A Supernatural String of Pearls

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Sometimes I get bored with portions of Scripture. Almost always, it’s because I wasn’t paying attention.

Spiritual blindness and coldness of heart over passages usually reflect that I failed to see the engine that drives familiar words. I neglect the supernatural power that makes the thing work, and wonder at my malaise.

How many times have I glossed over this text?

Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5)

This was an AWANA verse, I think. I probably memorized it in 4th grade, and to my shame I have yawned my way through another LIST. Why all the lists, Paul?

But this is no ordinary serial. It’s more than a string of actions to memorize with a clever mnemonic. Suffering >> Endurance >> Character >> Hope. S. E. C. H. Slimy Eggs Cause Headaches. Some Eagles Catch Hawks.

Is a catchy visual what this text needs to spice it up, to make it stick? Hardly.

Let me confess why this list failed to arrest my imagination, and explain why I was dead wrong to get bored here. I entertained some false notion that Paul was describing some kind of altruistic natural process: “You can rejoice in sufferings, because everyone knows that suffering produces good character. Cheer up!”

Oh, the engine driving this list is so much better than altruism. Paul is not giving us a cliché.

This list—this string of costly pearls—is no ordinary byproduct. Each progression along this line has been purchased by the infinitely valuable blood of Christ, and is supernaturally produced by the powerful work of the Holy Spirit.

Suffering doesn’t just produce endurance. That is not the guaranteed outcome of suffering. It can just as easily (more easily?) produce discouragement and quitting. Things get hard; I’m outta here.

But this unique chain of reactions is promised only for the Christian, and it does not happen “just ’cause.” It happens, according to v.5 BECAUSE God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. Your suffering produces endurance because the Spirit of Christ makes suffering an agent of grace instead of a wake of destruction.

The transformation from suffering to hope is unnatural, it is supernatural. When an irritant, like a parasite, invades and oyster, the oyster emits a defensive fluid called “nacre” which builds up into a beautiful pearl. Even more amazing, when an irritant, like suffering, invades a Christian, the Holy Spirit in us produces the most beautiful string of pearls: endurance, character, hope.

My friend Aaron pointed out a similarity between this list, and one later in the letter, in chapter 8. “For those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” Some theologians have referred this passage in Romans 8 as the “golden chain” of salvation. If Romans 8 has the golden chain, then Romans 5 has the string of pearls. Both of these lists are miracles.

So Paul is not being glib when he says Christians don’t only rejoice in hope of the glory of God, but can also rejoice in suffering. Why? Because in the supernatural, miracle-working economy of the Spirit (and only there) suffering produces hope. And along the way, endurance and character.

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