Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained accessto this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Romans 5:1-5)
I've been thinking recently about Blue Christmas services. I wish I had early enough to have held on at my church- a service for people who want to, or need to, acknowledge the pain in their lives, losses they've experienced, their struggle to find or feel joy. A Blue Christmas service is one where the cross shines all the more brightly through the straw of the manger. A Blue Christmas service is a reminder, in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, that only the suffering God can help.
This leads me to this passage from Romans, one of my personal favorites. I have a sermon on suffering here, but there is something to be said here about the nature of suffering and the difference between optimism and hope.
Think of the oft mentioned story of the little boy digging his way through the pile of horse manure, certain that there's a pony in there somewhere. That's optimistic, true, but not realistic and not hopeful.
Hope is a different creature. Hope says this is a pile of horse manure. And it stinks. It doesn't dress it up. It doesn't say it is there for a reason. It acknowledges the presence of the horse manure. However, hope also looks ahead to a time when the horse manure may be gone or lessened in stench and to the continued possibility of a pony.
Christians are not called to ignore suffering in the world nor to rationalize it. We must speak the truth about suffering and about sin. They stink. They obscure joy. They are confusing and best and faith-destroying at worst. In the midst of infant deaths, accidents, abuse, theft and spiritual assault, we often find ourselves standing with someone (or standing alone) waist deep in horse manure, with nary a whinny within earshot.
Suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope and hope does not disappoint us. I don't know about you, but I would have been (and would be) glad to suffer a little less at the cost of being less of a character or having a little less character (however you read that sentence). Yet if that were so, I would not have the hope that I have now. That God does not abandon us in our hour of need. That we do not walk alone. That, though we may not now or ever understand why we are experiencing what is happening in our lives, there is a light shining in and on our darkness.
The point of a Blue Christmas service is not to wallow in misery, but to remember that bright and shiny does not cover real dull, numbing pain. In this season, of all seasons, we must remember that our suffering does not have any redemptive value. Not for us. Not for anyone. But Christ's suffering does.
Sometimes we wade through the manure and find not a pony, but the cross. And that is the hope, the only hope, that does not disappoint us.