Ajith Fernando

Embracing Suffering in Ministry: Lessons from Romans 8 – Part 2

The Holy Spirit groans with us. He intercedes for us in our helplessness. And not only that, we know that God is going to turn everything into good. And if he’s sovereign, then we have hope. And if we have hope, we have patience. We work in the midst of hardship, in the midst of difficulty. But not only do we have patience, but we also have the love of God to help us which nothing can separate us from. We are people in love. Guard that relationship. That love is more precious than all the pain that your ministry will bring. It gives you the strength to embrace the pain of ministry.

We’ve been making our way through the second half of Romans 8, and have gone over the first three of six words: frustration, groaning, and fellowship. We now come to the fourth word: sovereignty. And that’s in verse 28. “We know that for those who love God, all things work together for good.” God is in control. He’s sovereign, and he works even the greatest tragedies into something good.
In verse 37, after listing a huge set of problems in the previous verses, he says, ‘In all these things, we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.’ So this is another reason why we are not bitter in the midst of our suffering: he’s turning it for good. We accept that in faith. So when the apostles heard that their task was made illegal, the first thing they did was to get to their group of friends. And the friends got together and they prayed. But their prayer is most interesting. They made just two short requests: consider their threats, and help us to proclaim your word with boldness, and demonstrate your power with signs and wonders. Those are the two short requests they made. The rest of the prayer is an affirmation of the sovereignty of God—of how God worked through history, how people rose up against the Lord and his anointed, and then finally, how everybody who was somebody in Jerusalem—the Jews, the Gentiles, the Romans, the Pharisees—everybody got together, and they killed Jesus. But what they did was what God had already predestined to take place, so that the greatest tragedy became the greatest triumph in the history of the world.
So we believe that God is sovereign, and you know in 1983, when we had the big riot that started off the war in Sri Lanka, this is the passage that God gave me that sustained me through total confusion that we are going through in our country. We knew that God will work through us in the midst of this, therefore we have to keep working. That’s why after reflecting on the sovereignty of God, the disciples requested and said that they wanted to continue to do their work to proclaim the word with boldness.
This brings us to the fifth word: patience. And we go back a little bit. If God is sovereign, we look at life with hope. Even hope is faith in the dark times when things are not going well. But because we know that things are going to be well, we have hope. And if we have hope we have patience. Verse 25, ‘If we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.’
In the Bible, the word patience, there are two words for patients, macrothumia, which has more to do with people being patient with people, and hupomone, which is often translated as endurance, which has more to do with circumstances. Hupomone is used here. Now, hupomone is an active word. It’s a word that is almost one of triumphant fortitude. It’s a word that Leon Morris in his commentary says is used on the battlefield. When things are going tough, we try to see what we should do. How can we get out of this situation? How can we solve our problems? It’s an active word, it comes from the battlefield, where Christians are working. You see God is working. We don’t defeat ourselves and adopt an attitude of resignation: what can we do, this is God’s will. Or as people say, this is my karma. No, that’s not what we say. We say God is working for good. Therefore, we have hope. Therefore, we must join him, dressed by hope, and we work.
There was a Japanese professor, who in the middle of his career, went blind with a detached retina. And when he was getting blind, he wanted to find out the mystery: why did this happen to him at the peak of his life? He could not agree with what his religion said, that he was suffering for things he had done in his previous life. So he started looking for an answer. Somebody encouraged him to look at the Christian answer. And he began to read the gospel. And he came to the place in John, where the disciples asked why a man had been born blind. And Jesus said, “It was not because his parents sinned, or because he had sinned, but he had been born blind so that the works of God may be revealed.” And he said, “Could the works of God be manifested through my blindness? Then that is the answer. I will use this blindness.” And he became a Christian. He became an evangelist, and later went to Scotland, did his theological studies, and became a theological professor at Kobe Theological college. That’s Christian patience. God is working, and I will work knowing without giving up: triumphant fortitude in the midst of difficulty. So, that’s our fifth word.
So we have frustration, groaning, fellowship with the Holy Spirit, sovereignty, and because God is sovereign, patience.
Now I want to tell you one more word. And that is the word love. That’s our great source of joy.
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Embracing Suffering in Ministry: Lessons from Romans 8—Part 1

We can weep, we can be angry over wrongs, we can be upset about situations. But we can’t be bitter. And of course, if we are bitter, we end up hurting people. How can we not be bitter? Because God, Jesus is walking with us through the pain. And we have comfort and strength.

The topic given to me is, ‘Embracing suffering in ministry,’ and I want to take the second half of Romans 8, and present to you six words that will help us to be joyful in the midst of the suffering that we encounter in ministry. So, if you read the passage, you come to verse 20, which says, “The whole creation, for the creation, was subjected to futility. Not willingly, but because of him who subjected it in hope.” That’s the first-word, “futility,” or, as other translations put it, frustration. Things don’t work out as we expect them to all the time. Because of the fall, the world lost its equilibrium. And things happen that we don’t plan or desire. And of course, the pandemic has made it even more marked, as our plans have to be constantly changed because of the situation around us.
Of course, Jesus himself had to face frustration. We know that Jesus had a disciple Judas, who used to steal. I mean, the all-knowing Savior of the world, had the treasurer of his group, steal from him, take money from the common purse. He prayed, “Let this cup pass away from me,” but it was not fulfilled. That prayer was frustrated because God had a greater plan. According to that, Jesus came to serve incarnationally, and incarnational ministry means he had to be one with humanity and one with humanity as they suffer. So, Jesus suffered as people suffered, and we too must suffer. Our plans, ambitious, sometimes are dashed because of problems. Even while preparing for this talk, I found event after event because of the needs of people coming in to stop me from doing the preparation I wanted to do. This happens to us often as we are servants of people. Their plans sometimes supersede ours, so that our preparation has to be done with great difficulty like financial problems. I’m sure many pastors would be encountering financial problems during this pandemic. That’s what many are facing in Sri Lanka, as people are not working, and they cannot send their normal tithes to the church because some have lost their jobs. There are problems with the weather, lockdowns, sickness, and sometimes even death, unpleasant relationships at home, sometimes with spouses, problems that we encounter. And these are all coming under the rubric of frustration. So that’s the first word, frustration.
The second word is groaning. Verse 22, says, “The whole creation is groaning together in the pains of childbirth.” Of course, childbirth means there is hope something wonderful is going to come, that is that the creation is going to be redeemed. But even while we have this hope, we groan. Because now there is pain. And not only does the creation groan, but verse 23 says, “We who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly.” We have the first fruits of the Spirit. In other words, we have experienced God. We know he’s with us. We know our eternal destiny. We have had a taste of heaven already. But now, we experience pain and frustration. And so we groan. We have been given the freedom to groan by God, to express our pain.
Now groaning is different from grumbling. Grumbling is done by those who are disobedient, who are rebelling against God’s will. Groaning in the Bible is the groaning of the obedient, who have been faithful to God, and in spite of their faithfulness, they are experiencing problems, troubles, difficulties, and deprivation. The Old Testament Psalms give many laments, maybe 60 out of the 150, depending on whose classification you follow, are laments. And one of the most famous ones is Psalm 22, which starts with the words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And Jesus took those words and made them his own. So we can weep. We can question God, like the psalmist questions God. We can express our pain in words, in sighs. We don’t have to bottle up our pain and our questions. That will make us depressed, and even bitter. God has given us the freedom to weep. In fact, I would say that groaning is the alternative to quitting. Some people don’t know how to groan, can’t handle the frustration, and in their frustration, they quit. We don’t quit, we groan. We express our pain to our colleagues, to God, and mainly to God. We express our pain. So that’s the second word, groaning.
Now we come to the third word, which is fellowship, the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. The first part of verse 26 says, “Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness.” Though God is strong, still, while we live on Earth, we have weaknesses. Here, the particular weakness mentioned is that we do not know what to pray for, as we ought. I’m sure many of you have felt that with this pandemic that we are going through. We feel helpless. We don’t know what to pray for, we don’t know what we should pray about. Many of us, because we are leaders, ask God, “Lord, help us, help me, help me to say the right prayer to direct these people right in prayer.” There are so many situations that we cannot control, and we feel weak.
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