The Hand of Providence
God employs friction to shape us into his Son’s likeness. Scripture reflects on this in various places. One that provides us with important first principles is Romans 5:3–4: “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”
Paul has been explaining how knowing we are justified leads to rejoicing in the hope, or assurance, of the glory of God. Christ was “delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25).
In his resurrection, our sin bearer, the Lord Jesus, was declared to be “righteous” in God’s sight. When we are united to Christ, God declares us to be righteous in his sight too. And because our justification is actually Christ’s justification for us, we can rejoice in the hope of glory.
In Romans, Paul takes several chapters to show that we cannot be justified by our own righteousness. Likewise, he tells the Philippians that only when we abandon our efforts to attain our own righteousness by observing the law, and instead trust in Christ, can we begin to enjoy the righteousness that comes from God (Phil. 3:9). And because that righteousness is ours in Christ, we know that it is as irreversible as his resurrection, and as perfect and complete as his! Think of it: you can never be more justified than you were the moment you trusted Christ! The greatest saint is no more justified than the newest believer! That justification is sure; it is perfect; it is irreversible; it is therefore final. It is guaranteed!
No wonder, then, if we rejoice or boast and exult in the assurance we have of the glory of God (Rom. 5:2). But Paul says there is more. More than rejoicing in the hope of glory? Can anything be more remarkable than that?
Think of it this way. It is understandable that if you have that kind of assurance, you will rejoice. But it is remarkable that you will rejoice in your sufferings. And that is what Paul goes on to say.
Paul was not a masochist. He didn’t perversely enjoy pain. But notice that it isn’t the pain that causes his rejoicing. It is the productivity of the pain—the fact that “suffering produces endurance” (Rom. 5:3). Then endurance “produces character [that is, tested or proven character]” (Rom. 5:4). And this in turn leads us again to the hope or assurance of God’s glory—but this time the glory we hope for will be in us as well as for us.
Think of it: you can never be more justified than you were the moment you trusted Christ!
The word “endurance” (ESV) translates the Greek word hypomonē. Its basic idea is being able to remain, to keep standing, under something.
Think of Olympic weight lifters, their whole bodies shuddering under the enormous weights placed on the barbells they lift. It isn’t eating a particular breakfast cereal that enables them to remain standing under the weight. They can do that only because over the weeks, months, and even years they have been in the gym. Their strength is developed through pressure. So it is with us: strength, endurance, stickability, being able to keep going—that kind of “tried and tested character” is developed only through pressure.
Paul’s word translated “character” (dokimē) really means “the quality of having been tested and approved.” This is what puts character, substance, strength, reliability, trustworthiness, and dependability into our lives. Character doesn’t just appear out of nowhere; it is the result of God’s refining our lives through tribulation—and, yes, even suffering.
When I was a small boy, my mother used to get me to help her clean and polish everything in the house made of brass—from candlesticks to door plates and doorknobs. She would apply multipurpose liquid polish to each surface and leave it to dry, and then we would return to rub each item vigorously with a soft cloth. My mother’s test of success was for us to squat down together at the doorknobs to see our faces reflected in them.
The memory remains with me as an illustration of the way God uses pressure and friction in our lives. He is “polishing” our graces until he can see his image reflected in us. That’s how he makes us “worthy” by his hand operating in providence. The relation between suffering and glory, then, is not only chronological (suffering now, glory then); it is also causal: “We suffer with him [Christ] in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom. 8:17); “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17).
This article is adapted from Worthy: Living in Light of the Gospel by Sinclair B. Ferguson.
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