“Whatever the cause, my memory is my memory, it does what it does, gathers and curates as it sees fit, and there’s just as much truth in what I remember and how I remember it as there is in so-called objective facts. Things like chronology and cause-and-effect are often just fables we tell ourselves about the past.”
So writes Prince Harry, near the start of his autobiography Spare. Since its release in January 2023, Spare has been incredibly popular, breaking multiple sales records. Harry’s tale is a lifetime of emotional confusion and anguish from traumatic experiences and oppressive systems. His story of suffering is clearly designed to evoke sympathy from his readers. It also seems aimed at rewriting his history with the Royal family.
This is not the place to analyse whether Prince Harry is right or wrong about the details of his family history. The reason I am quoting the book here is to highlight Harry’s candid admission that he does not ultimately care about history. In his words, the ‘truth’ that matters most to him is not found in ‘so-called objective facts’ about what actually happened. The true story is about his current feelings based on his fragmented memories of suffering and oppression. This is the truth the world (and his family) needs to know – his truth.
Why has this book been so popular? It cannot simply be a matter of Harry’s celebrity status. The answer can be found in how Harry (or, more accurately, his ghost-writer J R Moehringer) tells the story. His narrative of emotional suffering and oppression taps into something deeply ingrained in our modern psyche. For many people in our world, what matters most is not some ‘objective’ truth that can be found in history and facts. Instead, what matters most is our own internal emotional experience. This is what the world call ‘your truth’. That is why emotional distress is now considered one of the greatest evils in our world, to be avoided at all costs. This is a crucial reason why personal stories of suffering are so powerful (and saleable). Indeed, personal stories of suffering are increasingly becoming one of the most effective ways to sway public opinion and to effect policy change.
This can be seen in several recent public policy and legislative decisions in Australia. An increasingly influential factor in policy decisions has been the need to reduce individual distress, including psychological distress. For example, in debates about euthanasia in Australian state parliaments, personal stories of distress have often been front and centre. Such accounts have been decisive in swaying legislators. The stories easily override broader ethical concerns, including the sanctity of life, that would have been given far more weight in previous decades. Another example is legislation passed in Victoria in 2021 designed to criminalise certain conversations concerning gender identity and sexual orientation. The types of conversation the legislation targets include (but are not limited to) psychiatric consultations and ‘prayer-based activities’. Conversations that affirm a person’s biological sex over against their perceived gender – even when spoken consensually and in private – are viewed by Victorian legislators as having such severe potential to cause psychological ‘injury’ that they must be explicitly prohibited. Potential perpetrators of such speech must be threatened with prison sentences and harsh fines. A primary object of the legislation is to ‘ensure’ that individuals ‘feel welcome’ and ‘are able to live authentically and with pride’. As Christians, we are not immune to the world’s way of making decisions. We are often profoundly influenced by it, even if we don’t realise it. Unless we are thoughtful and deliberate, we can make decisions as our world does. That’s why we need to remember that as Christians, we have a far more secure foundation on which to make decisions. That foundation is the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. The gospel is a greater truth that transcends and encompasses ‘your truth’ and ‘my truth’.
In this article, focusing primarily on Romans 5–8, I will explore how this gospel foundation grounds our decision-making when we face stories of suffering. I am writing primarily for those who have roles in making decisions in difficult situations, especially those in leadership or governance positions in churches, Christian schools and other Christian communities.
Why stories of suffering resonate with us
Before we turn to Romans, it’s worth exploring briefly why stories of personal suffering resonate with our world and influence our decision-making so easily. One reason is simple: we are human. Suffering is awful. It tugs at our heartstrings – and so it should. If we cannot empathise with others, something is seriously wrong. Yet this is only a small part of the answer. There are more specific realities relating to the time and place we live in – i.e., the modern twenty-first-century Western world – that we need to consider. Carl Trueman’s book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self is beneficial here. Trueman has given us a compelling philosophical history of the Western world. He has charted a series of ‘revolutions’ in our Western communal understanding of the ‘self’ – i.e., what it means to be a human being – over the last 300 years. Together, these revolutions have led to a situation where our deeply ingrained view of what it means to be truly human now has at its core three factors: psychology, sexuality, and politics. This means that for so many in modern Western society, our ‘identity’ – how we understand who we are at a fundamental level – has become a matter of what we feel inside, especially about gender and sexuality. Furthermore, this is all seen as inextricably political. It is assumed that our society’s attitudes, speech and structures must be bent and moulded to ensure that these individual identities are protected as a top priority.
Most people in the Western world cannot clearly articulate these modern assumptions about identity, sexuality and politics. Yet they still run very deep. They are basic beliefs and gut-level reactions that we’ve picked up by osmosis, throughout generations, through countless stories, songs, movies, TV shows, videos, etc. Because they operate at a gut level, they are even more potent than they would be if we reasoned about them and questioned them. This helps to explain why psychological well-being, sexual orientation and gender identity are now so fundamental to how we talk about our very existence – and why they induce such strong emotional reactions. Trueman’s analysis also helps to explain why stories of psychological distress have had such a powerful influence on decision-makers. Since many assume that our inner emotional experience is absolutely fundamental to what it means to be human, they also believe (at a gut level) that any decision that removes or reduces emotional suffering must, by definition, be right, good and true. Other concerns are always seen as secondary. Increasingly, then, decisions in governments and other organisations are being made with the overriding goal of reducing psychological distress in individuals. Yet the tragic irony is that attempts to achieve this overriding goal have demonstrably failed. We do not live in a society that is increasingly happy and free from psychological distress. Instead, the opposite is true. By all accounts, anxiety is sharply rising in the Western world right now. In fact, the overriding concern of our society to reduce psychological suffering too often leads to more suffering. It creates an environment that fosters vicious competition between sufferers. Potential victims must now vie with one another for the right to be granted victimhood status and thus seen as worthy of protection. So, for example, world-renowned Harry Potter author J K Rowling, who is also a vocal advocate for safe spaces for biological women, is routinely and ferociously attacked online (including through threats of sexualised violence) by those seeking to fight for the rights of those who identify as transsexual. This is a consequence of the worldview that privileges victims’ rights above all else. It creates a gladiatorial arena of victimhood, where power and legal protection can only be granted to the victim group deemed most worthy. As a result, victims must fight to the death to prove who suffers the most.
The true story is far better
Perhaps you are in a place of leadership or governance in a Christian institution, such as a church organisation or school. How do you react when you hear stories of suffering? How do you make decisions in light of these stories? What is a Christian way of going about this? We need to avoid simplistic answers. For example, we cannot merely reject all stories. Stories are exceedingly important. Indeed, true stories are a compelling way to bring across the truth. After all, a large part of the Bible is in narrative form, including, most significantly, the Gospels. We come to know the true God through these stories – through seeing him in action through his people Israel and his Son Jesus Christ.
Furthermore, we cannot merely refuse to listen to stories about individual suffering. We cannot close our hearts and insist only on an abstract ‘truth’ without any compassion. Jesus was often filled with compassion (e.g., Mark 1:41; 6:34; 8:2) and he calls us to do the same (e.g., Luke 10:33, 37). ‘Love your neighbour’ is repeated and prominent in the Bible (e.g., Lev 19:18; Matt 22:39; Rom 13:9; Gal 5:14; Jas 2:8).
However, as Christians, we can and must do far better than following the world’s knee-jerk reaction to stories of suffering. That is because we have a far better story – a true story. This is the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. The gospel does not ignore suffering. Indeed, the gospel has at its heart the suffering of the Lord Jesus for our sins. Yet the gospel’s answer to our suffering is not simplistic. It does not force us into a situation where we must remove suffering at all costs. Instead, the gospel interacts with suffering at many different levels. It gives us a richer, more satisfying answer than the world does as we seek to make decisions in the face of suffering. We see this particularly clearly in Romans 5–8. In these chapters, the Apostle Paul frequently addresses questions of suffering and love in light of the gospel of Christ.
A deeper perspective on suffering (Romans 5:1–5)
The first thing we see as we approach Romans 5–8 is that the gospel of Christ’s death and resurrection gives us a deeper perspective on suffering. At the beginning of Romans 5, Paul reminds his readers of the great truths about justification through faith in Christ, which he has just described in the previous chapters (chs 1–4). Although we are sinners, deserving only God’s wrath, God sent Jesus to suffer and die on the cross for our sins in our place. We are ‘justified’ – declared right with God – not by anything we can do, but only by trusting in Christ, who died and rose from the dead. After Paul reminds his readers about this truth (‘Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, …’) (Rom 5:1), he focuses on its implications for our lives. Paul first describes the way justification by faith in Christ brings us ‘peace’ with God and ‘hope’ in a certain future (vv 1–2). Then he speaks about the way this peace and hope gives us an entirely new perspective on suffering (vv 3–5). Knowing this peace with God and this certain hope does not necessarily remove suffering from our lives. Yet it radically transforms how we view this suffering:
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. (Rom 5:3–5)
Our peace and hope give us the ability to endure suffering. Even though suffering – including emotional distress – can be deeply painful, it need not dominate all of our emotional space and leave room for nothing else. We have a firmer, deeper foundation: God’s peace and love for us through Jesus. We can also be confident in our future: the hope of God’s glory through Jesus. No amount of suffering, however painful, can ever undo that peace, love and hope. Paul also says that suffering can have a positive role in our lives: it can generate further character and hope in us. Paul says that ‘we rejoice in our sufferings’ (Rom 5:3). The Greek word translated as ‘rejoice’ here is kauchometha, which can also be translated as ‘boast’. Rather than simply being ashamed of our sufferings or wanting to avoid suffering at all costs, we can view our sufferings as opportunities to grow in endurance, confidence and hope. This is not to glorify suffering itself. But it does help us to see that suffering is not so fundamentally bad and overwhelming that it must be avoided at all costs.
A greater kind of love (Romans 5:6–11)
The gospel of Christ’s death and resurrection also shows us a far greater kind of love than the idea of love the world gives us. The idea of ‘love’ in our world is often reduced to relieving a person’s emotional distress by affirming everything about them. On this understanding, the ‘loving’ thing to do in any given situation is to make a person feel better about themselves. However, God’s love shown in Christ Jesus is far greater than this:
God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom 5:8)
This is very different to our world’s understanding of love. In our world’s understanding, it would make more sense for this verse to read, ‘God shows his love for us in that while we were feeling like worthless sinners, God affirmed that really we are wonderful in every way and accepted us for who we are inside.’ But God’s love for us differs greatly from this kind of worldly ‘love’. God didn’t deny that we were sinners at all. In fact, he was deeply opposed to our sin (see Rom 1:18–32). So he did not merely affirm us. He did something far better. He loved us. He acted for us. Christ died for us, not so that we would stay in sin, but so that we would be reconciled to God.
A greater kind of identity (Romans 5:12–21)
The gospel of Christ’s death and resurrection, therefore, gives us a far greater understanding of identity than the world offers us. As we have seen, our world’s view of ‘identity’ is intimately bound up with how we feel inside – especially when it comes to our internal feelings about gender and sexuality. In the world’s view, we are bound to accept and affirm our feelings. Only in this way will we discover who we truly are. Or, as Lady Gaga puts it, we are ‘born this way’. At first glance, the idea of affirming who we feel we are may sound liberating. But if we scratch beneath the surface, we find that it is, in fact, profoundly disempowering. If we are just ‘born this way’, then there is nothing whatsoever we can do to change. If we try to change, it will only damage us, because we cannot deny our predestined feelings. This bleak view of identity is not confined to pop stars like Lady Gaga; it is rapidly becoming a legally enforceable ideology in parts of the Western world. For example, the Victorian legislation mentioned above is explicitly designed to prohibit change. It encodes in law the idea that any practice ‘inducing’ a person to ‘change’ (even with that person’s ‘consent’) is potentially a criminal offence attracting a prison sentence.10 The law is designed to protect identity, but it removes the freedom and power to change. Yet the gospel tells us a far greater story about who we are and can be. Paul describes this reality in Romans 5:12–21. In Christ, we are given an entirely new and far better identity. Rather than being forced to live according to the old humanity into which we were born (‘Adam’), we receive a new life – a new humanity – in Christ. This means we no longer need to be defined by how we feel, sexually or otherwise. We can change. We have the freedom to be new people and to live life for the Lord Jesus – now and forever:
For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. (Rom 5:17)
A story of transformation, not merely affirmation (Romans 6)
This means that the gospel of the Lord Jesus is a story of transformation, not merely affirmation. In Romans 6, Paul describes Jesus’ death and resurrection as the foundation and model for our lives. As we are united with him by faith, his story becomes our story. So rather than being required to affirm and live forever in our old lives, we can become new people in Christ. Rather than remaining trapped in our old desires, we have a new life to live – a life of freedom rather than slavery:
We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. (Rom 6:6–7)
This means that our internal desires no longer define us. We are not trapped. We do not have to let our feelings rule our lives. We can live in God’s grace:
Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. (Rom 6:12–14)
A story of struggle and victory (Romans 7–8)
This does not mean that life on this side of glory will be easy and free from struggle. The struggle against sin and wrong desires is an ongoing reality. That is because we still live in mortal bodies. We are still subject to desires that conflict with who we are in Christ and what God wants us to be and do. Paul describes this struggle in Romans 7. As Will Timmins writes (focusing on v 14):
We now have freedom through union with Christ in his death and resurrection (6:1– 10), but our bodies don’t yet share Christ’s risen life (6:11). So there’s still a slavery in our bodily members (7:23) as we await the redemption of our bodies (8:23). That’s what it means to be fleshly. … This is the painful reality – our bodily condition hasn’t yet caught up with who we now are in Christ.
So we should not be surprised when we find ourselves struggling against sinful desires. According to Romans, we should expect to struggle in this life. This struggle is not pleasant. Struggling is painful. It will create emotional distress in all of us. If we accept our world’s view that emotional distress is one of the greatest evils to be avoided at all costs, then we will never be able to bear the kind of struggle that Paul talks about in Romans 7. If we hear of others struggling emotionally, our reaction will be to change everything we can possibly change to stop this struggle from happening. However, the gospel teaches us that the struggle is always present with us in one form or another. The struggle is real. And that is okay.
Thankfully, however, this struggle is not the final word. In the next chapter (Romans 8), Paul gives us a deeper and broader perspective: he speaks about our hope in Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit to transform us. We know the security and freedom from condemnation that we have through Christ’s death for our sins (vv 1–3). We have the power to live for God by his Spirit, who is at work in us (v 4). The Spirit brings us both hope and the ability to change and grow (vv 5–11). And he enables us to live our new lives in Christ – lives of hope and dignity (vv 12–17).
At this point, Paul returns directly to the theme of suffering (vv 18–39). The realities Paul has previously laid out – the reality of our new identity in Christ leading to transformation (chs 5–6), the reality of our struggle in our mortal bodies (ch 7) and the reality of our life in the Spirit (8:1–17) – enable him to deepen our perspective on suffering even further.
Firstly, our certain hope of glory in the Lord Jesus gives us a broader horizon in which to live with our suffering. Suffering is real, but it is not the end. We may groan, but we groan in hope:
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. (Rom 8:22–25)
Secondly, the indwelling Spirit means that God is with us in our suffering. We are not suffering alone, but in the presence of God himself:
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. (Rom 8:26)
Thirdly, God’s love shown in Jesus’ death for our sins is a deep basis for security in everything. While God’s love shown in Jesus’ death for our sins does not remove all suffering immediately, it is an anchor that gives us great strength to live and endure:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? … 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. (Rom 8:35–39)
The true story and decision-making (Romans 12)
The gospel of the Lord Jesus is the new story we live by as Christians. It is a true story. It is a story that encompasses both suffering and joy. Yet it is greater than both. How might this work out for those of us tasked with making decisions in Christian communities? What do we do when we hear stories of suffering, particularly of emotional distress?
In Romans 12, Paul draws out some practical implications of the gospel for our Christian lives. We are not to be ‘conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind’ (Rom 12:2). This implies we must not unthinkingly follow the world’s views and knee-jerk reactions when we hear stories of suffering. We need to let the gospel’s story of Jesus Christ encompass these stories of suffering and transform our hearts and actions.
Paul develops this in several ways in Romans 12. Here are three that are especially relevant to those tasked with making decisions in Christian communities.
Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. (Rom 12:9)
As we saw above, love for our neighbours is fundamental to our Christian lives. We must make decisions out of Christian love.
However, we must keep returning to the gospel of the Lord Jesus to define what love really means. We must not be taken in by the thin and pale definition of ‘love’ the world offers us. Genuine ‘love’, according to the world, is all about affirmation and reducing distress. It has little room for true discernment about good and evil. In our world’s view, if you genuinely ‘love’ someone, you’ll do everything in your power, at all times, to reduce their distress, rather than address the issues in terms of right and wrong.
However, according to Romans 12:9, genuine love goes hand in hand with hating what is wrong. In our world’s understanding of ‘love’, this would be nonsense. But it makes a great deal of sense when we understand love according to God’s love for us in Jesus. Loving people and hating evil are not opposites. They go together. Genuine love involves doing what is genuinely good and hating what is genuinely wrong.
Therefore, when it comes to decision-making in Christian communities, a genuinely loving decision may result in increasing emotional distress in some people. Doing what is good according to God’s word is ultimately the right and loving thing to do. It will not always be felt as love. Yet this does not stop it from being genuine love.
True hope, patience and prayer
Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. (Rom 12:12)
The world’s knee-jerk reaction to suffering – including emotional distress – is to seek to fix it right now at all costs. If we accept the world’s view that suffering is the greatest evil, this makes sense. However, the Christian’s first reaction to suffering must be different. Paul summarises it in using three key ideas: hope, patience and prayer. Hope means setting our hearts on our secure future in the Lord Jesus when God will raise our mortal bodies from the dead and make all things new. Patience means waiting and living with the discomfort right now: not always seeking to fix it immediately, but being confident that the Lord will bring about his good purposes. Prayer means coming before God and asking him for help before trying to fix it all ourselves. This does not always remove suffering immediately, but it does put it into perspective. Of course, this does not mean we should never do anything about stories of suffering. Sometimes, we can and should make a real difference in these situations by making positive decisions. In some cases, it is both possible and right to seek to reduce suffering while holding on to what is good. In that case, we should indeed act decisively out of love. Nevertheless, we must always do this in the context of hope, patience and prayer.
Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. (Rom 12:15)
None of this means that we should neglect empathy for others. Stories of suffering are painful. They should make us cry. And we must cry with others. In fact, when it is understood rightly, the gospel’s perspective on suffering increases our ability to show empathy. When we cry with others, we cry in the context of the greater story. We cry with hope. This means we can bear the crying – which means that it’s OK to keep crying. We do not need to anxiously insist that we must always do something right now to stop the crying. We can continue to show empathy, with patience and prayer, even when we cannot fix the problem ourselves.
Remembering God’s truthfulness
Behind everything Paul writes in Romans is God’s concern to see salvation in Christ go out to all the world (Rom 1:1–6). This is vital for us to remember. In all of our decisions, we are not simply acting for the sake of our individual Christian communities. We are acting for the sake of God and his world. We want the world to know this better way. We want the world to know this true gospel story that is far greater than the world’s increasingly anxious and dysfunctional pursuit of salvation through psychological safety. We want the world to know this salvation: this faith, hope and love in the Lord Jesus. The world will not always understand and might even oppose us. We ourselves might suffer deeply for decisions we make. But this does not mean we should give up. Living lives of faith, hope and love in response to God’s truthfulness is part of his plan to bring the gospel message of faith in Christ to the world (Rom 15:8–9).