I taught a girls’ Bible study this summer called, “Looking For Lovely”. The gist of the Bible study was to look for and focus on the lovely things among our circumstances. The study focused on Romans 5:3-5 which says, “Not only that, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out His love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, whom He has given us.” As I watched my Pastor–my friend, mentor and father figure– battle pancreatic cancer over this last year, I desperately searched for the lovely. I insistently banged on the door of heaven, asking God to explain Himself. I mulled over all the scriptural reasons for suffering, I pondered God’s motives, I examined His intent, as if God needed me to judge His work. In all this, I found nothing lovely. In all this, at every turn, there seemed to be only ugly.
I looked for purpose, but I found only suffering and pain. I sought understanding, but I only experienced doubt and frustration. My beloved Pastor went home to be with the Lord last Monday and it is now a week later that God has finally spoken. The whole time my Pastor battled cancer, I asked God what was the purpose of building his character through suffering if it was only going to lead to death? What was the purpose of refining his character if he wasn’t going to stay alive to share what he learned? God answered: It wasn’t Pastor’s character that was being built, it was the character of all those who loved him. God was building the character of all those who would continue their lives after our Pastor was gone.
Just like our Pastor poured out his life into ours while he was living– teaching us, mentoring us, praying for us– so would he be poured out in death, a final sacrifice unto God bearing “the sweet aroma of Christ among those who are being saved… a fragrance that brings life.” (2 Cor 2:15,16) and “a sweet smelling aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, well-pleasing to God.” (Phil 4:18). All those who loved our Pastor persevered in prayer and persevered in faith. Our prayers may not have been answered the way we expected or wanted them to, but our faith that God is still on the throne and is still perfect in holiness, love and justice, has persevered. Through faith, we are more than conquerors over every temptation we faced to succumb to doubt, anger, or frustration. We experienced all those things, yet they never prevailed over our faith.
It was hard for me to see any perseverance because I was too focused on the ugliness of the circumstances. It is so easy to fall into the temptation to judge God’s love for us based on our circumstances. But scripture tells us that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ, neither “trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword..” (Rom 8:35). Jesus never promised us that we wouldn’t suffer, but He did promise that we would never be separated from His love.
We are told that the fruit of hope is the result of all the suffering, all the perseverance and all the building of character, “And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out His love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, whom He has given us.” (Rom 5:5). After all the suffering and persevering and building of character, we are left with hope and God’s love. We are left with the peace and assurance of our salvation and that one day very soon we will be with Pastor again. We are left with fulfilling the purposes of God by the power of His Holy Spirit Whom He has given us. We are left with only lovely.