And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. Romans 5:2b-5 (NIV)
Wow, Paul was right! I shouldn't be surprised. After all, Paul was right about so many things in Scripture. Yet this time, I am reading this text as one who has walked through the process of these verses; I have experienced all these steps to be true; and now I know for certain that Paul was right!
Many Christians, myself included, read this passage and wonder how in the world rejoicing in suffering is possible. Since we don’t really know the answer, we muster up a happy face while we’re dying on the inside and call it rejoicing. But that’s not real rejoicing. Real rejoicing is so much more satisfying than fake rejoicing, and it usually happens much later than the initial start of the suffering. So how do we get there?
Walk the steps. When a season of suffering overwhelms our life, we don’t land in rejoicing right away. Suffering first produces perseverance. Perseverance means you keep going. You don’t have to be happy about it. You don’t have to do it well. You’re allowed to cry and be angry and wonder why this is happening to you. But the point here is, you keep going.
I left a marriage that ushered into my life more evil, death and destruction than I ever cared to know about, much less experience. The first years after the marriage, much like the eight years of the marriage, were marked by sorrow. But if I was to follow Paul’s instructions here, I had to keep going. I had to get out of bed every morning. I had to go to work every day. I had to take care of my toddler. I had to pray, read my Bible, and go to church. I didn’t have to do these things well, and I didn’t have to have a happy attitude. I just had to do them. Regularly. Consistently. That’s perseverance. That's step one.
After you persevere for awhile, you eventually notice a shift in your attitude. That’s what Paul talks about when he says that after perseverance comes character. After we have persevered in the regular tasks of life and spiritual commitments, we notice that our emotions have naturally calmed down, and we have the capacity to care about how well we’re doing these tasks. We now want a better attitude. So maybe we pay more attention at church. We memorize Scripture. We let God correct us and change our thinking. Notice that we’re still not rejoicing. We’re just continually and faithfully persevering. The difference is, now we’re a little bit happier about it and we have gained some ground in our understanding and perspective. Our real smile and our real joy is only starting to be formed. That's step two.
After character, comes hope. Hope isn’t simply things you wish for. Hope is the assurance and confidence that your days will become brighter, and that from the suffering, God is birthing something great in your life and in your heart. By this point in the process, you can look back and see without any doubt that your situation has improved. That indeed God has been faithful, and that will give you the hope to firmly believe in God's future faithfulness. That's step three.
After perseverance, character-growth, and new hope have emerged, then and only then, do you really have true joy in your heart. Now, you are rejoicing! Your circumstances may or may not be different, but boy is your heart ever changed! Now your real smile can shine bright. This hope does not disappoint, like Paul says, because it’s rooted in faith. You can begin this new season with way more endurance, perseverance, character and hope than you ever had before, and that is definitely cause for rejoicing!
P.S. This process took me about five years, so don't get discouraged if it takes awhile for you, too. Just keep going!