One of my dad's favorite baseball players, Dizzy Dean, was not known for his humility regarding his talent. He usually responded to comments about this with something like "It ain't braggin' if you can back it up." That concept of aggressive, if not extreme, self-promotion is what usually comes to mind when we think of "boasting."
So Paul's words to the Romans call up all kinds of interesting ideas. "We boast in our sufferings," he says. Kind of like that person who, no matter how badly things are going for you, is always generous enough to let you know they are in much worse shape. Or that. no matter what kind of obstacles you encountered in doing something, they were able to accomplish their task with even more problems than you had. I am pretty sure we all know that kind of person, and I'm almost as sure we've all been that kind of person sometimes. I keep working on not doing that, but I have a ways to go yet.
Surely Paul doesn't mean that we brag about how bad we've got it compared to the rest of the world, does he? That would seem...weird, at the very least. I can definitely understand how suffering, great or small, can produce character. And if we endure our suffering believing that we are following the true God, we might find our hope in him strengthened along with that very suffering itself. But even though I get that, I really stumble with this concept of boasting here.
And I'm not the only one. "Boast," of course, is an English translation of the original Greek word Paul used, which was kauchaomai. The version I use a lot, the New Revised Standard, translates that word as "boast." But the original Revised Standard Version used "rejoice," as does the New International Version. Good ol' King James's crew translated kauchaomai "glory in," making verse 3 run like this: "And not only so, we glory in tribulations also; knowing that tribulation worketh patience..."
In other words, a variety of biblical scholars over the past six hundred years or so have had a hard time nailing down just what Paul meant to say he was doing here. Was he simply rejoicing in the sufferings that came to him because he followed Christ, and the sufferings offered proof to him he really was denying himself and taking up the cross as Jesus had directed? Or did he rejoice that he could share in even this small way some of what Jesus had done as he had suffered? People have rejoiced for those reasons in many situations.
Was he rejoicing because he knew this suffering would build his faith as he describes? Kind of how high school football coaches have been known to say things like "Pain is weakness leaving the body!" to those who might think it actually was a good reason to quit playing football.
All of these, I suppose, are possible. But in other places that word kauchaomai gets used, it usually means "boast," so we're kind of stuck with trying to resolve how we boast in hope and also in suffering. Maybe if we looked at some of those other places we read it we might get an idea. Aha! And so we do.
Before this, whenever Paul has told the Romans about boasting, it hasn't been a good thing. Religious snobs boasted about God accepting them because they were so special. People suggested they had done so many good things that God had to take them in because of it, and they said that's exactly why God blessed Abraham and so it was why God should bless them too. In essence, these kind of people boast about who they are or what they've done.
But, Paul says, those who follow God should know that neither the privilege of birth or a mountain of good deeds can make God love them any more than he already does. God's love is unconditional, which means it can't be bought with a special status or a spiffy resume. It can't be bought at all, in fact. God loves us for no other reason than that we showed up. And that's a good thing, because I don't know about you, but I've given God plenty of reasons not to love me in my life. So I can't help but feel relieved that God's love doesn't depend on things that I do or don't do.
Yes, I also know that there are things God asks of me and that following him pleases him more than not following him does, and I want to follow him because of that. He won't love me any more if I succeed or any less if I fail, though. So when it comes to me and what I can do and what those things mean in terms of my relationship with God, I'm left with nothing to brag about.
I am, though, left with what God can do. Boast in my sufferings and limitations? Sure! Some might say I'm some kind of loser for believing in this religious mumbo-jumbo, but look at what amazing things God can do with such limited tools at his disposal! God wanted his message of love to go throughout the world but he chose people to convey it. You know, messed-up, selfish, childish, irritable and what-have-you people. People who get it wrong and lots of times forget what God may have really wanted to say and don't exactly do so great at making sure their own message stays behind the scenes.
And God's message got through anyway, and it still does. Maybe God's waiting around for what he thinks will be the right time to toot his own horn, but in the meantime? When I consider an achievement like the gospel, managing to make it into the world through as flawed a medium as, well, me? That's a God worth bragging about.