By Bob Stevenson
When I was young, Christmastime held a kind of reverent expectancy. The decorations, music, gifts, food, candlelight service on Christmas Eve—it came laden with glorious hope and thrill. As I grew older, I found myself (as people do) developing new traditions, coming to terms with the complexity of life, yet still desiring to hold on to something of the yearning I experienced during those early Christmases. The memory of those days became a phantom to be caught, but one I could never quite capture.
Now that I’m an adult, the necessities of fatherhood, marriage, and ministry crowd in with such force and busyness that I find myself seeing only the clutter of life. I don’t even try any longer to search out the ache that formerly caught in my heart.
But every once in a while, the Christmas lights, or the laughter and thrill in the eyes of my children, or a song will stop me in my tracks. This familiar echo of something deep and long past will sound out of the swirling busyness in my mind. And I will remember. And I will long for that . . . something.
A Realm of Color and Wonder: the glory that lies beyond
I used to believe that I was simply aching for the younger days. For simpler times of innocence. But more, I have come to recognize that my longing is for something that lies beyond even what those early experiences could obtain.
C.S. Lewis describes this in his essay “The Weight of Glory.” He writes,
These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never visited.
In Romans 8:18–25 we are led into such a place, rich with glory and buzzing with the scents and music of another land. And it means to take hold of us and transport us into a realm of color and wonder.
Now, I recognize that such a proposition is risky. When we pick up a novel or step into a movie theater, our expectations are clear. We have come to lose ourselves in a creative world of imagination, adventure, or beauty. We can enter into the story with confidence for the simple reason that we have quarantined it as “fiction.” So while our inward parts are stirred by themes and characterizations and plot twists, we can safely return to the mundane of reality without much pain. Reading fiction used to pain me, for I would so enter into the color and wonder of it, that to emerge back into “normal life” created a kind of incurable longing within me.
But in Romans 8 Paul does not aim to play with us. He aims, in wafting the scents of Heaven toward us, to serve as the best kind of guide: one who is true and, in that truth, realistic. This reality is glimpsed in the preceding texts, where we read, “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom. 8:16–17, ESV).
The Trailhead of Glory: pain in sight
It is no small thing to be named as a child of the God Who made all things. Greater still, to follow the logic of sonship and discover that we are fellow heirs with the great Beloved Himself—beneficiaries of His goodness in ways that outrun our brightest imaginations.
And yet, as stirring and warming as such a promise is to our hearts, every one of us will walk away from reading this piece and find ourselves back in the spectacularly normal world. With all the trappings of a fallen creation and all the abrasions God’s people suffer as a result of living in such a place. And this is precisely why the apostle so quickly conditions his picture of glory on our participation in Christ’s suffering.
Because the shape of our glory follows the outline of Jesus’ cross. Our feet will find no other road but this one. But this suffering does not diminish or demean the reality of the promise; neither does it reduce it to cruel hyperbole or figure of speech. The apostle simply takes us by the hand and leads us to the trailhead of glory. And as he points us forward, we see that the way is rocky and painful. But he also offers us a telescope to clearly behold the bright, shining glory that lay at the end of the journey. For in doing so, he wants for us to move boldly, courageously, and joyfully through suffering, because the glory at the end really is that good.
So in short, he wants for us to believe that the coming glory far outweighs the pain of this life. He says as much in verse 18, when he writes, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (ESV).
Live long enough and you know that suffering can neither be outrun or outfoxed. It follows as inseparably as one’s own shadow. Such a claim reveals that Paul is either excruciatingly ignorant of the nature of reality—or he knows something we don’t. We are led to the second conclusion because of what he says. When he says that he “considers,” he is not offering his opinion; he is making a reasoned calculation.
Now, how such a claim can be made still must be proven, particularly as some of us have suffered, and are suffering, greatly. And if we are to believe that even that suffering might pale in comparison to what lies before us, we must be shown something amazing.
Trail marker 1: Creation is longing for us
The first point of evidence is almost jarring in its transition: “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (v. 19). “Creation” here is merely the world as we know it, this blue marble suspended in space. The earth and its ecosystems, weather patterns, geological movements; its land animals, air animals, sea creatures; bacteria and molecules; our solar system, galaxy, and cluster of galaxies—anything and everything created by God’s omnipotent word.
This creation is straining in anticipation toward a moment—the moment. As a child waits with barely contained anticipation for Christmas morning, so created existence craves the coming of glory.
As strange as it may be to think about neutrons, topsoil, and pelicans straining forward in longing, a yet stranger revelation is made: creation is awaiting the revelation of the “sons of God.” Which, of course, leads us to the natural question, Who are these “sons of God” that the created world longs for?
Simply, it is us.
If the preceding verses had not been spent unfurling the glorious reality that in Christ we who believe are sons and daughters of God, we might be forgiven for looking elsewhere for an answer. For what kind of glory could create such gravitational ache in the cosmos?
The “glory that is to be revealed” (Rom. 8:18) is not merely going to be shown to us, like a movie or the public reveal of a work of art. It will be revealed in, through, for, and into us. We will be acted upon by God’s glory and transformed by it.
And this moment of glorious and transforming revelation is the moment the very ground underneath our feet yearns to see occur. But isn’t this humanistic triumphalism? Aren’t we merely inconsequential (and often destructive) organisms on this pale blue dot?
Carl Sagan was impressed by this reality. In the ’90s, he reflected on his experience with that stunning snapshot of the earth, captured as nothing more than a tiny pixel, surrounded by black nothing. He famously wrote,
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.
In one telling of the cosmic story, this relative cosmic loneliness only underscores the meaninglessness of our bitter battles and foolish violence. But such a materialist vision must necessarily also render our suffering meaningless. Thankfully there is a better story.
Trail marker 2: Creation groans with us
Paul goes on, explaining that “the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:20–21). These words echo Genesis 3, when our first parents chose to carve out their own way in this world; their sin brought about a catastrophic curse on creation. Sin violated the deep fabric of all that God made good. It introduced a rebellion, a contagion that spread throughout the human race with unstoppable force, unwaveringly corrupting the collective human soul.
God had created mankind “in His image,” as regents over this good earth, to rule over it well with His heart, in dependence upon His goodness. But what kind of horrors might such image-bearers do detached from goodness and bent in on themselves in a world fruitful and supplied with unlimited resources?
So, once the rebellion began, there was nothing for it but to bring creation into bondage. God took the good earth and crippled its fertility and fruitfulness. We would feel the presence of sin.
And so creation groans.
We hear this groaning of creation in crop failures. We hear it in famines and droughts. We hear it in earthquakes and tornadoes that destroy life and property. We hear it in the extinction of species, when our backyard gardens shrivel and die, in our own sickness. In our death.
This cosmic sigh serves as a natural and constant reminder that not all is well. That we are a people in desperate need of redemption, living in a world in desperate need of redemption. Each time we encounter another deep weary moan from the depths of creation—a murder, a hurricane, starvation—we are reminded that things are not the way they are supposed to be.
And yet. . .
Trail marker 3: Creation groans in hope
We are told that creation was subjected “in hope.” From the beginning, hope was woven into the fabric of existence. God whispered, as far back as Genesis 3:15, that things would not always be this way. That one day, someday, in the far and foggy future, another image-bearer would come and bring healing. And His name is Jesus.
Christ came as neither mineral, animal, or plant in order to die for that part of creation. That part of creation did not rebel. It was we, the pinnacle, who committed high treason. It was we, the crowning glory of creation, who pushed away from God and fell to the depths. And so, it is us, those formed in His image, He comes to redeem.
And in redeeming you and me, the path is laid for restoration and renewal. For when our salvation is revealed in all of its glorious fullness—when the “sons of God” are revealed in all the glory God worked through Christ for us to obtain—our glory triggers a cascade of renewal. When the image-bearers are glorified, creation’s bondage will have run its course and liberation will be finally realized. For after all, when sin is finally and fully done away with, those shackles triggered by sin will be torn asunder, and creation will finally be free to exist just as God intended: good, beautiful, fruitful, flourishing. Alive.
And so creation groans in hope. And we join the chorus. Give no heed to the stoic lie that calls you to grin and bear the pain. Such a proposition is poppycock. It is a good and godly thing to acknowledge our pain and to give sufficient vent to our tears. Calvin warns that to deny this is to “necessarily subvert the order laid down by God, who does not call his people to victory before he exercises them in the warfare of patience.”
This life is not our best life. It cannot be. And so we vocalize the ache. But like creation, we do so while straining forward in our seats. For “we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:23).
We have tasted and seen that God is good, because God has poured out His love into our hearts “through the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 5:5). We have tasted what it means to be sons and daughters of God because God has sent His Spirit into our hearts to whisper the veracity of this truth deep into our souls (8:16). We have a present taste of the glorious life that is coming to us. We experience it in a real and substantial way through the Spirit.
But it is not yet our best life.
We experience God’s love in the midst of suffering. We experience the reality of God’s fatherhood in the midst of our groaning. Our bodies are breaking down and dying, but we break down and die in the presence of the very same Spirit Who will give everlasting and glorious life to these same bodies (Rom. 8:10–11).
The Holy Spirit creates a permanent and present connection with our future hope. We receive a taste, but it is precisely that taste which makes our sufferings so sharp in relief. Just as Creation eagerly awaits the glorious revealing of God’s children—of us who believe—so even more, we await this, because of the Spirit Who guarantees the promise dwelling within.
Hope runs like an undercurrent in Scripture. The Bible is a book full of promises. Many of those have been fulfilled. Which further fuels our justification for believing this God when He makes promises as grand and breathtaking as we see here. If, therefore, hope is so woven through the fabric of creation itself (Rom. 8:20), then it must not surprise us to discover that our salvation is shaped by hope as well: “For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees?” (Rom. 8:24).
This is where the prosperity preachers are so dreadfully and damnably wrong. The wares they peddle explain that God’s best life for us is now; that this is Heaven, and we’re failing if we don’t experience it now. The tragedy of such heresy is that it bluntly denies the very thing that the apostle Paul teaches us: our best life is only tasted now. To be frank, if the accumulation of money and houses and cars is the definition of the revelation of “the glory of the sons of God,” that is a sad and sorry promise indeed. And you should despair. But these false teachers are swindlers offering cheap substitutes now, when God offers a future treasure of infinite value. Such teaching destines its followers for despair and destruction by showing them precisely that which will be devoured by the groaning and pain of the world.
So do not believe those who strip your salvation of its future shape. We are saved now, we are forgiven now, we are children of God now, we have the Spirit now—but all of this is given in great anticipation of that glorious day when God’s glory will burst forth and be revealed in brilliant clarity.
If we limit our sense of glory to what we see, we miss it all. And so we wait, as patient people who believe that the coming glory far outweighs the pain of this life.
End of the Trail: inestimable glory
Glory unspeakable awaits you. Listen to the longing in your heart. Allow yourself a “sanctified imagination” that runs along the contours of the explosive and colorful imagery of the prophets, of Revelation, of Jesus’ words, such that we are never satisfied with this world as it is. Encounter beauty and heed the inexplicable ache assailing your heart, embracing it as neither accidental nor meaningless. For after all, as C. S. Lewis observed,
The faint, far-off results of those energies which God’s creative rapture implanted in matter when He made the worlds are what we now call physical pleasures; and even thus filtered, they are too much for our present management. What would it be to taste at the fountainhead that stream of which even these lower reaches prove so intoxicating? Yet that, I believe, is what lies before us. The whole man is to drink joy from the fountain of joy.
And so we wait in hope.
Bob Stevenson is pastor of Village Baptist Church, Aurora, Ill.