An Unexpected Progression

The Bible can be confusing. I was reading in the book of Romans recently and I came across several verses that didn’t make sense to me. I’ve learned that when this happens, it’s usually a cue that these are verses I need to pay attention to and try to understand. Here’s the verse:

We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. Romans 5:3-4

There’s a progression being laid out here, and it sounds like it’s an important statement about the nature of how we find hope, but it didn’t make sense to me at first glance. I get the first 3 elements in the chain- suffering requires perseverance and this develops character, but how does having character lead to hope? It doesn’t seem immediately obvious.

The Connection Between Character and Hope

I started thinking of this progression that Paul writes about as a “cycle of hope” and that it is the remedy for what we understand in addiction circles as the “cycle of shame.” The shame cycle works like this:

  1. PAIN AGENT (Suffering)

  2. Beginning to fantasize or contemplate addictive or unhealthy behavior

  3. Dissociation- In the “fog” and no longer thinking clearly and rationally

  4. Ritual of seeking out the behavior

  5. Engage in the behavior

  6. Feel sense of shame or remorse

And once we hit that sense of shame, it can become a pain agent and so the cycle begins again and that sense of feeling trapped in an unwanted behavior becomes stronger and stronger. So let’s return to Romans. Paul is encouraging us to do something different when the pain agent shows up- to persevere. This is often the hardest thing to do when we’re in pain. It can feel like everything in us is crying out for an escape, and we all have many escapes in our back pocket that we have been using for years. But if we can feel something painful and just sit with it, or make a healthy choice like reaching out to someone or consciously caring for ourselves, something amazing happens- we discover that the pain does eventually pass. And if we string a series of these good decisions together we discover something else- that we are starting to form character. One of the insidious effects of addiction is that it stunts our maturity and growth and keeps us responding as we did when we first started relying on the behavior. It even changes the reward circuits in our brains! This is because instead of developing character we rely on our preferred coping skill to escape suffering. Once we commit to developing character, it becomes easier to make different decisions and we are establishing new habits and cycles. We can rewire our brains and create new pathways, but it takes time and consistency. Now instead of landing on shame at the end of all of this, we land on hope. We like who we are becoming. We don’t have to hide from those around us. There are no secrets. We’re more connected to our lives and to our relationships. We feel able to manage pain if it shows up again. Isn’t all this incredibly hopeful?

Hope Does Not Put Us to Shame

I left out vs 5 earlier because it’s the best part-

And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

This is the good news, we don’t have to break the cycle of shame in our own power. We can’t actually, so that would just be setting us up for further shame and disappointment if we believed we could. And this is the hope that Christianity offers, which I don’t see how you get if you’re just relying on yourself to make a change. God’s love is poured into our hearts and we have the Holy Spirit living in us, enabling us to endure suffering in the comfort of ongoing connection to God and in the hope of knowing that we are being transformed into people of character while this is going on. Many people enter counseling feeling truly hopeless about their circumstances and the loops that they are in, and I have a lot of empathy for that. It’s a terrible feeling. But we need to know that the remedy to hopelessness is not a quick solution to our suffering or simply finding ways to make it go away. The first step is to feel the suffering, to listen to it, to make good choices within it, and to allow it to create a new character in us. God’s love is pouring into us as we do this. This is how we find hope.