Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Hope Does Not Disappoint*

Sustained by God's love, we can move mountains.

The Word Among Us

November 2009

Let’s face it. Life can be difficult at times.

It wouldn’t take much for us to come up with a list of woes that plague the world: War, famine, drug abuse, violence, and sexual abuse are just the first items that come to mind. In one way or another, we all feel the effects of these woes. Even if our lives are trouble free, just dwelling on global tragedies like grinding poverty, human trafficking, or ethnic wars can make us anxious. And then there are the times when we face painful difficulties in our own lives or those of our loved ones: a broken marriage, a wayward child, or an incurable illness.

Yet in the midst of all these difficulties, God wants us to know that he is with us. He wants to tell us that he suffers with us and that he wants to help us by affirming his love for us. In fact, we could make the case that God’s love is most present to us as we work through the difficulties and sufferings we all face.

This truth is spelled out most clearly in St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Reflecting on his own experience, even as he sketches out God’s overall plan of salvation, Paul wrote: “Affliction produces endurance, and endurance, proven character, and proven character, hope, and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Romans 5:3-5).

In these few verses, Paul reveals how God’s love helped him grow in holiness during his own times of trial. Paul discovered the liberating truth that God’s love is the one constant, guiding us through the storms of life, all the while making us like Jesus. Let’s take a closer look at these verses, examining three distinct ways that God’s love comes to us as we deal with suffering and affliction.

Love’s Three Effects. Before we look at these specific verses, it’s helpful to see that Paul himself prefaces them with uplifting, inspiring truths: We are justified by faith, we have peace with God, we are surrounded by his grace, and we even have the promise of eternal life with him (Romans 5:1-2). So it is critical for us to know that God’s love is at work in us even before we face any afflictions.

This is why Paul is able to say that we can endure any affliction that comes our way. It’s true that the trials of life can present serious challenges to our faith. They can lead us to question whether God is just or kind. We may even ask whether God is punishing us for some unknown sin. But because we are already in Christ, these trials also have the potential to help us push on with our faith. They can become opportunities to reassert our trust in the Lord regardless of what we are experiencing. As we take on this perspective, we find God’s love strengthening us, encouraging us to persevere, and even giving us supernatural strength to continue.

Paul says next that endurance through trial can have a positive effect on our character. When we persevere through our afflictions, we give the Lord the opportunity to shape our character. We grow in virtues such as kindness, compassion, loyalty, honesty, and obedience. What’s more, the character that is formed by our perseverance is not just any good character. It’s the very character of Christ. We begin to think and to love as Jesus did. Just as Jesus stayed close to his Father despite his many trials and difficulties, we too can stay close to him. And just as Jesus “learned obedience” through his suffering, we too can grow in godly virtue as we face our own sufferings with endurance and faith (Hebrews 5:8).

Finally, Paul tells us that there is a relationship between godly character and the virtue of hope. We all learn far more about ourselves—our strengths and our weaknesses—during times of stress than we do when life is going well. So when we see our character being transformed and built up in the midst of trial, we also see hope for our lives. We see that we are passing the test and that Jesus has not abandoned us. We grow in confidence. We see light at the end of the tunnel. We know that God is working in us, that we will make it through this trial, and that we will be better off for having gone through it.

All of this comes to us—amazingly, miraculously, and simply—because God has poured his love into us. It comes to us because he never stops pouring out his love.

Ever-Increasing Hope. Let’s be clear: Paul is not just speaking about a step-by-step psychological process in which one virtue leads naturally to another. And neither is he speaking only about the value of noble determination—although it does play a part. More than these, he is speaking about the power of God’s love, which helps us hold our ground and even grow closer to Jesus as we face life’s trials.

So what is this “hope” that doesn’t disappoint? At its core, it’s faith that Jesus is in charge of the whole universe. It’s faith that God has a good and loving plan for our lives. It’s faith that Jesus will come again to bring us into his kingdom. It’s faith that we will be with him in heaven. “Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). We put our faith and our hope in Jesus because we believe that he is faithful and loving. We believe that he will never abandon us.

Paul is not saying that the only way to grow in hope is through affliction and suffering. But he is telling us how to deal with the afflictions that come our way. He is giving us a strategy to help us see our way through difficult times—a strategy that both helps us endure with faith and that gives us the extra benefit of building us up in Christ. As we learn to rely on God’s love, which is constantly flowing to us, we can find the strength we need to persevere. It is his love that will sustain us, and it is his love that will shape us. It is his love, and only his love, that will move us to place our hope in Jesus and in his plan for our lives.

God’s Love Poured into Our Hearts. “Hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Romans 5:5). Everything we have looked at so far depends on this one sentence. Without this outpouring of divine love, Paul’s line of reasoning cannot stand. He is not saying that affliction has the power in and of itself to transform us into the character of Christ. It’s the experience of God’s love that enables us to endure, to form a godly character, and to learn to live in real, lasting hope.

In your mind’s eye, try to picture God’s love as a steady, heavy downpour of rain. It’s not a light drizzle. It’s not an occasional sprinkling. It’s a constant showering of love, ministered to us by the Holy Spirit. It’s an outpouring of divine grace that comes to us like “water upon the thirsty ground, and streams upon the dry land” to refresh us and give us hope and courage (Isaiah 44:3).

We may think we don’t deserve such love. We may think that God has only a small amount set aside for us. We may even think that he will love us only if we are able to get rid of our sins. But none of these thoughts makes sense when we look at this one sentence from St. Paul. If God is constantly pouring out love over the whole world, why would we ever think he would exclude us?

An Everlasting Love. Brothers and sisters, God wants to show us his love every day. It doesn’t matter if we are in the midst of some serious affliction or if everything is going well. He wants to pour out his love upon us. He wants to teach us how to persevere and endure the challenges of life. He wants his love to be the primary force that shapes our character. He wants his love to become a foundation for our lives so that we can live in hope and confidence, not in fear or resignation.

God has loved us from the very beginning of creation. He loved us through all of Israel’s ups and downs. He loved us enough to send Jesus to redeem us by the cross. He loved us enough to send the Holy Spirit to us at Pentecost. And he will continue to love us every day of our lives—until the end of time.


*Note: There is much in this article that we can reflect on with regards to our own lives as well as the life of Matt Talbot.