“Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” – Romans 5:3-5
As I watched my church’s online sermon on Sunday, this verse stood out to me. What did it mean for suffering to produce hope? How could any good come from suffering?
I remember when, as a teenager, I would pray every day that God would take my anxiety away. I was tired of suffering. I took medication and went to the alter and lived as a good person. But the anxiety was still there.
“Anxiety doesn’t necessarily go away,” my counselor told me once.
I wanted to cry.
What? How could she say that? How could she say there was no hope? That I would be like this forever?
“But,” she added, “you learn how to cope with it.”
Was that enough? I didn’t want to just cope with it. I wanted it to be gone. I never wanted to feel like this again. Give me all the medication you can give me–I just want to be normal.
I told my mom a few years ago how I felt. She and I were very similar at my age–anxious, trying to gain weight, struggling with worry.
“Things don’t worry me as much anymore,” she said. “I get anxious sometimes, but I have been through so many things that now I know I can handle anything.”
My mother is a very strong person. She struggles, but she hopes. She fears, but she believes. I was starting to understand what my counselor meant.
Now, I look back on all the things I used to be afraid of: busses, carpooling, parties, eating out, going to the doctor or dentist, going to college, and many more. I’m not afraid of those things anymore. Not because my anxiety went away but because I experienced my fears and was okay.
Whenever I have gone through a hard season, I feel like I am declining. I fear my anxiety has won and that I will never escape its hold. My counselor told me this wasn’t true.
“It’s harder now,” she said, “because you’re going uphill.”
I pictured myself riding a bike uphill, my legs burning, my heart pounding.
Of course it was hard. But after riding uphill enough times, your body adapts. It gets stronger.
The same thing is true whenever I go through a bad cycle of anxiety. It’s hard, but, in the end, I’m stronger. Usually, the next hard time is actually easier. I recover more quickly, knowing this time that I am able to get better.
I used to dislike the verse from Romans chapter 5 because I didn’t want to have to suffer in order to have character or hope. But now I understand. All of my fears revolve around the unknown and “what-ifs.” My imagination fills in the blanks with dreaded scenarios. But when I actually go through that fear, I realize that my ability to imagine the future was faulted. I couldn’t imagine it clearly.
The more fears I overcome, the more I realize that I can overcome them. This is the “character” that Romans speaks of. Suffering shows us that, with God, we are strong. We can, as Paul says in Philippians 4:13 “do all things.” This verse is often de-contextualized and put on the walls of gyms. What Paul really means is that we can suffer and be alright because God is with us. When we do this, and our character grows, so does our hope.
Surely suffering should bring us down. It should dampen our hopes, reminding us that we live in a broken world. Instead, God can use suffering to show us God’s strength. It redirects our hopes away from our illusions of comfort and control to the only one who can truly save us. And it shows us that, with God’s strength, we can heal. Any story that ends in brokenness is not true. After winter come spring. After despair comes hope. This is the story told again and again in scripture, and we still await its ending when all mourning will be turned into joy.
If anxiety and fear are something you are only recently struggling with, please know this: the more you experience, the more you will grow. Whenever you go through a hard time, believe that healing waits for you at the end. You won’t be let down. You will recover. You will hope.