When We Struggle Together

When I was in Germany, the other American teachers and I decided that we were going to run a half marathon. Now when we decided this we had all been running for a couple of years. I had run the Cooper River Bridge Run a couple of times and had loved it, so I thought doubling that distances would be a good way to stretch and challenge myself.

That was true kinda…the thing I didn’t know about training for a half marathon is that you have to run a lot before the actual race. Not only do you have to run a lot, but you also have to run long distances to train your body to be ready for the half marathon.

When race day finally came, I was so excited because it was an Umlauf through the Zoo in a neighboring town where one of my friends was living. Two of our friends were coming to the Zoo to watch us and we as the runners were so excited because we were going to be distracted on our run as we passed the elephants and the giraffes, but as the was the case many times that year, we missed something rather important in our translation of the German instructions to English. Rather than running through the Zoo, we actually ran around the Zoo, you see Umlauf means run around not run through, so we circled the Zoo and the Zoo entrance five times, never seeing an animal and never seeing our friends who we had told to wait inside the Zoo. They on the other hand had a great time looking at the animals and taking pictures while we suffered around and around the Zoo.

Without the distraction of animals, we had to distract ourselves from the actually running. Although we all liked running, there are parts in every run, especially when it’s a longer race, when you just want it to be over. The way I got through this first half marathon was because I knew I had people running with me and because I knew our friends who weren’t running would finally find us and we would be able to share our experiences together.

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,  through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

If you’re like me when you first read Romans 5:1-5, you read it as a progression. A way to get from one step or level to the next one, like a Fitbit that rewards us with badges when we take a certain number of steps. But the reason we think that way is because of the hierarchies that exist in our business world and in our culture. We get used to thinking and believing that when we have accomplished or reached one level that’s when we look to the next one, but that’s not what this passage is saying.

Because suffering doesn’t work that way. Whether we have suffered deeply like Paul suggests here or whether we have sat at the bedside of someone who is suffering from physical pain or grief, then you’ll be tempted to read this passage and tell Paul he’s got it all wrong. There is no glory in suffering.

So why? Why would Paul say that suffering can be good? Perhaps because there’s no way we can understand the hope that exists that is from God unless we have been hopeless. There’s no way we understand character, character that has been tested, character that is true unless we have been in positions where we have not had character. It is in the lacking of these virtues that we discover just how important they are.

Although this may read like a progression or like the five steps to find hope self-help passage, that’s actually not how it is meant. Rather what is meant is that suffering can lead to all of these different viruses, but this is only possible if we share our suffering with each other. If we make ourselves vulnerable to a community of faith who is also trying to turn and transform suffering into these different virtues.And we discover this in community. We discover the depths of sufferings as we walk beside those in our community of faith. Although our individual suffering is not the same, what we know is that when we are in community together, in honest,authentic community together, then we experience the power of community to get through that suffering. It’s important here that in this communal suffering we have this divine knowledge, this peace, and this identity and communion with God. 

After we ran the half marathon, I decided that running 10-12 miles was going to be a regular part of my life, so the very next Saturday after the race, I set out on a 10 mile run, running faster than I had in the actual race because I felt so confident that I was now a long distance runner.

I made it through that run fine, but when I woke up the next morning, I realized I had pulled my right hamstring to the point that it was difficult to walk. I had thought I had this running thing under my belt. I had thought any kind of suffering that I encountered while running was something I would be able to overcome and in my overconfidence, I had forgotten that running a half marathon asks a lot of your body and in order to continue to be able to run, I needed to rest.

The same holds true for those of us who have been through suffering and have come through on the other side. Paul isn’t saying you can’t struggle through that journey alone. You can, and if you were raised like I was raised and taught not to air your dirty laundry in public, you might think you should. But when we try the solo, silent suffering we end up with the strained muscle that will cause us to limp every time we experience suffering again, just like my touchy hamstring. We weren’t meant to suffer alone. When we do, the results are anger, bitterness, and hopelessness.

Paul is saying that when you admit that suffering and bring it before the community, it’s there in the midst of the vulnerability of asking for help in walking on the journey, that endurance, perseverance, and, yes, hope found. When we struggle together, vulnerable and in need together, suffering is miraculous transformed into endurance, perseverance, hope and we have peace with God through Jesus Christ.