Elaine Storkey unpacks Romans 8 to reveal how Paul’s words can lift us above the discouragements of our day


Study passage: Romans 8:1–39

Are you a summer festival goer? These annual events are high on the list of so many people’s priorities for their calendars; our own children used to climb in the car with great expectation of a few days of relaxation, music and fun. Going with grandchildren last summer, I noted that not much had changed. Listening to interesting teaching, having a go at something new or just enjoying a great atmosphere of sound and laughter were still the order of the day. When the festival spirit is in full swing, even the rain, mud or loo queues are no deterrent to a good time. 

For some, Christian events are opportunities to take along unchurched friends or family and watch their stereotypes about Christianity being blown out of the water. For others, they are family times – when several generations get together and enjoy time out. For yet other Christians, festivals might be the only time when they engage with other people in worship. But whatever takes people to these events, the thing that many go away with is encouragement. Being with crowds of other worshippers, linking up with old friends, hearing Jesus’ teaching, enjoying stories of faith are all tangible reminders that whatever is happening in our world, God is here, with us, in it all. 

Paul reached out with encouragement to those struggling with problems in life

Encouragement is something we all need. That’s probably why there’s so much of it in the New Testament. Jesus constantly gave reassurance to people who were struggling with illness and oppression. But he encouraged those whose problem was unbelief too. In John’s Gospel, Jesus promised his disciples that in this world they would have trials and trouble. But he also said: “take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). 

The state of the world today

Paul echoed the same reassurance in his letters to the early churches. His letter to young Christians in Rome is known for its deep teaching, but in it, Paul also reached out with encouragement to those struggling with problems in life. And, despite the differences in time and context, the experiences of our human condition today are strikingly similar to those Paul mentions. For us, too, the message is not to lose hope.

For example, Paul talked about creation “groaning” (v22) – words that are deeply prophetic for our day. We know what that means in our world, probably far more than Paul did. Because now, every new report tells us about the damage done to creation: loss of bio-diversity, erratic and dramatic weather conditions, shrinking of the polar ice-caps and millions of environmental refugees. We know we’re getting closer to the point of no return in our battle against global warming, even though we have the technology and the skills to make a difference and halt it. And ordinary people often feel powerless, for it needs political will from leaders and nations to change the life values that have led to this crisis. 

Many on our globe today also live with persecution, injustice, abuse of authority or violent conflict. The powerlessness they feel as their lives are shattered by bombings and destruction and when those they love are killed must be utterly numbing. A different kind of helplessness confronts many people at the economic level as they suffer hardship, famine and destitution, often fuelled by the greed of richer nations or unjust distribution. And unemployment or loss of a wage can be devastating to those with no other resources. Women can feel especially powerless because of the huge scale of gender inequality. In far too many countries, women have lower incomes, fewer resources, lower access to education and lower involvement in decision-making than men. Yet they also have higher exposure to violence and rape. 

In all these areas, Christians are included in the injustice and distress, and sometimes even persecuted because they are Christians. In Jesus’ teachings, he made clear that his followers would not be exempt from pain or suffering. And Paul named what many believers struggle against – trouble, hardship, persecution, famine or exposure, danger or armed violence. It would seem we have every reason to be discouraged. 

Emotional and psychological pressures

Discouragement can also be related to the emotional and psychological pressures that people feel – Christians included. This is as true for us as it was in Paul’s day. I’ve come across a sense of ‘heaviness’ in many women I meet. We can be gripped by anxiety or fear for children, painful relationships, remorse, resentment of other people or feeling of little value. Christians can know loneliness and emptiness inside. Some struggle spiritually, facing constant guilt and unable to share the problem with others.   

A student I knew well once asked if she could pray with me about a problem of ongoing bitterness towards another person. Afterwards, she thanked me for praying and quietly confided that she had no real friends and didn’t share often. In fact, she preferred her own independence to having close relationships. When I asked her why that might be, she replied with surprising candour: “I suppose I am a bit afraid of letting people in. I don’t want other people to see what I’m really like.”

From the outside that young woman was delightful: honest, congenial, self-aware and seemingly untroubled by the problems that bogged others down. But from the inside she saw herself differently. She saw her bouts of impatience, selfishness, indifference to other people’s needs, lack of prayer, resentment, judgement of others and readiness to conform rather than stand out as a Christian. She hated these in herself and didn’t want them to be exposed to anyone else. 

I’ve come across a sense of ‘heaviness’ in many women I meet

In his letter to the Christians in Rome, Paul showed he understood these issues. He seemed able to identify both the external struggles that many Christians face, and the spiritual weaknesses that confront them. He knew how easy it is to lose hope when persecution hits us. He also knew how easy it is to get into bondage when the cares of the world circle round us. Paul identified the way we’re surrounded by ways of living that go against our calling as Christians. And it’s somewhat amazing that in his catalogue of human worries and concerns, Paul saw the personal details of our lives as so very significant. 

So “what, then, shall we say in response to these things?” (v31). Paul’s response puts everything else in perspective. Because it moves us away from the hopelessness of our human problems to the reality of God’s existence and Christ’s care. It lifts us out of hatred of what we don’t like about ourselves, to understanding how much God loves us and wants to bless us. It’s an echo of Jesus’ message to his disciples that in this word we will have trials and trouble, but he has overcome the world: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (v31).

How can Paul’s words be read today?

Paul was clearly writing to the Christian followers of his day. So, who would we identify as the ‘us’ in our present world? Is it perhaps those Christians who are downtrodden, ill-treated, abused and oppressed? Yes, it is. It’s those who face persecution and famine, those denied justice, those never given love, those children taken as hostages, women treated like commodities. Throughout the New Testament we are urged to pray for these brothers and sisters and to be actively engaged on their behalf in any way we can. 

But the ‘us’ in Paul’s letter is also for those of us who face our own failings, who know we’re not perfect – not even particularly good. God is for us too. He’s for those of ‘us’ who feel sick when we recall some particularly mean thing we did; who wish we could turn the clock back and wipe out some ugly sequence; who brought pain to other people and know we need forgiveness and healing. God is for us too. 

To drive his point home, Paul painted the scene of a heavenly law court, where the counsel for the prosecution was also the one pleading on our behalf (vv33–34). The one who has power to condemn is the same one who has already reconciled us to God. So, there is no condemnation and all we need to do is to accept God’s love and forgiveness in Jesus. 

When God is for us, no one can be against us. Nothing can separate us from Jesus’ love. And the words of encouragement that conclude Romans 8 have resounded through history and brought hope to all who need to hear them. I hope we will hear them in our churches and at festivals this summer: 

“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (vv 38-9).