We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope. Romans 5:3-4
When my nieces were little, I once watched from the corner as scheming-older-sister tormented innocent-baby-sister when Mom wasn’t looking. Older-sister would lean hard on baby-sister’s back, bending her little body in two, forcing her forehead as close to the ground as she could get. Baby-sister fought back fiercely – I watched her little face turn red in silent effort to withstand her sister’s pressure – until her nose was barely an inch from the ground and she let out a shriek that made big-sister relent and quickly attempted to tell angry-mom that she hadn’t “do-ed anything” to make baby-sister cry.
I spent most of my twenties feeling a lot like baby-sister. They were a decade when I learned the harsh reality of theory-meeting-practice, and the times in life Paul refers to as ‘suffering’. There was a lot of fierce and silent enduring, being bent in half until I just couldn’t take it anymore and let out a shriek to the sky, hoping someone would come to my rescue.
As I approach my 40s, I’m starting to see the benefits that the fierce bending of my 20s forged. I remember reading Romans 3 as though it were a linear process with a definite end point – suffering formed endurance which created character which turned into hope. At the time, I estimated I was firmly rooted in the suffering stage. Over the course of a few years, I noticed that the ‘suffering’ seemed to be subsiding and life seemed to require more endurance.
Aha! I thought. I’ve moved to the next step. Suffering: check. Good thing I’m done with that. On to endurance!
Predictably, endurance showed up as a main act in my life. My early thirties brought stubborn toddlers, a husband entrenched in a PhD program, and an isolated life in the middle of a cornfield that was exactly the opposite of everything I had ever dreamt for myself. Every day required the drudge of one-foot-in-front-of-the-other. Endurance became my tried and true friend.
In spite of this drudging-reality, many pieces of life were rich and good. Though they threw temper tantrums and reeked havoc on my value of a good night’s sleep, I loved my toddlers in a way I had never loved before. Though my husband both worked and studied full time, he remained a faithful friend and loving father. Though I struggled to walk a different way in a world of sameness, slowly, I found my voice. Though the cornfields often felt silent and empty, my soul reaped the benefits of living in a world without much noise. While the suffering of my twenties had quieted, endurance sang its steady song.
As I walked alongside endurance, I learned some helpful life-skills like ignoring the Jones, practicing the spiritual disciplines, and living my own story faithfully. A square peg in a round hole, I found ample opportunity to practice both kindness toward others and compassion with myself. I didn’t always make it to either one of those goals, but I did get plenty of practice. Eventually, I completely gave up trying to fit in, pierced my nose and leaned hard on endurance to help me seek out the other tender-hearted souls who lived in the margins as well. Sometimes, I wondered if the enduring years would ever end.
To my great surprise, they did. I find myself now in a place where there’s space for someone-like-me. I have friends. My work is meaningful and life giving. I delight in my children and thoroughly enjoy my role as their mother. My husband and I sit on our front porch, drink coffee, and chat again like old friends while the kids ride their scooters down the street to the neighbor’s house. No one looks at us like we’re aliens anymore – we blend in just fine. Our community is growing, and daily life feels rich and meaningful and connected. I am happy – perhaps the happiest I’ve ever been in my adult life.
I’d be foolish, however, to somehow assume that happiness equates the-next-Romans-step of character. The happiness is merely a gift-for-the-day – one that I treasure mightily – but one that also has the potential of slipping through my fingers at any given moment. The gift-for-the-lifetime is the character that has been growing beneath it all through the suffering-and-enduring years.
I feel it sometimes, like when I walk down the street and breathe in the mountains, the palm trees and the blue skies, grateful for both the moment-at-hand and all the moments that have been and will be, suffering, enduring and all. I feel it when I want to throw an all-out-internal-temper-tantrum but instead pause and pray simply, Lord, have mercy – on me and all the other crazies out there. I feel it when the day doesn’t go my way and I retreat silently in the evening to rest and refocus rather than sulk and pout. I feel it when my hips round and my body ages and I know there is more to life than bikini worthy figures and wrinkle free faces. I feel it when the character growing slowly within starts to feel a whole lot like hope.
It’s not all perfect, but it’s changing one slow day at a time. I used to think life was a straight slant upward – once I learned one thing, it would be done for good and time to move onto the next. I now know it’s more like a spiral where we hit the same vertical points that tell the same stories time and again, but at different levels with new skills and deeper levels of maturity and faith. The gift of the Romans 5 spiral of suffer-endure-character-hope is that as it repeats itself in my life, each time carries a bit more faith, hope and love than the one before.