(Appeared first in October 2011, The Mennonite. Reprinted with permission.)
By Ervin Stutzman
In this hope we are saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.—Romans 8:24-25, TNIV
As Christians, we live with the hope that the way things are now are not the way they will always be. In the Apostle Paul’s words, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (v. 18).
Certainly there is plenty of suffering in our world today. As in Paul’s day, the whole creation appears to groan in travail. The natural disasters of the last two years bear witness to this truth. According to the Associated Press: “Earthquakes, heat waves, floods, volcanoes, super typhoons, blizzards, landslides and droughts killed at least a quarter million people in 2010—the deadliest year in more than a generation.” The global re-insurer Swiss Re reported that these 2010 disasters caused $222 billion in economic losses.
If 2010 was the deadliest year on record for natural disasters, 2011 has already set a record as the most expensive year at a cost of $265 billion. The last nine months have also introduced the greatest variety of spectacular disasters in U.S. history—flooding, heat waves, drought, wildfires, tornadoes and hurricanes, each leaving a swath of destruction in its wake.
Even so, natural disasters are only a part the immense suffering in the world. Likely the greatest suffering is brought about by the tensions between peoples of the world. The Arab Spring and the Libyan rebellion testify to the human toll of corrupt and oppressive government. The 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks poignantly reminded us that the United States is engaged in the longest war in our history, without an end in view. Furthermore, the last century has seen more Christian martyrs than any other such period in history. One might readily ask, “Where is God in the midst of this suffering?”
In this environment, hope may be hard to come by. As in Paul’s day, we groan to be delivered from such suffering. The hope that saves us from despair comes from the inner confidence that God is at work in the midst of suffering. The best evidence of God’s work is the manifestation of the fruit of the Spirit in our lives. In spite of suffering, we are being transformed day by day. Furthermore, the one “who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God” (Romans 8:27). The Spirit within intercedes for us with groans too deep for words.
This is what gives us the confidence that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (v. 28).
Although there are different ways to translate this verse, I don’t think any of them mean that God controls everything or makes everything happen in a particular way. Rather, I take this verse to mean that in every difficult circumstance, God is at work to redeem it. I have confidence that in spite of natural disasters, humanly imposed suffering or my own foibles, God is at work for the good.
With Paul, I confess that there is nothing in all of creation that “will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (v. 39). Therefore, in our pursuit of the missional church, I am persuaded that we invest in hope as we look for the signs of God’s redemption in the midst of the suffering of the world.