“We also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
The esteemed English poet John Keats was tempered in youth by poverty and suffering. Just two years before his death at age 25 from tuberculosis, he wrote to his brother and sister what he was learning about life: “Call the world if you please, ‘the vale of Soul-making’. Then you will find out the purpose of the world.”
I write as one who often wonders about the purpose of things, of suffering and trouble. I often go back to Keats’ turn of phrase and insight about “the vale of Soul-making”. His generation spoke of life as “the vale of tears”. But Keats rejected viewing life as a vale of tears, preferring to think of it as “the vale of Soul-making”. He believed that God was up to something in our hardships and trials! Keats continued in his letter to his brother and sister: “Do you not see how necessary a World of pain and troubles is to school an Intelligence to make it a Soul?”
Often as a pastor and chaplain I have sat with people in pain and perplexity, mindful that I was watching Soul-making. Nicholas Wolterstorff is Emeritus Professor of Philosopher at Yale, and also a griever of his son’s death. In his tender book Lament for a Son, Wolterstorff writes of wisdom learned beyond his philosopher’s study: “In the valley of suffering, despair and bitterness are brewed. But there also character is made. The valley of suffering is also the vale of soul-making.”
In today’s Scripture the apostle Paul looks at life as a vale of Soul-making, that place where souls are hotly hammered out and forged. While life often leaves unanswered questions, Paul says there is something we can know: “knowing that suffering produces endurance and endurance produces character, and character produces hope…” I find it helpful to follow Paul’s chain of thought:
suffering ? endurance ? character ? hope
We dare not miss the word “knowing” in Paul’s thought processes. Here is something we can “know”, latch our minds on, and hang on! We can “know” that our suffering produces endurance, our endurance produces character, and our character produces hope! We can put up signs saying “GOD AT WORK!” and step back and watch! Souls are being made!
So, what is it that suffering is accomplishing in our souls? First, Paul says, it is accomplishing “endurance”. Endurance is a translation of the Greek hupomone, which “means the spirit which does not passively endure but which actively overcomes the trials and tribulations of life”. (William Barclay, Daily Study Bible) Then, this active endurance produces “character” (Greek, dokime), which was used of gold passed through fire to purge out all of its impurities. And that character produces “hope”, which is actually stronger for having been tempered in the fires of suffering. That’s why the most hopeful people you will ever meet are those who have truly suffered.
And our hope in God for all of this will not “disappoint”, Paul adds, “because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” You will never be disappointed for hoping in God! He is Soul-making for this life, and the life to come!
Grace and peace,