I think I went into this understanding that following Christ would not easy. But there are a lot of days where I just feel exhausted spiritually, like each choice or thought or act stands before me like a mountain to climb and waking up is like facing a whole range. The Christian life is a race of the marathon category and to be quite frank, I didn’t think I’d be this pooped with this much still to go. I’m only 31 and given current stats I’ve got a lot of mornings to wake up to still.
While Christ has accomplished all we need for our salvation and God’s grace is sufficient for all we face, every time I turn around I’m told to “appropriate” and “remember” and “focus” on it. There is some serious mental labor involved there and it seems like an awful lot of work for something I understand to be a gift. Given the tension of divine sovereignty and human responsibility, it’s not a dilemma I expect a solution to necessarily, but in my worst moments I sort of feel like God bait-and-switched me. Like I was somehow conned into this without reading the small print. 50 years until Christ’s righteousness is revealed in me?!? And how can I possibly do all that you ask me to in the way you ask me to in the meantime? Without becoming a hermit that is… The task ahead of me and the frequency of my failure in it is simple overwhelming. I really just want to skip ahead to the part about righteousness, hanging out with Jesus and streets of gold.
In Romans 8, Paul talks about creation and the followers of Christ groaning, longing for that day. I’m glad he said this stuff in addition to all the rest because when we sing “At the Cross” in church, I’m the person sometimes lip-syncing the line “and I’m happy all the day” for my conscience’s sake. In Colossians, Paul’s eschatology is more “realized” and he talks about our life in Christ in such present-day language it makes me wonder what’s wrong with me. There’s a small clue, though, in the phrase “and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” It’s that hidden part that gets me everyday! But what slips past as a descriptive phrase rushing towards action in Colossians is a thoughtful paragraph in Romans 8. The rich visual imagery makes it clear that Paul (and the Spirit) have been in the trenches with that hidden bit.
Verse 18 starts a new section in the chapter and Paul’s opening statement has often been very convicting for me. Paul is always exulting in the glory of God with rash, praise-dripping statements, so it’s easy to skate right by his words here, but don’t. I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. Sure, we know that the future will be fantastic, and that the present time is full of suffering, but what I often missed was Paul’s recognition that we are prone to comparing the two. Every day I make choices about which reality I think is more “real.” Do I think the suffering part or the glory part is more significant and therefore the foundation of my thoughts, feelings and actions? If my mind contained a giant old-fashioned scale, there are a lot of days where the suffering side is not even tipping slightly, but crashing down and sending the glory flying away. I compare what I feel now and think that this reality of difficulty is weightier than the reality that lies ahead; I compare them and decide that the present time is worthy to compare and consider against glory. Not so shockingly, I often choose to dwell in the suffering reality and let it reign in my life.
Verse 23 is where we groan. And groaning is a good thing because it is the sign of the Spirit in you. The awareness that things are seriously screwed up in this world and in our own lives is an awareness that things should be better. That suffering should not the end of the story, but glory should be. The groaning indicates a longing for this state of weakness to be conquered.
But verses 24 and 25 are what I especially need to hear. I’m right there with Paul on the groaning and on things needing to be fixed, but much less enthusiastic on being stuck in between! What’s in between? Hope. In his commentary on Romans, Moo says that Paul’s point in these verses is to show that the need for waiting should not be surprising. Why not (because, yeah, I totally missed that too…)? All the way back in verse 17 Paul says we suffer with Him (Christ) so that we may also be glorified with Him. “So that” is the language of cause and effect meaning that we get to glory because we suffer. Lest we think that cruel, the statement is softened on all sides by the example of our own God in the flesh. Furthermore, Paul explains the “why” in verses 24 and 25: hope. This is the time that hope is on display and the display of hope demands the absence of its object. My next thought is always something like “Ok, God but how long does this displaying really need to take?” Something like when my grandma told my mom that her chore was to wash the dishes so that she would learn how to do it, to which my mom replied “it only takes one time to learn that…” But that thought is exactly the type of comparing Paul says we can’t do. I’m imagining that my 50 or 20 years of hoping is somehow more bad than the good of an eternity full of faith made sight.
The sign of hope (verse 25) is eager endurance, a phrase I have come to have a love-hate relationship with. Love because it’s full of irony and challenge and hate because I rarely rise to that challenge. Last night I sat at a graduation and sang an old-school song I hadn’t heard in a while about being faithful. Faithfulness is something I think our generation has a hard time with. We’re willing to die a martyr’s death in the 10/40 window, but have a hard time giving our money to church instead of Gap. And before any older people (who probably aren’t reading this, now that I think of it…) jump on our case, let me say that I think it begins with good reasons. For one, we want to do right with passion, not out of legalism, duty or people-pleasing. But as we get older and realize that there are a lot of days and moments that the passion isn’t blazing hot, we struggle. We want to feel it because we believe that truth should be felt.
Paul’s answer is the Spirit, the firstfruits and down payment of the glory ahead. In his book Spiritual Depression, Lloyd-Jones says this of 2 Tim 1.7:
“As I understand it, the big thing that Paul is saying in effect to Timothy is: ‘Timothy, you seem to be thinking about yourself and your life and all you have to do as if you were still an ordinary person. But Timothy, you are not an ordinary person!.. We allow the future to come to us and to dominate us, and we compare our own weakness and lack of strength with the greatness of the calling and the tremendous task before us. And down we go as if we were but our natural selves. Now the thing to do, says Paul to Timothy, is to remind yourself that we have been given the gift of God’s Holy Spirit, and to realize that because of this our whole outlook upon life and the future must therefore be essentially different… The way in which we face it all is by reminding ourselves that the Holy Spirit is in us. There is the future, there is the high calling, there is the persecution, there is the opposition, there is the enemy. I see it all. I must admit also that I am weak, that I lack the necessary powers and propensities. But instead of stopping there I must goon to say: ‘Yes, I know it all, but—…’ And the moment I use that word ‘but’ I am doing what the Apostle wants me to do… In other words, we have to learn to say, that what matters in any of these positions is not what is true of us but what is true of Him…”
The Spirit is the bridge between Christ’s time on earth and the revealing of our now-hidden life. We’ve been trying to teach Clive how to wait patiently because while he knows he’s not supposed to interrupt that doesn’t seem to stop him from repeating “excuse me excuse me excuse me” ad infinitum while the other parties are finishing their conversation. So I told him that patience means waiting happily without complaining or selfishness. While I was reading Romans 8 yesterday he came down from his nap and asked me what I was reading about. I told him “Mommy’s trying to learn how to wait better.” I’m beginning to understand why patience (among other things) is a fruit of the Spirit. And encouraged by the reality that He is the Spirit of Christ who leads me in this new covenant age in all the “appropriating,” “focusing,” and “remembering” I must do. So while there are still days that will feel like mountain-climbing and the marathon has only just begun, I am not alone. And I’ll end here before it starts to sound like that footprints poem.