God Doesn't Cause Suffering; He Transforms It

This week’s readings from the Revised Common Lectionary include my favorite passage – not the most important, but my favorite – in the entire Bible.

After declaring that God’s grace gives us peace amidst tribulations, Paul writes: “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.”

This, in one short passage, is the summation of Paul’s theodicy – meaning (quoting Merriam-Webster) his “defense of God's goodness and omnipotence in view of the existence of evil.” In sum, he explains why the suffering of good people is not incompatible with a loving God. His answer is not that God causes our suffering, but that God makes sure that if and when we suffer, He can help us mold that suffering so that it leads towards redemptive ends. Through suffering we learn patience and endurance, and in so learning, we develop character. The stronger our character, the more well-grounded and resilient we feel, and thus the more we can have confidence that we can withstand the current troubles and find better things ahead. That confidence becomes, in a word, “hope” – and we know that hope will be redeemed in the long run because he have experienced God’s unfathomable grace and love.

In short, God helps us turn despair into ultimate delight. Indeed, in the darkest of times I have found myself turning to this passage and silently repeating in my head the sequence: suffering, endurance, character, hope, God’s love.