February 13. Romans 8:19-23. Suffering part 3: Meaningless Suffering, Creation, and Hope.

Romans 8:19-23. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.

Suffering isn’t limited to us as Sons of God. No, the whole of creation is suffering. We live in a suffering world. It’s all around us. Live on earth long enough and eventually you will fall into suffering. It’s bad. I mean really, really bad. Paul’s language is strong. It’s Ecclesiastes strong.

The creation is subjected to futility. This is the word from Ecclesiastes – “vanity.” It’s meaningless. It’s random. It’s chaos. What’s the point?

The creation is in bondage to corruption. It’s the slave of decay. Everything and everyone dies. Nature is a killer. Sure it lets you be born, but only to immediately start killing you the very next second.

The creation is groaning in the pains of childbirth. It’s perpetually in labor. Screaming for relief.

This is the mess we’ve all been born into.

I’m currently (and slowly) reading Kate Bowler’s book Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved. It’s her personal story of her on-going battle with Stage IV colon cancer. Bowler is a professor at Duke Divinity School. The irony of Bowler’s book is that she is a researcher and expert on the prosperity gospel, a movement that says with confidence that everything DOES happen for a reason. That there are principles at work in creation that lead to either success or failure. Spiritual laws. Cause and Effect. If this is true, then Stage IV colon cancer has a cause that was avoidable, or has an effect that we have to somehow figure out.

BTW- Bowler’s book is honest, deeply moving, and even funny. It’s definitely worth reading even if only for the appendices that teach what not to say, and what to say instead to those that are suffering.

What Bowler’s book wrestles with, and what we all wrestle with, is finding meaning in the tragic circumstances of life. Does terminal cancer, or any other trial, come for “a reason?” Or is it all just the futility of life? Is there a plan behind our suffering? Or is it all just part of being a “vapor” like in Ecclesiastes?

The answer is yes.

Both are true. Yes, creation has been subjected to futility. Therefore, not everything in itself happens for some “bigger” reason. There’s no grand cause and effect at work. The evil prosper and the righteous suffer. Everyone dies. Everything is in entropy. Life is groaning.

But don’t give up hope.

The futility of life was determined by God himself. This is the great paradox: “the pointlessness has a purpose” (used with permission from my son Alex). The creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it. God ordained the futility. He allowed the meaninglessness. He declared the chaos. He is not allowing creation to reach its full potential, its full glory…yet.

But there is freedom coming. The creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. Creation has to wait for us. We have the first fruits of the Spirit. We must blossom first. The sons of God must be revealed first. Until then we keep groaning together alongside nature with eager longing.

Why? Why must we be changed first before nature can be changed? Wouldn’t our lives be better if God just fixed the creation around us? Nope. Until SIN is eradicated in us any fixing of the world around us would just be more futility. We would destroy it again. If God brought back Eden, we would just crash the Garden all over. We did it once, we would do it again.

But also, maybe there’s a purpose to the pointlessness. What if God uses the futility, the corruption, the groaning to reveal our sin to us? What if he uses it to declare his glory somehow? What if he uses it for our good to transform us into the image of Christ (8:28). What if the reality of “meaningless suffering” reveals our pure neediness, our pure dependency? What if it destroys our self righteousness, and actually draws us to the grace of God like nothing else could? What if that’s what “to live is Christ” means. Not that there is a purpose to all of my suffering in itself, but that my suffering gains purpose in Christ. He alone adds the meaning. The hope. The redemption.

How do you perceive your suffering? Is it meaningless? How can your union with Christ provide hopeful meaning to all of your life, including the sorrowful parts? Do you groan? Do you long for freedom from bondage? How can you express this to God today?

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