I'm approaching this subject somewhat hesitantly because I don't feel particularly worthy to talk about this particular aspect of Christianity. God specifically laid this topic on my heart to speak on at one of the conferences in Malawi, and despite my very compelling reasons (which I did present to God, very compellingly), this was one of the lessons I taught, though not from this text.
I certainly don't understand every aspect of this verse, so I'm going to attempt to understand simply by reading it (a very good system, I think). Rom. 8:16-18 says, "The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: and if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together. For I reckon that the sufferings of this present are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us."
Yeah, it's a beautiful verse we hear quoted frequently to describe our saved status as children of God. And rightfully so. It's an amazing statement. Being called "children of God" is unthinkable, but the idea of an heir of God is even more so. It's completely past my comprehension to think of myself as not only a child, a son, of God, but it's even harder to think of myself as an heir of God. Think of that. An heir of God!
But there's a clause I hadn't paused to notice until someone brought it up while we were in Africa. One of the guys mentioned the amazing enormity of the statement that we are co-heirs with Christ, and he's right. That's amazing. One of the pastors with us pointed out the last clause of that verse though, which kinda took some of the wind out of our sails!
It's a pretty major "if". Didn't you always hate that word growing up? "You can have a cookie when you get home... if you're good." That took all the fun out of it! Now it's dependent. I was happy as long as I was getting a cookie, but when I had to exercise a little self-denial to get the cookie, then I had to do some mental figuring as to whether or not it was worth it to behave just to get a cookie!
I think Paul wants us to do the same. When he says "...coheirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may also be glorified together", that is an invitation to count the cost of whether or not it is worth it to be a co-heir with Christ. It doesn't appear to be a free prize. We have instead been offered the option of being glorified with Christ, as a coheir with him. But it comes with a cost.
It reminds me of Jesus' response to James and John's mother when she asked to place James and John at Jesus' right hand in the kingdom. Although who sat next to whom in the kingdom was not Jesus' perogative, His response was still that they would drink of the same cup He would. Being glorified with Christ comes at a cost.
I had never looked at that verse that way before, and I think my ignorance symbolized very well how many Americans approach Christianity. We love the concept of being a co-heir with Christ (who would blame us), but we ignore the comment what our glorification with Christ hinges upon (who would blame us for that one either).
It would seem from this passage that our glorification with Christ hinges upon that previous statement, "if we suffer with Him". Now let's just call a timeout here. Suddenly, being a co-heir with Christ comes at a much higher cost than most of us are willing to pay.
But I think that's why Paul followed it up with His next statement. "For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us." Why would anyone purposefully suffer? Because the rewards are worth it!
I've spent hours abusing my body, twisting it into contortions it was not meant to go, and holding uncomfortable positions and working out until my body screamed. Why? Because it was worth it to me to win that competition. When I go to a big tournament and do well, it makes all the hours I spent training worth it. And until the tournament, I push myself to my limits, and sometimes past them, by telling myself, "Just a little further. You can last a little longer. It'll be worth it."
That's what Paul's doing here. He's telling us that during that suffering, just hold out a little longer. Just push a little harder, because the reward at the end is such an amazing gift that we cannot even compare the pain to it. The glory of heaven will be so rewarding we will not even be able to compare our sufferings on earth to it.
That's why Paul suffered. That's why the apostles died. That's why men throughout the last 2,000 years have suffered and died for Christ. Their sufferings were not worthy to be compared with the glory that is now revealed in them.
Yesterday, I was reading about the English missionary Henry Martyn. He died at the age of 31 in Persia, having translated the New Testament into at least three different languages and was revising a fourth at the time of his death after only six years on the mission field. The girl he loved was not willing to leave England, so Martyn went to India and Persia alone, where he died of fever.
After his death, an entry in his journal was found to contain this amazing little statement after a paragraph describing his own constant inaction for Christ so far in his life. It read simply, "Now let me burn out for God." That's amazing.
I want you to think for a moment what the world would look like if the church decided to burn out for God. To die completely empty, completely used up for God. Would there be pain along the way? Absolutely! Would it be fun all the time? Unlikely!
But what gives a man the kind of strength and courage to completely commit his life, to point of burning out, for God? I think it's because of an attitude that reflects that verse. "...the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared to the glory which is shall be revealed in us."
Suffering is not something to be completely shunned by a Christian. It is our very suffering which allows us access to the glorification with Christ that is so completely amazing.
Gaining a basic understanding of this verse helps us understand passages like Lk. 14, where Christ commands us to count the cost of following Him. If we understand that following Christ and being a co-heir with Him involves suffering and pain, we are forced to count the cost before we emphatically agree to follow Him the rest of our lives. His seeming attempt to convince people not to follow Him is instead a very somber warning to us that our lot in life as His followers involves suffering.
Suffering is not be shunned. It is, as strange as it may sound, to be welcomed. It is an accepted, well-established part of the Christian walk, and, even stranger sounding, a gift. It is the bridge that grants us access to not only a deeper relationship with Christ but also deeper glory with Christ.