If you follow me on Facebook, you know that over the past several months my husband and I have been working our way through the Star Wars and Star Trek movies. We have now watched them all. Most of them we had seen before, and they are worth watching again because we enjoy the characters and the out-of-this-world settings, but also because the stories they tell resonate with our own experiences of life and living. One of them in particular, Star Trek Beyond (2016), addresses a human experience that the Apostle Paul also addresses in Romans 5, human suffering.
The antagonist in Star Trek Beyond is an man named Krall. He had been a general in the army before the Federation of Planets was formed. When the Federation unified the planets, races that had been enemies became allies, wars ceased, and armies were no longer needed. Krall was convinced that he needed to abolish the Federation to bring back the struggle that had made humanity strong. He was convinced that peace had made people weak.
Krall did get one thing right, and he might have agreed with what Paul says in Romans 5:3-4, that “… suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope…” Krall thought he needed to create an environment of suffering to make people strong. The unfortunate reality is that we don’t need to work to create an environment of suffering. Suffering happens anyway. It’s part of life. Some of our suffering is the result of preventable human action, but some of it is a natural part of growing and aging and living and learning.
In fact, that’s the driving premise of Star Trek. The starship Enterprise travels the universe on a mission of discovery, seeking “to boldly go where no [one] has gone before.” They may live in a world without war, but they inevitably they run into trouble because they are willing to go into the unknown. In the face of new challenges, they learn how to get through the struggle, they grow in their understanding of the world and of themselves, and they keep moving forward.
The reality is that the best way to learn how to get through a hard time is to get through a hard time. Whether we do it well or not, we learn what worked and what didn’t and we use that the next time we encounter hard times. We also get help in this from seeing how other people get through, and by encouraging each other to see that we can get through it, with God’s help.
In Star Trek, there is hope in humanity’s ability to overcome great obstacles and to do what seems impossible. In Star Trek, they don’t talk about God, but we know that it is God who made us and who gives us these abilities. In Romans 5, Paul frames his statement about suffering with statements that describe the infrastructure of our faith. Through our faith in God and in God’s power to raise Jesus from the dead we have peace with God. Through Jesus Christ we have received forgiveness and free access to God’s love which is poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. When Paul says that our hope doesn’t disappoint us, it’s because our confidence is not in ourselves, but in God, and in Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Spirit.
Jesus Christ is the source of our hope, and also our example in suffering. Because he suffered, we can know that he understands our suffering (Hebrews 2:18), and because he persevered, we can know that he will persevere with us, and we can trust his promise to be with us always (Matthew 28:20).
We deal with pain and discomfort in a variety of different ways. Our first response is to try to stop it or fix it, and sometimes that’s easy. Like the man who went to the doctor one day because he had a pain. The doctor said, “Tell me what’s wrong.” The man said, “It hurts whenever I do this.” The doctor said, “Ok, well, then, don’t do that. Now, here’s your bill.” Simple. Problem solved.
Our faith response is sometimes like that, too. Sin causes pain, so the obvious and simple answer is to turn away from sin. And sometimes we do that well. But, as Paul laments later on in this letter to the Romans, sometimes we find ourselves doing the wrong things even though we meant to stop (Rom. 7:19). This is part of our struggle, and the reason that we have to keep returning to Jesus, and keep asking for help and for forgiveness.
Sometimes our suffering comes from situations that seem unchangeable, and sometimes when we are in those situations for a long time, we become blind to them. Like the crack in the mirror. And sometimes it’s because the problem grows slowly and we don’t notice that it’s gotten really bad. Like a really slow computer.
Back in the early days, you know, like twenty years ago, computers were nowhere near as fast as they are now. I think our expectations of our computers was lower back then, too. The PC I was using at work back then had some issues, but I had learned to work around them. I’d start the computer on a process, and then I’d go make some photocopies or send a fax. Come back and get the computer started on the next process, and then do some filing, or make a phone call, or type something on the Selectric typewriter. I know, it was the dark ages. Anyway, I’d figured out how to work around the problems with my computer and so I didn’t really notice them so much anymore.
But then one day someone from IT came to install an update on my computer, and he saw the crack in the mirror that I’d stopped seeing. He said something brilliant, like, “Oh my gosh, how in the world have you been working with this computer?” And of course from then on I couldn’t, because he’d made me see the crack. So I turned in a requisition and got a new computer.
Now, I’m sure the new computer didn’t come as fast as that sounds. And every moment with that old computer was excruciating from then on. But if I hadn’t gone through the struggle of seeing the old one for what it really was, I never would have bothered to ask for a new one.
We need to ask God to help us see what we need to change. Seeing the need for change may cause us to struggle. We need to ask for God for help, and we need to keep on asking, like the writer of Psalm 116, who says,
“I love the Lord because he hears my voice and my prayer for mercy.
Because he bends down to listen, I will pray as long as I have breath!” (Ps. 116:1-2)
We also need to expect to be changed. Whether or not the situation changes, we will be changed. For better or for worse, life changes us – like metal in a forge. The more we turn to God and trust in Jesus, the more we are changed to be like Jesus, and the more we grow in our faith.
Paul says that suffering produces endurance as we learn to keep going in spite of the difficulties, and that endurance produces character. “The word “character” comes . . . from the Greek word charaktēr, a tool used for etching, making a mark, or stamping an insignia on an object.” Suffering puts a mark on our souls. It’s part of what makes us who we are.
I could tell you a beautiful story about that, but today instead I’d like to encourage you to think about your own story. We’ve all been going through a challenging time over the past few months. I know I’m not the same person that I was back in March when we started staying home because of the virus. I’ve learned some things about myself and about God during this time. Maybe you have too.
- What have you learned? How have you been changed?
- How have you seen God working in this time?
- What do you want to be sure to remember as we go forward?
- What has been marked on your soul?
- Where have you found hope?
I’ll admit there have been times when my hope was precariously balanced on my ability to deny the existence of trouble and pretend everything was fine. Star Wars and Star Trek helped me to do that for a couple of hours at a time. Books and movies can be a well-needed escape.
There have also been times when my hope was dim because the reality of our current situation was overwhelming. When there are steps we can take, we feel better through taking them, but sometimes all we can do is hold a situation up to God and ask God to help us to trust and keep trusting that God’s love is greater than all our sin and all our sorrow. And know as we weep and lament and cry out to God that God has not left us to deal with any of this alone. God is here.
Paul tells us in verse 8 of today’s reading that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Two thousand years before any of us were born, before any of the world as we know it today existed, God sent his son to redeem us all. And God is still good, and God still loves us more than we can fully comprehend. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us, and that is the firm foundation on which we build our faith and on which our hope is anchored.
I’ve been praying a lot about this pandemic, and the economy, and the demonstrations and the situations that have prompted them, and the uncertainty and loneliness and despair that seems so prevalent right now. I’d love to say that things are going to get better, but I cannot promise that. It’s possible that things will get worse. But our hope is not based on that. Our hope is based on the love of God that brought us through thus far, and will continue, and God’s promise that nothing can separate us from the love we have in Jesus Christ.
 WYNDY CORBIN REUSCHLING. Joel B. Green, Thomas G. Long, Luke A. Powery, Cynthia L. Rigby, Carolyn J. Sharp. Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship (Kindle Locations 2794-2795). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
 “What God will do for the believer in Christ is grounded on what God has done for the believer in Christ.” (Elizabeth Shively http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4486 )