Calvin’s Dad or Radical Hope?

Here is the verse I’ve been reflecting on this week:

Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. Rom. 5:3-5

I know it’s not in the reading but I can’t get it out of my head. Plus I think it also helps us redefine our ideas of success.

calvins-dadUntil this week, this was a verse I wanted to skip over. Glory (or rejoicing in other versions) in our suffering seems a little too unrealistic. Then he talks about perseverance and character. This seems like a line straight from the Dad in Calvin and Hobbes.  When as a kid you were asked to do something you didn’t want to and someone told you: “It’s good for you! Builds character!” Which all that really meant was “Do this because I don’t want to.”

When you pair this with perseverance, it sounds little more than an encouragement to suck it up, put on our happy faces, and pretend to rejoice.

But if you look at this a little closer, and use God’s measure of success as a lens, the verse takes on a different tone. And it has to do with the last word of this trinitarian list: Hope.

As much as we want to deny it, and as much energy as we spend on avoiding it, bad things will happen in life. It’s an inevitable reality, but it is one which we spend a great deal of effort trying to deny, control or stop altogether.

We often assume we can do this with material comforts and “good living.” If I have enough stuff and enough wealth, then I will be able to afford discomfort and pain. If I just do the right things and believe the right things, I will be rewarded with a blessed and comfortable life.

But that suffering stuff has a sneaky way of making an appearance anyway. And if we have expended all that energy on avoiding suffering, this kind of pain shatters us. We can’t stand up underneath it because our hope was in the ability to avoid it.

So perseverance is about what we do with suffering. Will we let it break us because our trust was misplaced? Or will we hang on because our trust lies in something beyond what money and circumstances have to offer?

This kind of perseverance shapes our very being. Character is about who we are becoming. It is not about circumstances or wealth or earthly success. It is about how we allow those things to shape who we are becoming.

And this is what God is concerned about. Wealth and success are neutral things by themselves. But they shape us. Character is about the direction those things are taking us.

God wants us to discover our hidden life in God. We are in the process of discovering it daily. It is hidden from our circumstances because nothing, not wealth, success, or even suffering changes that life.

When we understand that we have a hidden life in God, we understand hope.

Hope is knowing our true identity cannot be harmed. Hope is knowing wealth and success do not change our value. Hope is the ability to see the inevitable difficulties of life in a new way. Hope knows sometimes suffering is the quickest way to discover who we truly are.

This verse is not the glib disregard of suffering as one might think at first glance. It is a verse about what really matters. Who we are becoming matters. It matters to you. It matters to everyone you come into contact with. And it matters to God.

The question is: Who are we becoming? Are we allowing our circumstances to determine our identity? Do we allow them to cloud our hidden life in God? Or do we use them to live into that hidden life more deeply?

The answers to these questions all hang on hope. While suffering may be inevitable, hope is always available.

And hope is what true success looks like.

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