS 119:67). God often uses suffering to chip away our rough edges. His intense grinding is painful, but the result can be beautiful.
Enduring is difficult, but God expects and enables us to do it. In fact God intends for us to do more in troubles than merely endure. We do not just shrug our shoulders and say, “That’s the way life is.” Even lost people acquiesce in this way.
We are not fatalists; we do not merely resign ourselves to a dilemma and face it as Stoics. We carry on to the point of being an overcomer. God in us actively conquers the trials of life. Christians should not be tender plants that have to be sheltered from difficulties, and planted in greenhouses. We live in a world filled with trouble and should be able to face them with confidence and stay loyal to the task.
Romans 5:4a Endurance produces proven character,
Endurance proves we are truly justified by faith, and verifies our genuineness. The fiery furnace is a crucible revealing whether our confession is gold or dross.
An acid test of devotion to Christ is the way we react to troubles. When life is going smoothly, it is difficult to determine if we have much patience, faith, courage, willpower, etc. We can know ourselves accurately only to the extent we are tested.
We may think we are well grounded, and feel self-assured; but is our assessment right? The answer is best learned when we are experiencing afflictions. The real proof of commitment is the ability to honestly say in the darkest days of life, “We know that all things work together for good to them that love God” (RM 8:28).
A proven believer acquiesces to the problematic decisions of God, and says with Job (13:15), “Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him”. When down, with everything collapsing about us, we may hear the devil whisper, “Where is your God now?” We prove our commitment by having God tell Satan to go and stay gone.
Romans 5:4b And proven character produces hope.
A Christ-follower looks back over a lifetime of past afflictions and sees God’s handiwork in them. The troubles we have overcome, coupled with the fact we’re still carrying on, provide proof after proof that God’s power was with us in our weakness.
We humbly confess, “With God’s help, we made it. Only God’s presence in us could have done this”. This satisfaction gives rise to hope, confidence for the future, knowing what He’s been He will continue to be. “I am that I am” denotes constancy.
After an initial sadness over an affliction, a Christ-follower can climb a ladder leading to hope. As a believer for sure perceives God’s handiwork in past afflictions, a confidence about God’s help in the future begins to swell within. Eventually, a believer can look back on an affliction with joy and thankfulness. The darkness of a dilemma does not have to last forever, but can give way to a bright dawn of hope.
This ladder rising to Christlikeness has these rungs in ever-recurring repetition: afflictions, endurance, proven character, hope. We go through this cycle repeatedly, and are often at varying stages simultaneously due to multiple pressures in life.
Notice two truths about this cycle. One, it begins with afflictions. I once asked Grandpa Marshall if a person could intimately know God apart from trouble. Tears welled up in his eyes as he shook his head no. If it truly is the desire of our lives to be like Jesus, we can rejoice in afflictions. They can become helps, not hindrances.
Two, the cycle ends in hope. John Knox, the powerful Scottish Reformer, was asked near death, “Hast thou hope?” Too weak to speak his answer with words, Know pointed his finger upward. He was dying with a confident hope.
Richard Roberts was a minister who died of a lung disease at age 36. As the end approached, he had strong hope. He knew that while alive, he would enjoy time with his wife and friends; and when dead he would be with his beloved Jesus. He wrote, “I lay in sweet suspense, as it were, between earth and heaven.” What unbeliever could call dying “sweet suspense”? The unbeliever can only claim, “When I am dead, that’s the end of me.” But believers have a better hope.