No one anywhere, at any time had a life that was plain sailing. Even though God is good, all the time. He has no need to punish us (Jesus took all that), and when we wander off he woos us through kindness. How then are we to interpret the little knocks (or savage blows) that we endure?
Once we believe that God’s goodness will be experienced in tangible favour in our lives, once we embrace the fact that he has plans for our good, it becomes very tempting to look upon adversity as a matter of shame. When I am not healed (yet), when business is not good (yet), when the children are acting up (still), it is all too easy to suffer in shame. God extends favour, so there must be something wrong with me.
Paul, in contrary tone, declares that he “boasts in sufferings” (Ro 5:3). Indeed, if difficulties were a sign of God’s disfavor then Paul would be supremely disfavoured (think shipwrecks, beatings, imprisonments etc.)!
In actuality, many of the things that we call “bad” that happen to us, are not so much bad as stretching. Inconvenient – yes, demanding – yes, uncomfortable – yes, but not essentially destructive. The other day I looked at our church finances, which were again in lean shape. I said, “God, I’m tired of having to trust you!” He said, “Richard, listen to yourself! Why would it be a problem to have to trust me?”
We all want victory. But we don’t want the battle that precedes the victory. (A victory is by definition a battle successfully waged.) We imagine that courage is a quality that might be required along the way, but we sincerely hope not! If I can get through life without having to be courageous, then so much the better!
To love God is to love courage. To love God is to love generosity. To love God is to love compassion. To love God is to love honesty. To love God is to love faithfulness in relationships. Virtues like these are not incidentals, but the whole point. The God we love is an embodiment of these qualities.
Which brings us back to the question. Paul boasts in sufferings because they produce endurance, which in turn produces tested character (Ro 5:4). In difficulty we get to make good choices between pursuing wealth and being generous, between being secure and courageous, between looking good and being honest, between being in control and being compassionate. From the perspective of heaven, nothing is really at risk, but humanly speaking these are still difficult choices.
Sonship is about favour and greatness. He blesses us, but he also makes us brave. When favour is not (yet) evident, it is probably because he is enlarging us.