By Dr. Paul Knudtson
In my last post I discussed the theological challenge presented by unexpected defeats or setbacks in life. I used Psalm 44 as the basis of that discussion, a psalm containing Israel’s prayer of bewilderment after suffering military defeat at the hands of her enemies. The psalm ends without an explanation of Israel’s plight. The final verse of the psalm is simply a cry to God for help: “Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love” (44:26).
In Psalm 44 God is said to be treating Israel like sheep to be slaughtered. “You have made us like sheep for slaughter. . . . Because of you we are being killed all day long, and accounted as sheep for the slaughter” (44:11, 22). Evidently Israel’s recent bitter defeat involved much loss of life, and raised the poignant question, Why didn’t God rescue his people? The Psalmist cries out to God, “Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?” (44:24).
Many centuries after this psalm was written, the apostle Paul quotes it (in Romans 8) as he deals with a similar theological problem, the problem of human suffering. Paul is here referring to both the suffering due to the persecution of Christians, as well as to the suffering endured by humans generally. Suffering due to persecution is indicated by such words and phrases as, “suffer with him (Christ)” (8:17), “persecution” (8:35), “sword” (8:35), and by the quotation from Psalm 44: “For your sake we are being killed all day long” (8:36). The general suffering of humanity is referred to in Paul’s discussion of the troubles inherent in all of creation in Romans 8:18-23.
What is surprising in comparing these discussions of suffering in Psalm 44 and Romans 8 is the different tone of what Paul says in comparison with the psalm—even though Paul quotes the psalm (44:22) in what he says (Rom 8:36). In contrast to the psalm, what Paul writes is not at all somber or dark, but is thoroughly positive, even triumphant. Psalm 44 gives voice to one who is disheartened and bewildered following defeat at the hands of enemies, while Romans 8 exudes a confident spirit that proclaims victory over all actual or potential foes. Paul takes a verse from Psalms that sounds bleak and pessimistic (“we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered” – Ps 44:22 in Rom 8:36) and places it in a context that is thoroughly positive and hopeful. Paul introduces the Psalm quotation with rhetorical questions—“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril or sword?” (8:35)—and then follows it with a resounding “No!” He writes, “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (8:37).
Psalm 44 highlights the problem of the suffering of the righteous by posing unanswered why questions of God (44:23-24), while Romans 8 responds to the problem of suffering with a series of confident assertions. Paul’s principal assertions are the following:
- Present suffering is offset by future hope (Rom 8:18-25). Paul says, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory to be revealed to us” (Rom 8:18). Paul says something very similar to this in 2 Corinthians 4:17. The supreme goodness of our future hope in Christ outweighs by far the troubles of this present life. Our Christian hope puts sufferings in proper perspective.
- We meet present sufferings with prayer (Rom 8:26-27). Prayer is God’s provision for us to deal with suffering in our lives. Further, Paul defines as prayer here as that which transcends the sort of prayer that involves verbal petitions in which we ask God for certain, specific items. That is, this prayer consists of our expressions of pain and need that cannot be adequately expressed in words. “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (Rom 8:26).
Paul has said that just as “the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains,” so we too
“groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:23), a
“groaning” that may be another way of referring to our prayers consisting of “sighs too deep for
So prayer is the prescribed way for believers to find relief from the pain of their sufferings. Elsewhere Paul refers to the way in which God comforts us in all our affliction (2 Corinthians 1:3-11), the principal means of such comfort likely being prayer (note 1:11).
3. We can have confidence in God’s ability to bring about good in the end (Romans 8:28-30), that is, to bring good out of bad. Paul writes, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (8:28). (Some ancient Greek manuscripts indicate that Paul may have written, “God makes all things work together for good” or “in all things God works for good,” making God’s role in bringing about the good more explicit.)
Paul’s subsequent discussion of God’s plans for the people of Israel in Romans 9-11 provides an example of how God may bring about good from a bad situation. The bad situation concerns the failure of the vast majority of the Jews of Paul’s day to accept Jesus as their messiah and the salvation offered through him. It is clear that the Jewish rejection of the gospel of Christ has caused Paul considerable personal anguish. Paul writes, “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart” (Rom 9:3).
It is surely impossible for non-Jewish (gentile) Christians today to appreciate what the Jewish rejection of Christ would have meant for a first-century Jew like Paul. It was a situation that was unthinkable. If God was accomplishing his plan of salvation for the world through the Jewish people that climaxed in the coming of the Jewish messiah, what sense did it make if Jews as a whole had failed to accept Christ? This seemed to suggest at some level that God’s plan had failed, or that God had failed (see Rom 9:6).
In what follows in Romans 9-11, Paul shows how God’s good purposes are being accomplished even when it may appear otherwise. For example, he writes, “Just as you (gentiles or non-Jews) were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their (Jewish) disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they may now receive mercy. For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all” (Rom 11:30-32). As Paul sees it, human disobedience and unbelief are ultimately unable to thwart God’s good plans for humanity. Even Paul must admit, though, that in the end the working out of God’s good plans will always transcend human comprehension. “O the depths of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Rom 11:33).
- Paul confidently affirms that nothing in our present lives, no matter how horrible or bleak, is able to separate us from the love of God (8:31-39). Paul gives a list of potential threats—such as, hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, sword, death, things present, things to come (8:35, 38)—and proclaims that “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (8:37).
While Psalm 44 described the horror of defeat at the hands of one’s foes, Romans 8 boldly proclaims that through Christ we are “more than conquerors” such that nothing, absolutely nothing in heaven or on earth, will be able to bring about our ultimate defeat. This is because nothing will succeed in cutting us off from “the love of Christ” (8:35), that is, from “the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:39). Bad things may indeed happen to us, but Paul assures us that we will be just fine because the love of God will always keep us and remain with us. Evidently the love of God is such a powerful force in the lives of believers that no imagined or real horror of this life can undo its effects. If God’s love for us is the most fundamental truth of our lives, if it is the bedrock upon which we build, and if this can never be taken from us, then we will be alright no matter what life may bring our way.
Negative human experiences, especially those that involve tragic events, not only cause sorrow and anguish, but for people of faith raise theological questions, questions about God.
Why did God allow this to happen?
Where was God?
Does God even exist?
Psalm 44 deals with the tragedy of defeat in battle by raising theological questions, questions put to God. “Why do you forget our affliction?” (44:24).
Romans 8 illustrates how Paul’s faith in the crucified and risen Christ (see 8:1-17) has transformed the way he views suffering.
can never remove us from the realm of God’s love (8:31-39),
is endured through prayer (8:26-27),
is relativized by the realization that present suffering cannot be compared with the goodness of our future hope in Christ (8:18-25),
and believers holds onto the confidence that God is even able to bring about good through seemingly tragic circumstances (8:28).
Modern atheistic worldviews cannot resolve the tragic dimension of human life. If there is no God, life in the end is a tragedy. But while the scriptures of the old and new testaments acknowledge the tragic element within the human story, they also bear witness to a message of hope grounded in a God of steadfast love who raised Jesus Christ from the dead. Such news is about one who delivers from every evil, including sin, death, and the power of the evil one. Those who hear and believe this gospel find comfort in sorrow, hope instead of despair, and hearts buoyed up with an unmistakable and uncanny sense of joy.
Faith in such a God affirms the words of Julian of Norwich: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”