During seminary I went through a particularly grueling period. I think it is fair to say – without being overly dramatic – that I suffered. There was trauma, emotional fallout and physical pain.
About 18 months into this ordeal, I was privileged to be in class on Romans with Richard Hayes. When it came time for us to select the passage that we were to write our large, exegetical paper on, I knew just the verses I wanted. Romans 5:1-5. What I really wanted were the words “suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope and hope does not disappoint.” When I say I wanted that passage, I mean I wanted to understand what Paul meant when he said that suffering became endurance, endurance character, and character hope. I wanted to know so that I could follow the steps and work my way from suffering to salvation.
The apostle Paul is the origin of muscular Christianity. And while muscular Christianity has been seen as a particularly masculine form of Christianity, it is pretty appealing to any of us who have a tendency to be self-driven, hard working, purposeful people. I wanted this text to give me a way to apply my muscle, to work through my suffering and gain salvation. I would lift the heavy weights. I would run the long race. Just tell me what to do, and I would do it.
I dove into the passage and translated and read and studied and researched. I produced my 25-page exegesis that concluded – much to my dismay – that Paul was simply using a common Greek rhetorical device. The piling on of layers of wording, the stair stepping of one thing leading to another, was just an elegant, persuasive, linguistic maneuver in ancient writing.
Research revealed it is unlikely that Paul was describing a linear progression, as though one thing causes another. Paul was just mentioning elements of the life of faith – hope, endurance, suffering, character – much as we might say, “He ran, heart pumping, arms flying, head back, step after step.” It’s not that one thing happens and then the other in a certain order. They all exist together and might actually be reassembled in a different order on a different occasion.
For me, it was a deflating conclusion. It took the air right out of me. I had so wanted to find a sure and certain way to work my way from suffering to salvation. It would, it seemed, justify what I had been through.
And there was Professor Hayes, turning our hearts and minds back to what the Apostle Paul was teaching us about grace and salvation. He had us dwell on: While we were still weak, at the right time, Christ died for us, that we would be justified in him. God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. We have now received reconciliation.
There are steps that are the order our salvation. Jesus was born, he suffered and was raised. There is work done for our salvation. It is the work of God in Jesus Christ.
That through no effort of our own, God in Jesus Christ has brought about our salvation is gift and mystery and stumbling block to many of us. We are so much more familiar with being responsible for ourselves, the makers of our own destiny, that it seems we would rather burn than allow grace to come unmerited, unearned.
Finally, after two years of struggling, I was able to accept – once again – what that muscular man, the Apostle Paul, teaches us so plainly: when we were weak, Christ gave himself to us that we might be reconciled with God. Reconciled. Made one with God. Our very beings restored to being comingled in the life of our creator. At peace with God. And this has already been done for us. No steps to work through. No muscle to be exerted. No grueling effort to be undertaken. Our salvation is all grace.
Jennifer Thompson knew what it was to suffer. In the summer of 1984, Thompson, a college senior in North Carolina, was sexually assaulted in her home at knifepoint. Several days later, she picked out Ronald Cotton from a police lineup. On the strength of her testimony and identification, Cotton was convicted. He spent the next eleven years in one prison facility or another.
Yet, Ronald Cotton was innocent. In 1995, DNA testing revealed that another man was guilty of harming Jennifer Thompson.
After his exoneration, Thompson and Cotton met for the first time. Jennifer, in tears, said, “If I spent every minute of every hour of every day for the rest of my life telling you that I am sorry, could you ever forgive me?” Ronald Cotton, also weeping, said, “Jennifer, I forgave you years ago.”
Thompson says that in that moment, Ronald Cotton gave her back what had eluded her since that terrible summer night 13 years before: the gift of forgiveness. “He gave it not because I deserved it, but because that’s what grace is all about.” She says, “It was the real beginning of my journey back.”
Today, Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson collaborate together in the work of the Innocence Project, helping to prevent further unjust, wrongful convictions, especially through eyewitness identification procedures. They are at peace with one another and a force for reconciliation.
Perhaps, like me, you have wanted to work your own way through suffering. Or you have tried to build your character out of trauma and injury. Or you endure a sense of abiding guilty or shame. Listen, we could work every minute of every hour of every day for the rest of our lives and it would not win us the peace we seek.
The one who suffered for us forgave us years ago. The one we treated unjustly offered himself for us, long ago. While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. We have been reconciled to God. Not because of what we have done. Not because of our effort. Right here in the midst of experiencing suffering, building character, enduring what is, even while we hope, God’s love is poured out into us. It is our salvation.
This is the real beginning of our journey. To live as those who have received the greatest gift of grace.