The “other side” of being God’s heirs

Romans 8:15-18 claims that we who trust what God has done in Jesus are put into a right relationship with God—a relationship that includes being in God’s family as children, and therefore, also heirs of God’s reign and future.

Pretty exciting stuff! Except Paul throws in the somewhat unwelcome reminder that this includes being an heir to God’s suffering, just as Jesus was heir to God’s suffering. This reminder is part of an otherwise soaring chapter that begins with thanking God we have victory in Jesus and a promise that there is no condemnation in our relationship with God through Jesus (7:25-8:1), and ends with the promise that nothing can separate us from the love of God that comes to us through the Messiah Jesus (8:37-39).

There are at least three reasons why the claim that we inherit God’s sufferings is usually skipped over and ignored:

– None of us likes to suffer, and it is easy to hope (and even pretend) that developing a relationship with God means we will not suffer any more. This wishfulness sometimes becomes a heretical teaching in the “prosperity teachings” that tend to be great fund raisers.

Quite a few theologians are committed to the philosophy that the God who cannot change has to be a God who cannot suffer. I will leave the “change” issue for another time, though I think it is usually terribly misunderstood and treated in a very anti-biblical manner. We inherited this strange teaching from our attempt to reconcile the God of the Bible with the God of Greek philosophy. But for now, let’s just note that beginning in Genesis (and emphasized dramatically in the prophets of Israel) there is a constant claim that God does in fact suffer pain, disappointment, hurt, and frustration. In fact, long before Paul said it, the prophets were clear that for God to love us humans in this bent and broken age of history means that God will often be disappointed and hurt. If you only want to read a passage or two to confirm this claim, try the first three chapters of Hosea in which God consistently compares God’s experience of loving Israel to Hosea’s experience of loving Gomer. And, “heart-breaking” is clearly an understatement for describing the shared experiences. Hurt is part of the cost of anything worthy of being called “loving.” Ask any parent or friend or lover. Ask anyone who is concerned about love and justice in our world.

– Many of us, rightfully, want to disassociate ourselves from the Christians who have turned faithfulness into a martyr complex that “wants” to suffer in order to feel good. Since no faith takes joy and pleasure and beauty and wonder any more seriously than the Judeo-Christian heritage, it is right to distance ourselves from the psychological woundedness that “wants” to suffer in order to feel good about oneself. Jesus, who is asking God for a different way other than execution only minutes before his arrest, does not identify with that psychological sickness.

Having said all of this, and being a person who loves and enjoys life, I still want to be sure we understand that Paul is right. If we care about people, life, justice, mercy, beauty, right, and good for people in a manner that in any way resembles the way God cares, we are going to hurt like God hurts at times. That hurt doesn’t mean that God is mean, or has abandoned us, or won’t finally vindicate faithfulness in this world, but it does hurt. How else could it feel in a world that is often so much less than it could be and should be? If God doesn’t hurt, God wouldn’t be the God of the prophets and of Jesus.

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