Perhaps you remember it: a place of torment, where the hero Wesley was taken and nearly had his whole life drained away. Few knew the way out. Escape or rescue were out of the question. The hero was to suffer more than any other man had in the past century. It’s the pit of despair from the film The Princess Bride.
We often put the words suffering and despair together. It makes sense to our perspective: physical hardship, mental torment, emotional anguish–these things lead to despair when they continue on, especially without prospect for relief.
We don’t often put the words suffering and hope together. But the Bible does.
“More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope...” (Romans 5:3-5a).
The biblical author had apparently never witnessed for himself the “pit of despair” encountered by Wesley in The Princess Bride. Rejoicing in suffering? Really? Suffering leads to despair, doesn’t it? Into a pit with no way out, no hope of rescue, no hope of escape?
Or, suffering can lead into the pit of hope.
Perhaps the biblical author had never experienced for himself many pits of torment and anguish? We’re told that Paul was beaten, shipwrecked, starved, faced natural dangers and also man-made ones–and not just facing each of these circumstances once, but numerous times (read here). He was well-acquainted with suffering. And yet he says to rejoice in these sufferings, and that such difficult experiences actually produce hope, not despair.
Lest we think that Paul was a special exception–or simply an idiot, a wacko, or a masochist–apparently, suffering led to hope for many of the other children of God. We’re told they suffered mocking and flogging, death and destitution, and yet they remained people who clung to promises, even though they didn’t get to see the fulfillment of those promises in their midst of their suffering lives (read here).
The movies don’t lead us to believe that suffering produces hope, but the Bible does.
So how does this look in “real life,” apart from the modern silver screen or the tattered scrolls of ancient literature?
It’s not an instant outcome, that’s for sure. Suffering produces endurance which then gives rise to character which then yields the fruit of hope. Apparently, our instant reaction to suffering isn’t going to be hope. It’s going to take a process.
A season of suffering produces endurance if one resists being overwhelmed by it. Some suffering is momentary, and relatively easy to bear. But some seasons of suffering last weeks, months, years–even the rest of our lives. Giving in during the course of these seasons leads to despair. But hanging in there produces endurance. How does one hang in there? That’s a post for another time, but it takes far more than a simple act of will. And it doesn’t require a certain physique, IQ, or a raft of mental escapism strategies. It takes something else.
But having achieved endurance in the midst of suffering, or in the midst of many seasons of suffering, character is birthed. A person tested in the storms of life who comes through with endurance discovers that virtue has been developed within: they are people of humility and gratitude. But some, having made it through a season of suffering (by which I mean: they didn’t die) will instead exhibit arrogance, living out a skewed perspective on their own invulnerability, self-sufficiency, and luck. Such people didn’t endure suffering. They sought to conquer it. And they give themselves the credit if they make it through. But this isn’t virtuous character. This is hardened independence. And we know it’s not ideal, because it doesn’t lead to the next step.
For those that suffer, endure, and then express character (lives of humility and gratitude), hope results. Having come through the fires of life, and responding rightly to the experiences, a person receives the resources to go through it all again. That’s what hope is. It’s a spiritual resource which enables someone to “rejoice in suffering” because suffering isn’t the worst thing that can happen, and because suffering can actually provide opportunities for growth in character, and for the realization of God’s promises.
It was called the “pit of despair” because the way out was known only to a few, and because there was thought to be no possibility of rescue or escape. It’s called the “pit of hope” because there is a way out, there is a purpose to being in the pit, there is a Light that–even if it can’t always be seen directly–is known to be there. And so, the suffering of the moment can endured. The endurance realized can lead to humility and gratitude. Because there’s hope. Because there are promises. Because there is Someone faithful and powerful who can fulfill those promises.
But if you don’t know the promises, you won’t know the hope. You’ll know suffering, for sure. You may encounter some form of endurance and develop a degree of character, but it won’t be the endurance and character that lead you into and out of the pit of hope.
Let’s look again at the rest of the thought: “More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:3-5).
Such hope isn’t ridiculous, it isn’t silly, it doesn’t put us to shame, because it isn’t pie-in-the-sky: it’s God’s love poured into our lives, attested to and guaranteed by the presence of the Holy Spirit. But if you don’t know the promises, if you don’t believe in the Fulfiller of the promises, than any hope is ultimately going to be embarrassing. It may be a nice psychological coping mechanism, but it will never really deliver.
The pit of despair and the pit of hope are the same place, but with two very different outcomes. One results in death, the other results in abundant life, a life so enriched that you can go back into the pit again if need be, and still not give into despair. And in fact, while you’re there, you may even have the chance to encourage some of your fellow sufferers.