A couple of questions will emerge repeatedly on your long journey of faith. They have a habit of showing up when you’d rather not answer them.
Before You Leave the Ground
Alex Hannold is now officially the first person to free climb El Capitan, the imposing peak located in Yosemite National Park. If you missed the word “free” in “free climb,” that means he did it without ropes, safety harness, or nets.
Before you do something like this, you’ll need to ask yourself two questions before you leave the ground: 1. Is this worth it? 2. What happens if something goes wrong?
As a climber, if you don’t ask, then these questions will visit you with a vengeance later. They’ll find you when you’ve started to cut your hands on the rocks and while your muscles feel like giving out. They’ll convince you to quit.
Dude, is this really worth it? And what happens now when something goes wrong? If you fall from this height, it’ll take dental records to identify you.
Apparently, Hannold answered both of these questions to his own satisfaction. He finished his ascent in 3.5 hours.
Not every endeavor can be finished in 3.5 hours. The Christian life, for instance, could take 3.5 decades (or more). Yet in essence, the same two questions have to be answered—questions of worth and questions of what-if.
Nor can you answer these once and be done with them. You’ll have to regularly affirm the value of following Jesus. You’ll also need an ongoing strategy to respond to trouble. If not, then at some trying moment you’ll be tempted to bail out of the Christian life.
As followers of Christ, we can never forget that we are headed down a road into incomparable glory, and the Holy Spirit is actively assisting us in getting to the end of it. This is the gist of Romans 8:18-30.
Answering the First Question: “Is this worth It?”
First, Paul makes a stunning, protracted claim that the glory is worth it.
18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.
All the pains we currently experience, stacked up in a giant pile, aren’t worth comparing to the future glory of the Christian life. It’s not that they fail in comparison, but from the outset they’re not significant enough to even be considered a competitor.
That’s an outrageous observation, because we often suspect that “No one knows the trouble I’ve seen.” Besieged with present hurt, we wonder if we’re overpaying the admission price to glory. Paul assures us it is the opposite.
For the most part we agree with him, but secretly nurse reservations.
Glory needs robust explanation, otherwise we’ll persist in grossly oversimplified concepts about it. Some of these caricatures feel anticlimactic, like the one where we die and float up to a nebulous paradise after a lifetime of epic struggle.
We need to make sure we understand glory the way Paul did. He actually described it by using varied terminology in this handful of verses, and by conducting a quick overflight, we’ll get a better working definition of it than pop religion has to offer.
In the very next verse (v. 19), Paul refers to glory as “the revealing of the sons of God.” We typically think of glory in relation to the Son of God. But here we find “sons.”
Who are these sons? Men and women who have believed in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and by virtue of their faith attachment to Him have become the sons of God.
For centuries, God in Christ, through the Spirit, has worked in millions of these people, doing things great and small, precious, and beautiful. But that work has for the most part been concealed from the naked eye.
At some point, God will top off His work, and pull back the veil on all of it, revealing what He has done in these sons to everyone.
That is what Paul calls, “the glory of the children of God” (v. 21). He further describes it as “the redemption of our bodies” (v. 23). Our souls have already been redeemed, it is true, but that is inward. There will be a time when this inward redemption floods over into our outward, physical bodies, changing us. It will be a miraculous event, causing us to be “conformed to the image of His Son” (v.29).
We will look like Christ, even in our previously decaying, dying, bodies. That is when we are “glorified.” (v. 30).
Paul’s thoughts in these verses thus represent a better working definition of glory.
The Whole Planet Thinks the Glory is Worth It
The glory is worth it, not only from our personal point of view, but from the global vantage point.
19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
In some collective, cosmic sense, all of surrounding nature eagerly wishes for us believers to grow and reach God’s glory.
The existing biomass has fallen into a damaged state, and lies trapped within a meaningless circle of life where a creature is born, lives, and dies for the benefit of some other equally meaningless creature who will do the same.
“Circle of Life” might be an entertaining song in Lion King, but it’s no fun for creation. Adam had been installed as the apex steward and manager of this earth, but when he fell into sin and corruption, the creation that was aligned upon him fell into corruption as well. The created order is the collateral damage of Adam’s ruin.
It “hopes” to be freed from its bondage by the glory of the children of God. That means creation looks forward to the day when its original steward, humanity, will emerge from corruption. Creation will then be automatically restored to the same glorious freedom.
Even we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan with anticipation of this event. We have a sliver of the coming glory already deposited inside of us in the Person of the Spirit, but He is buried deeply and out of sight. We still suffer in many ways, while we wait.
Glory is our hope, and it has been from the first day of our salvation. You might say, “I just don’t see it.” But then again if you could, it wouldn’t be hope. Most of our current Christian experience involves patient waiting, hoping for a glory that God assures us is worth every bit of deprivation, inconvenience, loss, and pain.
Maybe there’s Something Better?
I was three years into the Christian life when I encountered a glory crisis. For one thing, the church I was in began to place a strong emphasis on works. The environment became dry and heavy. To make things worse, I had let myself go, and stopped making progress in personal worship and devotional life.
An old question started sneaking up on me: Hey John, is this worth it? A few years prior, when I was a brand new believer, I had enthusiastically said, “Yes!” Now I wasn’t so sure.
Some close friends in the church noticed my faith had struck an iceberg and was listing. They didn’t let me go. These guys initiated a close fellowship with me, where we opened the Scriptures, asked hard questions, and arrived at life changing answers.
Around that time we also waded into the book of Revelation—the ultimate long view of glory in the Scriptures— and my distance vision got restored. So did my Christian life.
I knew I was back to normal when I could say with renewed gusto that following Christ was worth it, well worth it.
All Christians have a native short-sightedness, and combined with a few problems like personal dry spells or disillusionment with the church, we start to envision preferable alternatives to life outside of Christ. In that condition, we’ll begin making foolish and destructive choices.
The best way to deal with our short-sightedness it to make sure we continue refreshing our distance vision. It’s amazing how an accurate biblical view of glory can temper plans we make in the present.
Answering Question Two: “What Happens If Something Goes Wrong?”
The present is packed with unpredictable circumstances. If something can go wrong, it will. During these difficult times, the Spirit ensures that we reach the promised glory.
26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.27 And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. 28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
The time frame we currently inhabit is characterized by one word, “weakness.” The most serious of those weaknesses tends to lie in our prayer life. Prayer is vital to Christians. This is how we grapple with things, and open conversations with God. And yet we often find ourselves so angry, or grieved, or disappointed, we don’t know what to pray.
Should I pray to get something, or should I pray to be content? Should I pray for that other person to change or should I pray to change? Should I pray for something to go away, or should I pray to learn important lessons? These are troubled times.
But underneath our stumbling, inaccurate prayers, lies a layer of the Spirit’s groans and longings that take hold of our own words—the few that can be salvaged—and supercharges them. The Spirit’s intercession is always perfect and accurate, because it is according to the will of God, which, as we’ve already established, is glory.
This is how “we know that for those who love God, all things work together for good.” The Spirit’s intercession and God’s gracious answers make it so.
It is important to note that the Bible does not say, “each thing” works, but “all things work.” It is like a fancy Swiss watch, full of tiny cogs and levers. Disassembled, each part individually makes no sense, but once they’re put together, they function beautifully.
The Spirit’s intercession powerfully assembles this intricate harmony in our lives that works toward our good. Yet not the good we decide is good. It is the good of those who are called according to His purpose, that is, His glory—“to be conformed according to the image of His Son.” (v. 29).
The glory of Christ’s image is the highest good a human being can experience, and the Spirit works tirelessly to bring us there.
He will be successful.
In fact, in verse 30, Paul presents the work of God like a chain of unbreakable links. Predestination is linked to calling and calling to justification and justification to glorification. If you appear anywhere in this continuum, then you must have had the preceding experience, and you will have the experience that follows.
If you are justified, for instance, you have located yourself in the chain. You had the foregoing experiences of calling and predestination. You also must have the subsequent experience of glorification, for the chain cannot be broken.
From the position of justified sinners in the here and now, we think of glory as something in the future. But the apostle is so sure of this coming glory in us, that he mentions it in the past tense—“glorified.” With the Spirit’s keen and irresistible intercession, glorification is a done deal in the eyes of God.
On a Three Hundred Foot Water Slide
This entire process is like a water slide—one of the big ones hundreds of feet long. As you stand at the top of it on the launch platform, you look over and see the destination pool, distant and sparkling far below. In between you and that spot is a spaghetti snarl of plastic freeway. Bemused, you wonder how you’ll possibly make it to the end.
You sit down and push off, enjoying that initial, thrilling burst of speed. Then you level out, still moving moderately fast. Suddenly there’s a hairpin turn, then a drop off. You swing out away from where you thought you should be heading, then return, whipping into a set of spirals. Before you know it, you shoot out into the destination pool, bewildered and wondering how you got there. This is how our journey often feels.
I don’t want to give the impression that the Christian life is passive, as though all you need to do is sit down in it without any further participation. I’m only choosing an illustration that goes along with what Paul seems to be describing in these verses.
And it looks as if he’s speaking in a lot of certainties. That’s especially important to Christians who are concerned they’re not making sufficient progress in their spiritual life and may not make it.
Perhaps you also have this concern. Sometimes you feel you’ve regressed in certain areas. Things are sluggish. But moving through the course of the Christian life isn’t about praying perfect prayers and controlling your way through the metrics of a pre-fab Christian life.
When you sit down in that slide, even if the form of it unerringly leads to the pool, you won’t move much at all without a flow of water. It’s the water that conducts you through the twists and turns, and keeps you from being stuck high and dry somewhere thirty-eight feet down the slide.
Likewise, the flow of the Spirit moves you through the Christian life, and into conformation to Christ. Problems are guaranteed, but He eventually washes over and through them, eroding resistance, and always generating forward momentum.
Decisions and Prayers
In view of these verses, two practical suggestions might be warranted:
- Always make short-term plans against the larger backdrop of God’s coming glory. Don’t be the believer whose present is larger than his future.
- Don’t let the sufferings of this present time dry dock you. Pray even if your prayers are weak. And never be ashamed of praying for yourself. As a church elder, I pray for myself more than I do any other person in the church. If that sounds selfish, it’s not. It’s smart. When a leader in the church stops making progress, that sends terribly confusing signals to everyone else. One of the best gifts I can give others is my own growth.
If you’re a parent, don’t be afraid to get on your knees and ask the Lord to keep up your forward momentum in the faith. Your kids are watching you, and learning how to be Christians from what they see. They don’t listen nearly as much as they watch.
If you’re married without children, pray for your own Christian development, understanding that you have the power to either encourage or discourage your spouse.
If you’re single, pray that the Lord would make you an example of purity and commitment to the faith that sometimes only singles can provide.
Remember that two questions will always buzz around your head in a regular orbit. Be ready for them with powerful answers, not because others might ask them, but because you’re asking them.
Main photo credit: Robert Eager