By Gregory E. Sterling, Dean of Yale Divinity School
In recent months, I have thought that the message the country most needed was a message of hope. This was prior to the outbreak of COVID-19 in the U.S. Now I think this is even truer. When I think about hope, I often think of a passage written by the Apostle Paul.
In Romans 5:3-5, Paul described how hope is produced in us. I was taken aback the first time I read it. The Apostle wrote that suffering produces endurance and endurance produces character and character produces hope. I would have altered the order and said that suffering produces hope and hope produces endurance and endurance produces character. Why did Paul place hope last in this list of four?
Suffering makes us painfully aware that we do not control everything and cannot always change what we desperately want to change. Everyone who has been with a loved one who is dying understands this. We look beyond ourselves to God. When we resist the urge to despair in times of suffering, we learn how to endure. We may feel squeezed, but we refuse to surrender. As we continue to resist, it shapes who we are. Paul used a word that appears here for the first time in Greek literature, character. The words related to it suggest that it refers to someone who has proven themselves through testing. It is then that we understand hope, hope not in ourselves but in God. It is the confidence that God is ultimately in control and will be with us, no matter what we face. Our experiences testify to this and give us hope for our future.
We are being tested in this pandemic, sorely tested, every one of us. Circumstances are probably going to get worse before they get better. We need to steel ourselves to endure, understanding that the endurance will shape who we are and how we see life. If we do, we will hold on to our hope in God, a hope that will give us the stability that we need.
Martin Luther King understood this when he wrote: “In the midst of outer dangers I have felt an inner calm and known resources of strength that only God could give. In many instances I have felt the power of God transforming the fatigue of despair into the buoyancy of hope.” May we hold on to our confidence in God. It is not a naïve confidence, but a confidence born out of suffering, endurance, and character.
Gregory E. Sterling is the Reverend Henry L. Slack Dean of Yale Divinity School and Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament.