Speak to Your Suffering
Do you talk to yourself? I mean, out loud? Do people ever wonder who you’re talking to? For many people this is quite natural. I am married to such a person. For me, my overly active self-consciousness pretty much guarantees I will never do that (and I don’t intend that to sound virtuous). Regardless of whether you talk to yourself or not, you can understand that people do it from time to time.
But still, it is rather odd, isn’t it? Even stranger still is the phenomena of talking to inanimate objects. When this happens, we might suspect an underlying psychological cause such as schizophrenia. Oddly enough, talking to objects seems to be what the apostle Paul asks us to do in Romans 8:31: “What then shall we say to these things?” (ESV).
Paul uses the rhetorical question “What shall we say?” as a way of transitioning from section to section in the letter to the Romans (3:5, 4:1, 6:1, 7:7, 8:31, 9:14, 9:30). Romans 8:31 is the only instance in which Paul adds the phrase “to these things”. So, thinking back to your primary or secondary school years, the question to consider is, what does the relative pronoun “these things” (one word in Greek) refer to? There are many suggestions scholars give, and many commentators differ, but after meditating on this chapter for the a few months, I believe Paul is referring to Christians’ experience of suffering. Let me briefly explain how I see that.
After talking about life in the Spirit in verses 1-16 of chapter 8, Paul moves logically from the future glory of those united with Christ to the present suffering of those united to Christ (v. 17). In verses 18-30 Paul explains that the present condition of the created order is marked by suffering and groaning: the creation groans (vv. 19-22); believers groan (vv. 23-25); and the Holy Spirit groans (vv. 26-27). This hope-grounded groaning in the midst of suffering is leading unswervingly to glory (v. 30). So you have bookends of glory in verse 17 and verse 30, and in between the suffering of our present reality.
Then, in verses 31-39 Paul deals with the two themes he has dealt with earlier in ch. 8: firstly, condemnation/justification (vv. 31-34; see vv. 1-4), and secondly, suffering (vv. 35-37; see vv. 18-27). So in verse 31 Paul looks up as it were to view the terrain through which his fellow believers at Rome must travel on the way to glory in Christ Jesus, and sees, what exactly?
A litany of tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger and sword.
Sin and temptation.
A jury of sinful flesh crying out “crucify them!”
And seeing “these things”, Paul asks, “What then shall we say?” Indeed, what shall we say to our suffering? The reality is, you and I already talk to our suffering, we just don’t verbalize it out loud (except maybe in one- or two-syllable words).
The car breaks down while driving the kids to school and you think, “This is the worst thing that could have happened today!” Your wife is placed on hospice after chemotherapy is unsuccessful and you think, “Why, God? How will I possibly survive? This is impossible.” You have a panic attack, again, and think “What is wrong with me? When will this nightmare end?” You can’t get out of bed in the morning, can’t remember the last time you had the might to take a shower let alone do anything meaningful for those around you, and think, “I am so worthless; death is surely better than this living hell.”
We typically do not say those things out loud, but we also do not typically make the conscious connection Paul does in verses 31-39, which is to say that suffering and condemnation both threaten our sense of security in the love of Jesus. Why would Paul mention legal charges and condemnation and then mention tribulation and distress?
Could it be that in all suffering we hear a pronouncement of judgment? Is it not the case that our Enemy speaks to us – sometimes in a whisper, sometimes with a shout – through the sickness, accident, insecurity, death, disconnection, and inner turmoil and says, “Surely God does not love you! Surely you are condemned! Surely this is your fault! Surely you are cut off, alone, uncared for, abandoned, rejected, despised!”
Hearing these derisive taunts, what are we to do? Shall we be silent? “By no means!” (Romans 6:2). Rather, we must train ourselves to speak to our suffering. We must say, both personally and corporately:
“Depression, God is for me; you cannot successfully be against me.”
“Cancer, because God did not spare his own Son one lash, one thorn, one minute of wrath, but rather delivered him to death on my behalf, God will surely and graciously give me everything I need.”
“Addiction, you shall not bring a charge against me, God’s elect, because God justifies.”
“Injustice, you shall not condemn me, because Christ Jesus died for me, was raised for me, and intercedes for me.”
“We may experience tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, sword, demonic attack, cancer, depression, anxiety, injustice, addiction, infidelity, divorce, abuse, trauma, death of a parent, spouse, or child, and yet because Christ loves us, we will not be conquered by suffering. No, we will be more than conquerors in and through this suffering.”
“Nothing is able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”