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June 14, 2020

What to Do When Suffering Is Great (Lee)

Steven Lee (North Campus) | Romans 12:9-21

Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.—Romans 12:9–21

Our passage this morning is Romans 12:9–21. You might be worried, because with even a cursory reading of the passage, you can figure out there are about 31 commands the way the English translation renders these verses. They are not all imperatives in the original Greek, but nearly all the participles and infinitives have an imperatival thrust. So, 31 commands and 35 minutes to cover them all.

What I hope to do is not a typical exposition of each and every one of these commands. That could be beneficial at some point, but I hope to provide a 20,000-foot flyover for this passage to see how Jesus’ justifying work for us empowers us to live out these commands.

My aim is for us to be eager and fervent in doing good, and informed by truth, in our current cultural context.

Context of Current Culture: Outrage & Hatred

We live in a culture of outrage. Headlines and news stories are designed to elicit outrage. Whether on the right or left, the media feeds off of anger or fear. The old adage “If it bleeds it leads” is still true of our media today.

Here is just a small sampling from recent headlines:

  • Outrage was directed at Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian humanitarian aid organization, when it established a field hospital in Central Park of New York City (as was requested by Mount Sinai Hospital and paid for by their donors) to serve COVID-19 patients because they hold to the biblical teaching on marriage and sexuality.
  • Outrage was directed at J.K. Rowling, the acclaimed author of the Harry Potter series, because of her perspective and writing on sex and gender.
  • Outrage was directed at a health officer in Orange County, CA, including death threats, over her mandatory mask rules, which led to her resignation.

This culture of outrage leads to escalating outrage on one side, or paralysis, inaction, and indifference on the other. Many may even begin to think, “Why do anything when I will be labeled ignorant, uninformed, insensitive, or accused of hate speech?”

Further exacerbating this culture of outrage, is that Christianity is offensive to our culture today.

  • Jesus is the only way, truth, and life. Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientology, and any other religious system leads only to eternal damnation. No one comes to the Father except through Jesus.
  • All mankind are born sinners. People are not mainly and mostly good, with a few mistakes along the way. We are dead in our sins and need forgiveness of sins that only Jesus can give.
  • No one can earn a right standing before God. You mean to tell me people who devoted their life to helping others, or billionaires that give away 99% of their wealth, will be condemned by God? Yes. Our good deeds are filthy rags. Only Jesus can save. 

We live in a culture today where light is called darkness, and darkness is called light. When pornography is protected, and the gospel message is hate speech.

Christians should be unsurprised by the hatred of the world. Jesus told us to expect it:

“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.”—John 15:18–19

The outrage culture and hatred of society sets the stage for this question: What do we do? How does God call us to live when the world around us is hurting? What do we do after we have said, “We don’t know what to do, but our eyes are on you?”

Some Christians might be tempted to withdraw, to do nothing, to say nothing, and to be as inoffensive as possible. And even in our passage this morning, it does say, “live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18). Is there more than living in peace? My main point from our passage is that believers need to be undeterred and undaunted in doing good in reflecting our Savior. This is truth is implied in the list of commands that Paul gives, and it’s explicit in various other places in Scripture as well:

  • Seek the good of the city even in exile. “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:7).
  • Be ready to share your hope in God. “Always [be] prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame” (1 Peter 3:15–16).
  • Shine forth the glory of Christ in the midst of a darkened society. “Be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life” (Philippians 2:15–16).

The Bible does not call believers to sit on the sidelines while the world burns. If the world is burning, Christians grab fire extinguishers, hoses, and buckets of water. The Bible calls the church to do good to all, and especially those of the household of faith. We are to make disciples, preach the gospel, build the church, and serve those around us.

Commands: The Call to Do Good (Romans 12:9–21) 

Notice some of the features of Romans 12:9–21. First, Paul writes short, punchy, sharp commands with very little elaboration. Second, there are few conjunctions to help us understand his flow of thought or how they all fit together. Third, it’s difficult to pinpoint a particular theme or focus. And fourth, they are almost proverb-like and seem to draw upon a wide range of teachings from the OT, Jesus, and early Christian writings. 

Paul also doesn’t necessarily apply any of them in any level of depth to the specific situations facing the Roman church. He’s content to just give a long list of commands.

As for some semblance of a theme, we see a general call to love, and then specific actions that could be characterized as love in action. “Let love be genuine” (Romans 12:9). This is like an overarching theme for what follows. Then Paul says, “Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor” (Romans 12:10). There are a number of other commands that have to do with the active, intentional pursuit of honoring God: “Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord” (Romans 12:11). Be eager, zealous, and constant in faith. 

This call to genuine love takes the form of both practical and spiritual. Paul points out practical things like contributing to the needs of the saints and showing hospitality (Romans 12:13), and possessing a Spirit-guided attitude and outlook: be constant in prayer, patient in tribulation (v. 12). This is a holistic and wide-ranging call to look more like Jesus. 

In verses 14 and 17–21, Paul also calls believers to not curse those who persecute them, or to avenge themselves when wronged. This is a counter-cultural call to be like God and not to follow the human instincts of our sin nature. This is right in step with Jesus’ words in Matthew, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:44–45). You are to resemble your Father.

If the aim of this message was, “Here are 31 commands; go and do them all,” I imagine all of us would leave here this morning exhausted just thinking about it and overwhelmed with trying to carry them all out. 

We would all get a little decision fatigue. I’ve recently come to like shopping at Aldi. I used to not like it because it had such limited selection. But now I’ve come to see that as a feature rather than a deterrent. I can walk in and see that they have two types of jam—strawberry and grape—both full of high fructose corn syrup. That’s it. Take it or leave it. Few options make for easier decisions. Whereas if I go into another grocery store I’m confronted with 35 varieties of jam: different flavors, types (marmalade, jelly, or preserves), and options (fair trade, organic, hand-mashed, chunky style, and imported). The possibilities are overwhelming, and I leave empty handed because of decision fatigue.

We might feel that way coming to this passage: a long list of “to do’s” in the Bible. Thirty-one items, some stated positively, some stated negatively, many restated with different emphases, and each one straight out of the Bible. Some of us conscientious box-checkers generally like lists and aspire to check off the box and move on. Others of us are completely overwhelmed just thinking about it, “How can I possibly do all of these things all the time?”

And this is why we are so glad that the Bible is not mainly about a list of commands. It’s not a pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps religion. We need to read this list in light of everything Paul has written already regarding the nature of the gospel in Romans 1–11.

We need to rewind to see how Paul’s teaching throughout Romans informs how we read this section of his letter where he gives this quick-hitting list with so little explanation.

Context of Romans (Romans 1–11, 12:1–2)

If we fail to read these commands within the context of Romans 1–11, we’ll attempt to muster our will to accomplish these 31 things and either end up proud because we did it or, more likely, disheartened and discouraged because we failed. Paul’s explanation of the gospel in Romans is the essential foundational teaching that Christians must understand before engaging in the work of trying to “do” anything.

Hear this brief sampling of passages that highlight what God has accomplished in Christ in the gospel of Jesus from Romans 1–11:

  • “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16). The gospel alone is what saves. Not works righteousness. It is the gospel alone for everyone who believes and lives by faith.
  • “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23–24). All have sinned and are condemned, but some are justified by God through Jesus Christ.
  • |“But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ dies for us” (Romans 5:8). Christ died for his enemies, and therefore we can bless and not curse those who persecute us.
  • “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). Eternal life is a free gift, and it cannot be earned by a long to-do list. 
  • “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). There is no condemnation for those in Christ! Justified sinners can pursue acts of love because they have been loved—not out of guilt and shame.
  • “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:31–32). God is for us and will surely give us all things for godliness. 

These truths from Romans 1–11 are the indicative statements of the gospel that we have to first understand. Unfortunately, too often in our culture and world many people want to skip over the substance of the gospel to get to the implications of the gospel. But the gospel addresses the root of the issue: sin. The only way to become free from sin, and the death that our sin rightly earns, is to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.

To be a Christian is to have a new allegiance, to be transformed in both heart and mind, and to have a reordering of our priorities and values according to Christ’s kingdom. 

Romans 12:1–2 talks about this transformation. It’s a hinge passage from Romans 1–11 to chapter 12 and onward as Paul describes what it is like for believers to live in light of the gospel. The “therefore” in Romans 12:1 looks all the way back to the previous 11 chapters, and now believers are wholly devoted and set apart for God. Romans 12:1 calls believers to live as “a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.” We are to be wholly devoted. Romans 12:2 it says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Believers are consecrated to God in our mind and our actions. There is no dichotomy in Paul between what one thinks and what one does. Believers are not to be conformed to the ways of the world but are to be transformed in our minds. Right living is to be informed by right thinking, which is informed by a right standing with God because of Christ’s righteousness.

The Christian responds to God’s grace in Christ by now living as those who have been transformed and who are increasingly conformed to the image of their Savior, Jesus Christ. See how the gospel transforms how believers think and live:

  • We have been justified by God, therefore we do not worry about the acceptance of our culture.
  • We have been forgiven by Christ, therefore we do not wallow in our former sins.
  • We are being sanctified by the Spirit, therefore we set our mind on the Spirit.
  • We have been loved with an everlasting love, therefore we can love even our enemies.
  • We have been known by God, therefore we long for others to know God.
  • We are heirs with Christ, therefore we don’t worry about getting ahead here on earth.

Jesus accomplishes what we cannot accomplish, and now by his grace, as one who is justified, sanctified, and reconciled, I can walk in his footsteps. Jesus loved by being reviled and betrayed. Jesus blessed and did not curse. Jesus fed people with miracle fish and bread from his hand, knowing that some of them would later cry out, “Crucify him!” This is our model for being undeterred and undaunted in doing good in the midst of crisis, chaos, and suffering. 

When the pastoral staff was talking about this passage on Tuesday, Pastor Sam remarked that Romans 12:9–21 is a portrait of our Savior. Jesus’ love was genuine. Jesus abhorred what is evil and held fast to what is good. Jesus fulfilled every single one of these commands perfectly, and now he calls his people—not to an impossible standard—but to increasingly be conformed to his perfect and beautiful image in reflecting his values.

In fact, verse 21—overcoming evil with good—is a summary of what Jesus Christ did at the cross. In the face of betrayal from a close friend, an unjust arrest, torture, mocking, and shame, false witnesses, the perversion of justice, and spineless authorities in Pilate and Herod, Jesus is crucified. In all that evil, Jesus overcame it with good. Satan, sin, and death itself were all undone and overcome by Jesus’ perfect submission, perfect love, and perfect sacrifice. Darkness came to destroy—and was destroyed by Love himself in the process. 

The gospel changes everything. Romans 12:9–21 is not an oppressive and legalistic list of 31 commands that someone holds over you. It’s like when a building inspector comes to your house and examines your home improvement project. They have a checklist of things you must do and things you can’t do. And they have the authority to tell you to do it all over again. Weekend warriors dread hearing, “It’s not right, do it again,” or perhaps, “Tear it out; you’ll have to do it all over.” That is not how Romans 12:9–21 works. It’s not a checklist that seeks to damn you to hell, but it’s instead a list of identifying marks and traits for who you are now in Christ. It’s more like a family mission statement that you hang on the wall: “Our family will love God, eat together, listen well, and laugh heartily.” Why? Because that’s who our family is.

So we live in a world of outrage, and the temptation is to withdraw. But the Scriptures call us to an undeterred and undaunted love—and we must see that call to do good within the context of the gospel of Christ: We do not earn God’s approval or atone for our own sins, but rather we receive forgiveness and labor as transformed people seeking to honor and reflect God’s glory.

Commands: Putting Them in Action

So now we can put love in action. I’ve been tempted during the riots to think, “You reap what you sow.” This is true and biblical. And yet in Christ, I am so glad that I more often than not don’t reap the fruits of my flesh and sin but rather cast them upon the cross of Christ. And shouldn’t that be how we pray and love and act in these days? Asking God for mercy upon our cities, for repentance to be sought and given, for rioters to find Jesus—and yes, for justice to be done.

The old man in me wants to say, “The food desert in South Minneapolis is what you have created. One makes their bed and now they have to sleep in it.” The new man says, “I remember living down there on 25th Ave & Blaisdell. Those were once my grocery stores, and I know 99% of the people living down there had nothing to do with the destruction, looting, and riots. How can we help?”

So with Romans 12:9–21 as our backdrop, I want to spur us on to dream new dreams of love and doing good. Our cultural conversation says, “If you’re white, you’re either an ally or condemned as part of the problem.” But the Bible says the main categories are not mainly white or non-white, but forgiven or still in sin. And if we are part of the redeemed—those who have tasted of the unmerited mercy of God—we now show mercy. There is no condemnation for all those in Christ Jesus, and so Christians pursue biblical justice, protest brutality, enact reform, and love our neighbors all in obedience to Christ—not to atone for our whiteness, or whatever color you may be. 

Christians don’t labor out of guilt, shame, or under compulsion, but out of transformed hearts and minds. Being both compassionate and long suffering. Wise and discerning. Quick to listen, slow to anger, and slow to speak. Not championing Republican values or Democratic values, but Kingdom values. We do those things not to virtue signal or to prove we aren’t racists or indifferent, but to shine forth the superior worth and the transforming power of Jesus Christ.

Pray with me that God would overcome the evil we’ve seen these last few weeks with good—mainly with the transformative work of the gospel—with believers doing good out of transformed hearts and minds.

So Spirit, come, put strength in ev’ry stride,
Give grace for ev’ry hurdle,
That we may run with faith to win the prize
Of a servant good and faithful.