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The bowels of compassion

The bowels of compassion

Heart, mind, emotion, and the normality of suffering (Romans 8 continued)

Dear friends

As we continue our meander through the riches of Romans, we begin this week’s episode by thinking again about mind and heart and emotion (following our episode a couple of weeks ago). Why does the Bible see our emotion as located in our ‘guts’?

And then it’s on into the majestic second half of Romans 8, one of the richest passages in the entire Bible.

It’s all too much, of course, for a 30-minute conversation, but we hope that you are stirred and encouraged all the same.

Your brother,


The bowels of compassion

Phillip Jensen: I was listening to the episode you did while I was away, about mind and heart, which I thought was fantastic. It got me thinking. It's fascinating that Romans uses the phrase ‘the darkening of the heart’, because usually we'd say the hardening of the heart, such as in Hebrews 3. But the word ‘darkening’ shows that the heart has something to do with the mind because it is related to the idea of enlightening. 

Tony Payne: The contrast is between light which signifies understanding in the mind, and darkness which is ignorant and foolish.

PJ: It got me to search around other bits of the Bible in terms of the heart and mind, darkening and lightening and hardening. An interesting one was the disciples didn't believe in Jesus walking on the water because their hearts were hardened. It's not because their emotions were in any way affected, it was that they didn't understand. And so again, even when the hardening of the heart is used, it's a hardening of understanding rather than being ruthless.

TP: Yes. They weren’t feeling negatively about Jesus, rather they didn't believe because it’s as if they'd already decided in their heart what was the case. Their heart was already hardened in a particular position, and so they couldn't comprehend what this was.

PJ: So then it got me thinking about emotions. The King James version said that emotions were in the bowels–Paul longs for the Philippians “in the bowels of Jesus Christ”. And you think, well, that's a funny place to carry your yearning or compassion. 

TP: But we would say it's in your ‘guts’. 

PJ: Yes, saying it is in your gut is saying the same thing. The stomach is actually the place where you have the feelings. Whereas the heart is funny because the heart is two things for us: it's the romantic emotional thing and it's a blood pump. But also the heart is the centre of a person, the centre of me, which involves the ‘bowels of compassion’ but also involves the thoughts of the mind. In the New Testament they don’t talk much about the brain, but rather they often say the heart thinks. 

But the other thing is this concept of love. Love is doing, rather than feeling. I don't want to remove feeling from love, but to love somebody and not do anything about it is not actually love.

TP: Sometimes the love of something can be just the enjoyment of something. So I suppose that's doing something, embracing it, enjoying it, reveling in something that you love. But because of the nature of this world, it's almost always seeking more of the good for that person that you're loving. So it's almost always a benevolent, reaching towards something good for you, or for somebody else. It leads you into action.

PJ: So we've got this heart and love combination. Love is more active than our concept of love. And the heart is more thoughtful than our concept of heart. And you also gave us the philosophical background of rationality and romanticism. Because you see, philosophy does not teach you the truth, but it does help you understand yourself and your misunderstandings of yourself, because you need to see why it is that you do not see properly. Why is it that you even misperceive what the Bible is saying? Because your mind has been framed and fashioned by forces–historical forces, cultural forces–and so you read it differently than what the original author meant. In terms of pendulum swings, how much is romanticism similar to post-modernity? 

TP: It's very similar, isn't it? Because in postmodernity, you've abandoned the idea of any possibility of objective truth. You've said that the whole enlightenment rational idea has failed, we've given up on that. And so all we really have is ourselves. There's a turn towards the self that's quite radical in postmodernity, isn't it? It's just me and my truth, which is a very romanticist way of thinking. But it's not very ‘romantic’ in the other sense of the word; it’s more about power and politics. So there is a different cast to postmodernity, because in the Romantic era, I don’t think there was that sense that ‘the personal is the political’, and the politics of power and group identity. That's certainly a feature of our postmodern form of expressive individualism. 

So the first part of Romans 8 had got me thinking about minds. But we're in the second half of Romans 8 today, which turns to a slightly different subject than mind: suffering.

PJ: Yes. Romans 8:18 says, 

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.

It's the now and then, this time as opposed to the future time. It's the sense of this world as a world of suffering, but the next is the world of glory. And when you put the two things together, the glory just is so far greater than the suffering that really the suffering is not worth considering.

TP: When you talk about the sufferings of the ‘now’ time, it reminds me how I feel the longer I've been alive, the more experientially I'm aware of the normality of suffering and the depth of peoples’ suffering. 

PJ: Yes, normality indeed. I tried to teach undergraduates that by the time they're in their mid 40s, they will have gone through a major tragedy. Very few people can get into their 40s without a child dying, without a miscarriage, without a divorce, without being sacked. 

TP: Without dealing with a serious illness, without a great injustice being done in your work, or in your family, without the family being riven apart by something. 

PJ: Yes, and so a philosophy of life or theology or gospel that does not deal with suffering is almost by definition, inadequate. Because suffering is normal. 

TP: And it is hard to sometimes appreciate that when you're a younger person, when you haven't had time to live yet and everything's expanding out before you and you're looking ahead with excitement. And in a sense, talking about our cultural glasses and our philosophy of who we are, we're taught as young people that you can do whatever you want, you can be whatever you want to be, the whole of your life is extending out in front of you, this glorious path where you will actualize some wonderful version of yourself and fulfil your dreams. And it's a terrible collision with reality for many young people–when they get into their 20s, late 20s, early 30s–and discover that that's not the case. And if something terrible hasn't happened to them by then, at least what's happened to them is the collision with the fact that everybody else in the world doesn't think I'm the most special person. It’s disillusioning.

But the suffering in Romans 8 is quite varied, though, isn't it? It's one of those chapters that touches on different facets of how we suffer in the world, perhaps as many different facets in the one passage I can think of in the New Testament.

PJ: Yes, it starts off with our suffering as part of creation. Romans 8:19-25:

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For 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. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

We’ve gone for six verses and we’ve canvassed half a dozen big subjects–but that’s our apostle, isn't it? 

TP: Yes, indeed. So you've got the creation itself. And in my mind, this connects with what we saw earlier in Romans 8 and in Romans 7, that the bodies we have, the fleshly existence we have, is fallen and under sin, and it's frustrating and difficult and inclined to go wrong. We have this bodily, fleshly problem in those chapters. And here that seems to be mirrored with the futility and frustration of the creation itself. It's like our bodily failings and the futility of our attempts to obey the law and so on are almost mirrored in the creation itself, which is subject to futility. 

PJ: Yes, it's a perversely wonderful thing, but this suffering, this creation futility that he is speaking off here, is not random. It's not accidental. It is actually under the sovereignty of God. That is, he has subjected the whole world to this futility in hope of something else, something better. But you've got a choice in life. This is just the way the world is, or this is the way God has, at the moment, developed it, used it, subjected it to his greater plan, which involves present futility. But it's perversely a wonderful thing because it's still futility. It's still suffering. But yet, it's wonderful because it's not random. It's not excellent. There is meaning, there is purpose in it.

TP: We’re circling around towards the idea of theodicy and the nature of suffering and why there's suffering in the world. And we perhaps don't want to make this whole conversation about that, but it does talk about why there's suffering in the world here, because God subjected the world to futility. 

PJ: Yes. One of the problems of theodicy is the world’s teaching on it, which classically puts forward that the problem of evil as an abstract intellectual idea and not the reality of what we're going through. And it treats the Bible and God, as if there is no discussion of suffering at all in the Bible. 

TP: As if it's never occurred to us that there was suffering in the world.

PJ: Whereas pretty much every page of the Bible is about it. It's about sin, it's about the fallenness of the world. It's about the judgment of God, it's about the difficulties of life. It's not as if some first year philosophy student suddenly discovered suffering and the problem of evil and presented it as if it's a completely new thing to every generation. We've always known that—and that's what the Bible is answering. But you've got to listen to the Bible's answer, rather than telling the Bible that it cannot answer this question; that here is a syllogism that is unanswerable. We are accepting that God brought the sufferings into this world. So when you start off with the all-loving God who cannot bring any suffering, you've got a different God than the God of the Bible. So the God you're just disproving is the God that doesn't exist anyway. 

TP: We don't believe in this ‘God’ you’re disproving either.

PJ: Yes. So, you know, what is the gospel about? It's about the Lord Jesus Christ’s crucifixion. You can’t suffer much more than have the Prince of Life murdered. Christianity's about suffering; it’s embedded in chapter 5. When we're talking about being justified, we talk about the hope of glory, which is like in Romans 8. But we also talk about rejoicing in our suffering, boasting in our sufferings as Romans 5:3-5 says:

Not only that, but 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. 

The themes that we've got here in chapter 8 have already been anticipated in chapter 5. And it's saying: no, sufferings are used by God for our good—the development of character. There are a number of people who go to gymnasiums these days, and they put themselves through terrible suffering for something that they know will be better down the track. So suffering is not the ultimate, absolute, only ever evil thing. Suffering is unpleasant. It hurts. It can be painful, but it can be used by God for something better. But let’s not go too much into theodicy. 

TP: So there are different kinds of suffering in this passage, and then a constant reiteration of the hope that lies before us in those different spheres. We've started talking about our suffering in terms of creation, us also groaning and suffering while waiting for the redemption of our bodies. But later in the second half of chapter 8, there are other kinds of frustration and suffering. There's frustration in prayer. 

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.

We have an inability to understand our circumstances or to know what or how to pray. So there's a frustration and difficulty there. And then later in the chapter, it speaks of the suffering that comes from relationships with other people in the world, and especially with evil people in the world, when it talks about tribulation and distress and persecution and famine, nakedness and danger and sword. The suffering is multifaceted.

PJ: Yes. You mentioned to me the other day about Paul Grimmond's book on suffering, which I haven't had a chance to read. It's called Suffering Well

TP: Yes, it’s a great book. And the suffering he's talking about there is largely the suffering of persecution. I was still working at Matthias Media in the editorial area when Paul was writing that book, and we were working with him on it. He started to write the book about suffering, thinking that it would mostly be about all the things that happened to us in life and the terrible sufferings of his life. But he found that the vast majority of the references to suffering of Christians in the New Testament are about the persecution and difficulty we find because we're Christians in this fallen, evil present age. And so the emphasis is: most of the suffering in the New Testament suffering as a Christian, because of the evil of the world, rather than getting cancer or something like that. Whereas for us, I think we tend to think of the emphasis being the other way around. When we think of suffering, we think tragedy, the breaking down of a relationship, sickness, and so on. But here in Romans 8, interestingly, you do have the suffering of the fallen world, the frustrations of bodily existence. But then at the end, you've got this very powerful statement about the evil that we experience as Christians because of the evil in the world.

PJ: We'll get to that in a minute. You mentioned we have the Spirit of God, but we still suffer. We have the Spirit of God, who helps us with our prayers because we don't know what to pray. What do you pray when your grandson or your mother has cancer, or what do you pray if you’re a Christian living in Gaza at the moment? 

TP: It's part of that word ‘futility’ that's mentioned earlier in the passage, isn't it? It’s the nature of the world. It's not just subjected to suffering, it's subjected to a kind of vanity. It's incomprehensible; we can't wrap our minds around it. There's a certain futility and absurdity to the suffering in the world and we confront it. And it's opaque to us. We can't see our way through it so as to know “Oh, I can see exactly what's going on here. So I know exactly what I should pray.” So it overwhelms us because you can't see through the sufferings of this world, so as to know what's going to happen. Instead, you find yourself saying, “Lord, I don't know what to pray, but Lord help us.”

PJ: Yes. And sometimes I look back and I can see good things that have come. But sometimes I look back and I still can't understand.

TP: Indeed, and perhaps never will.

PJ: And perhaps never will. A couple of other things–in this passage he is anthropocentric in his view of the world. That is, the creation is suffering because it is in bondage to corruption, which is because of us and sin. But it is waiting for its release from suffering which comes with us and our redemption. Because actually, the whole creation is here for us. But then there's a wonderful twist that it's also not for us at the same time. So why don't you read verse 26-34.

TP: Romans 8:26-34:

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

PJ: So it's not random. It's all under God's sovereign control for our good, which is fantastic. You see, even though yes, I'm suffering at the moment, but ultimately God is using this for my good, even though I don’t know what that good is at the moment. He then spells out what the good is–that we might be conformed to the image of his Son. So I don't know how this is going to conform me to the image of his Son, but it will in some way. But then it even goes further to say that Jesus might be the firstborn amongst many brothers, might have many brothers. And then you realize, the anthropocentric goal is all for Jesus, not for us. The world has been created for Jesus, not us. We have been created for Jesus, not for ourselves. And so the whole purpose is not just to make us like Jesus; the whole purpose is that Jesus will have many brothers. So it's not actually about humans, it's about Jesus. 

But then you realize that Jesus is human. So God's plan to create the whole universe for the image of God is to create it for the Son of Man who now rules the world. Jesus in his resurrection, doesn't cease to be human. So God becomes man in Jesus, eternally. And so the world was created for man, and we have been recreated in his image, and that is our glory.

TP: It's also what it says at the very beginning of the passage just before the bit we started reading today in verse 17. 

The Spirit bears witness with our spirit that are children of God, and if children, then heirs heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ.

It's fantastic, isn't it? We will rule and inherit with him as his brothers.

PJ: Yes. That is God's great plan. You see, the problem for atheists who use the syllogism of the problem of evil is they don't know God. Therefore, they don't know what his plans are. Therefore, they're judging him on the basis of their ignorance. It's a very great sadness. If you think that the universe has no purpose, then there is no such thing as evil, but also no such thing as good. There is no such thing as beauty or hope because there is no better world coming. But God has put eternity into our hearts. Because when I look at the world and see the suffering, I say, this is not right. This is not good. Where would I get that idea from? And when I see beautiful things and say, isn’t this fantastic, where do I get that idea from? It's because as humans, we have within us the sense that there is something more than just blind pitiless indifference. 

TP: We came from somewhere and we're going somewhere. I think that ‘eternity in the heart’ passage in Ecclesiastes 3 is about the fact that we know that the world came from somewhere and we know that there is a future, we just can't quite grasp it on our own. We can't see what's going to happen from beginning to end.

PJ: And now the sufferings of this present age, well, they're not going to destroy the Christian and his faith. 

TP: That's because the future that's before us has already been achieved in Christ and is ours now. 

PJ: It’s ours now with certainty. So our hope is not a vague possibility. It's a realistic expectation.

TP: And that's because in the passage up to this point, we have the Spirit. The Spirit in this passage is the first fruits. It’s the guarantee; it testifies that we are children of God, that we are going to be adopted as sons, even though our bodies have not yet been adopted. We’re waiting for that adoption as bodily sons. The Spirit testifies that Christ and God is for us. And he goes on in verse 31, 

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;

    we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

PJ: Satan is a liar and accuser. And sometimes when we're going through sufferings, he speaks to us saying, “You see, God can't look after you. You are condemned, your life is wrong. You're getting what you deserve.” 

TP: Where is the promise now of his goodness to you? 

PJ: Yes. “And you're being punished for that sin that you did.” And this passage is wonderful; it's marvellous because it is made up of the gospel—that great truth that you need to shut up Satan with, that actually nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus. No accusation can be brought against us for we've been justified by the Lord Jesus Christ, by God in him. Now, that is one of the great passages of the Bible, isn't it?

TP: It is indeed. And for me, it is that image of the crucified and now risen son Christ Jesus, who has died, and more than that, who was raised, who is there at God's right hand, a living Saviour and Lord who is interceding for us. That is the certainty that we can have, that the one who died for our justification as it says in Romans 5 is now the living Lord who will save us at the end, and nothing can get in the way of that. Nothing can separate us from that love, because he's alive.

Links & Recommendations

Suffering Well by Paul Grimmond

Paul Grimmond’s book Suffering Well is an excellent, short, very readable treatment of the subject of today’s conversation. Highly recommended.


ROMANS 8:26-39

Phillip’s sermon at the Thanksgiving of his grandson that doesn’t shy away from suffering, but gives us the reassurance of the sovereignty of God and the hope of our certainty in Christ, just as his grandson did.


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Gospel thinking for today, with Tony Payne and Phillip Jensen.
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