In Romans 8:17-39 we are confronted again by tension between the way things are and the way things will one day be.

We are already saved from the guilt and the condemnation of sin, but we are not yet saved from the presence of sin.

We are already saved from the spiritual suffering of alienation from God, but not yet saved from the presence of physical suffering.

This is an eschatological tension – a tension related to the eschatos – the last day. Those who try to explain away the suffering, those who teach that Christians shouldn’t suffer, fail to understand this biblical tension. In a way, they are trying to bring the future into the present, to import the blessings of the new heaven and the new earth into this world in which we live.

In Romans 8:17 – 25, this eschatological tension is evident in the presence and reality of physical and personal suffering. Paul’s teaching confronts the kind of questions that are raised by the popular theology of suffering that says that if we are suffering it is because we have sinned:

If we, as those whose sins have been forgiven, have ceased to be related to God on the basis of merit, why do we still suffer?

Why can sin still to impact us with its results if God no longer holds our sins against us?

Or worse:

If I am suffering, what sin of mine has caused this suffering?

What have I done to deserve this?

The presence of suffering, and the fact that believers suffer in the same way as non-believers, seem to contradict all that Paul has been teaching up to this point, if we believe the popular theology of suffering.

But Paul here teaches that suffering is part of the eschatological tension, an expression of the difference between the already and the not yet, the now and the then, between earth and heaven.

He puts it this way:

Now we suffer with Christ – then we will be glorified with Christ (v17).

Now there is suffering – then there will be glory (v18).

Now there is eager expectation – then the sons of God will be revealed (v19).

Now creation is subject to frustration and bondage – then there will be glorious freedom (vv20,21).

Now creation and we ourselves groan in eager, patient expectation – then we will be adopted as sons and our physical bodies redeemed (vv22 – 25).

Putting it at its simplest level: we are not in heaven yet. Because of that, we suffer.

We are still in this world, where Jesus has left us, but we don't belong to this world any longer - a world in which the results and consequences of sin still surround and impact all who live here. The present 'normal' state of the world, which is in place from Genesis 3, is really 'abnormal’. It is not the way God created it; it is not its natural state. It is essentially an interim, in-between, state, which will be terminated and reversed when Jesus Christ returns and abolishes sin and suffering forever.

Recognition of this tension helps us to realize that suffering does not indicate failure of our faith or punishment for our sin - as the three friends accused Job, and as various current expressions of legalism regularly tell us. Rather, suffering is inevitable this side of heaven. It is only then that God will wipe away all the tears from our eyes.

© Rosemary Bardsley 2020

Check these new study series for further discussion on why Christians suffer:
Suffering Revisited