Text: Romans 5:1-5
When I was in my freshman year at my college, I was in a leadership program. It was a little like Outward Bound, we climbed rocks, and did high ropes courses, and pushed ourselves past what we thought that our limits were. And the joke throughout the whole trip, whenever we were about to do something that seemed dangerous or impossible, was that someone would say, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”.
It was a good joke for the weekend, but for a while after that trip I began to really embrace that way of thinking. Young adult years are often full of change, and it seemed like a good life outlook because it meant that everything was an opportunity for growth. Whenever I faced something difficult or challenging I just shrugged and said, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”.
And then I finished college, and then seminary, and took a job as a chaplain at a children’s hospital. And all of a sudden things got a little deeper and a little more real. I spent a lot of time with parents who had lost, or were loosing, children. And I saw their utter devastation. And all of a sudden, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” sounded pretty trite. Because these parents, they were alive but, at least in the aftermath, they weren’t any stronger. In fact, the exact opposite was true. This wasn’t the challenge of a rock wall set up to build character. This was something far more devastating, and far less deliberate.
At first reading, today’s passage from Romans sounds sort of live that motto I heard back then. Paul gives us this sort of chain reaction where he tells us that suffering leads to endurance, and endurance leads to character, and character leads to hope. And this passage could be mistaken to mean, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. Just live through something tough, and you will be better for it
But the meaning is much deeper than that. Paul is writing to the church in Rome, where he has never visited before, and he is telling this community about himself. And he is talking to a divided people. Some members of the church there come from the Jewish community and believe that the law they have known their whole lives most be upheld. And others are Gentiles, and they don’t understand why they are being told that they have to get circumcised and keep certain commandments. And the community is divided, which means that is is susceptible to false teachings. And so Paul writes this letter to the Romans to talk about grace and how we are not saved by what we do, but instead by what God does for us. And he writes this particular part about hope.
Now, hope is something you can’t buy, and yet hope sells like nothing else. The people who write ads know this, and so we will buy anything that promises us a sliver of hope from a new medication to a new laundry detergent to a political candidate. But Paul is talking about something deeper here. The sort of hope you can’t buy. Authentic hope, which comes from God.
And we have this very brief passage about hope that out of context is misleading. It seems to say that you will be better for your suffering. And on some level, ultimately, that may be true. But we have to be careful not to reduce it to “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” And we have to be sure that we are not saying that God wills suffering upon us to teach us lessons or to make us better people
In the wake of the tornado this week in Oklahoma, it’s important that we make that distinction. After every disaster, natural or human-made, there are always a few voices that pop up in the media saying that God did this and that this happened for a reason. Usually they say it’s because God wants to teach us something. That’s always rubbed me the wrong way.
One of the best sermons I ever read came from a minister named William Sloane Coffin. And he was preaching the Sunday after his beloved son was killed in a motorcycle crash. And he tells this story about the first days after the crash and how a woman he didn’t really know came in carrying these quiches she had baked for him, and she sighs and says “I just don’t understand the will of God.”
He was grieving, and it rubbed him the wrong way, and he got up and flew after her and said, “I’ll say you don’t.” And he went on to say that God doesn’t go around causing accidents and crashes because it’s God’s will. Coffin says God doesn’t go around with a hand on a trigger waiting to inflict pain. And he says finally that when his son’s motorcycle went into the water, “God’s heart was the first to break”.
It’s a good reminder. God does not make tornados hit Oklahoma. God does not give children cancer. God does not will us to kill one another. God does not cause car accidents. Instead, diseases happen, wars are fought, and accidents occur. And in the midst of it, God cries with us.
At this stage in Paul’s life, he had suffered mightily. He had lost everything, been imprisoned, and been beaten. And yet, he had found hope. Not through his suffering, but through the knowledge that God had upheld him in the midst of it. And it was that knowledge that made him such a convincing advocate.
It is because of what he had endured that he was able to talk about how suffering had transformed him, and had shaped his character, and had given him hope. It was not suffering for suffering’s sake. It was instead a place where God’s grace became most real to him. Strength did not come from pain, but from an experience of finding hope in that pain.
I don’t believe that everything on earth that happens is God’s will. I’ve stood in too many Emergency Rooms with grieving parents to believe that. But I do believe that nothing happens in God’s world that God cannot transform in some way for good.
When I was in seventh grade, a neo-Nazi subculture began to flourish in the area I was in school. It was sickening and it was deadly. And I had an English teach who announced one day that we would have a guest speaker. That day a woman with a slight accent came to speak to my class, and she told us the horrors she had seen in her life and about what the reality of human evil can do. And she rolled up her left sleeve, and showed us all that tattooed numbers that had been given to her on the day she arrived at a concentration camp
God did not will the Holocaust. God did not will her suffering. But in the aftermath of what was then unchangeable, God’s grace worked through her to give her strength, and to testify to what unchecked hatred could do. To show those few who embraced a movement they did not really understand what its logical end was. God had not willed her suffering, but God had transformed her character and used it to give the world hope.
The same is true in many of our lives though, thankfully, usually less dramatically so. Think of the people you most respect. Do you respect them for what they were easily given in life? Or do you respect them because there is something in their life that they overcame and were so transformed by that it affected who they were?
The people I respect most, have not had easy lives. They are the people who have faced adversity, and have been transformed by grace.They’ve overcome injury, or addiction, or hatred, or fear, or pain. And have tried to share the hope they received with others.
My dad would be embarrassed if I told you this story, because he’s not the kind who tells stories like this, but it’s Memorial Day weekend, and I just spent a week with him, and he’s on my mind.
Growing up I knew my dad had been in Vietnam during the Vietnam War. I had always assumed he had a desk job. Only in last ten years or so I learned that wasn’t the case. And sometimes he was really in the thick of things.
I asked him once, “Were you scared”? Because as far as I knew at that point my dad had never been scared of anything in his life. And he looked at me and said “of course I was scared”.
I realized then that this man who had always taught me to stand up to prejudice, to be myself, to forge ahead even when I was scared, who had taught me about hope, actually knew what he was talking about.
I think that’s what Paul may have been talking about. Because the people who have walked through the hardest things in life, the people whose characters have been tested the most, and the ones who ultimately emerge with hope, are the ones who manage, by God’s grace, to bring hope to the world.
What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.
What doesn’t kill us, simply doesn’t kill us.
But God’s grace in the face of our struggles is what ultimately makes us stronger. And through that grace, in the most difficult of times, we find endurance. And in that endurance we find character. And it is that character that gives the world hope. Amen.